Existential work theme | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

By the time we got to 2009, both Dawn’s dad and my stepdad John had died, and Starbucks was announcing layoffs. You could map the decline in company sales and profit against rising gas prices or competition, the economic collapse: and now it was time to close under-performing stores and reduce headcount at corporate. We all knew the date of the layoffs, a Tuesday in early February. Not much work was getting done it seemed. To consider if you’d have the same job in a few weeks forced the existential question if the work mattered so much, or if you did.

On that morning the conference rooms were all booked for that purpose, for talking to people whose jobs were either changing or going away: sitting on a bench in the hallway you could see who was on the other side through the opaque glass, each conference room with a box of tissues stowed in the corner, for the moments people cry.

And some were shuffling past pushing house plants on Rubbermaid carts, gathering their things—the news of who’d been let go seeped out, what happened to other groups. With the way it worked, you got a meeting invitation the night before if there was going to be a change to your job—but it was the kind of invitation you didn’t want, and came with a cryptic subject line, but you could infer by who was on the invite what was going to happen. For me, I deduced I’d be changing from one small group to another but still retained. And that’s what happened.

At noon our director called a meeting and we stood in a semi-circle around our workspace: a few from our group were now gone, their desks empty. There were new people from other groups who’d joined ours and a sense of relief probably, but a startled feeling too: the reminder that anyone’s replaceable, that job security (like control) is an illusion that can be pulled down at any time like a theater prop. If you equated your life to work or confused the two, then you had to accept that, it was a prop. And you’re not directing!

I liked my new manager; he was supposed to lead a meeting with our team but didn’t have anything prepared. So I rode the elevator down to the main lobby and walked outside to catch the north or southbound bus, whichever came first, to go somewhere and clear my head.

Dawn and I had already planned to take a sabbatical and move to Germany that summer, to be with my mom for the first anniversary of John’s death, on Halloween. I’d been with Starbucks 10 years which made me “sabbatical-eligible,” but we could only afford four months off, without pay. We weren’t paying a mortgage then—we were lucky, we’d just sold our house before the economy collapsed that September, living with Dawn’s mom Beth still, waiting for things to improve, but it didn’t seem they would. A few months in Europe sounded great: Charlotte was still in diapers—we had no pets, no plants to speak of.

And so I decided to do all the things I’d never done before or didn’t have time to do, like a solo backpacking trip, another big mountain climb, maybe start a blog. I did all that by August, by the time we drove down to Italy for a week, and back through Innsbruck. I posted blog journals but didn’t tag them, didn’t get a visitor for three years, according to my stats. I let the blog go for a while and went back to work, changed groups, got a promotion to a higher level. And by 2012 I realized I was depressed (it may have just been the weather) but I had to start writing again to correct that, and we planned a trip back to Germany for Christmas, the time we drove to France to see Laurent.

We were at a playground with our kids, Laurent and I, on a bench watching them, a sunny, mild day, Christmastime in the French town of Metz, near the German border. It felt like France by the look of the buildings, they all had a worn-in look, needed pressure-washing.

I said to Laurent I wondered what it would be like to move here, to live in Europe for a while. It all felt different, and great. It wouldn’t be hard for us to do that with my mom living in Germany and us not owning a house: maybe Dawn or I could get a job, learn another language, raise our kids here.

But Laurent shook his head no, said I think it’s just the way you see things when you’re on vacation, everything seems better when you’re not working.

And I thought he was right about that but still wanted to see things that way, like I was on vacation, all the time. Life was too short to live just for the weekends.

In the years to follow, 2013-14, I wonder now if I led myself down a path where I’d have to leave my job: like they’d force me out somehow through my actions, so we could go back to Europe like we did that first sabbatical. We always said after the first trip we wanted to go back again, to take more time and do it differently when the kids were old enough they’d remember it—that it might inform who they are as much as it would us. And that we could have time together as a family, with my mom—and maybe it would make me the writer I imagined for myself by having more experience, it could change me.

But it isn’t geography that changes us, isn’t distance, isn’t time. Brad talked about Alan Watts and Buddhism, the idea that time is an illusion, a made-up framework to help us interpret change. I still don’t understand that, can’t. But I wanted to change, to become the artist I thought I could be: to undo this image I had of myself through work, to have the energy and wherewithal to do more, that felt more permanent to me than “work.” That on those last days at Starbucks before I left for good, walking through the commons each morning past the company timeline, the quilts hanging from the ceiling symbolizing the company’s values: I wanted to believe I was part of all that and would be remembered, but another part of me knew I wouldn’t. That my real life was elsewhere, or trapped inside of me—or perhaps I was getting in the way of it myself. To reconcile the fact that we are what we do, to do what we love, or risk not loving who we are as a result.




Categories: identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Okay, it’s not Europe but last week at the beach I wondered why can’t I live here for the summer while the kids aren’t in school. There’s the matter of work and a place to live, sure, but if I really set my mind to it, I could probably make it happen. There wouldn’t be dinners out or mini golf and ice cream every night, but that isn’t the draw to me anyway. It’s being at a place where I don’t have work or appointments and days eaten up by both. I think your friend was right but it’s still fun to imagine living the the life of a writer financially secure enough to move freely about the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I lived at that beach in OC Maryland one summer I think I told you…god that got boring! But of course you have to wonder. I am doing better creatively working + writing. There’s a kind of compression or something it forces on me; otherwise don’t think I’d do too much. Kind of power-down, you know.


  2. I’m just curious — did you have to wear a suit every day at Starbucks, or were they one of those loosey-goosey organizations where you could dress like a slacker and bring your pet iguana to work? I don’t picture you in a suit …


    • Nope, not a suit place. Not at all. Loosey-goosey more apt, as you say. Fun place, super fun. Hard to leave but happy I did. Would have only gotten harder, you know…


  3. i think it’s easier in new settings, removed from all the day to day drudgery, to imagine the possibilities. glad you did it –


  4. So many familiar insights, all leading up perfectly to that killer last line.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Makes me want to write about leaving my last paid job. Emulation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that.
    This one really resonated. Very enjoyable indeed.


  6. Love those final few sentences.


Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: