(This photo was taken on the last day of operations for the original Ann Arbor News in 2009.)
Last Wednesday morning, I stood in front of my closet and asked Joe, “So what do you wear to get fired?”
The line was kind of funny, in a gallows humor way; but this wasn’t just a joke, and I wasn’t speaking hypothetically.
After receiving a late-in-the-day Tuesday email – containing three clues that blinked like a neon sign, pointing to my imminent layoff – I’d stayed up late, uploading the hundreds of videos and photos (mostly of my daughters) from my work-issued phone, and sending documents and contacts I wanted to keep from my laptop.
It was like living out that “If you were stranded on a desert island” scenario, but with your two most essential gadgets.
We tried to hold to our usual morning routine on Wednesday, getting Lily to the bus stop, and dropping Neve off at preschool; but then I stepped back into our quiet, empty house, left to twiddle my thumbs until nearly noon.
Which led to the next question, “What do you do while waiting to get fired?”
I’d thought a bit about this the night before, while frantically uploading, and I’d decided that this would be the perfect window of time to finish up my year-end wrap-up of local theater highlights and news. I was off the clock, and year-end pieces like this had recently gone the way of the dodo, but I’d wanted to do it, anyway.
It would be my swan song, my parting gift to a theater community that had weathered a pretty tough year; and as it happened, this gift was mutually beneficial, in that I felt grateful for being able to focus on pulling together story under a tight deadline – just like old times – and leaving my nearly 12 years in arts journalism with a story that only I could write.
Not that the story would go gangbusters in terms of traffic; but I knew it would mean a lot to several local theater artists, and their work means a lot to me.
So I clicked “publish,” pulled my coat on, and drove to Ann Arbor.
Aside from once being fired from a housecleaning service after a couple of days – because I cleaned too slowly – I’d never gone through this. But I was determined to grit my teeth and power through it.
What I hadn’t thought about, of course, was that I’d also see a longtime co-worker leaving the building when I arrived, white envelope in-hand; and that another would probably see me when I left, as if we were part of a human carousel of shock and defeat.
Because while I am more than just my part-time job, and I didn’t love every assignment I was given, I generally still loved my work, even after all these years.
I loved working in a newsroom, where bright, inquisitive, witty reporters and editors interacted and supported each other daily; I loved doing research for stories, and finding out more about people in the community; I loved, as an introvert, having a voice that I could craft, and that reached people; and I loved getting to do the occasional celebrity phone interview (David Sedaris being chief among them).
I did stories off-the-clock occasionally because I felt they were important, and that I owed it to the people who’d taken the time to talk with me.
But despite my passion, I have no choice – thanks to the brutally challenging economic climate within the world of journalism – but to move on now and explore other opportunities.
So after uttering about three words during Wednesday’s meeting, I handed over my laptop and phone and parking pass, and I left.
What came next couldn’t have been scripted better: I got lost.
To get laid off, I’d traveled to a part of town that I’m largely unfamiliar with, so I’d used my phone for directions. (Plus, I’d been sent a good distance down a bumpy dirt road, which just seemed to add insult to injury.) But wanting desperately to go home afterward, I reached out and suddenly remembered, in a “phantom limb” moment, that I didn’t have a phone anymore.
So I drove around, cursing a blue streak, crying a little, until I got my bearings – which, who knows, may be how this layoff goes more generally.
Because I’m definitely lost, at this point.
But after making it home that day, I spent a couple of hours making calls and writing messages, and a weird kind of adrenaline-fueled giddiness washed over me. I don’t mean to say I was happy – that’s not it – but let me frame it this way: one of middle age’s calling cards is a kind of numbing sameness in day-to-day life; the fact that my working life was suddenly, inexplicably de-railed, and that I was in free-fall, suddenly gave everything around me a kind of pulsing electrical charge.
Kind notes and messages of support came trickling in, but because I was in shock, the hard realities hadn’t yet sunk in. To name a few examples: I don’t know how a writer/journalist approaches a job search in 2016; I have no idea how resumes are structured and laid out these days; I’ve no knowledge about filing for unemployment; without a laptop of my own, it’s far more difficult to have the outlet I always turn to in times of crisis, which is writing; and I’ve clearly reached the point where being without my phone is just plain weird. Much as I tried to resist its Siren song, I’d obviously come to rely on it to be in touch with Joe, get directions, listen to podcasts while I run, check my calendar, take photos, look up a store’s business hours, etc. I’ve felt downright Amish this past week without it.
But in the immediate wake of losing it last Wednesday, I didn’t want to spend the afternoon on Joe’s laptop, re-living my awful morning, so I hastily decided to just go to a movie matinee, gravitating to “Sisters” because it stars two of my (s)heroes, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. (I’ll be honest, I was disappointed overall, but that may have been my mood coloring my response.)
Next, I went to pick up Neve and decided not to try and explain layoffs to my chirpy 4 year old. Instead, I just sat down and watched as she giggled and skipped around her preschool’s gym, her pigtails flopping in a gesture of unadulterated happiness.
When I picked up Lily from her school’s after-care, she was stalling and delaying, as she often does, and in a moment of frustration – standing in the school’s dark, cold parking lot – I blurted, “Lily, I was fired today, so could you give me just a little bit of a break, here?”
Not the way I’d planned to break the news, but there you are.
“You did? I didn’t know!” she said, distressed.
“I know you didn’t, sweetie. And I didn’t mean to tell you like that. I’m sorry.”
Lily was actually very sweet after we got home, leading me to the living room couch and covering me with an afghan, then asking for directions on how to use the microwave to heat up milk for hot chocolate.
“That’s really sweet of you, Lily. I really appreciate it. But my tummy’s not really in the mood for hot chocolate right now.” (I didn’t mention that this was largely because I hadn’t eaten lunch, but rather a bag of greasy movie popcorn and a Diet Coke.)
“Do you want to write on your computer? I’ll get it for you.” She leaned down beside the chair that’s normally my perch to look for it.
“I had to give it back, because it didn’t belong to me, kiddo.”
“Do you want me to get Daddy’s?”
She was being so sweet it hurt.
I did want to let her do something for me, though, because I know that when you’re hurting and feeling powerless, one of the only things you can really do for those closest to you is let them perform some gesture for you, even if it doesn’t really help. So I let her get the novel I’m reading, despite the fact that I couldn’t focus on the words enough to decipher their meaning.
The flip side of this came the next morning, when Neve resisted going to preschool because she knew I wouldn’t be going to work (the one part of this whole thing that she understood), and thus wanted to stay with me (though I’m pretty sure she’d be bored out of her mind in about an hour). She clung to me with her whole body as I tried repeatedly to make my exit from her classroom. So on top of the grief I was experiencing already, I added a heaping helping of mother-guilt on my first day as an unemployed person. Awesome.
But while I later surfed around online to find and order a refurbished Mac laptop – when a writer’s primary tool is taken away, it really does feel as though your hands have been cut off – and drove to Costco to check out cell phone and service prices, an outpouring of condolences and support rolled in. I’m not naïve; I know that at least part of the handwringing is about the already-limited local arts coverage being reduced even more with my departure; but I also know that I’d proven myself to many artists and locals over the years, and that they’d come to respect me as a fair, honest advocate.
So it was truly touching to receive so many kind notes on a hard day. It really was.
But losing a long-held job you’re passionate about is a kind of death, and last week was my time of sitting shiva, receiving comfort from friends and colleagues.
The really hard days come now, I know, when the world around me is moving on, and it’s all on me to let myself absorb and feel the loss without getting wholly lost in grief, either. A tricky balance to strike, for sure.
Plus, conventional wisdom in “times of crisis” can be hard to execute, too. Many people have recommended that I should now focus on my family, and on the girls, to re-calibrate emotionally; but this past weekend, when they were repeatedly being impossible, I thought, “Yeah, um, I don’t think this is helping.”
My identity wasn’t entirely wrapped up in my job, of course, but let’s be honest: a pretty significant part of who I used to be was intricately linked with the work I performed. It meant a lot to me; I was really dedicated to it, and grateful for it; and I was ridiculously excited when I first got the job in 2004. Again and again, I’d adapted and pressed “re-set” as everything about the job, including the name of the company, changed over the years, and I threw everything I had at doing it really well.
I think I did. But that wasn’t enough in the end.
And now, as with any death of a loved one, I simply have to learn how to be in the world without it.