Monday, June 11, 2012

The Difference This Time

I often compare this year in my life to the not-quite two years between February 1995 and December 1996. Both times, I have been essentially unemployed, with a few small freelance projects here and there. Both times, I have spent a lot of time at home by myself, sorting out the thoughts in my head, re-evaluating priorities, and asking myself "what's next?"

That's where the similarity ends, however. That earlier "sabbatical" was not by my choice -- I was caught up in a mass downsizing and stranded in a one-company town with few other employment opportunities. It had been less than two years since I was downsized out of my previous job, and I had only just started to rebuild my savings. I was living in a small town, and although I had a fair number of acquaintances, I hadn't really made any close friends.

I spent most of 1995-1996 living in fear of bankruptcy, homelessness, and becoming permanently unemployable. In November 1995, I sold my house for just enough profit to pay the real estate agent's commission, and I moved into a thin-walled apartment on the edge of town. I lived on beans and pasta, and I gained about 50 pounds. It was probably the lowest part of my life (before or since), and I never want to go through that again. In fact, one reason I put off taking my current year off for so long was my fear of repeating that experience.

Just as I was emptying out the last of my savings account, I got a job offer that included partial reimbursement for my relocation expenses. I put my moving expenses on my credit card (thankfully, I still had a card with a high credit limit), I took out a cash advance to pay my first and last month's rent and security deposit on an apartment, and I bought my first few weeks' groceries in the new place using my credit card (something I NEVER do). I lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until I got my first paycheck. (Beans and pasta were out of the question until the moving van arrived with my pots and pans.) I spent the first year living very frugally while I paid off my credit card as fast as I possibly could.

This wasn't "jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down", it was being pushed off the cliff and being rescued just as my belly-feathers were brushing the ground below.

This time around, I left my job voluntarily. I had been living within my means for about 15 years, and well within my means for about 6 of those years, so I had enough saved up to cover my expenses very comfortably for just over a year, and I have emergency funds to take me beyond that if necessary. (Bye-bye, kitchen remodeling.) I have been living in the same town for 13 years, and I have a wide and varied network of friends and acquaintances. Washington DC is home to think tanks, professional associations, and of course, the federal government. Science writing jobs, although not abundant in today's economy, are more plentiful here than probably anywhere else in the US.

All of those things give me a sense of security about my future that I didn't have before. But it goes beyond that. My previous experience, although painful, taught me about the things I can do when I really need to. I have a faith that is not entirely based on objective evidence that things will turn out all right this time. I do get frustrated when I go through a few weeks without any sense of direction or inspiration, but then something always happens to get me going again.

I still don't know how all this is going to turn out. I do believe that it's going to be all right this time. This time, I'm not standing at end of the plank, but rather a launch pad.

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