Saturday, May 16, 2009


I keep dreaming about my office. Not the building, but the actual small room where I worked. The scratched wooden desk whose drawers I never fully cleaned out from the last resident. My filing cabinets, the rusty metal bookcase behind me where I kept neat stacks of in-progress projects and frequently used forms. The not-outstanding rolling chair, slightly wobbly and creaky. Even the computer and phone, same as everyone else's, which nonetheless felt like an extension of me, the worker.

When I'm awake, though, I think about the people I had to leave without warning. Like I said last time, I don't want to inflate my own self-importance. The people I worked with are used to being left behind, low priority, forgotten, so my absence likely won't be significant for very long. Yet, that in itself bothers me. Not my insignificance, but that these are marginalized people, with more emphasis on the "marginal" than the "people" part. I know there's this whole middle class employee socialization about never at any cost jeopardizing one's references, but what's my greater responsibility? To the people I was trying to help, whom I was paid to help, or to the employer who might or might not even be around to give me a reference. My conscience (or my also socialized evangelical Christian-guilt) tells me I'm not off the hook, human-to-human, just because I was asked to pack my things and stop working there. I don't know what that means, though. I don't know what I should do.

I wrote a note to one woman I was working with. I put it in my home mailbox this morning. She'd asked me to help her with a very simple, human need the day before I was laid off. In fact she asked me as I was walking out the door the day before, so I'd planned to start working on it the next morning. It was a line on a post-it on my desk. It was one of the things I mentioned to my supervisor as I was taking down my pictures and trying to remember if I'd brought the calculator from home (I decided I did). So I just this morning wrote her a note, telling her that I was sorry I couldn't have said good bye. I told her I was still thinking about her and wishing her well. I told her the resource I was considering calling on her behalf and gave her the number to try to call herself. I put my return address on the envelope.

I wasn't working as a counselor, just a case manager, but in my counseling program we hear a lot about boundaries. I had doubts in my mind about whether I should maintain contact, however slight and unobtrusive, since I can no longer help her with the backing of any agency. Is it appropriate to imply some kind of friendship, however passing and limited? But also, how human is it to just pretend that no one mattered to me beyond the paycheck? She's just one person out of over 100 people I worked with in the brief 6 months I was there. I'm only speaking of the over 100 homeless people who can't do anything for me, who can't give me references or remember that I was professional and competent when I coordinated services with them or made referrals to them in the spring of 2009. I have a few of those other names, too, which I'm keeping for my future employment searches.

Most of the homeless people have moved on already, of course, and funding woes may cause the rest of them to move on soon. Many of them I only met for a few hours or a few days. Many of them were addicts. A few of them were unpleasant sociopaths, but then again, I've met a few of those who weren't homeless, too, haven't you? They all had stories, though. And they were all human, like me, like my co-workers, like my supervisors, like you.

This layoff is still less than 4 days old. I may be going through one or more of the stages of guilt. I may be having trouble moving on and accepting my situation. Beyond all that, though, part of me wants to get out of the line of sheep moving from one insecure employment situation/temporarily-grassy-field to the next. I don't know what all of this means. Part of me wants to take the $100 digital voice recorder I had to buy for my graduate program and interview these people for public radio. But maybe I've just been listening to too much This American Life. Before their stories make me laugh or get a lump in my throat as I take my exercise walks around my neighborhoods, how were those contributors perceived? Slightly deranged, potentially obsessed yahoos with digital recorders, pursuing their highly personal stories with no hope of financial gain.

I've wanted to be a writer my entire life, but the main reason I'm not (leaving aside any judgment on my actual ability) is because I've always been afraid to take risks. I didn't want to get rejected (even though every published writer I respect says they've gotten countless rejection letters). I didn't want to put myself out there, in every possible meaning of that cliche. I'm not good at being vulnerable. I'm not good at being scrutinized. As much as I want to be loved, accepted, and approved of like every other human, I always fight the tendency to hide and disappear. I'm sure I'm not alone in that, either.

I'm right in the middle here. I'm less than two months from having a master's degree, my second master's degree, in a field where layoffs due to agency funding is unfortunately all too common (even before the global economic collapse). Even when employed, I can expect to work long hours for less than teacher's pay, unless I go into private practice, which is also no sure thing and pretty much guarantees that I will not be working with the most needy, since I will have to seek paying clients. My husband probably doesn't want to hear this, since we just spent thousands of dollars on this degree. I don't even know what I'm saying. Let's just call it adjustment disorder, for the moment.

I have to make pancakes now, for the two most important little humans in my life. My employment makes no difference to them. They're too young to notice any financial sacrifice we have to make, which won't, at any rate, include going hungry or losing the house. I still have all that: my children, my marriage, my house, my friends and family. Not much has changed, really, but I'm trying to allow myself to do whatever it is I'm doing. To mourn. To ponder. To give myself room to grow. To be. It is what it is. What will I be?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Economy Hits Home

One day you're at your desk, making phone calls and checking emails. Someone gives you an updated phone extension list, because someone moved to a new office, and you put it up on the side of your filing cabinet with the blue crab magnet one of your clients made. You complete a few tasks and throw away the post-it notes reminding you to do them. You sit across the desk from a new client, desperate and nervous, who clutches her small bag of meager belongings on her lap while rapidly tapping her leg. You think about what resources might be helpful for her and set up a follow-up appointment for tomorrow, because it's almost four o'clock and you have to get to class.

And then the next day they tell you they had to make some layoffs and, unfortunately, you're one of them. From there it's a little bit like on TV, and it feels that way, too. Not quite real. You take down the pictures of your children, turn over your keys to your apologetic supervisor, glance over the desk at the sticky notes that you'll never get to. Your supervisor promises he'll be calling you because he's sure he'll have questions. You have mixed feelings about this--you want to help, but if they need you, they shouldn't let you go. You shakily write your hours down in the payroll logbook for the last time. The few people you see in the hallway seem shaken as well. One co-worker says, "I'll be next. I have to be next."

You have a 30 minute drive home, during which you have to keep reminding yourself that those clients, those people you were actually helping, are not your problem anymore. They can't be. You think about the ones you just started helping, the ones who've told you about everyone in their lives abandoning them. You realize you sound a little grandiose, thinking you're the only one who could help them. Or that your clients will remember you in a year. But you were proud of your work; as cynical as you usually are, that mattered.

You also miss the people you'd almost become friends with. The people you spent 30-40 hours a week with, joking around, rolling your eyes, rushing around and getting things done. You realize it's too late to get their phone numbers. You wonder how you could have thought you were friends without getting phone numbers. Of course, you thought you'd have time.

You never think it's going to happen to you, even when it happened to others across the hall last month and the month before that. You never think you're going to be walked down the hallway carrying your belongings, the slim personal trappings of your former office, your former persona. What next? What now?