My Tumultuous Love-Affair with Unemployment


The Backwaters

Drifting: it’s the only way to be.

I returned from India with a backpack full of memories. I had dreams and scars, gods and demons, pictures and scribbled blue ink notes, bug bites and a traveller’s raggedy beard. I had carried my world around on my back for months at a time, hopes and wishes and plans all rolled in a thin t-shirt and packed between weather-beaten softcovers novels. I had cares in the world, certainly, but they seemed distant and small, objects passing in motion parallax, impossible to track, moving in one direction but appearing to sail by in another. What could I worry about? I had the road, and the road had me.

Unemployment seems romantic when you travel. With sandals on your feet and a week’s worth of underpants stuffed into a sack, the lack of a job is a bohemian commitment. Your sense of wonder and your lust for life are far more important than money, which you think about sparingly, and usually with a general distaste. You eat when you’re hungry, you walk out into the world when you’re bored, and you just never stop. And you never think about working, because working is a thing that you did in a past life. It’s a thing you understand on some basic monkey level, a concept that speaks to some part of the collective unconscious of your species. But to you as an individual, work is too abstract, too bizarre or bourgeoisie, something beyond the pale of comprehension. And you don’t want to comprehend it.

There is only water or sand or asphalt and your two feet. There’s only a jungle and sky and temples. There’s only rice and noodles and food you scoop up right in your hand and bring to your lips, the delicate and simple grace of taste. There’s an ATM in there somewhere, and you think of it essentially as a money tree, and only ever think of it as anything else if it suddenly spurns you.

My life always included a series of plans, usually involving numerous tasks requiring my time. School and work and volunteering and interning—my time, my effort, my lifeblood. Never before had I committed to a sustained period of unemployment, of throwing caution and the very notion of trying to the wind. The opportunity to haemorrhage money while neglecting to accrue more had never presented itself, nor had it ever been sought out. The murky outline of my future had always necessarily included a few planned periods and exclamation points, dashes and paragraph breaks clear in my mind, even if the body and the vocabulary might have been indistinct. I had never allowed so many question marks appear on the pages.

It was freeing. It was exhilarating. It was full of clichéd experiences of primal connection to the land and spirituality and my understanding of the world. It was super great not having to ever think about working for money.

Unemployment at home takes on a new theme, a new leitmotif. On the road, unemployment is an exercise in bohemia, an experiment in Technicolor, an experience of life in its fullest, its brightest, its tastiest. Without a backpack, unemployment starts to feel grey and bland and wasteful.

Running in the wilds of the world, being jobless means freedom; a lack of responsibility is a lack of tethers and weights. But if you stop running, suddenly that lack of responsibility feels a lot less like freedom, and a lot more like static. Joblessness means a lack of a future, and no real way to pay for the present.

Going out becomes a weighted activity, dollars and cents you have no real way of making back.  You begin to feel people questioning your motives, your drive, your ability to go on. You start seeming less and less like an adult and more like a shiftless teenager. Adults, after all, have plans in place, or at least work and things to do with their hours.

Time, too, begins to stretch: where days and weeks could zip by out in the world, suddenly you stagger through every hour. Any time not absorbed by finding a job feels wasted, and all the time spend finding a job feels tedious and overlong. Things are drab, most particularly your bank account.

During my tango with joblessness I took a brief respite to Mexico to visit some friends. Against my better judgment and the advice of most people I knew, I decided that throwing money directly down a well was a stellar choice. I was once more on the road, free of worries and cares, and temporarily detached from my email and my desperate need to check job postings. I could feel the wind again.

The disparity, then, is a plane ride away, plus or minus several thousand kilometres. Unemployment on your home turf feels like abnegation, like losing yourself and your sense of purpose, and desperately trying to seek away back towards money and sense. Unemployment spent gallivanting around the world feels like finding yourself far, far away without any care or any particular need ever to work again.

So I guess if I ever retire, I’ll need to buy an airplane.

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