If we complain loudly enough to the management, can we take 2016 back for a refund? Or exchange it for a model that isn’t broken? The one and only saving grace of this year is that it started with the birth of my daughter, Katherine Claire Barrett. She is amazing and beautiful, as is the rest of my family. My wife is strong, graceful, beautiful, and brilliant; my son is strong, full of life, and curious; my newborn daughter is a person of wonder. Thank God for my wife and children. I, on the other hand, am a goddamned wreck.
I have spent most of 2016 being exhausted. Exhausted because of a new baby, exhausted because of a job in which, when push comes to shove, “Oh sure, take whatever time you need when the baby is born” works out to being “You understand you’re back the day after the birth, right?”, exhausted because of trying to figure out how to pretend to rich people — who live in an area of New England where they know full well they’re rich and expect to be treated as such — that I’m sufficiently one of them and that I understand their interests well enough that they want to give money to my employer, exhausted because it’s a job that wears me out before I ever even get a chance to think about doing anything I want to do, including spending time with my family, exhausted because stress causes shingles, exhausted because, well, how about that, my sleep study shows 81 incidents per hour with blood oxygen saturation levels at something like 71%, exhausted because my body knows that my thirties are mere weeks from being over, exhausted because I’ve put on something like 40 pounds since Katherine was born, exhausted because having two kids where you have no family and a majority of friends who are in an impenetrable bubble that you are no longer in yourself is isolating, exhausted because we’re broke, exhausted because in all of this I’ve also been looking for and applying to jobs, and exhausted because whoever said “it’s easiest to find a job when you have a job” was out of their friggin’ mind.
Latest development: I got a job offer over the summer, despite an initial gut reaction that it was a bad idea and that I was being talked into something I already knew I didn’t want to do, I had been convinced would be a fantastic step forward and would be an initial step in a direction that would allow me to make a difference in some areas where I really hoped to make a difference. That turned out to be a big mistake, and I am now unemployed. (Well, underemployed. I have a chanting position, and I’m also adjuncting, but these don’t exactly pay the bills.)
Gah. <Very, very, very bad word>. Seriously, 2016. Give me something to hold on to here, please.
So, Theodore is an energetic kid. He is always on, and he is always turned up to 11. What’s starting to go along with that is that his little will is developing into something to be reckoned with, too.
I see memes on social media all the time like “an uncoachable kid becomes an unemployable adult”, which says to me that our society only values you to the extent that you can make yourself a cog in the wheel. Such memes make me worry about Theodore a lot. I worry about the issues a strong-willed kid might develop in our world. I worry about the difficulties he might create for himself in terms of finding a place where he can thrive and grow, and really, where he can be himself.
But that’s the catch-22, right? If he’s too much himself, then he’ll never find someplace where he can be himself?
My parents raised me to be my own person. To think for myself, to have my own taste, to make my own choices, to forge my own path, to stand up for myself, and not to put up with bullies, with nonsense, with petty tyrants. Not that there would never be consequences for being my own person, but that being my own person was first and foremost what I had to do to be able to look myself in the mirror.
It’s certainly never been an easy path for me. In elementary school it meant getting teased mercilessly for being a bookish kid who used words like “educational”, carried a briefcase to class, and wore a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, with the bullying ranging from verbal abuse to getting sprayed in the face with glass cleaner. It freaked my parents out that they couldn’t keep up with what I was reading.
Being raised with the conviction that I should be my own person, however, meant somehow that I instinctively made a lot of The Right Choices. I got out of high school without having gotten anybody pregnant, without having tried drugs, without drinking, without having left Christianity (even though Evangelical Protestantism was already feeling like an awkward fit), and with what seemed to be reasonable prospects for college.
I followed my dreams, making big bets on them. I pursued being an opera singer seriously for a good 13 years; it took me getting beaten into the ground and having my 30s loom only months in the distance for me to say, at long last, “This isn’t going to happen.”
Orthodox Christianity had transformed my interests by this point anyway, and I shifted gears to church music and history. Here, my willingness to stake claims, put myself on the line, and persist paid off; I published early, and I distinguished myself.
You maybe know the rest up to here from other things I’ve written. When I came down with shingles and the sleeping problems became impossible to ignore (Flesh of My Flesh’s description of my snoring over the years had gone from “gentle little snorkles” to “you sound like you’re dreaming you’re a lion hunting antelope” to “OH MY GOD WAKE UP YOU’RE NOT BREATHING”), my doctor said, “I don’t care what you have to do; figure out how to reduce your stress or it’s going to kill you and you’re not going to ever have a chance to enjoy that new daughter of yours.” I hoped that the new job, being closer to home and theoretically more in my wheelhouse, would mean a reduction in stress, and that life would gradually even back out to normality.
And now — without going into clinical detail — I find myself now without a fulltime job, with no immediate prospects, two children with an eating habit, and the reality that thirteen years of near-continuous school have pretty much cleaned us out, and how. Let’s say that the hoped-for reduction in stress not only did not happen, but the situation started to veer out of control toward negative circumstances by the second week, and by Tuesday of last week it was already more than I could take.
There’s a lot more I could say. I’ll simply refer you to my description of how my parents raised me.
But here is the tension: my principles, my temperament, my choice to be the person my parents raised me to be now has the consequence of endangering my ability to take care of my family. I can not only look at myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time, but I can also look my wife and my kids in the eyes for the first time in a long time; the cost, however, is that now we have nothing. Expensive luxuries, principles — but it was plain that it wasn’t going to get any better, and I could not endure another day of how it was.
I do not know what I am going to do from here. I am nearly 40 and have years of school plus a spotty history of entry-level jobs; the things I have been most specifically trained to do are things it is unlikely I am going to be able to make a living at any time soon. I have things that I am very good at but that in and of themselves are difficult to turn into a living; they have to be applied to something else, and the areas where I can apply them do not really represent high earning potential. Also being nearly 40, my threshold for nonsense is much lower than it would have been at, say, age 24. I could be a great worker and a great collaborator and a great ideas person and a fantastic writer, speaker, teacher, thinker, or leader, but you’re just not going to look at my resume and see a great employee.
Being myself seems to have indeed carried the consequence that I have never found the place where I can be myself.
And then I look at Theodore.
Who dresses up in a homemade Batman costume, just as I did.
Who asks lots of questions about words, just as I did.
Who got bumped up a grade, just as I did.
Who is mostly friends with older kids, just as I was.
I worry. What is the future going to hold for my beautiful, energetic, strong-willed son? Is the world going to be just as unrelenting in trying to crush his spirit as it has been to me?
And then I get mad as hell, and I think to myself, Then I better teach him to be himself all the more, so he can live with himself when it comes.
I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but there is no other choice, for him or for any of my children.
I have been in a place like this once before. I’m forcing myself to remember some advice I got the last time I was anyplace like here, although now it’s worse, I’m older, and the stakes are higher.
This last week, I have had occasion to think about my time at The Archives of Traditional Music this week with the news of the passing of somebody I worked with there, Clara Henderson. She was a dear soul. I remember as well the brief time I knew George List.
I was extremely circumspect about how I talked about this on the blog at the time, and I’m still not going to go into detail about it here, but I had come to the Archives rather bruised and bloodied from my previous place of employment. In addition — and this certainly was thoroughly discussed on the blog — I was despondent over the possibility of ever getting into grad school. Thankfully, ATM served something of a hyperbaric chamber for my battered psyche, and even if it took a few months before I no longer instinctively wanted to burst into tears every time somebody looked at me sideways, I was able to start pondering, now that I was out of the worst of my negative circumstances, what it might look like to start working towards something positive.
That’s when I met George.
George was emeritus faculty and one of the previous directors of the Archives. He ninety-seven, and had retired some 30 years previous. I had spoken with him on the phone a number of times; he was still working, and he still had an office that was maintained by the Archives, but since he had lost his sight many years ago, he was largely bound to a retirement facility, and had a series of short-term student assistants who helped him with his ongoing projects. Unfortunately, his final assistant failed to work out in a rather spectacular fashion, leaving George in the lurch.
So it was that one summer day in 2008 George called me at my desk. “Can you help me?” he asked, with a note of desperation in his voice. “I’ve just published a new book, I need to inscribe several copies to send to people, and I’m not going to be able to do that on my own.”
Well, I wasn’t unwilling, but it would require me to go out to his retirement home during the day, and it was thus a question of whether or not I could actually do so on university time. I put the question to Alan, the Archives director. He looked thoughtful and said, “This place wouldn’t exist without George, and we really try to show him what kindnesses we can. Yes, go ahead and help him; he’ll probably try to reimburse you for gas — don’t let him, we’ll take care of that.”
The next morning I drove out to George’s retirement facility, and did what he needed. The book was a self-published collection of poetry, short stories, and essays he had written over the years, and even the cover was his own work, a painting he had produced in 1933. He was sending it out to old friends and colleagues from various chapters of his life. Some of the names I recognized as people I had had to communicate with on behalf of the Archives. I saw from the publisher’s imprint that it was a local self-publishing outfit, so I knew he had paid for this himself, it must have been very important to him to actually produce it as a book, and all the moreso to send it to this collection of individuals. Each name was a story, and he told me some of them as we went. He also told me that he had been a widower for “seven long years” as he put it, and that he had even outlived his son.
As I was getting ready to leave, George said to me, “So, you’ll come back tomorrow so we can mail these off?” I said yes. Then something happened that I will never forget.
Suddenly he said to me, “Richard, I want you to know that I have reinvented myself many times over the course of my life, and had to do it on multiple occasions even before I turned forty. I turned out just fine.”
He said nothing else. I stared at him for a moment. Why did you say that to me? my head wanted to yell at him. How on God’s green earth did you know to say that to me? But I let it be.
I helped George for a few days; he passed soon after. To this day I have no earthly idea why he told me what he did. It was nonetheless something I very much needed to hear at that particular moment in my life, and it has continued to be a tape I need to play back for myself with some frequency.
Memory eternal, George. I think of you often, and with fondness.
So here I am. I’ve lost every last one of my professional and vocational bets. I’m feeling about as useless as I ever have. I have to reinvent myself, and I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I’m exploring a number of options. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but the coming weeks, if not months, until I do are going to be… rough, let’s say.
I will say that some people have asked if they can do anything. Please pray for me; pray for my wife and kids; if you are aware of opportunities in your own social/professional networks for a 39 year old Boston-based individual with a BMus in vocal performance, who is ABD in History, and has a variety of work experiences and a broad-based skill set, please pass them on (LinkedIn profile here); you can make a tax-deductible gift to The Saint John of Damascus Society (since some of the options I’m exploring would be done under the aegis of SJDS, which would require SJDS to have a much-expanded budget).
So it goes. Onward and… well, onward, I guess. But I can’t say that this bit from The Fisher King doesn’t hurt to watch right now.