Monday, May 29, 2017

Stability in Mud

I was standing ankle deep in soupy mud on the Appalachian Trail feeling right at home in the woods, but a bit different in the group.  I'd joined a group of employees from the long-standing New England retail brand for which I have been working for the past 8 months.  It was rare for a seasonal, on-call employee to join these bi-annual work parties; the average tenure of the small group was over 15 years of consecutive service.  

 I'd joined the trip to shake down the camping equipment that had been in storage for the past 6 years, get re-acquainted with New England forests, and meet new people. It was a cheap, life-affirming foray into my old self, but it also awakened the tension between my love for the flexibility of a consulting practice, and a tinge of envy for steady work and benefits.

Earlier this month, I read Joseph Williams's essay recounting of his stint as a retail worker. The article hit a couple of threads for me: the feeling of desperation in applying for retail work, his practice of dumbing down his resume to get a job, and the moment when a classy, recently retired bureaucrat female comes into to the store. 

"As I fitted her for shoes and checked her stride, we struck up a conversation about politics, finance, and the fact that not a single Wall Street banker had ended up in jail. Then, Jan hit me with a question I hadn’t considered in the months since I hustled my way into a job I didn’t want, had to have, and had come to accept.  

“So, Joe,” she asked, “What is it that you really do?”
I paused, slightly taken aback. I sell shoes, I told her. That’s my job.
“Yes, I understand,” she persisted. “But what do you really do?”
By that point, it was clear what she meant: Why are you here?

I am feeling loyal and grateful to be involved with the business even if the hourly wage is meager.  It's another decent gig in the ball-juggling of my work life right now, and that's ok. My colleagues on the floor are good, solid, happy, and intelligent people to work with. Some have been in long enough to be able to secure the benefits package with flexible, part-time employment, a boon for the real estate agents, financial advisers, house cleaners, artists, and gig workers behind the counter. I wonder if I'll make it into that category, or if those are days gone by. 
A temp job for May: collect and maintain
inventory for a plant sale. 

In the carpool to the trailhead, I heard the stories of wellness programs, new computer systems, learning opportunities, and supportive office dynamics.  I didn't mention that my employment juggling has reached a new frenzy this month with securing a short-term event management contract. I was running so hard in the days before the trip that I forgot to pack socks (I remembered the liners, so that worked), made a rash decision to forgo my cookpot (used the big pots provided instead) and realized, on my way to to rondevous point, that I we were taking my car and I'd neglected to it properly tidied up for the 4-hour drive to the trailhead (it didn't matter). 

While hiking through the forest to start the first day's work on the Appalacian Trail, I reflected on a trip of days gone by from Alaska. For a few years, I went on trips with Wilderness Volunteers in the spring time, largely seeking cheap and meaningful ways to escape break-up.  

I flew from Alaska to Phoenix and hiked up a mountain in the Tonto National Forest the next day. My breath was labored, the backpack loaded with too much water, and I was plodding along at the end of the pack. The trip leader was concerned. "I'm having Beluga Factor.", I gasped. The concerned group of slower hikers looked at me quizzically until I explained that I was suffering from the transition from cool ocean to hot desert, and everyone laughed. 
Much of the work involved clearing drainage
areas to help reduce the amount of mud
on the trail. 

Indeed, this work party was also a milestone: one year back in the U.S., a chance to bond with corporate, and form a connection to rich, dark forest duff, the delicate painted Trillium, the grunt and heave of a shovel and the beauty of a gently upwelling spring.  I was touched on the final night, when I recieved a "first-year" pin and a hug for participating. 

Now, I need to stay focused on living this life in full, not in envy of benefits or in fear of work uncertainty, but in the rich unfolding of this life stage and the honor of checking the box that says, "55-64."