I have long known that much of my life’s frustrations come from trying to have it both ways. Though they were made available to me, I shunned more traditional and more stable careers. Instead, I have continued, time and again, to try to be a writer, knowing full well this is not a stable choice. I simultaneously hoped for and attempted to create a stable life for our kids. I continued to attempt to perpetuate the illusion that I live the kind of life that people with more traditional jobs are able to afford – we kept living in New York, with two kids, kept trying to have health insurance and sometimes go to the dentist, kept trying to send our children to good public schools and summer camps.
I wanted, in other words, to both be a writer and to live a life that cannot be sustained on the income of most writers. There are plenty of systemic failures in this country, but that miscue is solely mine. I always knew I’d have to have a second job, but again, I chose a path that offered no guarantee of stability. “Professor”, after all, used to mean some level of security, but now acquiring a tenure track position in academia has become something close to the equivalent of making it to the NBA. But I knew that going in.
Stability has long been little more than fantasy, is what I’m saying. But since this crisis – since our precarity has turned to terror, then futility; since the hole that we now find ourselves in has become too deep perhaps to ever claw our way back out – the absurdity of those delusions has become much more apparent. The shame I feel, toward all those years of pretending, is that much more pronounced.
We’re living, as we have before, contingent on the generosity of others. I’m sitting in a house that is not mine, paying for an empty apartment that we can’t afford. My husband has been furloughed from the job he’d just started that made it possible for us to afford our rent. I got an email from my best paying job this week saying my class for the fall cannot be guaranteed until a couple of weeks before it starts. I desperately reach out to editors asking to write for them. I’ve thought of posting online about editing services, but the hole that we’re entering into is not something any single thousand dollar gig will fill.
I keep thinking, what other forms can we imagine our lives into. My husband’s parents have a small camp in Maine that we could move to. There is no running water and no internet, the floors are not yet insulated, but also, there’s no rent. I could go back to teaching high school in a town that’s less expensive – in Florida, where we have family; in more rural places, where the rents are more palatable, but then I’m not certified to teach public school.
This crisis has highlighted how so much of our society is broken. It feels senseless, suddenly, to keep doing what we’ve always done. I know the institutions I am a part of are broken, top-heavy, do not care much for me, but they kept me afloat just enough – many of my bosses have been very kind – I was deluded enough, I guess, to stick around. It is that very American delusion which I would have said I’m not a part of, but I still was: the delusion that we do not denounce or depart the systems that exploit us, just in case, somehow, we find a way to achieve power within them.
It is also an American delusion that if you stay within the systems you will maintain some level of safety, that stability will come, that a base level of certainty will exist. I met a guy a few months ago, who told me about being an adjunct professor at the same place for 17 years, and then being offered an entry level, non-tenure track, three-year job when he threatened to quit.
As my husband and I have talked and thought more about leaving the lot of it – the city and our overpriced apartment, all my part-time gigs, his putting his head down in a few months and looking for work again – it’s become less and less clear what we’d lose if we left. We already don’t have health insurance. I have never had job security. Our community is the strongest and best part of our lives, but many of them have been laid low by this as well.
New York will probably always be my favorite city. As exhausting and precarious as each is, I love every one of my jobs. We love our kids’ public school. But staring down the barrel of another decade of constant worry and part-time work and clawing our way out of the rubble of the second recession, it feels borderline insane to continue as we have.
Next week still feels so far from this week. Right now, it’s hard to think much further than keeping everybody safe and sane. It’s hard to say what the other lives that we may try to make after this would look like. The tricky thing, always, about not having a lot of money, is that one seldom has much choice. But, for so long, we have been living as if we did not already know that we could not ever get to a place of solidity within the systems we’ve signed up for. Now that the absurdity of that delusion has been so thoroughly exhibited, it feels worth considering at least, what other shapes our lives may take.