Gap Year

Birds flying over the towers of Carcassonne

A year ago my life changed completely. It was a shock, but it wasn’t a surprise. It was something I’d planned for only in my imagination but never expected to actually happen.

Since the day I was laid off, work has been absent from my life. Paid work that is. Work for friends and loved ones, voluntary work, writing (here!), and work on myself have been constant, however. But rarely has any of this work involved money, and none of it involved a commute, a corporation, or making things with strangers.

It’s odd to experience such a drastic shift. Stranger still that it takes an effort of memory to think about my previous lifestyle; I would have guessed that after almost fifteen years of going in to work at an office, its absence would leave a gap somewhere. A persistent feeling that I need to go somewhere, be productive, be a proper member of society. Perhaps I would dream about the various crises of large projects. But in truth I don’t feel like anything is missing. In fact, I don’t feel anything: the idea of going back to an office distresses me (and I’m not alone in that), but it’s almost like a novel idea rather than a return to any kind of normalcy.

If this hole in my life left by the absence of a once-familiar career closed up so quickly, perhaps it’s because somehow I always knew that it was a passing phase. Knew it wasn’t what a proper life for me. I lingered too long, fearing the next step. But once I was pushed, there was no doubt about where the path led. It led out into the world and far away from that existence.

Walking that path has been even better than I expected. This year has been the best of my life. Vastly richer with experience than the last decade combined. Yet I know I shouldn’t cling to that either; if only for the pragmatic reason that my savings are rapidly dwindling. Now I face the next challenge: Is it possible to take the best parts of travel and keep them in a (financially) sustainable, authentic life? How do I do that?

Survival has always been the centerpiece of my psyche. Making money feels like safety and tempts me to give myself completely to the work. To compromise on what I want out of life in favor of the wherewithal to live. Not in the grandiose ‘selling out’ sense, but incrementally: the desire to make those I work with and for happy. To work more than I should and to wear an uncomfortable personality for the supposed ease of others. To cut off enjoyment of the present for the ephemeral security of reputation as a hard worker and retirement savings.

Now I’m developing a different perspective on survival: in the last year it’s become easier to imagine drawing down all my savings and then living in the streets than it has taking a salary and cramming myself back into that box. The survival of my freedom is more important.

With all that as background, now I’m dipping my toe back into the waters of employment. Not to go back to my former life, but to make this new one a proper, integrated, way of living. To be the same person who shows up at a hostel in some random place as I am when I take on a job. To work for the little that I need instead of being consumed by work in the hopes of not having to work again.

It’s one of those inevitable coincidences that just as I’m about to leave for France, some small freelance opportunities have arisen. My impulse was to push them away. But on second thought, if they do turn into jobs, working on them in Europe is exactly how I imagine my new life to be. Perhaps it is time to begin filling the gap.

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