When Corona came for my job…
An introspection and the musings of a perfectionist struggling in these very imperfect times.
I’m not sure I even took a breath this past weekend. Strangely, not because I was afraid of inhaling dangerous coronavirus particles, but because on Friday, I lost my job. I was laid off. It wasn’t something I even knew how to begin to process. As I cried to my parents on the phone, I said simply, “I don’t know how to be laid off.”
It’s true. I don’t. Not that any of us really know how, unless you’ve perhaps had the misfortune of it happening before, but even then, I doubt we really know how to be laid off. My mind, normally quick and clear, was a muddy mess of emotions I tried to wade through while attempting to figure out what I should do next. People like me don’t get laid off, I thought. How is this happening to me?
There’s a certain shame and embarrassment I feel in even saying the words, in sharing with my friends, family, and beyond that I was laid off. Even though I know it’s not my fault (#thanksCorona), it still feels like abject failure. It’s a heaviness that sinks my shoulders and pulls me down into the puddle of tears that has been pooling at my feet for days — hot from the redness of my cheeks, cool from the sadness in my heart. I know I have to keep moving, to wring out my clothes and dry off my face. There is nowhere to go but forward, even when you’re not sure your legs can carry you.
Mechanically, and by natural biology, my lungs did in fact keep working this past weekend. I felt them acutely when I suddenly had to sharply suck in air, my heart racing, as my mind reminded my heart and my brain that we were laid off. Not laid off as in, come back in a week, enjoy your vacation. Not laid off as in, we need a month to get our affairs in order. Laid off as in, we’d love to have you back once this all clears up, but no promises, we’re so sorry laid off. In these moments, which washed over me and evaporated with no discernible pattern or reason throughout the day, a small glimmer of hope brought peace to my mind, slowing my breath to normalcy — the idea that I might be able to save my job.
You see, since people like me don’t get laid off, I had hoped that if I cut my hours or my wages there’d be some way for me to hold on to what had been mine. What I had given up so many hours of heart and brain and energy for. On Monday, I had a final conversation with senior leadership at my firm. They asked if my thoughts had evolved since we last spoke. Emboldened by what felt like a small crack in the door, the light of opportunity peeking through the slivered opening, I again laid out my case for keeping me on as we all struggled through the times of Corona.
The door never slammed shut, but with each passing word, I could see it creeping to a quiet close, the light extinguished, and along with it, my hope. It strikes me that from the conversation, full of words, yet with so little said, the thing I remember most is that they believed I did not grasp the severity of the times ahead. I had disguised what was realistically a desperate plea to not lose my job as sparkling optimism about what I could do if they would only keep me. This elevator pitch, dressed in the prettiest of words and accessorized with a smile, was mistaken as naivete.
I am not naive.
As I tried to explain to them then, this attempt to negotiate my way out of losing my job was not borne of selfless charity or some infantile ignorance of what the impacts of Corona will be. Somewhat ironically, I had dug in and clawed as hard as I could, dangling off the cliff, precisely because I did know what might lie ahead for me in the land of the unemployed, full of those of us banished there by Corona.
I graduated college in 2010, which was a blessing only in that I didn’t graduate in 2008 or 2009. Because I applied for jobs late (after a personal LSAT debacle, a story for another time), I ended up getting several interviews, probably for being the best of what was left in the Spring. Someone from what ended up being my first employer called and told me I was receiving an offer. While thrilled, I still had other firms from whom I had not received a decision, so I asked how long I had to consider the offer. Strangely, you would have thought that I swore at them through the phone. The expectation was that I would accept on the spot. People in my position didn’t say no — we should be grateful to have been spared a jobless graduation, with unpaid intern work hanging dark over our near horizon. After some deliberation, however, I was told I had 24 hours, after which they couldn’t promise me they wouldn’t give the job to someone else.
I took the job.
I became a paralegal in the world of Big Law. Perhaps once glamorous, with black cars and ritzy dinners, I had the budget version. I knew exactly when leftovers were put out from meetings in the windowless break room and that was lunch. Car service was replaced with taxi cabs we usually expensed at “Petty Cash,” a desk in the dark corners of Accounting. I hid my cell phone in bushes outside of remote courtrooms so that I’d have some way of calling a cab to come get me, since they inevitably would never wait. I hobbled up and down the gravel loading dock to the back door of the SEC in crisp high heels, spraining my ankle, because my taxi wouldn’t drive me down and wouldn’t wait.
The industry was different. It was changed.
So now it’s 2020 and I’ve long quit being a paralegal. What does any of this have to do with novel coronavirus, my life in the architecture industry, or being laid off? It’s simple — Architecture & Design (A&D), and realistically the world, will have been changed. I think, however, that A&D being flipped on its head is a real opportunity. Firms that said we could never work remotely have now seen that it is possible. People who perhaps have never truly experienced work-life balance now know what it’s like to have dinner with their loved ones. The planet has already shown signs of healing itself as human activity pauses.
We’re now spending essentially all of our time indoors, more than the oft-quoted 90% percent, as we stay home. So what does it mean? I believe it’s a time for questions in the industry. Questions about how we work as an industry, what our work means for not only our clients, but the people affected by the process cradle-to-cradle, and what responsibilities we have to ourselves, each other, and the planet.
The reality too is that I am and will be changed. I will no longer believe in a false superhumanity that protects me from the turbulence of the world around me. I have questions, not only for the industry, but for myself. Who am I now that I’m someone I never thought I would or could be? Where does my life go now that Corona has thrown a thousand-car pile-up in my way?
Now that I’m laid off, I have some free time, and never one for being idle, I’d love to explore some of these ideas with you. I don’t know yet where the path will take me, either in life or in these writings, but I hope they can be both comforting, thought-provoking, and maybe get a few laughs along the way. What was causing me to drown in a lake of tears just a few days ago can hopefully become a gentle wave in this stormy sea of change. Hopefully my roughed up rowboat (because let’s be real, I can’t afford a yacht) lands on golden, sunny shores.