isaac black

isaac black writes

I’ve been unemployed now for two weeks. This has been the first full work week that I’ve been idle. I’m happy with what I’ve gotten done this week, but my daily pace is pretty sluggish. I’ve been sleeping more than I thought. My sleep schedule has been to go to bed around 1 am and wake up at 7:40 (when I used to set my alarm when I was working). After I go to the bathroom I go back to sleep until around 10. I spend an hour in bed, typically, getting caught up on phone stuff. Then I make coffee and have a small breakfast.

I’ve gone to the grocery store every day. I made refried beans from scratch the other day, and I’ve got some peppers fermenting for a hot sauce. I’ve only eaten out once–yesterday at a bakery, to celebrate the first day of my new budget. I eat less than I had been, and I don’t snack. Anxiety with me really tends to determine my appetite, whether it’s overeating or not eating at all.

The thing that I didn’t fully expect was the anxiety that comes with having no excuse for flaking on things. I have all the time in the world, so I feel like I basically have to come through for people pretty much immediately, at least if I’ve said I would.

At the beginning of the week, I also felt a little anxious about being productive. This is something that I’ve been working on for the last five or six years–the feeling that I need to be producing something in order to justify my leisure. Whether that’s gone away or whether I’ve just signed myself up for enough projects already isn’t clear. I had a friend ask me to send him some music for a phone game he’s designing. I’m learning Python with the help of a friend. I’m driving some friends’ moving truck next week to New York. I always have my novel to work on. I’m learning Spanish. I’m making progress on my reading list. Because these are the things I want to do they don’t feel like chores or “work.” That was really my aim with this. So far so good.

My story “David” is up at Foliate Oak.

I didn’t get eaten by a grizzly bear. I didn’t even see a grizzly bear. I didn’t have any kind of epiphany or even a moment of life-affirming humility, so by those metrics my trip was a failure. The idea that one’s relationship with Nature is something to be discovered or maintained is so pervasive that I found myself wondering during the planning stages about the status of mine. In thinking about it I realized I had bought into one of the fundamental splits of Western philosophy–culture vs. nature. This binary has been with us since Plato, and for Americans in particular since Thoreau went on vacation at Walden Pond.

I’ve been to Walden Pond. It’s fifteen minutes from downtown Boston. It’s a park. But parks, including the national parks which are thrilling and majestic and as full of Culture as could be desired in order to feel safe, are distinct from wilderness. Wilderness is scary. It reminds one how fragile humans are, how scarce clean water is, how cold rain can be. The thought has occurred to me each time I go night skiing, safe in the chairlift, how easy it would be to die within hours of falling into the pines if I had no way to contact Culture.

But discovering oneself in Nature does not mean confronting the dangers of the wild. Instead, there’s a great egoism in removing oneself from society to find some inward truth. There is no part of human nature that demands absolute solitude. Instead, solitude in a park is a request for everyone else on the planet to leave you, to leave me, in peace. It’s the same effect as deleting Facebook for two weeks.

Which is not without its benefits. Our identities are composed of the various roles that society requires us to fill–coworker, sister, cousin, neighbor, customer, etc. It can be exhausting when the myriad false niceties add up to a fundamental denial of one’s own needs. But we don’t need to pretend that Nature is something that exists outside ourselves, our coworkers, our cities.

I noticed, during my vacation from society, how my mind buzzes nonstop. It became starker with the inability, due to being in or the forest or occupied driving, to sate it through endless feeds of social media activity. It’s a defense learned from my parents, my mother in particular, used to distract myself from unresolved trauma. A meditative calm would require confronting that trauma, which would mean initiating contact with my ex-girlfriend, which would mean freshly defining my identity relative to her in a way that I would rather not. So I continue to avoid it.

There was one meditative moment, when it was refreshing how still my mind had become. On the last night of my trip, after biking almost 40 miles, I sat with a tin cup of tea, using water I had boiled over a healthy fire. I set the cup on my leg, and noticing how good the warmth felt on my tired muscles, continued to run the mug over my quads as if I were ironing my pants.

The rest of the time I was narrating the trip to myself, a somewhat annoying habit. Or I was thinking, inexplicably, about work (these identities don’t die suddenly). I thought about the many ways my trip could suddenly plunge into disaster–leaving my wallet at a grocery store, getting a flat, getting pulled over, not paying for my campsite in time, forgetting my headlamp, not finding firewood, and so on. Or I was simply busy with a schedule that felt more hurried than I had planned on–pitching a tent, making a fire, preparing a hobo dinner, boiling water for oatmeal, pulling warmer clothes out of my bags.

The third night of my trip, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I felt a physical loneliness, a desire for some sort of comfort. I reached my arm, like some worm’s proboscis, out of the hole of my mummy bag and pulled my hoodie in. It was cold, and it chilled me as I tried to cuddle it so I put it on. The feeling persisted the next night as well, and there was no way to satisfy it.

The first night I had a nightmare in which I woke up to grizzlies running wild through our campsite and campers excitedly trying to evacuate. One of the grizzlies was bipedal and slack-jawed, carrying a tree limb with which to bust out car windows and get at campers’ toothpaste. The next day I hiked alone, bear spray on my belt, jumping at the noise of each chipmunk. The trail was more populated than I expected, and I relaxed to where I stopped clapping before each blind corner. Being the only one with bear spray at the ready, I decided I could put it in my day pack. The hike was beautiful.

My last day went about as planned–festive well-wishes from coworkers, very little work done, a near-constant smile of freedom and giddiness. The exit interview was more just a going over of benefits than an interview. The only thing that surprised me was a moment as I was leaving, while my department was half-facetiously clapping for me, that I felt a twinge of sadness. Maybe even a touch of fear that I’ll miss the office. And then as quickly as it came it was gone.

My brother asked over email why I was quitting, since I hadn’t talked to him yet about it. My answer was straightforward: “I don’t like working and I can afford not to for a while.” It’s honest, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a little provocative. It’s not like my brothers love working, but I think they’ve internalized my dad’s attitude just as much as I. “You can’t just not work.” Opting out of it seems to them, I’m pretty sure, short-sighted, selfish even. Not because I could be doing more selfless things with my money but because there’s money to be earned. Be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow won’t be anxious for itself.

It hasn’t quite settled in, probably because it still feels like an ordinary Friday. Monday morning though, while I’m driving to Glacier National Park for the rest of the work week, will probably be a different story.

There’s nothing like quitting a job. For the last five workdays I’ve had the positive luxury of choosing which tasks I care about. I’ve been wrapping things up, trying not to leave the people on my team with a huge mess. I’ve also been savoring watching emails come in that I don’t have to address. I’ve never really phased out of a job like this, and it might be even better than just peacing out.

I was talking to a coworker who is quitting two weeks after me. She’s moving to California, but in a mindset I don’t understand she wants to jump into a new job right away. She’s in an admin role and wants to accomplish something. I had commented before about how people assume I’m moving on to something else, but this made me consider that maybe most people (at least among my white collar peers without dangerous, injurious jobs) like having the structure of something to do every day. I definitely like having something to do, but I hate the structure and obligation. I hate tedium; I hate repeating something that I’ve already learned how to do. I need challenges. In that way I think I’m similar to my coworker, but I would rather challenge myself on my own terms and not on my employer’s.

At the same time, as it gets closer, I’m starting to feel the anxiety of stepping into the void of very little income. It feels a bit like a cliff, and while last week I felt like I could lift off at any moment, my parents’ voices pop into my mind as I get closer.

Tomorrow though is the last staff meeting I’ll ever have here.

I really like being alone. I like it so much that it can be bad for me. When I was younger I learned how to get people to like me, often at the expense of failing to represent unpleasant or difficult aspects of myself. I don’t backslide into that habit when I’m by myself.

I’m leaving Sunday morning for Glacier National Park, and I’ll be coming back Friday for a friend’s wedding. I’m going by myself, and I plan on backpacking in grizzly bear territory. The trip offers the promise of utter solitude, solitude not easily escaped. There’s something calling me to the wild, something that I can’t fully explain yet but which I’m not going to disobey. This embrace of action over circumspection is something I learned (or relearned) from my ex-girlfriend. Being alone offers control, safety. Her retreat was into company to win people over, gain some affection from them, and spin off to a new scene. Safety in never being in control.

I went camping recently, and my friend and I ended up in the middle of a thunderstorm. She was afraid of the two packs of coyotes we heard calling to each other, our tent at their midpoint. I brushed off her fears. But soon after, rain started falling, and a flash of lightning lit up the tent like a photographer’s softbox. A second later thunder pealed from one end of the sky to the other, right above us. Realizing that the next lightning strike could well connect with us and not knowing any way to prevent being seared to death in seconds, my mind started panicking. I wanted to bolt for the car, to save my own skin. I didn’t know any rational way to protect myself, let alone both of us. It was a fully unique experience, like being outside my own mind. Lightning struck again in the clouds, and five seconds or so later, thunder. The storm was moving away from us.

There is a powerful attraction to that feeling of danger. I have rarely feared for my life. Part of what is calling me to the backcountry, I imagine, is getting close to that frontier. It’s not a death wish–I will carry bear spray, hang up my pack far from my campsite, and ask the rangers where the safest, busiest trails are. I still would not recommend that anyone go backpacking alone, especially in grizzly territory. Any number of things can go wrong–injuries, dehydration, moose attacks, etc.

Maybe it’s a way to be alone without being safe. Maybe I’m trying to revisit the trauma of vulnerability from the breakup. Maybe I have some bourgeois hope that I’ll “find myself” in nature, that I’ll discover some interiority that I can’t reach amidst the noise of society. Maybe it’s a microcosm of venturing into the wilds of unemployment. Whatever it is, I’m going through with it. It’s something that I’m looking forward to.

My post over at Medium: Who Does Capitalism Work For?


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