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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

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This is the summer, as I said recently, of antiracist reading (along with sunflowers and bike rides and strawberries). On a recent Monday afternoon, a friend and I decided to explore with both our feet and our brains: we met up in Beacon Hill to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

I’ve lived in Boston for a decade now, and I used to wander Beacon Hill frequently when I worked at Emerson College. But I didn’t know this trail existed until recently, and the more sites we found and the more snippets I read aloud from the National Park Service website, I wondered: why not?

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Like many American schoolchildren, I learned certain parts of Boston history: Paul Revere’s famous ride, the Boston Tea Party. I walked most of the Freedom Trail as a newcomer to Boston, ten years ago. I knew Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement (though it is also persistently racist). But I didn’t know about so many of the folks we learned about on the Black Heritage Trail: their names or their occupations or their contributions to the ongoing fight for Black freedom.

The trail comprises about a dozen sites, starting at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a volunteer infantry regiment made up of Black soldiers (made famous in the movie Glory). The memorial itself is closed for restoration right now, but there’s a great temporary exhibition wrapped around the fencing, so you can still learn about the soldiers of the 54th.

Most of the trail’s other sites are former homes of Black people who fought for the abolition of slavery, helped house people escaping enslavement, helped integrate schools and churches in Boston, and played other important roles in Black community life. There are two former schools along the trail: the Abiel Smith School, the first Black public school in Boston, and the Phillips School, which became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.

The trail ends at the Smith Court Residences and the African Meeting House (now the Museum of African American History), which seem to have been the epicenter of Black life in Boston in the late 19th century. But even as we walked, we saw plaques on other buildings noting people who had lived and worked for abolition and Black rights in the neighborhood.

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I might never have seen these plaques, or any of these houses, if I hadn’t been looking for them – and I kept wondering: why not? Why aren’t we taught these stories, alongside those of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and John Hancock? Why had I never heard of Lewis and Harriet Hayden or George Middleton or Elizabeth Smith? I want to find out more about them now – but their stories should not be tucked down a side street. They should be highlighted, celebrated.

So much of the work of adulthood, for me, is paying attention: noticing the details of each day, really listening to my loved ones when we’re talking, not simply scrolling or sleepwalking through this life. The work of anti-racism also involves paying attention: seeking out the stories we don’t know, the ones that have been ignored or erased or shunted aside. This walk, this trail, is a small beginning. I’m glad we went, and I’m committed to finding out more.

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Sometimes, for my day job, I get to sit in on clinics, performances or masterclasses and write about them for Berklee’s website. Once in a while, I get a little starstruck: we get some seriously talented folks here.

Last week, I listened to singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, best known for “Mercy Now,” as she talked to our students about her music, her struggles with addiction, the restaurant she used to run in Boston, and the co-writing work she’s recently done with veterans and their spouses.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could, soaking up every word Gauthier delivered in her raspy Louisiana drawl and welling up when she played “Mercy Now.” She’s a truth-teller, a storyteller, a rough-edged and empathetic presence, and I could have listened to her all afternoon.

If you’d like, you can read the story and see a few photos on Berklee Now.

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