One Year Without a Job

It hardly seems real that it has been almost a year since I left my job in the non-profit industry. At the time, it was all so exciting – making the big decision to jump out into the unknown. I had such grand ideas of how I was going to spend my free time and how I was going to make money doing only what I wanted to do, and most importantly – only when I wanted to do it.

Well, that didn’t happen now did it??

The reality, and I’m sure that you are all keenly aware of this, is that almost every single gig job that I might have thought about doing, disappeared almost overnight when the pandemic hit. The only thriving gigs were driving gigs and while there’s nothing wrong with delivering food, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I can honestly say that this has been the wildest, most unpredictable year of my life. Some days have been a disaster, some have been really good, but most have been a blur. And while I might would definitely trade this experience for one that was a little less tumultuous, I have zero regrets on leaving my job last September. With that being said, I thought I’d share with you the hits and misses, highs and lows, of a year without job security.

First, the good stuff. I am super fortunate to have two grant writing clients that have sent me an abundance of work over the past year. Not a month has gone by that I haven’t had at least one project to work on. That has helped tremendously in keeping my skills sharp and our bank account above zero. And thanks to sites like Indeed and Flexjobs, I was also able to find a steady stream of retail gigs to fill in the gaps, or at least attempt to. Retail work has been the bread and butter of our income for the past year. Actually, more of the bread. There hasn’t been a lot of butter.

I worked for 5 different merchandising companies during this time – two as an independent contractor and three as an employee. I drove all over middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky doing everything from restocking prepaid debit cards to putting security tags on shampoo. The pay was usually decent (somewhere between $13-18/hour with additional incentives such as travel time, mileage, and/or a car allowance). I could set my own hours (for the most part), but the downside was actually having to be away from home all those hours. For many folks, that’s no big deal, but for someone tasked with caring for an aging parent, it is a different story; and on more than one occasion it proved to be a problem for me.

The upside of retail merchandising is that it can be fun. Every day is different and you have no one to supervise you. It can also be difficult too, especially when you’re left to finish a project that the person hired before you didn’t even attempt to do. This happens quite frequently and is one of the more frustrating aspects of merchandising and the reason that turnover is very high.

Along with grant writing and retail gigs, we’ve also been counting things (and not just our pennies!) Once a quarter, Angie and I count houses that are under construction for a company called MetroStudy and recently, we started a new gig counting people coming and going from various locations in the mall. (What can I say, I have a thing for numbers!) These jobs are easy (and pay very well) and we can do them together.

Now, the not-so-good stuff. Since leaving my job, I’ve worked way more than I thought I would…way more than I’ve wanted to…and I’ve earned way less than I even thought possible to live on. There have been weeks during this past year that I’ve barely had time to breathe. I’ve cried. I’ve gotten mad. I’ve been worried. I’ve felt guilty for things that weren’t my fault. I’ve neglected myself and others. I’ve eaten things I never would have eaten if I wasn’t on the go. I’ve failed at the goals I set for myself. I’ve hated the world. I’ve questioned my sanity. And yes, I even considered getting a real job again (so much so that I even put in a few applications).

Not having a steady job forced us to get very creative with what money we did have. It’s one thing to say that you’ve prepped for a year without a job and feel reasonably confident that you can do it. It’s an entirely different ball game to actually jump in an do it. We felt pretty good going in, knowing we had a cushion of savings and some mad skills in resourcefulness. But…we soon realized we were way, way out of our league!

When I had a ‘real’ job, we could face financial challenges by using our savings because we knew our income was higher than our bills and that money could be replaced at some point. When there is no job, unexpected bills take on a whole new meaning and I can honestly say, we were wholly unprepared for the onslaught of bills we experienced this year (ER bills, emergency dentist bills, vet bills, car repairs, moving expenses, you name it!) In the end, we exhausted all but $596 of our general savings and thankfully, never touched of our investments.

So what does the future hold now?

Yesterday, I started a permanent freelance job in editing. I applied back in February but due to COVID, the contract was put on hold. I’m very excited about the opportunity because 1) I still won’t be anyone’s employee, 2) It is so flexible that I can do it from anywhere and at any time of the day or night, and 3) It is the only job I will have to do to pay the bills. Of course, I still plan on doing a few side hustles, like grant writing, but it’s good to know I don’t have to. After a year of spending countless hours looking for gigs and running all over the state doing gigs, I’m just happy to have a new focus and some much needed free time. (Now, let’s just hope this job is worth the 6 months I waited for it!)

Sometimes Community is Just Across the Fence

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about Blue Zones, the handful of places on Earth where people tend to live the longest. Westernization is changing the shape of some of these zones (McDonald’s is now thriving in Okinawa, Japan) but the lessons of longevity tend to remain the same – eat well, move your body, find purpose in your life, and surround yourself with community.

Angie and I have been eating a mostly plant-based diet for a few years now. We try to be active, though I know there’s certainly room for improvement in that area. Purpose in life is something I continually struggle with. Though I am happy in most respects, I do not think this is where or what my life is supposed to be, especially with regard to work and family. So that leaves community…something we have yet to find in the 5 years that we’ve lived in TN. Virtual community, yes. Actual community, not so much.

We tried volunteering in areas that we feel passionate about – food waste, hunger elimination, environmental causes, etc. We also tried community activities and groups. There was even a minimalist group that met once. ONCE! We’re not religious so church is not really an option – not that there are any LGBT-friendly churches in our town anyway (I looked). I even considered joining a caregiver’s support group, but nope, there’s not one of those around here either. And with COVID-19 restrictions in place, all of our homesteading meetups have been cancelled and the library is still not hosting many activities.

Family, in a lot of Blue Zones, provides community as well, but I come from a fragmented family (to put it mildly). I’m the central hub in a wheel of people who can’t be in the same room with one another. It’s dysfunctional, I know (and a story for another day). Irregardless, Angie and I function pretty well and we’d like to keep doing so for a long time to come. Thus, the search for community continues. We want to meet and commune with folks who share our love of the simpler things in life, travel, minimalism, good food, and the great outdoors.

Little did we know, there was one such person right next door…

In late 2018, my mom’s longtime neighbors moved out and a new neighbor moved in. Over the next year, we exchanged a few pleasantries with the new neighbor but not much more. We thought she might be a bit of a recluse. This year, our new neighbor has been spending a lot of time outside, sitting under the pear tree, buried in her laptop. She rarely looked up, so again, we thought she just wasn’t that social.

Then one day in May, we were grocery shopping when a woman approached us, waving as if she knew us, and asked if we got our plants covered before the previous night’s freeze. It took me several minutes to figure out that she was my mom’s neighbor. For a long time, we stood in the aisle (out of traffic, of course) and talked. Turns out, she spent all of 2019 renovating the mess inside the house she bought. The previous owners had 3 little boys under the age of 5 and a preteen girl, all living in what once was a 2-bedroom home (they later converted the garage to a bedroom), so needless to say, it was a mess. This year, she was trying to spend more time where she loved to be – outdoors – and all that time on the computer? She recently went back to school.

The first indication that we might be more alike than we once thought was when she put 2 raised beds in her backyard. The next clue, was the chicken coop. You have no idea how long Angie has wanted to put chickens in the backyard! We’ve spent several afternoons chatting across the fence with her and have learned that we share a lot of common interests besides gardening. She loves to travel. She shops the Farmer’s Market. She is super frugal – in fact, she’s not even working right now. She’s a do-it-yourself kind of person. She hikes, paddles, and loves the same parks we do. She recently adopted a little dog to keep it out of the shelter and she once went to Africa to help hand out medical supplies, so I surmise she’s a caring sort of soul.

This week, she was canning pickles and tomatoes outside under a tent. Having just finished a round of pickles ourselves, we popped over for a chat and learned that she had bought a box of tomatoes and cucumbers from the Mennonites in Kentucky for $10/each. Oddly enough, we had just spent the better part of that very morning searching for the Mennonite store, with zero luck. And so it was decided that we would ALL go to Kentucky together next week – a girls’-day-out road trip – and load up her truck with (hopefully) a lot of goodies.

We’re both pretty happy to have found someone that we can have fun with and needless to say, we’re excited to get to know our “new” neighbor even better.

**That is if she doesn’t kill me first. You see, in the middle of writing this post, I ran over her water meter with the lawnmower. It was a freak accident. I was going around a bush on the property line when something stung me. Next thing you know, I was cutting across the neighbor’s yard, taking the water meter with me. She’s out of town right now but I have called the water company for a replacement, which I will definitely pay for if there’s a charge. This has been an awfully expensive year for bites and stings!