Starting Over

I’m a recession story, or at least I was. In 2008 I lost my job, in 2009 my apartment. I spent nineteen months off the economic radar. As an unemployed office worker in my fifties, I realized the chances were quite good that I would never work again. But the details of those nineteen months no longer interest me. Now, if I talk about it at all, I tell people that it was the worst period of my life. I tell them I’ve never been so scared. But I usually don’t talk about it, and my sense is that people usually don’t want to hear about it. I don’t blame them. It’s like listening to someone talk about being really sick. “I felt like I was dead,” I’ve told a couple of people; they squinted and nodded compassionately.

Besides, as I said, I was a recession story. I’ve been working since December 2010, and recently changed jobs. (It really is easier to get a job if you’re already working.) I paid off the last collection-agency bill in the spring, I have a savings account to which I contribute regularly, and I’m looking for my own apartment. I even have insurance. And while I haven’t exactly gone from rags to riches, I’ve clearly gone to better rags, and, given the state of the economy and my age, this has been nothing short of a miracle—in fact, it’s been the best miracle of all: resurrection. I’ve been saved. It seems strange to consider having a job an event in one’s salvation history, but no one said salvation can’t come with dental coverage.

Yet while the appropriate response to resurrection is, of course, joy—and I have certainly been happy since I’ve come back to economic life—I must confess that my happiness has at times been halfhearted. My gratitude is constant and strong. But joyful? I don’t know. For one thing, having watched my life collapse once already, I don’t know that I trust happiness anymore, and at my worst, I worry it’s a jinx. For another, new life comes with considerable strings attached. Resurrection isn’t just a miracle. It’s also a lot of hard work. Being dead is far easier.

In William Butler Yeats’s verse drama Calvary, Jesus is confronted by Lazarus on the road to Golgotha; he has come to ask Jesus for his death. “I gave you life,” Jesus says. “But death is what I ask,” Lazarus replies.

Alive I never could escape your love,

And when I sickened towards my death I thought,

“I’ll to the desert, or chuckle in a corner,

Mere ghost, a solitary thing.” I died

And saw no more until I saw you stand

In the opening of the tomb; “Come out!” you called;

You dragged me to the light as boys drag out

A rabbit when they have dug its hole away.

Shortly after Thanksgiving 2010, I received the call telling me I’d gotten the job. As soon as I hung up, a wave of gratitude washed over me that I’ve been coasting on ever since. The next wave was shock, disbelief; the next, something like wonder. Then gratitude again. And again. And again. Then more shock. And tucked away under the shock was a sliver of panic: a terrified, Lazarus-like voice said, “Now I’ve got to live.”

The problem with new life is that it’s new life. When you leave the tomb, you start from scratch. You make it up as you go along. So despite the move toward some kind of security, despite the burgeoning savings account and the health insurance, everything still feels up for grabs. And if there’s any joy to be found there, it’s probably somewhere in the improvisation.

Published in the 2012-10-12 issue: 

Jeffrey Essmann is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and he is working on a novel.

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