Jobless in Maine

During a long job hunt, she realizes self-reliance was always an illusion.

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No one moves to rural Maine in the middle of an economic depression to find a job. It's sort of like heading to Georgia to start a snowplowing business.

But last month, that's exactly what I did. It was a move made out of necessity; my newspaper internship had ended and I hadn't landed a job in Boston – or anywhere else – to replace it. So when my best friend, who lives with her family in New Gloucester, invited me to stay at their house, I gratefully, but hesitantly, accepted.

I say "hesitantly" because of my pride. For years, a large chunk of my self-esteem has rested on my ability to take care of myself. A girl who can't stand on her own is bound to be a burden to those she leans on, I figured. So I agreed to be my friend's houseguest while mentally vowing to do whatever it took to get off their couch as soon as possible. I'm writing this essay on their sun-dappled back porch, deep in the leafy Maine woods. The minute it's finished, I'll be back on the hunt, searching for my next job – and my ticket back to independence.

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And what a hunt it's been. Naturally, I'd prefer that my next job be something in the field of journalism. But this is a terrible time to try getting a foot in that particular door. So although I've applied to dozens of regional dailies, community weeklies, and national magazines, I didn't expect to land a job. Which spared me a lot of disappointment.

But Verizon and Visa don't care whether you're working in your field of choice. They only care about payments. Thus, like so many job seekers, I've had to cast my potential job net wide.

Really, really wide.

I've applied to ring up groceries, run the cash register at a gas station, stock shelves in bookstores, wait tables in restaurants, and froth lattes in coffee shops. I've applied for a position as a residential counselor for troubled adolescent girls and as an event coordinator for a grieving-children's program. I've applied to work in a vet's office and at an animal shelter. I've applied at clothing stores, temp agencies, architectural firms (a lot of them seem to be looking for receptionists), a bank, and an ice-cream parlor. I've even applied to muck stalls and polish tack at the horse farm up the road. The results? Nothing, nada, rien.

I did recently get a nibble (so to speak) on a food-service application. As a result, I spent two weeks playing an ultimately fruitless game of phone tag with a woman who was hiring a part-time sandwichmaker for her deli and catering service. In the end, she changed her mind and decided not to hire anyone at all. But that was OK, because shortly after I got hired for a waitress job. Which lasted a week. That employer also changed his mind (turns out the staff didn't have time to train me because it's their busy season).

While I've been bouncing around like a slapped ping-pong ball, my friends and family have been doing their best to keep my spirits up and my bills paid. And that's made me realize that no one is truly independent whether they have a job or not. We all need other people. The profundity of that simple truth never really struck me before now, even though I accepted the idea a long time ago. As a teenager, one of my favorite books was the Dalai Lama's "The Art of Happiness," which explored the idea of self-reliance and concluded that it's actually an illusion. According to the Dalai Lama, the factors necessary for happiness include good health, friends, and material goods – which all depend on other people. "Others," says His Holiness, "are indispensable."

Losing my financial independence has made that simple idea astoundingly real. In addition, applying for so many different kinds of jobs has made me far more aware of the people I encounter every day. Suddenly, I'm noticing the person ringing up my purchases or fixing my cellphone as a unique individual. After all, they could be me.

So I'm learning, slowly, to accept the help offered with grace and appreciation – and with as little self-recrimination as possible. And when I'm employed again, I'm looking forward to becoming someone who offers help, as well.

Now, let's see what's out there today...

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