Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nonbinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find in this column, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.
This year, I — like many other workers of the world — quit my job. It no longer fit the new pandemic “me,” and I was off to find my joy. Plot twist: I — unlike those other workers off to find their joy — went right back after only three months.
See, when I say “job,” I really mean “vocation.” I am a children’s librarian at the public library. This is a job one is called to, rather than one that is simply applied to.
I am also a writer. I write short stories, essays and books. Before the pandemic, I had a classic writerly existence: wake up before the sun, get in writing time on any works in progress, then go to my day job at the library, which was usually a pleasant extension of the writing itself. I had signed with a literary agent, and we were in the process of shopping my book to publishers and garnering serious interest. My library had recently been beautifully renovated, and a robust community of families began to see my children’s area as the place to be. I had the best of all my worlds — and then my worlds shut down. I loved lockdown until I hated lockdown, and when I went back to work, I went back to work that was profoundly changed and not quite what I signed up for.
A writer needs to write, and a children’s librarian needs … well, children. The serious interest in my book halted as publishing scrambled into remote work. Responses to submissions went absolutely dormant as literary journals everywhere took hiatus or folded. What writing I did morphed into writing for hire, which I didn’t love, but editors were still answering their emails.
Meanwhile, my job as a librarian consisted of delivering plastic bags of books into the trunks of patrons’ cars. I needed a story-time fix as badly as I needed a writing one, so I started streaming story times and posting them on Facebook. I also offered story times by Zoom. I made book bundles to help families tackle difficult subjects like change and loss. But it was inevitable that I would forget what it was like to serve. My vocational joy languished. If there’s no joy to the vocation, then why have the vocation at all?
The pandemic turned me into a compass without a needle. Any direction seemed plausible now. I’d always wanted to try my hand at self-employment. The entire nation was reexamining professional priorities. Why not me too? So I quit, off in search of new joy. This was a major miscalculation.
Funny thing, joy. It’s often confused with uncontrollable laughter, big smiles, happy times only. But if joy is happiness, then how can we find our joy when we’re experiencing one of the most unhappy times in modern memory? No. Joy isn’t happiness; joy is meaning. And meaning is purpose. I blamed the pandemic for stealing my joy. But in reality, it simply rearranged my sense of purpose.
My previous vocational purpose was in helping patrons, which at our particular location could be difficult, even in good times. We see a regular rotation of unhoused, perpetually down-on-their-luck individuals who consider our building a sanctuary and our staff sounding boards. A co-worker of mine talked often about “taking care of her people,” these patrons in need of so much grace. But when our library doors closed, it seemed to me that the people we now needed to take care of were each other.
The pandemic had been a disorienting and traumatic experience for us all, but we were experiencing it together. In the deepest days of lockdown, when my friends hosted happy hours over Zoom, the people I saw every single day were my co-workers. Maybe it was a strange, pandemic-induced type of Stockholm syndrome, but I fell in love with these people. Sure, one of them microwaved a muffin for 15 minutes and caused a small fire. Yes, the management of the book sale resulted in a Bay of Pigs-style standoff between certain staff. But gosh darn it, I loved these motherfuckers. They were my people — my pandemic family. My purpose.
Alone at my writing desk, I imagined my co-workers clocking in and out without me, solving new problems without me. Their laughter without me. Author Brené Brown calls this “knowing laughter.” Not the giddy laughter of something funny; this laughter is between a group of people who really see each other, who know exactly what it’s like. This knowing laughter had sustained me through the pandemic — without it, I crumbled. I did three months and could do no more. I went back to work.
My joy used to be in the silliness of story time, watching children run wild through our shelves. It was in my hour of writing before dawn. It will be in those things again soon enough. But for now, my joy — my purpose — resides in how I take care of my people. It’s in the masks I hand out to patrons, the cup of water given to a man crying over his deceased wife. It’s in laughing with my co-workers, my fellow public servants, our eyes saying, “We know, we know.”