We all need to value a sense of community

As a private college counselor and advisor, much of my work is with students in high school.

Recently my clients have begun to include recent college graduates or their parents. Some grads are angry, questioning whether they should have taken so many loans, and wonder if they chose the right major or even should have attended college at all. Parents who have been laid off are more than perplexed knowing that they may never have the same level of income, or that a stay-at-home parent must now try to rejoin a shrunken work force after a pause of many years.

In these circumstances it is difficult not succumb to feelings of failure and defeat. What tools can help maintain balance during this type of a transition? Staying active is surely one, networking another, as is turning to sources of comfort (not alcohol or drugs!). One man I know, who having had to close his business, attended early morning mass for prayer and guidance. Many months later he secured a position at a private school recruiting international students. Now, when he is not traveling, I often see him on the way to morning mass in a continuing remembrance of that larger source of strength.

I have a friend who had a high level position in television production. Her position was secure until her boss passed away leaving her, at age 50+, without gainful employment. She took many steps to re-educate herself and sought work in different areas that proved to be too poorly paid. After much deliberation she worked with an executive recruiter who helped reposition her skills and sent her out on quite a few job interviews. Eventually she was hired with minimal benefits and at a lower salary than she was used to. Her new position is not optimal, and does not fully take advantage of her skill sets, but she has chosen to make it work for the time being, all the while keeping her eyes open for other possibilities.

When asked what is lacking in her new position from those she had in the past, she responded, “A sense of community.”

It’s the same for many others of my acquaintance. One, a highly organized person who worked in financial services, has been bitten by the entrepreneurial spirit and now does the books for several small businesses as well as managing a local restaurant where her skills are deeply appreciated. Although her parents keep insisting that she re-enter the corporate world, she demurs and says that she is happier and less stressed now as a solo-entrepreneur with a variety of clients rather than in a single office every day.

Another family, whose successful floral business servicing big corporations went under, sought different careers and they now make a living selling cut flowers at various local farm markets. These markets bring together entrepreneurs who have found a new skill or are able to develop long forgotten talents into a source of income. The atmosphere is generally supportive and a positive experience, even though the remuneration may not be what many vendors had previously been accustomed to.

In particular, women who have been out of the workforce or have taken roads less traveled have a real challenge finding a way to make a living. Several weeks ago, an article about one such woman ran in the Metropolitan section of the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/nyregion/17annie.html?_r=1.

Written by Dan Barry, to me it was a profile in courage and of personal choices and it touched me deeply. On the surface she would appear to have little in common with finding work in a mainstream workforce, but dig a little deeper and you see a fierce sense of independence driving her will to both survive and follow her own road. She also found an unexpected community with values of a different age — both congeniality and a respect for privacy. The courage, spirit, and generosity of the woman Barry writes about can inspire.

Chutzpah is the Yiddish term for audacity and when faced with difficult transitions, this woman’s survival took chutzpah.http://jwablog.jwa.org/jewish-mother-of-the-old-fulton-fish-market Annie the pushcart hawker, as she was known to all at the Fulton Fish Market, and the beautiful Gloria Wasserman were seemingly two different people. One picture in the article was of Annie, an old woman pushing a cart, looking like one of the homeless or otherwise disenfranchised that populate our society; the other, showed was of a glamorous woman in a 1940s-style bathing suit running on a beach many years ago.

When I was growing up, the Fulton Fish Market was located in lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge; it was a mythical place right out of Dickens where one could envision hawkers selling their wares. My affinity came from far off Dublin and my favorite childhood song about the fishmonger, Molly Malone, whose lyrics always brought me to tears. I wonder, too, if Gloria/Annie ever thought about Molly Malone when she cast her lot with the denizens of the new updated fish market in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.

At 22, the gorgeous Gloria had left behind life in New York and biked to Alaska with the man who was to become her first husband. Two children were birthed of this union and another two came from a second marriage. Relationships came and went, and her children were sent East to live with family that she supported with her meager earnings.

No one remembers how she got there, only that Annie was soon a fixture known for her increasingly bawdy wit and profane behavior. Yet she had an endearing quality that engendered the support of the hardened workers who looked upon her with affection. In off times, Annie became Gloria Wasserman again, living in subsidized housing in the East Village, still sending checks to family members, even contributing to college educations.

Beyond the generosity and adventurous nature of Annie/Gloria, I was most touched by the affection that some of the men at the fish market showed for her. When she was ill, they visited her in the hospital, and welcomed her back when she was able to return. Annie/Gloria dealt her own cards and played her own game, yet found a community that valued what she could contribute, and push come to shove they cared back.

This reflection brought to me something I have noted in my own long work history. It is not what you do to make a living, but more about the community surrounding you that makes for happiness at a job. In one restaurant, one nightspot, two schools and my own business, what stands out is that each workplace has been a give and take of community. Conversely, in situations where I was not authenticated or given credence, I became depressed, withdrawn and alienated.

I have not done justice to Annie/Gloria or the experiences of those whose lives are torn apart, and whose families have to struggle in ways that are unimaginable. My hope is that for this upcoming holiday season, a light is turned on for a bright tomorrow and that those in need may find their own community either like Annie, or in a more traditional situation.

Whether working, or still on the road to finding gainful employment, we do need to value the sense of community. When it surrounds us, know — even as the darkest day of the year approaches— we are not alone.