Employed at Will

Today I was putting together some employee handbooks for an organization where I am volunteering.  I read through all the standard employee handbook language as I copied each page and placed them in binders and gave in to nostalgia while conducting each mechanical action.  There was a time when I was a frequent recipient of these things (well, okay, not so long ago).
I read about the PTO (paid time off) policies, the sick leave policies, the code of conduct and the ominous phrase that reads, “employment at will”.  I wondered if that language suggested that it wasn’t slavery one was going for but employment at will, or whether it meant that an employer was employing you at will and could dispose of you at will as though you were the human equivalent of a plastic stirrer.  There was also a note about appreciating the altruism and nobility of volunteers and to ensure that they were treated with the utmost courtesy by all employees.  Can’t say I had ever had an opportunity to read a passage like that.  My former places of employment didn’t do things sans profit motive, so there were no altruistic volunteers for them.
There were notes about 401K plans, about the percentage of employer match…oh how the familiar terms played havoc with my bruised heart!  Perhaps those who request assistance from volunteers should be sensitive and not hand tasks such as the putting together of employee handbooks to people who are no longer employed, perhaps they should make like they are walking on eggshells around this rather sensitive group of people, don’t you think? Sigh.  Of course I am being facetious, in case you were starting to take me seriously.
The people for whom I am doing this grunt work are quite incredulous at my desire to help them do this kind of stuff for them and they struggle to find ways to appreciate the help.  Today, as I stood there punching holes, making copies, stacking pages, binding and creating each book, I kept playing imaginary dialogues in my head.  I imagined them saying to me, “Thank you so much, you don’t know how much this means to us. Wish there was something we could do for you. Can we wash your car, buy you lunch?”  To which I’d say, “No, perhaps you can just find a reason to hand me one of these babies”, while waving one of the freshly minted handbooks at their chagrined and slightly guilty faces.
I am volunteering at a few other places where I am doing more cerebral rather than mechanical things.  The cerebral tasks don’t send me into as bad a wallow as the mechanical ones do.  While doing the mechanical tasks I keep telling myself it’s alright, I volunteered.  So what if I am just using my hands in carpally repetitive motions and not my mind, the cause is right, it can’t hurt.  But there are days when all my pep talk to myself falls flat.
I finished my work early today and was ready to make my escape when they asked if I could also help with alphabetizing and filing some applications.  I hemmed and hawed this time.  I could have walked away and said that I had better things to do but I didn’t do that.  I told them I would help but not for the next two days.  I said I would return after a couple of days and get it done.  They were pleased.  I don’t know what it is that’s motivating my actions.  Is it really a desire to be a proud owner of an employee handbook again or is it something else? Whatever it is, it makes me feel rather strange because I am doing a great job, a perfect job for these people and there is no incentive to be so perfect, so conscientious, so dedicated.  The strangeness I feel manifests itself in a either a sense of detachment and a need to just live through each moment, doing what each moment dictates or in a bout of nostalgia that can even be triggered by a pair of jeans I’ve owned forever.  I look at this pair of fly button jeans and think of how it has seen me through lean and weighty times – in the literal sense.  I remember wearing it during a trip to Vancouver or to Paris or Amsterdam and then I wonder if I’ll ever feel affluent enough to give these jeans another whirl around the globe.
After my hard labor this morning I headed out to the grocery store.  I had been ordered to buy Ore-Ida Crinkle Cut Fries because that’s what the little one wanted for an after school snack.  I shopped for a few other things while I was there.  Later as I plucked all the bags out of the cart before starting my walk to the car, I flashed back to my first few months in this country when I lived in Riverdale, MD, before I owned a car, when I used to have to walk to the grocery store three quarters of a mile away and then walk back with the heavy bags, their twisted up handles cutting into the skin of my fingers.  But just before I tell myself those times were not pleasant another thought crosses my mind and tells me that I had a paycheck coming in even then, a miserable $234.35 every week, but there was a paycheck.  I have never been unemployed in my adult life until now.
I did wish for it.  I wanted to see how it would feel.  There are days when I rejoice, when I love how the day stretches ahead of me, full of possibilities.  I cherish the hours I now spend with my daughter, doing things with her, cooking things for her, I love it all.  I willed this.  I have always got what I wanted when I’ve wanted it badly enough and I wanted this.  I wanted it with a growing sense of desperation over the last year.  So I have it now.  But the joy I feel at an entire day stretching out in front of me, a day where I don’t have to visit Microsoft Excel for even a minute, vanishes as the sun sets and I realize I haven’t done much to own it.  It has just been another day.

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