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The Parlor, the Coffee Table and a Message to Future Me

My thoughts after losing my job and trying to look ahead

By Dana Shavin

In the mornings, my husband and I sit in the room of our new house we laughingly call "the parlor." We laugh because "parlor" suggests a formality we have never, and likely will never, possess.

Coffee table with mosaic pattern, job, job loss, Next Avenue
Dana Shavin's prized coffee table  |  Credit: Photo courtesy of Daryl Thetford

In this parlor are several soft seating options including a secondhand sofa and chair. There are also three flea market lamps, a flea market cabinet and a coffee table with a gold base and black-and-white, sgraffito-style crosshatching on the top. This last we bought without knowing if it would fit in the room, either aesthetically or physically. 

The Coffee Table's Pattern Echoing in My Life

I have stared at this table's mesmerizing crosshatch pattern every morning over coffee for two months now, and only the other day did I realize it's one of those patterns that shifts if you look at it long enough, making lines that appeared to be retreating suddenly appear to be coming forward. It's a case of something being two things at once and it's a pattern that is echoed in another area of my life as well. 

Let me explain.

I got laid off from my job as a journalist last November. It came as a surprise, and for weeks afterward I thought of almost nothing but the layoff — how it felt to suddenly not have a job, what I believed it meant and what I thought might or might not be in store for me going forward. Meanwhile friends, hearing the news, weighed in. 

"You'll be fine," they assured me.

"It's a gift in disguise."

I think about how I don't know what the future holds and feel worried. And then I think about how I've never really known what the future held.

"When one door shuts another one opens."

I greatly appreciated their words of comfort. As someone who has reinvented herself and her career repeatedly as new beliefs and passions took over for old ones, I know how to begin again. I'm comfortable with the early stages of things and I'm patient when patience is demanded. 

But this time around, whether because of my age (I'm 59) or because it was not my decision to leave the job, it's been harder to believe the voices of encouragement.

They've been met, more than I'd like to admit, by the voice of uncertainty, as I've been wondering, Carrie Bradshaw-style: What if I'm not fine? What if it's not always true that when one door shuts another door opens? What if, in the words of chef and food writer Gabrielle Hamilton, this is not a "chance for correction," but an altogether final derailment? 

Because it's true that bad things happen to good people.

That not everything is for the best, and not everyone who suffers loss or heartbreak or setback finds themselves, on the flip side, happier or stronger or more resilient than before, no matter how much we'd like to believe they do or will.

The Impossibility of Predicting the Future

Don't such catechisms suggesting the world is wired in our favor — or that we can, and should, be the heroes of our own comeback stories — do us a disservice by suggesting we are complicit in our own suffering if we do not bounce back healthier and more joyful than before?  

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I think about how I don't know what the future holds and feel worried. And then I think about how I've never really known what the future held.

A therapist once asked me what was present in my life that I foresaw with any clarity when I was young, and aside from broad brush strokes — I knew there would be dogs, I thought I'd have land, I believed I would always have long hair and be a writer — most of what has come to pass I could not have predicted.

A 20-year art career, a 30-year (and counting) partnership, an interest in politics, a home with a parlor — none of this did I see coming. 

And so I stare and stare at the coffee table pattern these quiet mornings before I head upstairs to my writing office, where I send freelance pitches out into the world and work on the writing assignments that are (thankfully) coming in. I watch the way the table's lines reverse themselves, how groups of them look like the inside of a box, then like the outside of a box, then like the roofline of a house. 

Mesmerized by this pattern that is many things at once, I'm forced to consider that uncertainty is simply what the mind wears when absolutism — the false, but comforting, belief that matters of import are staked out in black-and-white — has been stripped away.

That the not-knowing doesn't mean one thing or another, but simply that I do not know what is next and neither does anyone else.

And therein do I, at last, find my comfort: by letting go of the illusion that I can somehow predict my future, and reconciling myself as best I can to the mystery that is this moment. 

(This article originally appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2021.)

Contributor Dana Shavin
Dana Shavin’s essays and articles have appeared in Oxford AmericanThe Sun, Psychology TodayParade.com, Bark, and others, and she has work forthcoming in Garden and Gun. She is an award-winning humor columnist and travel writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and the author of a memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career. Her work has been nominated for inclusion in Best American Essays, and for a Pushcart.  You can find more at Danashavin.com, and follow her on Facebook at Dana Shavin Writes. 
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