The last time I saw my friend Vicky before she died, we were both in our respective dole queues, throwing each other embarrassed looks and smiles. We hadn’t spoken in a while and I know she was, as I was, embarrassed to be meeting each other in such a circumstance. But as we left that burdened building with our tails between our legs, admitting to each other that no, not everything was going to plan, we had a few moments of absolute honesty with each other that you can only get when at your most vulnerable, and I felt more connected to her then than I ever had before.
I believe there are many positive consequences of the current recession – more people are engaging in voluntary work, libraries are busier than ever, some people are embracing the chance to learn new skills and well…most of us are in the same boat now – or should I say, most of us are in the same dole queue.
And the dole queue, like rain, is a great leveller. It strips away our facades and reduces us all to soggy looking specimens with greasy looking hair and slumped shoulders. Like repentant school-children we wait anxiously in line, terrified that the secret social welfare police will burst out of that dreaded inspection room at any second and pin us to that cold floor with their bold accusations, having found out about all that extra cash we’ve been concealing…as if.
I had a disposable income for about four years in my twenties and I spent most of that on booze, books and Buffy the Vampire Slayer videos. Since then I’ve been etching a living out of the odd article commission and more recently, out of some screenwriting work. But I certainly don’t have a disposable income.
Over the years I have adapted to this lifestyle and now live quite comfortably in many respects. As long as I buy my clothes in Penney’s, my milk and bread in Tesco, my books in Enable Ireland and my beer in Aldi, I might even have a little left over to place a small bet with my recently attained Ladbrokes Loyalty card on a Saturday night. Good times.
However, I have to admit that I definitely feel like I’ve moved up the Darwinian scale when I see one of the newer members of the 9-5-liberated-front ashen-faced in front of the own-brand section in the supermarket, or buying a cappuccino for €3.50 in some supposedly slick coffee shop before placing the change in their pockets with a horrified look of realisation that they could have purchased milk, bread, sugar, eggs and cheap bickies for the same amount. All own-brand of course.
As someone who is used to raping my own coat pockets for change and living off of a constant succession of loans, I feel like I’ve gained status in the current monetary slump through my years of thrift-store living. I have mastered the art of living on the cheap, and therefore feel guru-like when I explain the ins-and-outs of coupon collecting to those who look at me like I’m the harbinger of doom.
So now, while family members and friends mourn openly about their loss of holidays in Lanzarote, expensive cocktail-laden nights out on the town, and newer bigger plasma television screens, I have nothing to mourn because you can’t miss what you’ve never had, right?
I recently had the privilege of attending a musical called The Farmer’s Daughter at the Firkin Crane Theatre, a musical that was entirely devised and created from scratch by a voluntary drop-in lesbian choir. This group of women had different skills and talents, but had never done anything like this before…and it blew me away.
Not only was it a fantastically witty and heart-melting musical, but to see this group of wonderful women coming together on a voluntary basis to create and to share with each other, reminded me of how wonderful human beings could actually be. When money is taken out of the equation, I believe people are kinder, more thoughtful, more giving and more creative.
I feel a sense of opportunity in the air at the moment. With less full-time jobs to go around and more time on people’s hands, there is a palpable air of change and growth in the city, and it’s very exciting. My uncle, a builder by trade, has taken up taxi driving and long distance running. My brother, a plumber, is thinking about going to college to study something completely different, and he’s started climbing mountains on a regular basis. Friends of mine are embracing their new found freedom by exploring everything from capoeira to spiritual retreats. Ventures like Mutant Space are creating opportunities for everyone to engage in creative and artistic projects on a not-for-profit basis. And how liberating is that?
I read the book The Celestine Prophecy a few years back and it had a profound effect on my life. There was a passage in the book that said in the future a time would come when the emphasis would shift from full-time work and careers to part-time work and the search for spiritual fulfilment. I believe that this time has come….and for many people, this search begins while standing in line at the social welfare office.
Members of bands UB40 (named after the unemployment benefit claim form) and Portishead met in dole queues. Artists of every craft have signed on for years while they honed their crafts, later providing the world with life-enhancing music, literature and art. As my friend Katie recently put it, the dole queue can be the best place to find yourself. In many ways, she is absolutely right.
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