Who and what is useful? Who gets to decide? And what happens when you’re trapped between your own values and those of the Culture at large?
I am back in a job. A job-job. The delineation between the work that defines me and feeds my soul and that which routinely pays me is so stark. I try to have faith that they’ll eventually come together, like two lines running at a slight angle toward one another that converge. But I’m less sure that this will ever be the case.
I remember being in my early 20s and my parents had come to visit me in Seattle. Although I didn’t realize it yet, I was already starting to struggle with this — the part of me that wanted to be responsible and have health insurance and, well, make my parents proud, and the part of me that felt suffocated by offices. We’d gone downtown for the day and sitting next to us at an outside cafe were three young women, not much older than me, in suits and blouses – early 90s office attire. I felt small in their presence, as though they were Option A – the right option, and I was decidedy Option D. It was hot, and I took my sweater off, only to discover later when I saw myself in the bathroom mirror that I was wearing a black bra under a white t-shirt. What a schmuck I was. I’d never amount to anything. To hell with my Master’s. To hell with my near perfect grades. I would never wear a matching suit ensemble.
A year or two later, I saw a job coach. He was a new-agey guy who had me draw and make collages and write. It did me worlds of good in helping me see what I wanted. My perfect office was this: A friendly, light-filled work space where dogs were welcome and kids; a screen door that slammed; lots of color; and potlucks on Fridays. The thought of it made my heart sing. HOW to find this was less clear. In all the years since, I’ve only once walked into an office and felt I’d approached anything close to this, that I’d come home. It was at my friend Barb’s Big Buddha Babba office in LA — no screened door, but yoga mats, a deck with a sandbox, Buddhist books in the bathroom, and a kitchen stocked with more tea than I could fathom, not to mention chocolates and wine.
I’ve been in and out of enough offices by now to know that supply cupboards with their boxes of pens and manilla folders all look the same. I go back and forth between the increasing belief that I am just not made for office work, though this feels like a whining weakness on my part, and that I just need to suck it up; this is what life is, so deal with it. And yet, would we think someone was a whining weakling if she said she weren’t cut out for farm work or electrical engineering?
My mom worked with a woman once who couldn’t stand fluorescent lighting and always wore lavender. We thought she was a bit daft. Now, I’m that woman. I am the weirdo who can’t stand “real work.” Don’t be a pantywaist, my former office mate — a writer from Montana who couldn’t abide anyone who couldn’t just deal.
My kids are thrilled with my job. Kids understand the kind of work they see portrayed in movies and books. Mom is going somewhere – now that’s a job. Whereas when mom sits home and writes, or goes out and interviews people, this is more like a hobby. They’re thrilled by my books. Bella even says she wants to be a writer when she grows up, and Tobey has no desires toward traditional employment, wanting as he does to be a paramedic-mountain climber-sushi chef. (Remember the film Buckaroo Bonzai? That’s him. And talk about a movie that needs to be remade!) But they understand that going some place equals a steady paycheck. Which equals less stress.
Or does it? There are different kinds of stress and offices lead to a gauzy, less perceptible kind of stress than the challenge of wondering how you’re going to buy groceries does.
Offices are mundane. People with glazed-over looks moving documents via increasingly complex computer programs. (Jesus, what happened to Excel in the past two years?! Microsoft put it on steroids.). All in the name of moving a single organization/business forward a notch. And not to get all Noam Chomsky on you, but toward what end – really?
I’ve been heartened that one of the most emailed articles in the New York Times in recent weeks has been “The Case for Working with Your Hands” . Along with an article on the popularity of farm internships as opposed to old-fashioned summer office work, this buoys my hope that my two lines shall eventually meet – that I’ll one day be able to make enough money doing what I love and what I’m good at to just do that.
Author Matthew Crawford writes, “When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it?”
Although Crawford is talking of people who labor – plumbers, electricians – there’s definitely a parallel between blue collar workers and artists in relation to white collar professionals. Artists, too, are idealized and people tend to believe that artists can’t do “regular” work – they’re too scattered or right brain (or just like lavender too much). Downright amazing are people like author Ethan Canin, who went to medical school but chose to be a writer. Unlike the work of laborers, however, artists’ work is often not seen as useful, but rather as indulgent.
Crawford goes on to quote a poem by Marge Piercy titled “Be of Use.” That mere statement – be of use – has great significance to me as it was at the heart of my father’s raison d’etre. He was taken by the the advice that Dr. Larch, an abortionist and ether addict who runs an orphanage, gives to his ward, Homer Wells, in John Irving’s Cider House Rules – “Be of use” – so much so that it was alluded to several times at my father’s memorial service.
I love that my father, a button-down man if ever there was one, respected and believed in the value of this sentiment coming from a character such as Larch. He “got” all the ways in which Dr. Larch was of use. My dad understood a greater range of usefulness than some office types I know, having grown up on a farm but maturing in an office. He would argue that the place I am now, with its fluorescent lights, filing cabinets and paperclips, is indeed useful. He would not see it as mundane, as I do, but as an important part in the whole of a greater organization. Although as an avid reader, he never thought that writers are not useful, he also would have advised me that earning a living for my kids is the most important thing I can and should do.
But what if I can’t do this without turning gray? I mean inside. My office is all gray and I feel it seeping into me. On my way to work, I rode past this mural and stared at it for a few minutes before heading on. There were hot pink peonies on one side of the building and a fragrant flash of garbage on the other. Both were somehow moving.
An hour later, in the middle of a meeting in a gray room with six men and myself, discussing the pros and cons of various software, it was hard to believe that the mural was less than a mile away. That I had friends working in their studios this very morning, listening to NPR and making beautiful things. I wrote on my gray legal pad: Who and what is useful? Who gets to decide? And what happens when you’re trapped between your own values and those of the Culture at large?
I’ve considered this question so many times, that I’ll spare you another round. But aren’t we of the most use when our hearts are open? I think of yoga poses in which you literally open your heart and expand to the sky; there is a sense of flight when you give yourself over to those poses that is incomparable. Just in the past week – through absolutely no fault of the work itself or of the people around me, who have all been very kind and who seem dedicated – I’ve felt myself crumple in, as though I am falling out of the pose. Fading into gray. I’m watching myself now, trying to carefully figure out where to step next – how to get the lines to converge.