Fade to Gray

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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.

work collage

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?

Farm interns as shown in NYTimes article.
Farm interns as shown in NYTimes article.

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.

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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?

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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.

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7 thoughts on “Fade to Gray

  1. It is a huge ever present fear that I might one day have to go back to the corporate world.

    I’m not sure I could do it again, but I did do it all the years my daughter was in school. I broke free during her college years.

    Sending you strength to stay in shades beyond the gray…

  2. I found your website through atsyville and I’m so glad I did! I am home from my office job today (I have a family crisis and am needed much more at home today than the stupid office) and feeling melancholy…

    I consider myself a “stuck artist”…I have all these visions of what I’d like to do, but I can’t seem to let myself loosen up enough to follow up on these visions. I don’t know where to start.

    This post of yours – fade to gray – could’ve been written by me! I felt like I was reading about myself. I “only” work 3 days week in an office, but those 3 days/week seem like FT because I loathe it. It is SO not “me”. I sit in a tiny cube with no walls (no privacy!!) all day, behind a computer, doing the most mundane paper and computer work over and over and over. No phone work (thank God – I hate phones) or customer service or anything. Just me and the computer and the crazy woman who sits next to me. This job does not give me any satisfaction at all and the rules at this place are so confining that I tell my husband on my way to work, “I’m going to the prison now.”

    I only stay there because of the paycheck. It HAS helped my family. And for a PT job, I also get some paid sick days, vacation time, personal time, and holiday pay. I realize that is hard, if not near impossible, to find in a PT job.

    Thanks for your site…it is a rainbow in my gray officey days! If you don’t mind, I am going to add it to my list of favorite blogs on my own blog site (www.melathome.blogspot.com).

    1. You are very kind, and I will check out your blog as time allows. But just now, I am at the gray space! I’ve had interesting talks with friends about why “they” (you know – the Big Powerful THEY) don’t make offices more hospitable – colorful, light! More soon – a nd WELCOME

  3. I don’t remember how I found this blog, but just rediscovered it in my favourites and this resonated a lot with how I’m feeling (and the more recent one…further into the fray).

    In the questions you’re asking rather than the specific circumstances – I’m still in school/sixth form. To me school is like your office space.. I’m studying subjects I enjoy and I get good grades, but I don’t feel like I’m really using the subjects, and don’t feel fulfilled, or expressed, only squashed and pressured. It’s just playing the game, nothing real. And I have very little time to write or do art which isn’t for school.

    Being in the late stages it’s all what uni you’re going to and what job you want, and I feel like I’m heading for the position you were in in the cafe, wanting to live up to my family’s expectations (a steady, typical city job with good money), but knowing I won’t be satisfied doing that. There has to be a lot of creativity or I’ll feel exactly like I’m ‘turning grey inside’.

    Anyway, it was nice to see I’m not entirely wrong to plan on steering very clear of office jobs, and thanks for the link to the NY times article – thought it was a really interesting read.

    1. Thank you for your reply and thoughts, Katie. I assure you t hat there are many middle ways. It is not all office work — the job I started last May and am sadly ending now (it was a temp situation) turned out to be fairly satisfying and flexible. It’s a matter of continually continually (did I mention continually?) reassessing and reasserting your priorities. And remember that these will change over your life, even just from year to year. But certainly before you have children and your schedules is YOURS, there are many ways to make it work — to earn an ok wage AND be true to yourself.

      Stay in touch!

      Best,
      Jennifer

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