ca-reer [noun]

ca·reer (noun)

ca·reer [ kə rur ](ca·reers)

  1. long-term or lifelong job

  2. livelihood

  3. calling

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a few weeks. I’ve worked on it and even interviewed people for it. I’ve written and rewritten and I just haven’t liked it. Usually, I sit down, write intensely but not for overly long, proof it lightly once through, and as gleefully  as Gutenberg, hit “Publish.” What a thrill – an ordinary day with cereal bowls still on the table, no agent or editor in the way, and just like that, I’m published. How cool is that?!

But this post  has been the antithesis. A hair pulling, “I sound like crap!” muddle. Which I love almost as much as that “Publish” button. I mean I love that bloggers routinely fess up to feeling lost or that their writing isn’t as strong lately or that the blog has lost focus. These admissions make me more interested in them, more loyal. They are the admissions that rarely make it into books, unless perhaps your name is Dave Eggers.

So back to the issue of this post, which I thought was some feminist exploration of the word career. It started a few weeks ago, Bella, my 9-year old daughter made a casual remark that I don’t have a career. Being a conscientious mom who came of intellectual age in the 80s reading A Room of One’s Own, Carol Gilligan, and Dorothy Dinnerstein, this pained me. On further discussion a week later, it turns out that she’s well aware of my work as a writer but she associates a career with going somewhere every day. Her dad, a grad student and itinerant researcher, doesn’t go somewhere every day. Most of the women she knows don’t have apparent jobs out in the community – though many did before having kids and she’s unaware of them. So this makes sense.

But it got me all in a dither about what it means to be raised by an artist. Do you turn out ok? I think here of a friend who was raised by scruffy potters in a tiny and very communal cabin and grew up to be a fairly private and meticulous person who keeps very good track of her money and is glad to have a 401K and health insurance. All good things, but it begs the question: Do we always react to how we were raised?  What will Bella make of having a mom who is always clacking away on the computer and having to rush home for phone interviews?

I talked to some friends who were raised by artists (rather like being raised by wolves, eh?). Interestingly, many of them are artists themselves. One friend, a fiber artist turned sculptor, couldn’t be more different than her mother in terms of aesthetics – the daughter interested in lines: black pencil lines, stitches on wool, bending steel strips; the mother interested in colors – oriental red, grass green. Differences aside, the daughter remembers her mother’s work ethic, her dedication to her craft. She remembers the sense of a person working, that creative buzz, right under the rafters of their very home:

The element that sticks in my mind the most is hearing the sewing machine, or seeing the light on in the late-night hours when I was very little. She would stay up often times all night to wokslept in a bit, which meant that Dad was our breakfast/off to school person. And then, I distinctly remember the transition when she got her studio in the basement below the addition off the kitchen. I guess the point is, I was very aware of how she carved out time to be in her studio……she always listened to jazz or NPR.

And I spoke to Maggie Campbell, a young mom who I met via this blog who is a bookbinder in Brooklyn but just happened to grow up here in Iowa above her parents’ gallery. Her parents were both in theater, and he r mom is also a printmaker.

Making books in a 384-sq. foot space.

Neither of my parents ever had a ‘job.’ My brothers and sisters and I were always very much part of my work – designing sets, going to outdoor art fairs. They were almost always around and available. …In some ways, living in the big, open loft-like space [above the gallery] was awful at 13 when I just wanted my privacy, but in retrospect, it was pretty great.  … Now, I work and live in a 384-square foot apartment with a one-year old and my husband and a lot of paper. …I used to think I was really different from my mom, but I keep doing things that are a lot like here.

Charlotte looks on as Maggie works at her clamshell press.

And I spoke to Adrian, the daughter of my friend Tilly. Adrian is a statistician who makes projections and models about tractor sales, and though she may not be an artist as I’m accustomed to thinking of them, she makes a very strong case for math being its own art form. She also thinks the world of her mother, whose work is communal and political, including portraits of people with AIDS and portraits she did of members of a town that was being wracked by hate crimes. Like Maggie, Adrian also remembers her mom being fairly omnipresent – her art and her home life very intertwined – and that as a kid she was very involved with her mom’s projects. Now, living several states away, she still manages to be involved, having just returned from an art fair with her mom the weekend before we spoke.

When my mom did a series of portraits related to AIDS and then a series of portraits of people in Dubuque, I worked alongside her making my own portrait series. They were of me helping my mom; I guess that’s how I viewed my ‘importance’ in the projects  …I loved that when my mom did these projects they were very healing and caring. She didn’t cause a ruckus. That’s not who she is. They were more educational.

Tilly Woodward from the series "Americans Who Tell the Truth" by Robert Shetterly.

Always present. Gentle. Work/home as one entity. Creative. Educational. Kids involved in the work. Sign me up. Sounds pretty good.

As I tried to write in earlier drafts of this entry, the definitions of career strike me as inherently at odds – or frequently at odds. A calling does not guarantee a livelihood, or vice versa. While I may have day jobs from time to time – and the good ones do nourish me with kinship and interesting topics – my calling will always be my writing, and that is the work my kids will always view firsthand. The books dedicated to them, the trove of articles and essays, these posts even are what they can look at years from now and remember that’s what my mom did. Hopefully, it will be a satisfying thought.


2 thoughts on “ca-reer [noun]”

  1. It is interesting that this is such a vexed question — maybe more of an American question than if we lived someplace where what we “do for a living” is mapped onto who we are.

    It’s not an either/or situation, though … many of us go “out” to work, and also work creatively at home. We also strike different balances at different times in our lives. While there’s plenty wrong with the American workplace, I do think it’s increasingly the norm to see one’s work life more fluidly, more likely to involve change and different rhythms.

    If we believe the workplace reformers (like Ellen Bravo)who want to return justice, family life, and equity to the lives of men and women, the future holds jobs in which flexibility and less time “on the job” will make it possible for both men and women to be home much more, to share in the raising of children or care of the home, to do meaningful work/creating, however that speaks to them. Our children are already inheriting a sense of this flexibility (in part because of the challenging economy. Every conversation we have with our kids or our peers or our parents helps usher in this more humane approach to “making a living.”

  2. It has become increasingly difficult for me to separate art from living. We are all statisticians, we are all artists. Every choice-made and not made-is an act of creation. What I have come to feel, is that when we bring some awareness to this process of creation, some level of concentration, an element of our essential selves, this is Creativity. It would be supportive then of ourselves and others, to see that this is possible in every moment. Nothing insignificant. What we have come to call “Art” in our society is merely something done at one end of a spectrum of consciousness. Something more focused and essential. And these artifacts of consciousness (painting, writing, music, etc)resonate with the truth and essence within. They remind us.

    But should you call yourself Mother, you are Artist. And if you call yourself Artist then you are Mother, giving birth to your essential Self, which is supportive of children. Exemplary.

    And there is no choice, whether an internal mental choice about how to view a situation, or an external choice about how to behave, that cannot come under the scrutiny of the Artist. To live with this sensibility is deeply compelling. It calls us from within and is a great challenge. In a sense then–as when the Buddhist takes refuge in the Buddha–we also can take refuge in the Artist. We honor that what we have come to call “Art” is just the beginning of a greater process. An awakening.

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