What Are You Looking For?

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It seems to me that (you lived your life like a candle in the wind…wait, where did that come from?)…anyway, stream of consciousness, it seems to me that we’re all looking for something in life.  Perhaps we end up accumulating things–cars, houses, clothes–or we count our “successes”–careers, exotic vacations, retirement plans, but it all boils down to your life is but one moment after another, one breath followed by the next, until it isn’t.

The thing is, we don’t like that.  Are we seriously so inconsequential on Earth that it would continue to exist without our presence?  Now, that’s a very cynical outlook, and I’m not typically that cynical, but the bottom line is that although people who love us would miss us dearly and every action that we make can cause innumerable chain reactions, each person must accept the inevitable impermanence of their own existence and its miniscule bearing on the universe as a whole.  This acceptance stinks worse than a vegetarian dog’s gas.

Rather than accept this fate, we cast about (as my Northern English husband is fond of saying) looking for ways to fill the void and answer the almighty question of what our Purpose (with a capital P) is.  So far, I’ve figured out that I should: graduate from college (not enough), go to grad school (not enough), get a doctorate (not enough), accumulate more certificates and licenses than any sane person should (clue: not…), get married, buy a home, have children, change careers (more than once…anthropologist, teacher, principal, writer, musician, conductor, yoga instructor…might even entertain outdoor wildlife expert and/or non-profit community roots project organizer), and, well, you get the idea.  Every new experience is destined to be THE ONE that will fulfill my hope and dream of making me feel complete.  Unfortunately, what I find is that I will stick with something long enough to somewhat master the skills and knowledge needed to function well enough or obtain some degree of proficiency.  I am comforted by the day-to-day routine; we humans crave ritual!  My life is nice, luxurious by most of the world’s standards.  Then, I realize that I’m bored and what I’m doing won’t fulfill my ultimate Purpose, and try to reconfigure a new direction to sample.

I have decided that a “gap year” is in order.  A sabbatical, if you will.  There is a reason why the Sabbath was observed and has continued to be commonplace within churches and institutions of education–one will eventually go crazy otherwise.  We can disguise it in any way–data collection, field experience, holy fast–but what it means is we need to sort ourselves out and think.  What a concept!  My biggest obstacle is ridiculous–pride.  A sabbatical would mean not working, well, at least not having a 9-to-5 job.  I’m sure I will find work that is meaningful (and likely desperately needed in our family).  However, having grown up in a family of coal mining men and women who did pretty much everything else, as well as sitting on a stack of college degrees, makes me feel very antsy at the notion of not bringing home a weekly paycheck.

On the flip side, on this Ides of March, I am sitting outside writing under an amazing moon with a breeze blowing the palm trees (yes, I’m so sorry to my family in the Midwest right now) looking at the constellations while I write, and I’m thinking, “This world is so incredible and huge. How can I possibly continue to get up and have the same routine every day? I must visit Tanzania, through hike the Appalachian Trail, and twirl prayer wheels!”

I realize that this struggle is central to Buddhism and yogic philosophy and is pretty much core to most religions, but somehow, I’ve still not figured it out.  I’m also incredibly aware that one might interpret this as a crisis plaguing those in their mid-life years, but I assure you that 27 is far too young for that.  (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it until my younger sister’s “age” leapfrogs over mine.)

Do You Mean to Tell Me that I Can Get Paid to Do This?

Raise your hand if you hate tax season.  Ok, it’s unanimous.  I, too, dread the entire quagmire of receipts, deductions, expenses, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Essentially, I’ve never had any money to be much concerned about past your basic EZ tax form, and my husband and I had just one job each.  Not to mention, my eyes glaze over and I get heartburn just hearing about all the “schedules.” Let’s see, I get a pat on the back for not taking student loan money to pay for courses and paying in cash, but alas, I earn too much money to receive any credit for paying for the classes myself.  Huh?  Oh, and we appreciate the fact that teachers often pay for classroom supplies, but you can’t deduct more than $250 on your taxes.  Ummm…my first year teaching, when I made the very least salary ever, I spent nearly $1,500 on books and supplies for the classroom.

Anyway, in the last few years, things have become very complicated because our income derives from various places (mostly due to my husband’s work).  Thus, I was on the phone, yet again, trying to understand why we were paying more federal taxes when we thought we’d already paid plenty of estimated taxes ahead for 2011 and scheduling a meeting to sign more forms when the conversation turned to the income I was getting for performing.  I stopped.  Wait a minute.  That’s right, I did get paid for performing this year, and I have two paying concerts coming up!  When did that happen?

Truth be told, I’d probably perform for free for the rest of my life for the sheer enjoyment of making music.  However, there is a niggling sense in the back of my brain that if I don’t get paid for this work, it’s not valuable.  Is this a righteous attitude?  In the end, does it really make any difference?  This dilemma is one that I faced when becoming a wife and mother–how does one place value on work that is not recognized by society as valuable in a monetary sense?  We all know that child rearing and housekeeping are incredibly important jobs.  Otherwise, how would anyone manage?  However, if you don’t get a paycheck for what you do, is the work less esteemed?  You betcha.  Is it valued in other ways?  Certainly.  Does it matter?  I guess that depends on your own attitude and whether or not you want to get tied up into gender studies, class studies, race studies, you-fill-in-the-blank studies, etc.

I guess the long-winded point I’m trying to make is that it’s super-cool, as my kids would say, that I’m getting paid for doing what I really love.  However, it’s a far cry from being able to support myself or anyone else for that matter.  (Performers certainly can make a good living, but most of them hustle–teaching, performing, studio work–and may even add a non-performing job into the mix, like waiting tables.)  Nonetheless, I’m trying to view work as productive and purposeful, rather than simply profit-bearing, and value it accordingly.  It’s definitely a hard switch to think in these terms for me, but I’m going to try.  All you unpaid domestic laborers out there, get on board!  My work is my work; it is no more or less valuable a contribution to society or my life if I’m paid more or less than the guy or gal next door.  But, here’s hoping that we fall on the “more” side now and again…

Wait…I Have What? Homework?!

Funny, going through all those years of school until high school graduation, I remember thinking, “Wow.  What will life be like without all this stinking homework?  Awesome!  That’s what it’ll be like!  I can’t wait to graduate”  Then, you go to college and wonder how you could have possibly thought that homework and class demands in high school were difficult because you don’t have time to go out with your friends and hang at all due to all the course requirements and working three part-time jobs to pay tuition.

Grad school comes along, and you knowingly shake your head at all the undergrads because they’re simply going through the motions, not really being expected to think and defend their ideas.  “They’re so naive.  Poor things.  They think they’re working hard, but haven’t a clue.  Look at me.  I’ve actually been locked in the stacks at the library and have developed carpel tunnel syndrome from writing so much!”  You think that once you have those three little letters after your name, all will be well.  In fact, some sort of miracle is going to happen where you are now recognized for the genius you are, and universities will fall all over each other offering you tenure-track positions so that you can graciously impart said knowledge on their fledgling students and write thought-provoking studies supporting their research-heavy institution at your leisure.

You do, in fact, get that job, although the position doesn’t have all the frills you envisioned, and no one seems to be excited that you’re there.  Instead, you work like a dog wishing you could go back to having the time to freely think and write about ideas like you did in grad school.  Instead, you’re attending faculty meeting after faculty meeting, correcting a hundred papers a week, and condemning all high school English teachers for not physically beating correct grammar into their students before they came to college.  You have no time for your own interests because you’re stuck teaching the low-level introductory courses that have 300 students enrolled and completing ridiculous teaching and research performance evaluations.  Just when you thought you couldn’t possibly work more, you have children.  Holy cannoli.

Now, you are working in a salaried position with bennies (i.e., waaaay more than 40 hours per week) and trying to juggle some sort of a stable home life for your kids.  As a childless adult, let me tell you, you can go without washing laundry for quite awhile, and it doesn’t matter if you eat popcorn for dinner.  With children, it’s not quite so simple.  You actually worry about food groups or the nutritional pyramid or whatever it is these days and you try to provide structure with morning routines, preschool, dinners, baths, bedtimes, and so on.  Wait a minute…when’s the last time I even read a book for enjoyment or went to a movie?  (They still have those, right?)  Then you remember that “this is the life,” and quickly thereafter wonder if the originator of that phrase had a career AND kids.  Probably not…

So, where does this rant leave us?  Present day.  You begin to realize that work is both a purpose for humans and a black hole of industry.  No matter what kind of work it is–homework, housework, childcare, or a job–it never ceases until you do.  When I had a brief panic attack tonight realizing that I had not done the homework required for this new college class because I was on load seven of laundry after doing dishes, getting groceries, picking up everyone’s “stuff” around the house (about 50 times), washing the car, and so on and so forth, I wondered whether I was really committed to pursuing my passion.  I mean, it’s one thing to “love” something you do, but a completely different story to be committed enough to work, really work, at it.  *sigh*  Do I have the energy for this?  It would be so much easier to not add one more thing to my plate!  (I think my husband and I had this same conversation before bambino numero due.)

But before I had time to really pity myself, I just sat down at the piano and started singing.  Yes.  I do love it…a lot.  Before I knew it, an hour of solid rehearsal had passed while my daughter was running all over the house playing dress-up and my husband and son were cleaning and organizing the garage.  And guess what?  The laundry was still there waiting for me, but didn’t explode from me not getting to it immediately.

I guess the point of this exposition on work is to remind myself that work is important, but prioritizing work is more important.  A body and mind can only work so hard, so make sure that what you are putting your efforts and energy into is worthwhile.  If it is, then give it all you’ve got.  If not, well, clean bathroom mirrors are overrated…