Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Work Does a Life Good

"The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the things worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident."--Marge Piercy, from the poem "To Be of Use"

Last night I was having a friendly visit with Linda. We had eaten most of the bag of olive-flavored tortilla chips with mixed olive cheese dip. I always bring a snack for us to share, partly because after work I'm ravenous and I can't concentrate on anything--including convivial conversation--when I'm hungry. But also because it's a treat for Linda. When I first enter her apartment, I notice her eyeing my enviro-tote to see what I'll pull out. I try to go for healthy snacks like hummus and carrots, but at times it's a pint of Ben & Jerry's Boston Cream Pie or a box of Girl Scout cookies. Once it was a pumpkin pie with whipped cream--that was in anticipation of Thanksgiving. We started out with generous slices and followed that with significant seconds. I ate so much pumpkin pie that I had trouble sleeping that night because I was burping up pumpkin.

We start by sitting at Linda's kitchen table eating our snack. Linda's contribution is a can of seltzer water for each of us. When the food is nearly gone, we adjourn to the two green vinyl chairs in the livingroom. Almost all of Linda's furniture is stuff that her friend Chris found for her on the street. In particular, she has a copious assortment of chairs that could seat a large dinner party as long as matching isn't an issue. These include lawn chairs, wide-seat kitchen chairs, a rolling desk chair, a bright orange plastic chair, a chair too narrow for anyone but Olive Oyl to sit in, a chair that converts into a sleeping pad--although as far as I know Linda never entertains overnight guests. It's hard for her to refuse something free, no matter how many she already owns, even if she doesn't have room for it. Plus every new addition allows her to make more adjustments to the set-up of a room. I can always count on her to ask me if the desk lamp would look better on the table near the front door or next to the waterless electric fish tank. Would it change the aesthetic of the room to swap the display case of beanie babies with the low book shelf containing all her Dr. Phil books and John Denver CDs?

I don't think she really listens to my response. She just likes asking. Rearranging her apartment is something to do, a challenge, a never-ending project.

Because of her disability, Linda has never held a full-time job. She once volunteered at Mass General Hospital, assembling surgical tools for doctors. But that ended when she had trouble getting in and out of Boston on time.

I can see why Linda is endlessly moving her stuff around, why she changes her phone company as frequently as her bed sheets, why she quickly returns items she orders from catalogs and goes back and forth between a Verizon cell phone and a Jitterbug. These are the otherwise mundane tasks that keep her occupied and engaged. Granted, changing phone plans is one of many chores that busy people dread. Who wants to spend an afternoon talking by phone to customer service? Linda does. And if she gets a good rep on the phone it means the difference between a bad day and a great one. In the end, she's accomplished something, she's made a change in her world.

I find work to be essential to my well-being, too. Lately I've been thinking that working a second job--say as a freelancer--would probably make me happier than spending two hours watching "Intervention In Depth: Glue Sniffing" or "I Was Bitten and I'm Still Alive!" The times I'm truly caught up in my work--whether I'm writing a pitch letter or arranging coupons for a much-needed trip to the grocery store--are some of the best kind of present moments for me.

When my husband fantasizes aloud about winning the lottery and retiring twenty years early, I think, I don't want to be retired. The few times I was out of work I was too panic-stricken to enjoy waking up at 11 and having the rest of the day to myself. When I was laid off in 2003 I immediately hit Monster.com. My beach read was What Color is Your Parachute? When I was looking for work after moving to Boston I could hardly focus on decorating our new apartment; I kept checking my email to see if anyone had responded to my cover letter. Only AFTER I had a job did I think--I hope they let me start in a month! Then I can enjoy a day of rollercoaster rides and cheap beer at Coney Island without any intruding thoughts of destitution or shiftlessness.

My grandmother is another example of someone who needs work. She lives down the street from my parents in a retirement building similar to Linda's. When my father was growing up, his parents divorced and my grandfather sent for Josephine, who was living with the nuns in Sicily. This woman who knew very little about the world spent the next thirty years living in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn, raising three boys and a girl and cooking for her husband. When my grandfather died, the apartment they shared on the second floor was no longer suitable for my grandmother, an overweight woman with swollen feet who had trouble navigating the steep stairs.

After many tears and threats to return to Italy--which we knew was a bluff since she never seemed to enjoy her visits back to Palermo--Josephine conceded to my father and Uncle and moved to New Jersey. After some adjustment that included more tears and threats, she started to enjoy living there. And though she lived alone, she still cooked large pots of tomato sauce and pasta. At holidays my father would say, "Ma, you don't have to cook this year. We have it under control." But there she'd be, with her tray of stuffed artichokes (which my father has a hard time refusing) and breaded cutlets. Women of my mother's and my generations could go to Wegman's and buy a couple of party platters. But my grandmother has a NEED to cook. It goes even beyond love to necessity. This is her job. Without it she'd be lost.

My father is out of work right now, but you wouldn't know it. A construction project manager, he has switched gears out of necessity--from the construction site to the home front. Every day he has a mission, a vision of the next improvement he wants to make. He's taken up landscaping (he might take issue with the word "gardening.") The last time I visited my parents' house I was shocked at how organized he had made the garage. It was like the "After" portion of a show on HGTV. Every tool had its own hook. Bicycles and bicycle parts had their own corner. My mother's craft materials were arranged inside a work table on rollers. If I didn't live five hours away, I would have hired him on the spot to organize our place!

Mike says that if he were retired now he'd be doing the same thing as my dad--focusing on projects that would enhance both our lives. Perhaps he doesn't feel as passionate about his vocation as I do about book publishing. To me, my career is essential to my well-being. No matter what else is going on in my personal life, I always want to do good work. I know that tying your identity to your job title can be dangerous. I find it hard not to.

Feeling useful, productive, effective at something--more and more I equate that with happiness and longevity. Even my weekly visits with Linda are satisfying for this reason. Last night when Linda said to me, "You don't know how much I look forward to Monday nights when you come to visit" I felt myself tearing up. In some small way my efforts mattered. And so can everyone's if they dedicate themselves to something meaningful to them--be it grand or mundane--and stick with it.

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