(Travel is X) Work is Y
Lynne talks often about the miracle of her junior high and high school on Long Island. Better by far than university would ever be. She speaks with nearly episcopal reverence of her English, French, history and Spanish teachers. Why? Because they were wise, tousled, voluminous people who embodied something so much wider than their subject. With Spanish came the élan, humor and urbane generosity of her teacher, who lived in Greenwich Village, comported himself like a 19th century dandy, and rode the train to Lynne’s town each day. His beguiling sophistication and kindness touched down like lightning in her parochial world. I worked so hard at Spanish. At everything.
In particular, though, Spanish was a crossing, what Vanessa Bell called “a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for myself.” From that adolescent encouragement rose her life work.
From ‘work of fiction’ to ‘doing the Lord’s work’, to ‘my life’s work’, to the derogatory ‘piece of work’, the word crops up so often in our idioms you wonder if it has a core connotation. For most, it signifies a job, a career, though that notion is almost obsolete now. Even my students acknowledge that the work they are training for will likely no longer exist in ten years. Everyone’s anxious, everyone’s scratching their noggin. I prefer to think of work as something quite different than that, as less contingent on circumstance or status, but rather as an instinct that gears our being, like some toothed, ancient wheel, toward its best and most mysterious destiny.
Since adolescence, I have garnered a sort of imaginary archive of wonderful lives, of people who I grudgingly or openly adored, who knocked my socks off. What did they do, believe, how did they achieve their particular grace, intelligence and charisma (idiosyncratic as it usually was)? What work did they do? Was it work at all, that dark, tawdry, dream cathedral they were building with its sacrilegious windows.
Here love and work come so close together.
How often have Lynne and I sat with a student who had fallen in love with literature, film-making, theology, and who said, I know that this is what I want to do, but my peers just laugh, my parents say no. The brave ones said no to their parents, but many who did not would later concede that their opulent cars and high life never filled the gap of the work they once knew that they really wanted to do.
You see this over and over again in myth: work worth doing exacts courage. Certainly we encouraged our students, but the actual courage, with no prefix attached, had to come from them.
While Lynne was at college, I was working in a mine in Ontario. But even before that I had loved making as a way of working, of feeling, of dreaming. I cut and pasted things long before it was a digital idiom. I prefer a fairly frugal life. I want my fingertips to touch, and by touching, think each pulse and texture, to interpose as little as possible between finger and felt–a kind of rudimentary, Mennonite erotics.
I would finally say this about work and its slow grinding toward expertise–it is as long as a life. Few things are. Not that you’ll do the same thing, but your work will thread them together into one eventual apotheosis. I often took courses from professors nearing retirement. Grumpy old bastards though they typically were, they knew preposterous secrets.
Equally, I loved a welder friend who at eighty was so stricken with arthritis he could hardly pick up the steel, yet possessed such mysterious love that the steel seemed to lift and bend at his whispered bidding.