Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't Tell Me Where You Work. Tell Me What You Do.

Do you ever lose interest in the big things?

Sometimes weeks go by where big things hold no interest for me. Not just no interest. They hold no meaning. Big things like national news. Like electoral politics. Like national policy on this or that.

I read the news, or listen to the radio and at times it all seems like it's happening on Mars. Disembodied. Floating in the ether. Way up there.

Meanwhile I'm feeling the rocks on my feet. The frozen wind in my face. I ponder that we have no bread, no milk. I think about making bread in the evening rather than buying a loaf for $1.50. I gauge the presence of toilet paper. I wonder if I have enough butter, if the car that acting up that we have that replaced the dead car is suffering a serious problem, why my son has been grumpy. I think about commitments I have made and if and when I'll fulfill them and mentally note the date and try to recall things I said I'd do this week.

Somehow meaning and significance shifts from day to day, week to week. As though meaning is a spirit channeling through random events and objects. It takes a vacation from the large, fleeing from the sounds on the radio and macro-visions of the nation, to personal interactions, to the flavor of something I ate as a child, to small personal accomplishments or failures.


Today a man behind me in line handed me a pen as I searched around for something with which to write a check.

I turned and thanked him and took the pen and turned again to the man and gave him a good look as I thanked him.

I knew him. The man in a hoodie and a stocking cap. A fellow I knew in high school...whom I barely knew in high school. With whom I had barely had more than a two or three sentence conversation. All I knew is that he and his girlfriend had a child before the end of high school and he married her and went to work to help support the child. As I get older, the more admirable that becomes.

"It's you!" I said. And called him by name.

We talked for some time as if catching up on time lost.

The impulse we both had was to talk about our work. Somewhat excusively he said he made a living chopping vegetables, and had for more than a decade. As though somehow it was the defining thing about him.....a person, chopping vegetables 40 or more hours per week to receive the cash he needs to live.

It felt unfortunate to me that the questions "what are you doing" or "what have you been up to..." are so often answered by describing the tasks and people we sell our time to.

I made the usual statement about work being work. And told him I'm trying to write.

He brightened and talked about his band. His band that tours from Detroit, through Ohio and Indiana and around the lower part of Michigan. He told me about experimental jazz he and a friend did in his basement. And recording equipment he used to help friends who also wanted to record.

For a man with such a rich, active creative life...one wonders why the first impulse of self definition is the one where he chops vegetables.

There are so many rich, creative minds all around us. Refilling our bottomless cups of coffee. Asking us "will that be debit or credit"? And too often that's all we see. As though the people around us go home into a box and shut down when the day is over. When they're done doing the job that's too easily dismissed as "menial"......

.....and maybe they're not working themselves to death, two or three jobs. Maybe they're finding more meaning and value, and depth and motivation and self worth in an act of creation. The people too easily dismissed as insignificant because of the tiny, TINY sliver of the life we happen to intersect with.

We've moved ourselves into a position where our financial success is the metric we ourselves use to define success.

I love stumbling across the artists in my community. I love it. I love talking to the cashier and learning that she loves to paint. I love meeting an old friend who, on his own time, challenges his own skill as a musician. I love the dancers...and I'm fascinated by the woman I know who hula-hoops and breaths fire in her spare time. These aren't RICH people. They're not even getting by easily. But they are fulfilled.