It's a question that we ask and get asked a lot. Over the holiday, I was asked a version of this question, "So, what have you been doing while you're not working?" I mumbled a few things about traveling and gardening. I wasn't feeling especially open or reflective. But since then I've been thinking a great deal about just what I have been doing since I've been "out of work."
Along with plenty of time for reflection about what it means to be eager and willing - aching, really - to be working, but not needed in my trained profession, I've been engaged in plenty of work. There are many things I've had the time to do in the past several months that I simply didn't have the time or space for in my life before. When you accept a paid role, your responsibilities narrow to the immediate realm of your influence. It's necessary to focus. In the process, other things get shut out. There were many times while teaching that I felt very deeply a sense of focus and economy of mind. I was often giving myself permission to pay attention to the task at hand, to the small circles in which I could, and was expected to, affect positive change. In many ways this was satisfying. It was also just one way of being "employed."
I've had the opportunity to research, think, plan, and dream about better and more inspired ways of teaching. I've had the opportunity to read books that piled up next to my bed. I've had the opportunity to train for (and learn I'm not currently interested in running) an ultramarathon. I've gotten to explore and and experience beautiful natural areas of northern Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, and southern Indiana, and visit friends in New York. But a large part of what I will call my "free work" (because it's free in a couple of different ways) has been growing the garden in the back yard.
For most of the summer I didn't go anywhere near the produce section of the supermarket or even a farmer's market. I grew all the produce we needed. All summer we had lettuce, green beans, carrots, potatoes, garlic, onions, beets, beet greens, tomatoes, summer squash, hot peppers, bell peppers, basil, cilantro, nasturtium, cucumbers, snap peas, broccoli, eggplant, and a constant supply of fresh cut flowers. I just harvested carrots, spinach, arugula, and onions from the garden today. Last night we had pizza with our own tomato-basil-garlic sauce with a side of green beans from the stash we have frozen. I failed to measure and keep track of the pounds of produce I was able to grow this season, but it has not been inconsequential.
I've always wondered at how we are so busy with paid employment and entertainment that we don't have time for the very basic work of feeding ourselves. I don't mean that as a condemnation, just an observation. We value fame, wealth and excess. We hold these things up and give them our time, attention, and life's energy. The very basic acts of growing and cooking our food aren't granted the same respect or priority. We want our food cheap and fast so we have time for other things. What other things?
I'm still not being paid a living wage for the skills I've acquired and the energy I have to give. But growing our vegetables this summer has certainly been good employment. I've been lucky in that I've chosen a profession that no one goes into to get rich. The greatest rewards of teaching come from daily interactions with students and knowing that you've challenged and inspired as many as you possibly could have. I've also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to think about work in many different ways. The lives we build for ourselves are fragile; the universe seems to be shouting this from every corner. So building a purpose in life isn't just about getting a prestigious job and getting paid well, it's about the many different types of work you cultivate and engage in, the diverse ways in which you employ your life's energy.