The Sum Thing

I love stealing stories. This story is stolen.

old-young-holding-handsWhen he was young, my friend’s brother went to their grandfather and said, “I want the something.”

“What exactly do you want?” the grandfather asked.

“The something,” the boy replied.

“What does it look like?” the grandfather asked.

“You know, the something,” the boy said.

Then, much to his credit, the grandfather asked, “Do you know where it is?”

“In your office,” the boy said.

The old man and the young boy retired to the office where the grandfather held up thing after thing to no avail until he produced the calculator. At this, the boy nodded his head vigorously and held out his hands to receive the sum thing.

I often look for the sum thing in life, the experience or theory or explanation that will make everything add up, that will impart meaning to even the most drib drab days, the most miserable failures, the most painful losses. I don’t think it exists. In fact, I think it’s bad for us, like eating too many Twizzlers, because it keeps us living in future tense rather than present. It puts both hope and contentment (not to be confused with complacency) always just out of reach.

My spirits don’t exactly rise when I acknowledge that nothing waits around the next bend to transform my life into a complete and sensible and beautiful whole. A rather scary alternative presents itself: I create my life, which will likely come out messy and haphazard and undisciplined and wildly inconsistent and may, for all that, still be beautiful.

We don’t need to take on this life creation alone, though. If our lives belong to us, they are ours to share. We have friends, family, and communities to help us. We have grace. When all else fails, we have Ben and Jerry’s. And who knows, if we stop focusing on an unattainable totality, we may discover we like what we’ve made.

Workin’ for a Livin’

“Create a life you actually want for yourself,” poet David Whyte says in his Footsteps: a Writing Life CD set. And I think, “Yes!” Who can disagree with that fabulous Yorkshire accent, much less the sentiment?

“Isn’t there something we can do besides working?” a friend and colleague says. “Yes!” I reply and then spend roughly half my waking hours doing just that.

Work offers definite benefits beyond the simply monetary. Some people practice professions they enjoy. Offices or factories provide forced community, teaching us how to live alongside those we might not invite to dinner. I’ve developed skills at work I may never have discovered otherwise. Couldn’t all that happen outside of work, though? Absolutely.

If you take a look at the vast scope of human history, the majority of the population has spent most of its time growing, killing, and cooking food. And cleaning. I’d much rather write novels than the accreditation reports my work demands, but I’d much rather write accreditation reports than beat dirty clothes against rocks in the river.

As a species, we’ve just begun this diversification of tasks, and perhaps we haven’t chosen as wisely as we could have thus far. Perhaps we’re going through a stage, like adolescence, but tell a teenager she’s miserable because she’s a teenager and see how much comfort you’ve conveyed.

So how does one persist in work that is tolerable but not that which one actually wants for oneself? If you have a fabulous answer, please leave it in the comments below.

I try the following, which sometimes help and sometimes don’t: vacation; gratitude for not having the myriad of jobs I don’t have, like bus driver or president; lots of potlucks; sunshine breaks; gratitude for the things work has given me, such as a car, a house, friends, perspective.

And as often as possible, I remember a time when I was sticking small labels on tabs, a task whose eventual obsolescence no one will mourn. One moment life consisted of a mindless routine, and the next I felt I was in exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing. I didn’t even mind that the right thing was affixing small pieces of gummy, flexible plastic.

I’ve never felt that way again, but I choose to think it’s always true. That doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray my job description will read well-paid novelist before the next accreditation report rolls around, but it opens up the possibility that this work we sometimes resist and often don’t understand can place us, against all our expectations, where we need to be.