I grew up in a world of well-marked borders between work and the rest of life. Work was something my father did in an office downtown, not ever at home. I knew he was an “insurance agent” but I didn’t know, or really care, what that meant. Work was what he did to earn money. That’s all work meant.
When my parents divorced, the Mad Men lifestyle they had modeled for us ended, at least at our house, for good. My mother went back to college and became a teacher, daily demonstrating to her six children how thoroughly work and the rest of life could and did mix when necessary. Her evenings were filled with making dinner, grading papers, paying bills, grading more papers. But still I thought of work as what you did to earn money.
These days, I’m not sure what to think.
I do plenty of work that is important to me for which I don’t get paid. I write these radio commentaries. I create independent documentary films with my husband, Rustin Thompson. This unpaid work gets all mixed in, every day, with our paying work. The borders are porous and the benefits flow both ways. We bring more creative energy to the work we do for our clients—nearly all of them hard-working nonprofits in the Puget Sound area—who in turn inspire us to be creative. Meanwhile, there’s cooking, housework, family time, all going into the daily mix.
Believe me, ours is not a great business model, if you define business in terms of dollars and cents. But it’s a life model that I have come to believe is more natural for us modern humans than Mad Men style separation. For centuries before the industrial revolution, farmers, craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers lived and worked in the same place. Now that we’re post-industrial, many of us have returned to a home-based or borderless working life. (My late brother, an early computer prodigy who designed software from his home office, used to call himself a “software farmer.”)
The dark side of this is the much-bemoaned syndrome of always being chained—either by necessity or choice—to your work via the phone in your pocket. The bright side is when it can all blend together in the best ways.
During the Depression, Robert Frost wrote a poem called “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” about two hungry hobos who showed up in his New England yard just as he was getting ready to split wood—a task he loved and which, he implies in the poem, inspired him creatively. But he knew the tramps needed the work, and he knew he would offer it. “My right might be love but theirs was need,” Frost wrote.
The poem concludes with an ode to the best option of all: when work is done from love and need: “Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/ Is the deed ever really done/For heaven and the future’s sakes.”
As I watch my own young adult children launch their working lives, my hope for them is that they will be able to meet their needs doing work they love. It’s a good goal. But as it has been for us, it might have to be a blend: some work done for love, some for need, some for love and need.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.