Stuff People Ask Me, Part III

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People frequently ask me how many hours a week I work. I’ve never known how to answer this, partly because I haven’t clocked in since I worked retail as a teenager, but also because I don’t know what constitutes work. If I’m reading a book I will assuredly use in the classroom, is that work? When I consume media (whether it’s watching John Oliver or going on a date to a documentary film screening), and vigorously take notes throughout, is that work, or leisure? When I interact on social media to promote activities or causes connected to people I support in my career, is that business or pleasure?

Have I ever attended an event without engaging in analysis? I suspect if you ask anyone who accompanies me to functions, they will categorically say no. Annoying as this must be, I continue to have companions who are eager to attend events with me. Whether I get on a plane paid for by my employer, a companion, or myself, have I ever travelled anywhere without a notebook and pen? Have I ever travelled, for any reason, without directly using the experience in my professional work?

When I go to museums, I look for the docents. At National Parks, I may hike and camp, but I also read the historical sign posts, peruse the exhibits, listen to the scheduled ranger talks. And take notes. Lots and lots of notes.

I host film festivals at my place of employment, and spend months in preparation watching independent films. I host music festivals and listen to local bands. I advise media and literary journals, reading alternative points of view and engaging in extended conversations with artists and thinkers who expand my world view.

When people talk about work/life balance, it seems like a false binary. Do they mean paid work? Raising my children was more difficult and time-consuming than earning tenure. Was that work? Whenever I have papers to grade, I feel compelled to clean and organize the house, but I’d far rather be designing a syllabus or course lecture. Which is work? Which is leisure? When I pay to train for yoga versus getting paid to teach yoga, is it more or less work, depending on which I prefer? Which I find more healing? More relaxing?

When people say I work too much, I have no idea what they mean. They say things like we’re human beings, not human doings. I flinch at the oversimplification of that statement. Doing is how I show love—to others, and to myself.  People say I should learn to relax and just be.

Just be what?

I know that most Americans enjoy watching sports, in person or on television, that people organize their social time around various forms of spectatorship. I know it’s not socially acceptable to say this, but I would rather be working. Noam Chomsky says our extreme glorification of sports encourages an irrational submission to power. I have no interest in cutting back on work to spend my newly created leisure time watching sports.

Maybe I have a rational aversion to power.

In any case, I feel fortunate to work in a profession that honors shared governance, that strives toward a horizontal leadership structure that doesn’t rely on dominance. I’m grateful there isn’t a line between my passion and my vocation, that my deepest emotional relationships are also collegial, that the dualism of what I love and what I get paid for collapsed for me decades ago.

On my arm, I have inked portions of Rumi poems. Wherever you are and whatever you do, be in love. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.


Michelle Dowd