Working for the Work Ahead
It’s a simple set of tasks, an annual ritual that signifies the changing of seasons, a reconfiguration of habits, and the compression of our living space back into the modest square footage of our 1880s farmhouse. Still, every fall when we pack away our porch furniture and winterize the wraparound porch, it’s a reluctant exercise that we avoid for as long as possible. Some of the work, like picking up leaves in the front yard, is pleasantly autumnal. I’m alone with my thoughts while raking and vacuuming up the browns, yellows, oranges, and reds that have made our lawn an earthy carpet for the past few weeks.
Together, Jaxon and I hang sheets of plastic over the porch screens and tack in glass window panels (actually a massive supply of cabinet doors he found in Ikea’s as-is section several years ago), a move that closes in our cabin-like summer retreat but drastically reduces the edge from icy northern winds. Our summer porch bed- a cozy full-sized box spring and mattress that somehow holds two adult men, two grown dogs, and an occasional visit by the cat – will be leaned against the shingled inside wall until we bring it inside for use by holiday guests. The cabin, as we call it, will go dormant until springtime.
In eight years of homeownership, we’ve made these rituals into central markers of the passage of time. It’s not as as nostalgic as Thanksgiving (my Super Bowl for cooking the big feast) or Christmas (our lowkey day of dog park visiting, leftovers for lunch, napping, and homemade soup). But, wrapping the porch and putting away the yard furniture represents a ritual of work, anticipating the dark and frozen winter to come while looking forward to the days when we can walk outside in shirtsleeves and drop the top on Jaxon’s convertible. We do our work so that we can repeat the cycle, fulfilling the patterns we’ve established that keep us connected to our home.
We bought the house when I was 30 years old. I’ll turn 40 in a year and a half. At the time, predating the market crash and great recession, I was a nonprofit worker who felt optimistic about advancing in my organization, confident that my ideas were welcomed by its leaders and that I could do “big things” in that setting. Within a couple years, that optimism had faded. In part, it was due to the economic crisis we all faced. I can’t deny, though, that I also experienced heavy doses of organizational politics and cynicism that made me question if I could ever advance beyond entry-level status in that hierarchy. I started work on a Ph.D. to give myself more flexibility down the road, hoping to gain some freedom in choosing my work and my collaborators. As I noted this summer, finishing that work has given me a taste of what that flexibility could mean in the future.
At the present, in this moment in particular, I’m struck by the paradoxical feelings of familiarity (the rituals we always complete with our home and our holidays) and newness. I am no longer a student. I teach part-time and enjoy my adjunct status, but otherwise I take short-term contract work as I choose. The work is paying the bills and giving me the flexibility to research my book. This fall, I put in several weeks of teaching and grant writing, and now I am turning back to my research. There is travel ahead, both in the next week and in the new year. Ahead of me is time to build relationships, ask people about their stories, and listen sympathetically as they share their recollections.
Doesn’t that sound like winter’s work? It kind of does to me. But this, too, shall pass. If all goes well, by next fall I should be deep in my writing, culling the very best of these anecdotes into a narrative for which the outline (the skeletal frame if you will) is only just starting to coalesce. Next November, when Jaxon and I wrap the porch, I will be settled into a different work pattern from now, which already differs from the last few years.
When I was younger, I remember seeing various authors comment that we need to write every day to be successful at the craft. I always wished that could be me. I once had a friend, a seasoned bookseller and old-school journalist, tell me that he liked my writing, but “Every author I know is crazy. You’re not crazy enough.” I sort of get what he meant, and I sort of never will get it, either. I’ve learned, though, to not let anyone else define what my creative process should be. I know this best from my dissertation, when I would spend chunks of time deep in my analysis, set it aside for a week or two, and then come back at it with fresh perspectives. I know that I am always thinking about things, and that when I sit down to write out those thoughts, the product is generally quite good. The fact that I don’t write creatively every day – and certainly I wish I wrote more regularly on this blog – does not mean that the creative process isn’t churning away in my mind.
I have to remind myself of this fact, because I get frustrated thinking that I should be further ahead in my work, with accomplishments stretching beyond what I’ve accumulated and with widespread recognition to accompany it. On this particular project, one interviewee told me early on, “This could make you quite famous.” I paused and thought about it, knowing he could be right. I couldn’t quite get over my discomfort with that reflection, in part because, true to my Midwestern upbringing, I deeply believe that if I do high quality work, then due rewards will come in time. Undoubtedly, there is an incentive to pulling off a great book, of gaining a measure of recognition and comfort that can accompany a creative breakthrough. As I thought about his comment, about my desire to write this book and what it will provide me, I came back to my reasons for getting a Ph.D. – to gain flexibility and freedom; to have my work respected for its depth and clarity; to be able to choose my collaborators in the future and take on projects that interest me, beyond the motivation to obtain a steady paycheck.
We do the work for the sake of future work, for our creativity and viability, and hopefully our vitality when it comes to contributing something of ourselves to humanity’s great ideas. Jaxon and I tend to our beloved old house, wrapping the porch against the stubborn winter winds so that we can do all of the unpacking and touching up and repair work again when the seasons change. In the longer story of my life, my literary activism propelled me into community work instead of publishing. From nonprofits I stepped back into academia, and now I use that background to leverage my current literary research. As with the ritual of sealing in our house and preparing for winter, my work paradoxically feels both different and unchanged, intimately connected to patterns forged over several cycles but focused with anticipation on the potential I have only just glimpsed ahead.