We just celebrated Labor Day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to work.
Claudia Shear’s play, Blown Sideways Through Life, is a one person autobiographical tour through the litany of the sixty-six jobs she held up to that point in her life. It was an Off-Broadway hit in the early 90’s. I saw Ms. Shear perform the play at the Cherry Lane Theatre. I was so enamored of the piece and the performance that I went out and purchased the script.
Whenever I read it, (which I do periodically) I never fail to be moved. I am especially moved in the last few pages when Ms. Shear skillfully brings together the main ideas of her play. In particular the paragraph that reads:
The fact is that nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter, just a prostitute. That everyone has a story. Everyone has at least one story that will stop your heart.
(I think of this whenever a teaching artist is leading a memoir program and reports back that some participants feel like their lives don’t contain any interesting stories. By the end of the workshop they always feel differently.)
I don’t know why I’m so affected by this play and more specifically this passage. I can’t help but think that it’s a declaration of the humanity of all people. The feeling I get reading this is that I’m part of a club with no requirements to belong, except that I have a variation of the same struggle almost every one of us has on a daily basis.
In a no-nonsense way, Shear gets us to be more conscious and thoughtful:
You talk to the people who serve you the food the same way you talk to the people you eat the food with. You talk to people who work for you the same way you talk to the people you work for. It’s a one-size fits all proposition.
Remembering that no one is simply their job function, reminds us that there is a full life going on – with a person you only have contact with because she/he delivers your mail. Maybe the mail carrier has no interest in talking to you, but this person is in your life every day. And who knows – you might enrich each other’s lives beyond handing them your cable bill payment.
I’ve witnessed conversations recently on social media on the appropriateness of asking and answering the question, “So what do you do?” Many people just accept this as a social convention. The answer may, in fact be fascinating, leading to a stimulating conversation, but it can also be reductive, as none of us is solely our jobs and in many cases the “job” is what one does to earn a living and may not be a person’s passion which is usually more interesting, and if not, the telling probably is.
If I find that I’m thrown together with someone – and there’s not an obvious frame of reference that we share – I’ve taken to ask, “How do you spend your time when you’re not (wherever we are at the moment)?” Usually people tell you about their jobs, but occasionally it opens the door for some to talk about their passions.
I always dread the question, “What do you do?” For the majority of my professional life, I’ve worked at jobs that needed to be explained to people. Everyone knows what you mean when you say, “I’m a teacher.” or, “I’m a real estate agent.” The esoteric nature of my work makes it hard to explain to anyone not connected to the non-profit arts community. (This also quashes my fantasy of appearing on Jeopardy. When Alex asks me “So Ed. what is a non-profit arts administrator working in the field of Creative Aging?” By the time I finished explaining it the show would be over.) I’m almost looking forward to the time when I can say in response to “what do you do?” with, “I’m retired.”
But I probably won’t say that.
Ms. Shear could probably add to her list… Nobody is just retired.
Artwork by Lisa Curran