April 26, 2014

What Do You Do For A Living?

I went to the opera this weekend. I saw “Dead Man Walking”, the story of a nun’s relationship with a death row inmate. While it may sound like gloom and doom, it’s actually a tale of love, forgiveness, and redemption. As a writer, I’m always interested in words…and the words in this story cut to the gut faster than any double-edged knife. Put to music and sung with the mastery of virtuosos, I found myself transcended. Lifted high into hope and glory. Hurled into black tar pits of despair. Dwarfed by the enormity of what it means to be human. And like any genius performance, the opera’s themes are invading my thoughts long after leaving the concert hall.

I’m a clinical psychologist. That’s what I tell people when they ask what I do for a living. I’m also a novelist; a spinner of tales murderous and twisted. Some of us are plumbers. Others are teachers or web designers or retail clerks. I know a man who earns his wages shoeing horses. I always smile when I see him, happy there’s enough work to keep him busy. I don’t smile knowing there’s enough work to keep thousands of child protective agents hopping, but there you have it. Most of us have a pat response when someone asks how we earn our keep. But is telling someone our job title the best way to answer that question?

What do you do for a living? The verb there is “do”. The object is “living”. Do…Living…Do…Living. Seeing patients is how I earn my money. Don’t get me wrong. I am blessed with meaningful work and I perform it alongside wonderfully gifted colleagues. I am grateful for the opportunity.  But is that what I do for my living?

Like everyone, I suppose, I’ll wake up briefly while I’m sleeping. I often discover that my and my husband’s hands have somehow found themselves in our slumber and our fingers are intertwined. I drift back to sleep, but I note the luscious moment of tenderness and am grateful that his hand is there. That’s what I do for my living. Most Wednesday afternoons I scoot out of work early and head to a local café to meet a group of women who are as dear as breath to me. We share the victories and challenges of the past week. Our numbers vary, depending upon how life intrudes on our best intentions, but I always know there’s going to be a few of us at “our” table and I always leave refreshed and re-connected. That’s what I do for my living. I’m attending the confirmation of a friend next Sunday. In her middle age she’ll be making that profound commitment to her spiritual journey and I’m honored to have been asked to share the moment. We’ll  have brunch with special ladies afterward and muse on things ranging from the profane to the sacred; all the while noting and rating the food and building yet another memory for the four of us. That’s what I do for my living.

I play with my dogs. I dance to old Motown tunes. I get the itch to buy a new dress when the earth thaws enough to let the daffodils peek out…something bright that I can wear with strappy sandals. I smile when I see it’s my sister or one of my kids calling. I try new recipes and I argue politics. I test my husband’s patience with remodeling ideas and curl up with him to watch that television show we both enjoy. I read. I plan our next vacation, always based around what new adventure might be waiting. I keep my bucket list up-to-date; adding two news things for each experience I cross off. I stand in front of paintings and marvel at the brush strokes and the perspective and the use of light. I go to plays, and concerts. I count the days until University of Wisconsin football and basketball seasons start. I grow misty listening to Christmas carols. That and a thousand other seemingly little things is what I do for my living.

I think of the character in the opera I just saw. What will that dead man walking miss most? My hunch is it won’t be any of the jobs he may have held before he was imprisoned. The same will be true for me. My job is my job…a way to bankroll my life. Wearing plaid and making a pot of chili on that first crisp Saturday in autumn? The feel of fresh sheets and the smell of lilacs? Yeah, I’ll miss those far more than any complex case conceptualization, no matter how successful it might be.

How about you? Tell me, dear reader, what it is that you do for your living.