Saturday, January 9, 2010

Meaningful Work

When I last spoke to my Wise Woman, it was my penultimate evening in New York. As we closed the conversation, she said to me, “Send me a letter in a month and a half or so, around the holidays. Let me know how things are going for you.”

I haven't done so yet. I did break down and call her shortly after I arrived in Boston, so she has had news of me, but I haven't gotten it together to write her a coherent account of my post-New York life. Partly that is because I am not entirely sure how things are going: am I adjusting to life in Boston, putting myself out there, building new relationships and finding things to do? Or am I a depressed, directionless couch potato who spends way too much time with my pet lovebird and obsessively Googles my ex?

Perhaps a little of both. In many ways, things are progressing well for me. I signed up for a pottery class, and go to my new yoga studio once or twice a week. I've gone on two dates so far (and have more coming up), and I feel quite satisfied with the amount of attention I've been getting from men recently. I had one interview this past week and have another coming up next week. Occasionally I visit my sister's classroom and do what I can to help her with her own rascally bunch of little heathens. I've reached out to acquaintances who live in Boston to ask if they want to be my friend (not in those words though, cause that would be awkward), and I've poached friends from my sister. I passed two of the four teacher tests in Massachusetts, and last time I checked my bank account I was still in the black.

But still, something is missing. Something very, very important. And that something is not a boyfriend; I've been quite happy in the past without one, and my self-worth is not dependent on the man in my life. It is, however, dependent on my job. Having a job I take pride in is what gives me a sense of purpose in life, a structure to my existence, and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. While I've never exactly taken it lightly, this forced period of unemployment has made me realize just how much I value my career.

I recently read “Not Becoming My Mother” by Ruth Reichl, which is a thoughtful reflection on her mother's life. In her previous books Reichl had portrayed her mother as an oddball, annoyingly high-maintenance, and possibly mentally ill. She used to serve extremely bizarre food when Reichl was a child, like moldy chicken slathered with chocolate sauce and topped with raisins; clearly, Reichl's subsequent career was, at least in part, a reaction to this strange relationship with food (Reichl was the editor of Gourmet until it closed, and used to be a restaurant critic at the New York Times). Now she's taken a look back and realized that her mother, who was born in 1908, lived a frustrated existence that caused her erratic behavior, and that things could have been very different for her if she had been born in a different era. She didn't have an unhappy marriage. On the contrary, her husband was supportive and loving, and encouraged her to work outside the home. However, it was the common belief at the time that the ultimate happiness for a woman was to be a housewife, and her unhappiness stemmed from the fact that she didn't realize until too late that this wasn't the case for her. Toward the end of her life she wrote: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”

The description of Reichl's mother's life brings to mind the women of Mad Men, which I have been quite addicted to of late. It is painful to watch poised, intelligent, Bryn Mawr-educated Betty Draper sit like a beautiful doll at her kitchen table, chain-smoking cigarettes and gossiping pettily about the neighbors while her black maid raises her children. She has so much potential (and so, by the way, does her maid), and yet goes around saying things she clearly doesn't believe, like “Can you imagine being single at our age? How awful!” (In Season 2, when she said that, she was – ahem! - 30.) Like Mim Reichl, Betty's unhappiness manifests itself in mental illness. She has panic attacks, and goes to see a psychiatrist to deal with them; after each session, her husband calls the psychiatrist and is filled in on what happened.

It's not that I think it's impossible for women to be happy who don't work outside the home. I can only speak for myself, and would never presume to know what works for other people. But I am very thankful that we live in a time when it's not only acceptable for women to have careers, it's encouraged, and I look forward eagerly to the moment when my own career will be back on track. Were I to have been born at the same time as Mim Reichl or Betty Draper, I would doubtless have been one of the women described in this advertisement, a quote from Reichl's book: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”

Anyway, I should probably buckle down and write that letter. After all, one can't neglect one's Wise Woman – or at least I can't. It's just not a modality that works for me.

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