Making A Living Versus Making, A Life

old main

One of my beloved schools–Penn State

It’s late August and I really should be back at school . . .

That’s what my subconscious tells me. In my conscious brain, I know I’m not starting classes next week, that I am done with that and quite pleased to be, and, yet, old habits die hard.

“Being in school” is one of two themes that have dominated my life.

For 50 of my nearly 60 years, I went back to school every autumn.

From age 5 to age 33, I was a student. Grade school, junior high, high school, undergraduate school, grad school and more grad school. I made grad school last longer than most!

And then I started a career . . . at school. For 22 years I was a college professor and administrator. I taught things like public speaking and rhetorical criticism and critical thinking skills. I was associate dean for a few years.

To this day, I believe that there is no better way to make a living than being a college professor. You get to deal with ideas in a field that fascinates you. I never failed to get a thrill from the notion that, in my classroom, we were discussing the same ideas and principles that Aristotle discussed with his students 2500 years ago. Tingle!

As a college prof, you also get to work with young adults who force you to stay younger than you might otherwise feel. They teach you that the smartest, kindest person might live within the pierced and tattooed body, under the brightest dyed hair. They teach you that no matter how clear, articulate, and brilliant you think you are, you’re confusing someone.

They also teach you that no one, ever, reads the syllabus.

And, of course, being a teacher provides that other benefit, the one the rest of the world envies.

Summers Off.

And, yes, summers off are everything they’re cracked up to be, even though they get taken up, in part, with research and course prep.

Being a college teacher offered just the right blend of freedom and constraints, autonomy and interdependence for me.

Being in school for my life, making a living there, was one theme in my life that gave me the time and opportunity to indulge in the other theme of my life—making, creating, crafting, whatever we call it.

All along the way, while I was happily making a living in the so-called “life of the mind,” I was still yearning for the life of the hands.

Even in grad school, I can remember venting to my doctoral advisor about the frustrations of academic research—I just wanted to see what I’d done with my time, put my hands on a product I made.

And my research, even when published, never felt like a product.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a kick out of seeing my book and articles cited by other authors and I do indulge in a vanity search on Google occasionally. But I can say, honestly and truly, that I am happier with, and more proud of, my quilts and candies and handwovens than I am my published research.

And that explains why, after all those years in school, I retired the moment I was eligible to. I can now turn my focus, almost entirely, to making things and having evidence of progress, if not a full product, in my hands every day.

Making a living was important and satisfying and fulfilling.

Now I choose making, a life.

Buying New or Making Do?

fabric and threadIt’s time to start a new project!

How will you approach it? Will you buy new or make do?

Will you shop for the love of shopping and stockpile fabrics, yarns, beads, foodstuffs on speculation? Will you choose a project, and then go looking in the stores for the perfect materials? Will you look at what you have on hand and plan a project from there?

And, if you choose the latter, will you feel you’ve settled for less?

As a maker, I’m faced with these kinds of decisions all the time and, honestly, my first instinct is to go to the fabric shop or the craft supplies website and shop.

I’m trying to consciously re-evaluate that impulse. When I wrote a post recently about why do we do the things we do, I got thinking about all this and about what motivates me to make. Two of the things I mentioned were that I liked to solve problems and I liked the idea of connecting with people who came before me.

What I didn’t say, but a commenter did and I realized it applies to me, too, is that making things is a way to step outside my reliance on “store bought” and to make do with what I have and what I can make.

Our consumer culture has taught us to buy, not just finished products, but also lots of pretty materials with which to make things. We buy fabrics and craft supplies the same way we buy electronics and clothes and home décor items. We choose new and plentiful over that which we already own.

Sometimes we don’t bother to choose at all; we buy it all.

But, you see, I’ve always been disdainful of this consumer culture. Or at least I talk that talk.

When you get me talking, I’ll say that one of the things I admire most about vintage handmade items is the evidence of “making do” that resides in the pieces. I love old quilts that are imperfect because the maker used scraps or obviously ran out of fabric and substituted another one instead of buying more.

I love reading an old recipe, with notes in the margins about substituting ingredients.

I love the idea of dividing and otherwise propagating new plants from the ones I already have, to fill in the bare patches is the gardens.

Making do leaves its own marks of loving hands—I look for those marks and they make me smile.

My love of these things reminds me that, when I myself am gathering materials for a project, I should look around at what I have to work with. I should more consciously walk the walk of making do.

This isn’t easy for me. I realize that, to some extent, I’ve unlearned the ability to make do, or perhaps I’ve never really learned it to begin with. And I also think that, in our minds, “making do” equates with “settling for less.”

I wanted to make do with my last weaving project. I wanted to make dishtowels and I wanted to use material I had on hand, from the stash of yarn we got when we bought the secondhand loom.

If I had bought new yarn, the packaging would’ve told me how many threads to use per inch, based on the weight of the fiber. But I used what I had, made a guess about how many threads, and ended up with pretty striped fabric that more closely resembles mosquito netting than dishtowel. I felt like I had settled for less.

Disappointed, I immediately decided I would buy new, “right” yarn, and re-do the project. But wait! Maybe I should use what I still have on hand and figure out how to make do and make better! To do so would give me the chance to a) solve problems, b) connect with people who came before me and who had to make do, and c) step out of the cycle of buying more.

Hey! Those are the things I claimed motivate me to do the things I do! Walk the walk, girlfriend, walk the walk.

I could learn a lot from my foremothers, whose choices were constrained by practical considerations. They often made their choices from what they had on hand and re-used scraps of old fabric or used ingredients available on the farm to decide what recipe to make. They used highly developed problem-solving skills to substitute and piece together and adapt materials and still create beauty.

They still had choices aplenty but different kinds of choice. They made do, out of both necessity and temperament.

But I’m no purist on this subject. In an age where we have so much available to us, the choice between making do and buying new doesn’t have to be absolute.

Sometimes, buying new makes total sense. If, as makers, we are motivated to make purely for expressive and creative reasons, then buying the exact right materials is probably necessary.

When I made the “Cot to Coffin” quilt recently for a War of 1812 bicentennial, the constraints were so specific that it made sense to buy new.

In so many cases, though, for those of us who look to build on a tradition and to get in touch with history and rely less on store bought, why not re-evaluate our impulse to go shopping?

So, for my next quilting project? How about if, instead of starting a new top with new materials, I finish one of the dozen vintage quilt tops I have in the cupboard? Or use up some of the myriad of leftovers pieces of fabric from the quilt I finished last year?

How about I weave with what we have on hand, and just think harder during the planning stage?

What if I “shopped” my pantry before deciding what to bake?

I’m saying all of this out loud not to judge or promise or set anything into stone. I’m only seeking to remind myself, imprint in my own thoughts, the value I see in making do so, when I’m tempted to buy a lot of stuff, I might think twice.

Because making do might mean settling for more.