Making A Living Versus Making, A Life

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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.