You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know whatwork is, although you may not do it.x
So many of my recent promises begin with, “When I finish my college recommendations….” Writing for my students is one of my most important tasks, a debt I owe for their receptivity, diligence, and learning. I want to communicate their talent and potential so I can give them the best boost I can. That said, I don’t exactly enjoy writing recs in the way I do most writing—the pleasure arises exclusively from completing the work to my satisfaction. They’re hard. They drain my reservoir of will for other writing.
The problem, I’ve been told, is mine, regarding some writing as work and some as play. It should all be play, people urge.
Mark Twain said, “’Work’ and ‘play’ are words used to describe the same thing under different conditions,” and of course that’s so. But now that my recommendations are finished, another season’s worth, the labor feels like a series of delirious births, neither work nor play but a necessity survived.
The difference between play and work, a mentor once told me, is wanting to continue the former and looking for the end of the latter. I’m not sure how this definition was supposed to aid me—it’s been impossible to get out of my head ever since—but he described my sense of life perfectly. Some jobs are finite and you want them to be. Others stretch beyond their borders and, though you know they must have limits, you never mind their sprawl. I enjoy preparing for class and would gladly spend two or three hours for a 50 minute period, but almost any grading feels onerous. I can fret the layout of a handout longer than I spend writing the handout in the first place. I get it.
But people who say they don’t distinguish between work and play fill me with wonder, envy, and disgust. They mean to say they enjoy their work and everything they do is playful. They mean to express their mind-over-matter dominance. If I ever say work and play are synonymous, however, you can assume I mean everything is work, a vast creeping fog from which there is no escape, a Macbethian nightmare promising no light to come.
I’m being a little dramatic, but you may know what I mean. The threshold of work can be matchbox height. Life is work, and work is life. And, at times, I’m not sure what not-working is, whether not-working is allowed at all.
One of my first jobs was at a swimming pool, and on Mondays, when it was closed, I went into work and backwashed the pumps and vacuumed the pool. Standing on the edge like a musing gondolier, I pushed the vacuum pole hand over hand along the bottom, watching the device through the distortion of water, sun, and current. Who knows if I was accomplishing anything at all—perhaps I only stirred up silt—but I enjoyed the simple motion of it, the unhurried solitude and peace of doing something so simple and satisfying.
Meeting that standard seems challenging now. Though nearly every part of teaching is quite familiar to me, it still requires brainpower, care, and attention. There’s little time for musing, now a euphemism for wasting time.
When I uploaded the last of my recommendations, I felt a small surge of pride. The mission stood before me, and I bettered it. I did not, however, mistake my duty for pleasure, though I wish I could.
“There is work that is work and there is play that is play; there is play that is work and work that is play,” Gelett Burgess said, “and in only one of these lies happiness.” After all these years, maybe I don’t yet understand. Happy work proves ever elusive still.