we are almost always something else outside the day job

Sticker graffiti of an old-style typewriter, out of which emerges a piece of paper on which are typed the words,

Good morning, good morning.  It’s cold cold cold here. I’m in a sweatshirt and scarf and almost ready to turn the space heater on. July 14, and it’s in the 50s. Welcome to sunny California. Today I’m missing those humid midwest summers, sticky and hot, cicadas throbbing in the trees, sweaty glass of iced tea in hand, standing in front of the fan trying to cool off. (Let it get hot here, though, and I’ll start complaining about that…)

Ok, so it’s Friday. I hide the candle behind the computer because it’s too bright for my tired, early morning eyes. During the sun salutation this morning I held the plank for a minute, and it was all I could do not to just lower myself down to the floor, fold my arms under my head, and go back to sleep.

Is today when I could write about the day job?

Fit on the basket, make a new hope, a new home. Nurture what the morning calls, the dancing birds, the playful dose, the thing that wants to dive into nowhere, the thing that says yes. I look around inside for the thing that wants to be free, or wants to be caged, depending on which way you look. I have the heart open, I have the world on a string.  This is the backhand dance.

A little more than a month ago, I signed on as a program coordinator at a small local private college. Taking a day job again means a regular paycheck, sure. It also means structure and focus, means that I have to reschedule my heart.

All day there are things happening that I want to tell you about —  my little day job things, the frustration with the computer, the time in the break room waiting for the tea kettle to heat up when I stand at the window trying to warm up in a little fold of sun, the silence in the halls, the way I can’t quite get a handle yet on how I’m supposed to be in those halls, in those rooms, the small jokes, the small talk, the students, the copiers, the hope.

Yesterday morning, Sophie and I went to the water tank up the hill for a little exercise. She had run down the side of the hill after the ball, and there was a crashing noise in the woods over to the left of me, to the south, up from the creek, up the hill. I looked, thinking maybe it was a deer — I’d been watching over in that direction, examining a spider web, each strand covered in damp so that it stood out against the morning grey, somehow stretching between a eucalyptus trunk and a bush some ten feet away and I was trying to understand how the spider got the anchor webbing all the way over there and back again to finish the main web — and then a big coyote came loping out of the underbrush, out from the creek, from the lower parts of the woods, up from neighbors’ backyards. She was full and tannish, and she didn’t look at me, at least not while I was looking at her, as she ran past me, trying to get gone as soon as possible. I moved away, over toward Sophie, terrified that Sophie was going to catch the scent and take off after this wild friend. But Sophie only cares about the ball, emerged up at the top of the hill with the ball between her teeth, panting, ready to go again. I threw the ball down the hill again, scanning the open area behind the water tank and the tree line, looking for the coyote, for deer, turkeys, skunks, all the wild we’ve ben displacing bit by bit for decades here in the bay area, around the country, around the world — but there were no animals, at least none that I could see. Sophie never indicated that she smelled the coyote, this sisterbrotherfriendanimal, and wore herself out running up and down the hill after the ball, so that she could spend the day sleeping on the bed (on the bed!) just like in that picture by Andrew Wyeth, while I’m off at the day job.

There’s a metaphor in there, about the wild and the tame, about living free with fear or in thrall with security, that could maybe weave in to this discussion I’m having with myself about the artist and her day job.

There are jobs, right, and then there are day jobs. Let me say something here about artists and day jobs, the way we have to pay the bills and we live in a country that expects its art to be free but also doesn’t want its government to support the artists, the creation of the art, a country that tends to think of art as something that children do in kindergarten: construction paper and tubs of paste and colored pipe cleaners and markers that smell like something dangerous. We read all day every day, on the computer, on our tablets and iPhones and desktops — but the folks producing that content don’t want to pay for it, want to pay 10 bucks a blog post or something, if that; they would prefer to get all the writing for free — so much content and no money to support it. So what’s an artist to do? The starving artist is an interesting cultural figure but, in real life, we need food and money for rent.

Many of us don’t make a living from the art we do that brings us life. And because we are survivors, we figure out a way to get the rent and phone bill paid, we figure out a way to cover the car insurance and buy food. We know how to hustle, were living the gig life long before the tech sector made it cool to work without insurance or security. We work as taxi drivers and freelance editors. We work as gardeners, as martial arts teachers, we are the ones in the after school programs with your kids, teaching them to follow to believe in their dreams. We work at clinics and nonprofits. We work telemarketing, we stand on street corners and ask if you have a minute for the environment or gay rights. We pull espressos, we serve you your spaghetti carbonara, we ask you whether there’s anything else we can do for you before we head out for the day. And then we leave, and the veil drops, and we become ourselves again. We remember the story we were working on, or start planning for the gig we’re playing that night, or hustle home to start a  new painting.  We spend a season or two working hard for money, and then we take the rest of the year to concentrate on sculpting or producing a play or building an installation.

The challenge with a day job (at least for me) is remembering who you are. Baristas, waiters, personal assistants, copy editors, summer camp counselors, creative writing teachers — we are more than the jobs that give us a regular paycheck. We are almost always something else outside the day job. We are actors and writers, we are playwrights, we are painters and stand up comedians, we are musicians, we are artists, and we don’t have a grant right now and we can’t get government sponsorship and we are waiting for that big break or we are doing our art in one part of our lives and finding ways to pay the bills in another part of our lives.

One way I remember who I am is this, right here, getting up first thing, even before the first thing, and devoting these hours to this part of me, the writing. By the time I get to the day job today, I’ll have been awake for seven hours. I’ll have put in a full day’s work as a writer before I go in to be a program coordinator. I give my first energy, first thoughts, to the writing.

Later, I’ll get dressed and go into the world. I’ll sit at a computer and be of service to others. I’ll make jokes with coworkers, heat up my lunch in the communal microwave, and try and figure out where that check request got lost. I’ll pick up my paycheck. But I won’t forget who I am.

What are the ways you’ve hustled for money to support your art, your creative self, your healing self? How do you care for your artist when you’re at the day job? How do you make sure that you still have energy to create? 

Be easy with you in this hustle, ok? Thanks for all the creative energy you put out into the world today, on behalf of your own art or for the benefit for others. Thanks for the ways you see the artist-self hiding in others — those commuters on BART, the woman behind the teller’s window at the bank, the young person serving your eggs — and thanks for the ways you let your own artist-self be seen. Thank you, every day, for your words. 

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