I am at a professional conference, which means I’m a Real Grown Up now. Real Grown Ups travel for non-fun reasons and stay in giant hotel complexes with many ballrooms where no one ever dances. What makes this a Real Grown Up experience is the necessity of doing daily work in addition to sitting in the ballrooms with a plastic lanyard and a great many business cards.
None of this is bad. My daily work is writing. It’s all I have wanted to do for a living since I was fourteen. If you had told fourteen-year-old Mary Beth that one day she would receive actual American dollars in exchange for writing about Luke Skywalker and baseball– and doing so outside of the horrifying confines of an employee break room– perhaps she would have required less medication.
I write thousands of words a week. Some are even coherent. It is what I was educated to do for nearly a decade. It is the most efficient and useful application of my talents, training, and personality. Professionally speaking, I am good for little else. I would be miserable if this were not my career. I know this because I have, in fact, endured too-long moments when it was not, in fact, my career. I did what everybody told me to do when I was a little girl, which was to remember that little girls can do anything. Sitcoms, locker signs, and Sweet Valley High books constantly counseled me to follow my passion. So I did. I do.
It’s work. It’s constant. There is no vacation, even when on vacation. Friday night is Tuesday afternoon is Monday dinner. The deadlines roll, one week to the next, with no health care is sight. It is never done, and not nearly enough begun. I’m typing this at a 7:30 in the evening at a lunch table designed for people to not sit at too long; five yards to my right children swish fake mining pans through a fake creek, and it’s not even the weirdest place I’ve called an office. The WiFi is a trickle, so I have to do this the old fashioned way and type it all into a word processing document. And it’s great. And it’s exhausting.
And sometimes, after the Baby Yoda essay is done and the student discussion forums are graded and the client’s SEO blog post is filed, I must lower my head and consciously remind myself of the fourth grader who dragged a blank notebook everywhere she went, everywhere, because it was such fun to make up stories and even necessary to swim around in the thoughts I’d otherwise drown in.
That little girl still needs to leap into the word-ocean to burn off the jagged surges of fixation-driven energy that occasionally churns from somewhere between the solar plexus and the soul. But she also has a car payment, and so it’s butt in seat, staring at the student essay after SEO blog post after student forum.
What you’re reading, right here, is the first enjoyable writing I’ve done in about a month; even though there are few better gigs than typing up a bunch of thoughts about baseball, sometimes I just don’t want to type up a bunch of thoughts about baseball. And so even the most unstoppable burn-off dives into the keyboard can become like the SEO and the student essays instead of the innards of the blank notebook.
Because I have made my passion my job. That means it can no longer rush through the landscape of my life like a lava flow. I have to direct it. I have to control it. I have to be a Real Grown Up about the thing.
“It becomes a grind,” a former Ohio State Drum Major told me once as we sat side by side on the Columbus ground, talking about dedicating most a childhood to spinning a silver stick. I raised my eyebrows and glanced over at Ohio Stadium, where, about eight times a year, the person in his position is the sole focal point of a hundred thousand very excited people.
“The games and the performing part aren’t,” he clarified. “But then there’s squad leader meetings, and constant practice, and band rehearsal, and training sessions, and that becomes a grind. And a job.” The job involved knowing what you wanted to do at the age of 21 by the age of 9.
And, sometimes long before childhood is even done, baseball becomes a grind. And a job.
You think this fourth inning in which the score is already 11 Them-0 Us is a struggle to sit through in the cold April mist and the high of 44 degrees– imagine being in the bullpen, or still hovering around second, paying attention, waiting for a potential cutoff throw, because even if there are a grand total of five people in the stands, five million will see the footage of it right quick if you screw this one throw or anything else up.
We can Clete out. Baseball players have to play baseball.
That is why, although I have often solemnly reminded myself that “These men are paid millions of dollars and given the best possible health care on the planet for playing a children’s game,” I must also remind myself that even astronauts resign to be aerospace consultants and movie stars fade from the makeup chair when the makeup can’t can’t overcome time anymore. The best job in the world is still a job.
Do you know how muscle building works? As I understand it, when you lift weights, you make tiny little micro-tears in the fiber of the muscle. The body rushes to repair the damage. So you’re stronger. So you tear it again. And so on. That’s a bit like making a living from a passion: It’s constant tearing. But as long as you keep forcing yourself to strain against gravity, you become stronger.
I imagine this is a benefit of weightlifting for professional athletes beyond the physical benefits. They have to show up. They have to show up. Batting practise and shoulder exercises and power squats, on and on and on. Otherwise, any strength gathered from the constant, endless barrage of damage will fade. And then the job simply becomes to watch yourself weaken.
I think the unending fight to overcome gravity is preferable.
Now, my friends, you tell me about your lava. Did you follow your passion? Are you glad you did or didn’t?
We don’t have 4.8 million dollars a year to comfort us if we made the wrong choice.