On “work” versus work, and on letting your subconscious do its job

We’ve been running around Seattle for the past few days, but today we are having a much-needed day in.* The heat wave seems to have passed, and today it feels right to sit indoors with the windows open to the mist, and eat local bread and drink the coconut pouchong I bought from a tea shop at Pike Place Market.


This is our first trip since we re-settled ourselves four months ago.** After two years of travel, it feels very natural to be in yet another city I’ve never visited before, but there is also the new (old) experience of having a place waiting for us at home. Our friend Jenny has been minding Lyapa in our absence, and it felt good to prepare the apartment to welcome her, anticipating giving and receiving hospitality in the same week. I’ve realized that a central piece of what I’m about is making space for people: to feel comfortable, to feel cared-for, to feel safe enough to bloom. And naturally I gravitate toward others who do the same for me.

I was thinking I would do tons of sketches in Seattle, but I forgot that it takes time to know what I’m seeing. Everything here reminds me of someplace else. There are hills covered in houses, as in San Francisco; the evergreens grow thick and ubiquitous, as in far northern California; the bridges and water remind me of Portland (OR); the combination of old and new architecture makes me think of Toronto or New York. And yet taken all together, the landscape feels entirely unfamiliar, which of course, to me, it is.





(This last one isn’t Seattle, but Whidbey Island, about 30 miles north.)


I took all these photos of markets and beaches, and several selfies with public artworks, and I thought those would be my Seattle post, but I’m finding my mind occupied elsewhere.

Have you ever noticed that quite often, when you think you’re done mulling something over, your subconscious has different ideas? I don’t mean in the sense of unproductive, circular obsession, as might happen with a lover or a negative comment that you just can’t shake. It’s more of an invisible undercurrent of frantic activity, as with the microorganisms involved in composting. On the surface, it looks like you’ve finished with that thought you had, but meanwhile your subconscious is sitting up in fierce concentration, going, “Hey! This is a big deal. You go on and do your thing if you want, but I’m going to be over here working on this. And don’t ask me to do anything else until I’m finished, ‘cos this is important.” You might not even know your subconscious is that busy until you find yourself having trouble sleeping, or latching onto seemingly random interactions, or seeking follow-up on things you thought were finished. Or you say yes to things and don’t know why, or suddenly get really interested in something you dismissed the week before. This isn’t random. This is the subconscious doing research, gathering evidence, sending out feelers, tabulating, mapping. When I recognize this process for what it is, it’s extremely exciting; it means something significant is coming.

In this case, I’ve been thinking a lot about my work — not in the casual, perfectionist, fretful way that I think about it all the time, but deeper and more fundamentally. There is “work,” that thing you do all day (and fret over on a regular basis), and then there is work, that thing that you feel called upon to do, otherwise your life is wasted. The former is an action and is transferable, but the latter is foundational to who you are; it underlies everything you do, regardless of what “work” looks like. Consider what I said earlier about making space for people. That essential component of my work never changes, regardless of whether “work” means running an adult literacy center, teaching undergrads, writing, or having a lot of friends over to our house. One can “work” without having a clue as to the deeper work. But if you know what your real work is, you can do anything; you can “work” a job you hate, if your true work is taking care of your family.

I’ve said many times on this blog (and in person) that I hate answering the question of what I do, because I do so many things. I’m realizing now that this is a “work”-versus-work question, and if I have my work figured out, I needn’t worry if “work” is nebulous. I mentioned a couple of months ago that I like my onetime instructor Jaime Cortez’s breakdown of his interdisciplinary pursuits into five main themes. I wanted to do this, too, but I wasn’t sure what my themes were, and this is (or is at least partly) what my subconscious has been working on these past couple of weeks. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. People. My work always involves people in some way: bringing them together, making space for them, recognizing them, celebrating them, honoring them. I respect the artists and activists whose work is more openly challenging or confrontational, but that’s not my style of interaction.
  2. Mono no aware. When I learned of this term from Jaime’s theme list, I was so excited. It is a gentle sadness for the temporariness of all things. This is really, really important to me; it’s an essential part of why I do anything — because everything will soon be lost, and I think people/things/we should be seen before that happens.
  3. The deeply personal. This can be seen as a combination of #1 and 2. It’s a profound cherishing of the uniqueness of the individual (myself, and others).
  4. Detailed exploration. Often, I’d rather get to know one tree than the entire forest, because while the forest is vast and therefore largely unknowable, one tree is not only accessible, but contains worlds.

In listing my themes, I’m struck by how interrelated they are. I don’t know that this is the definitive list — maybe at some later date I will combine or add — but it builds on my 2012 artist statement and comes from the stronger place of having created more work in the interim years.

Of course, making this list doesn’t do anything in itself, but it does give me some guidance in planning next projects. I’ve got a lot of those coming up I hope, since I recently decided to try to get more work published/seen/shared. I’m finding it useful and reassuring in this process to remind myself of what I do well and what I care most about; this performs the vital task of keeping me focused on my own work, instead of sidetracked and depressed by other people’s successes!

Here’s to finding our own anchors — and our own wings.



*There’s nothing like a little bout of food poisoning to induce downtime. Not me, for once; Erik. And that is all I will say on the subject (although there is plenty more that could be vividly, unappetizingly, said).

**Oh, and apparently two years of travel has finally taught me how to pack light. I fit everything for our five days’ trip underneath the (airplane) seat in front of me. A small triumph.


9 responses to “On “work” versus work, and on letting your subconscious do its job

  1. I love that last picture of you framed by the driftwood. I like the idea of the subconscious saying “this is a big deal” I’ve been having a couple of such days.

    • Good grief, I am behind on responding to comments! I think our subconsciouses usually know what’s going on. I’m trying to learn to listen. Same with my body… my body knows all kinds of things my brain just refuses to accept. ;b

  2. Very interesting in so many ways. I love seeing your travel pics, and reading your thoughts on your work, and reflective lists. I used to hate people asking me what I do too. There is a large age gap between Fi and I and it’s her work that keeps us afloat. So, when asked by her colleagues or acquaintances what I “do” (because I am not always gainfully employed anymore) I reply, “Me ? I keep the show on the road.” That seems to appease my questioners with a smile. They get what that means. They would fall asleep at the detail. Maybe you culd try … ” I observe the world and give feedback.” That’s pretty broad. 🙂

    • 🙂 These days (and whew, I’ve let a lot of time go by without replying — I’m sorry about that!) I’ve been learning to describe what I do as a set of themes, rather than a series of projects, or a single pursuit. It’s still awkward, but it gives me a framework for thinking about my life as having certain unifying goals and not just “me doing whatever the hell I want.” 😉

      Glad you like the kitchen sketch! Kitchens are so rich with detail. I have plans for kitchen art projects 🙂

  3. Hi Lisa!
    I first read this over the weekend, and found that I had to let it marinate in my brain a little before absorbing it.
    Your post is interesting to me on many levels, not only because of how it relates to a creative lifestyle, but because in the 9-5 world, I’m a career counselor, so I do a LOT of thinking about people and their “work”….and their work. The kind of thinking/writing/exploring you are doing is something I try and get my students to do (so the career counselor in me says, “good job!”).
    In terms of my own journey – discovering/working with/helping people has always been so important to me. However, one result of having this value lead to me never choosing creative careers, because I knew I couldn’t handle a solitary lifestyle, and I imagined a life as an artist or writer would have to be solitary. I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine not interacting with at least a few people during the day, despite identifying as an introvert.
    It simply never occurred to me until recently that I could be creative AND interact with people. I can write, draw, paint, etc., and still have a job where I listen to people’s stories and help them. I was so caught up in having to be a writer OR an artist OR a teacher/counselor/advisor (etc). I never thought I could do and be all of those things, and that really, I already AM all of those things. It has been very freeing to realize this – that my “work” can be part of my work.
    Regarding your list – to me, it sounds like you experience and express joy, passion, and love for the universe. And, I am refreshed and encouraged by your commitment to focus on this rather than compare yourself to others. I am making the same commitment, and finding it so freeing!
    Keep it up, you are doing some amazing things!!!

    • Hi Erin! Thank you so much for your thoughtful and encouraging comment; I’m sorry I’ve been so behind on replies!

      Ooh, career counseling, that is interesting. I’ve always thought that position would provide insight into people’s thoughts and choices. I had a really good experience with a career counselor at UCLA when I realized my grad school trajectory wasn’t making me happy. I think I’m still building on the foundation of self-understanding she helped me set up!

      I think I’ve been slowly coming to similar conclusions as you, when it comes to the two “works” and what they mean as far as human contact. In the past few months I’ve made a much stronger effort to see people and create community, and that has made me so much more productive creatively, as well as permanently squashing my anxieties about whether I should get a job just to give my life some structure. 🙂

  4. Okay, I know this may sound strange but I just want to say…I love you ❤
    Thank you for writing this wonderful post. It really spoke to me after a night spent sleepless.

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