Current Occupation: teacher, small business owner, bread baker
Former Occupation: rock climbing instructor, trail digger, communications director
Contact Information: Becca Deysach balances a need to move her body with her love of brainy pursuits by baking bread, teaching writing and environmental studies for Prescott College and Ibex Studios (www.ibexstudios.com), exploring mossy canyons, and practicing a super cool Indonesian martial art called Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen.
“I don’t get it. Thomas is sooo smart… he could do anything. Why is he working here?”
At 27, Thomas was a full-on grown-up, rode his bike six miles to the bakery by five every morning, and mixed dough in the back room for most of his shift. When he did join us on the kneading table, he talked about irrational numbers and music theory. I couldn’t fathom why such an intelligent man was working the same job I was as a high school kid.
“So he has time to do the things he really loves. Like make music,” my manager responded. His comment quieted me. A brainy musician, himself, I recognized in his tone that I not only had insulted Thomas, but my manager, as well.
As a high school sophomore, I’d had my entire future mapped out. I would take a year off after high school before going to a liberal arts college west of the Rockies that had a scanning electron microscope, no Greek life, fewer than 2000 students, and was listed as “most difficult to get into” in my college guide. I would finish in four years, go directly to graduate school, and have a PhD by the time I was 26.
And then I spent a week volunteering at the Voyageur Outward Bound basecamp in northern Minnesota. I was deep in the throes of my junior year, and my backpack for the 8-hour train ride from Chicago to Minnesota was heavy with Latin, calculus, and American History books. While the city gave way to farmland and eventually the bare woods along the Mississippi, I conjugated verbs, differentiated equations, and memorized key Civil War dates. Success in each of these subjects was crucial to my entire life’s success.
But when I stepped onto the edge of a wilderness that stretched all the way to the Arctic, everything I had brought with me became irrelevant. All that mattered was the promise of a jump into the icy Kawishiwi River and the cinnamon heat rolling out of the lodge.
After just one week of chopping wood, setting floating docks on the water, taking saunas under an explosive sky, and canoeing through ice, I knew that the text-book-heavy life I’d been leading was over. Tingling skin and feeling small and woodsmoke in my hair had opened me up to something much bigger than good grades and scanning electron microscopes ever could. I returned home with sap-stained jeans, homework left undone, and big dreams of making a life outside.
Unlike the parents of most teenagers on the advanced-placement track, my folks encouraged my academic about-face and single application to a tiny experiential college in the mountains of Arizona. Prescott College did not fit my “hardest to get into” criterion by a long shot, but it did promise weeks of classes in desert canyons and ponderosa pine forests, and that was enough for my parents and me.
My father was a brilliant yet unmotivated man who crunched numbers as a biostatistician in a closet-sized suburban office for 25 years when he should have been digging up dinosaurs in Wyoming. He was forthright in his command that my siblings and I not end up in the same patent leather shoes we polished for him every Sunday, and he encouraged my westward migration as if it were his own.
“Remember, you’re only as good as your experiences,” he said as he saw me off to Arizona. “And, always, always follow your bliss!” I have tried to live by these edicts ever since. And do you know what I’ve found? They have not prepared me well for success in the working world. At least not as this culture defines it.
Work for other-than-human animals is the set of tasks they must complete to survive and reproduce, whether it’s stalking prey, sticking branches in termite holes, or seducing a potential mate with their inborn choreography. Their jobs are often risky and demanding, but their rewards are direct, tangible, and critical to their survival—a meal or a mate for themselves or their offspring. I long for that uncomplicated equation between impulse and action, activity and reward, and crave the direct communion with the earth that animal work necessarily entails.
Human work, however, at least that of a well educated modern Homo sapiens from Evanston, Illinois, is not evaluated by the depth of her satisfaction nor the volume of wild mushrooms she brings home for dinner, but by her bank account’s bulge and her occupation’s title. And it seems that the less dirt her day’s toil leaves beneath her fingernails, the better she is compensated for it, and the more respected she is by her peers.
So, no matter how many follow your blisses my parents spoke to me, I spent my twenties struggling to shrug off our culture’s tacit message that my worth as a person would be determined by the type of work I did, while my desire to spend my days in the wide open collided with a fierce longing to have a job title I could be proud to repeat to strangers. I tried “field scientist,” but hated the constraints scientific language placed on the animate world. I slipped on “adventure educator,” but was miserable being responsible for teenagers’ lives. I did wilderness conservation work, but it numbed my brain and challenged my ethics. So I went to graduate school, hoping it would open doors into fields I didn’t even know existed.
I landed in an environmental writing class during my first semester at the University of Montana, and came home to a place where words and science and the wilderness all mingled together. I spent the remainder of graduate school doing little but write from my front stoop, face to the sun, and the joy it brought me was urgent as my long-held secret desire to write had been.
Four years earlier, fresh out of college, I lay in the bathtub of the trailer I rented in Bozeman, Montana and whispered to myself, “I want to teach and write. I want to be a teacher and a writer.” It was so true I couldn’t repeat it to anyone, not even myself. And so, as my graduate studies came to an end, I failed to notice that I was doing exactly what I had wanted all along, and panicked. Sure, writing was fine as long as I was in school, but…. I couldn’t just graduate and become a writer. Instead, I noticed that I was already 27 and had done nothing worthwhile with my life. Sure, I’d had some great experiences, but none of them had prepared me for the adult world I thought I should be living in.
A Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology surely would, though. Not only would being a therapist/scientist fill my bank account, it would make me sound smart to anybody who asked what I “did.”
So I went for it. I signed up for a year of undergraduate psychology classes, took the first scan-tron tests I’d taken since high school, and volunteered in two psychology labs. I walked a little taller in my Dansko clogs every time I imagined myself saying, “I’m a psychologist,” to the doctors and lawyers at my high school reunion.
During the same time period that I was memorizing the differences between Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas of the brain, I was teaching creative writing to a group of environmental studies’ students. After an hour-and-a-half of writing outside, I’d return to the windowless psychology lab where I entered data into Microsoft Access.
One afternoon, while waiting for the computer to turn on, I saw my reflection in its darkened screen. My hair was tied in two knots, frazzled from the games we’d been playing in class. I wore an orange t-shirt and chartreuse pants. My heart sank. This is me, I thought. I am the crazy lady who wears buns and cat eye glasses and baggy pants and who thinks playing “duck, duck, goose” with college students has something to do with getting their creativity flowing. I don’t belong here.
But I couldn’t hear it. I was too far into the PhD application process to turn back. I listened to a louder voice, instead. The one that told me I wasn’t creative. The one that insisted I was the family nerd who had finally found a real career. That voice tried to convince me that turning human experiences into Power Point presentations was my bliss, and that eight more years of school was an experience I wanted to have.
That voice, however, was not as powerful in sealing my fate as the eleven rejection letters I received from graduate programs around the country were. Those letters brought bellies full of shame with them, but my relief that now I had no choice but to write quickly overwhelmed all traces of embarrassment.
Not long after the last self-addressed-stamped envelope hit my mailbox, I moved to Portland, Oregon to be amongst my closest friends, determined to center my life around writing. Right away I saw a perfect Craigslist ad: Writer, Editor, and Researcher all Rolled into One! It described the Craftsman house out of which I would work, the free espresso, and the laid-back atmosphere. The employer, a lawyer writing a book about relationships, was looking for someone who commuted by bike, was GLBT-friendly, and wanted to work for social change.
My response was something like this: OMG! I am a writer, editor, and researcher; ride my bike for transportation; love the gays; have worked at Chicago’s feminist sex shop; and am writing a book about the evolution of human consciousness. We are meant to be! He thought so, too.
At first, I enjoyed the casual nature of the job, the stories I brought home about my boss and his mistresses, and, especially, my business card that read Rebecca Deysach, Communications Director. But sitting at a desk all day bored me to tears, and my boss quickly went from quirky to condescending. “You don’t look like you just came out of the woods, but I’m starting to realize you just did,” he once told me. And when I insisted I be paid for our lunchtime meetings he responded, “You’ve made choices in your life that don’t make you worth more than ten dollars an hour.”
So I began job searching while I should have been trying to get his website a higher Google rating, looking exclusively for work worthy of my education. But as I clicked from one sedentary, indoor job ad to the next, I couldn’t stop thinking about my years cooking at natural foods stores; about a time when work was laughing and moving my body and filling bellies with delicious food; and when early-morning shifts left me plenty of time for reading, hiking, and friends. I was happiest then. Did having a master’s degree mean I was no longer entitled to the same kind of honest, joyful living?
And that’s when Thomas with the flour-covered face came back to me. In the misery of my basement office, I finally understood that doing work to convince strangers that I am intelligent when they ask me what I “do” has never turned out well for me. So I quit.
What I “do” now is live the life my cat-eyed reflection in the computer screen was not brave enough to admit she wanted. For the first time in years, I am happy in a major, daily way. My sneakers are covered in mud and moss from old-growth forests, I play “hot potato” with adults in the writing workshops I facilitate through my own little business, and I bake crusty organic bread a few days a week with brainy people who make me laugh.
If my seventeen-year-old self saw me covered in the sticky paste flour and water make on their way to becoming bread, she would be shocked. “But you’re so smart,” she’d say. “You could do anything. Why are you working here?”
“Following my bliss,” I’d tell her, knowing full well it would take another sixteen years for her to understand.