Oberlin Blogs

The Meaning of Work

August 23, 2012

Eleanor Bronder-Major ’15

I'm starting to pack to go back to school, which means I have to finish unpacking from when I left school. I finally unearthed the 20x20 box into which, at the end of the spring semester, I threw everything that didn't fit into my suitcase and duffel bag; to be honest, it seems like just last week that Griff and I were trudging down Professor Street with that box balanced on a table we borrowed from Keep. Some time before that, I was frantically writing papers, staying up until all hours in Mudd (I pulled my first all-nighter during this finals period), and distantly wondering if it would ever end. It's not that I dislike researching the experiences of Jewish immigrants to America in the nineteenth century. It's just that, at a certain point, you wonder if your capacity to work will be able to sustain you.

Turns out there's only so long having this as your desktop image will convince you that you can, in fact, "do this."

This summer I've been cleaning houses to earn money for college, which gives "work" a completely different meaning.

For me, this summer, work has meant waking up at 7:30 every day (except Sunday), driving down unmarked, potholed dirt roads in desperate attempts to find the house I was supposed to be cleaning fifteen minutes ago, bowing to the whims of people who can afford to have their houses cleaned every week, a surprising amount of crawling around on my knees, and more sweat than I have ever sweated in all my life. I have become finely attuned to the presence of spiders in the corners of rooms. I have killed more spiders than I can count. I have vacuumed hardwood floors, barn floors, cement floors, indoor/outdoor carpeting, shag carpeting, rag rugs, welcome mats, linoleum, tiles, and slate. I have cleaned tiny, ramshackle summer cottages and vast mansion-like houses.

The thing I like about cleaning is that there is always a clear goal, always something I should be doing, whether it's obsessively dusting the legs of a dresser or racing to finish cleaning a house in an hour. I like my partner, Nora, a tiny, philosophical Colombian woman who is constantly telling me not to run (and pointing out all the spiders I missed). I like my boss. On the other hand, the pain in my knees at the end of the day makes it clear that I won't be able to do this forever. Besides, while a long day cleaning can be satisfying, my brain, undistracted by the intellectual stimulation the academic year provides, returns again and again to niggling questions like, what am I doing with my life? I have to declare a major by when? What was I thinking?

Why am I writing about work, you ask? Well, partly because I'm learning, and I think you should too, that you have to do a lot of somewhat unsavory things in the service of your education, and eradicating five hundred spiders from a single 2-bedroom house may well be one of them. But also because I miss how intense the semester was, even with the crush of work that came at the end. The meaning of work has changed for me over the past three months, and I'm really looking forward to it changing back.

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