CHEENA MARIE LO lives and works in Oakland. They have worked as an art curator, an ice cream scooper, a line cook, a workshop facilitator, an unpaid intern, an administrative assistant, and as an award-winning competitive barista. They currently work at Mills College.
Two months ago I started working full-time at the liberal arts college where I got my MFA. Transitioning into this job during the Spring semester means that I have been working directly with prospective students who have just been accepted to the MFA program, having conversations about the program, about financial aid, about what students do after the MFA. I have to explain that this particular program is one you will likely take on debt for, that many students work while going to school to help cover some of their costs, that they go on to do a variety of different things after
he program. It is hard to explain to students thinking of taking on the debt that the outcomes are largely immaterial, that the work people find after the program can look one million different ways.
Is it unprofessional to talk about how I spent the morning talking to a debt collector who refused to accept any payments less than $1000 a month towards my defaulted student loan? That for two years after graduate school I pieced together part-time work in cafes and restaurants to pay my rent? That it’s hard to see my friends, who also happen to be some of my favorite artists, now that we’re no longer in school because we’re all so busy at our jobs, working hard to make ends meet while making time for the other, more important work?
How to speak about these real, material outcomes?
The job I have right now consists of e-mails, spreadsheets, mostly. Staff meeting on Mondays, Department meeting once a month, meetings with prospective students visiting campus throughout the year, some events every now and then. 6.98 hours per day, often more. Sometimes I go on vacation, a few minutes snuck away on campus to go for a walk alone or to meet up with a friend who also works at the college. A vacation from work at work.
But oh, the other work between the work: the writing group, the reading series, the journal we’re trying to get off the ground, the open letter to the blog, the show for the Queer Arts Festival, the fundraising, the interview, the manuscript, the submissions, the meetings that turn into dinner, the dinners that turn into projects, the projects that turn into a container for spending more time together, the readings in the living rooms and bookstores and community spaces, the bar after the readings in the living rooms and bookstores and community spaces, the navigating of community formations, the mapping, the collaborations.
This work will not pay off my debt or stop debt collectors from calling.
I am often tired.
But these are the things I feel inside of my body.
They can’t be measured by money, or pitched as an outcome. Sitting in a room with my friends who are also poets and makers. Inviting strangers into our living room to listen to poetry. Trading work back and forth, the other work done between the work. Spending a Sunday reading a friend’s manuscript in between slowly stirring a sauce that needs to be simmered for hours, a meal that will last us the week. The ease with which Taylor and I laugh together, how’s Tessa’s eyes crinkle at the sides when she smiles, talks on the porch with Brittany, Zoe’s ideas, Zach’s inflection, Kate’s boundlessness, friends that span time and state lines. Loving them all the way through.