Rule Breakers: Stepping Off the Hamster Wheel

I was thirty-one years old. I had two fine arts degrees, both in printmaking. “Printmaking?” an acquaintance once commented. “That’s like having a degree in dressage.” In terms of usefulness or relevance, he meant. Or employability.

I was onto something now, though, working at a graphic design and typesetting business outside of Boston. I liked it, I was okay at it, I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be Paul Rand. (Not Rand Paul. Different guy.)

Then one morning I came into work and my employer greeted me by saying, “I’m giving you a week off, without pay, to think about what your job means to you.”

Apparently, I had been insubordinate. I hadn’t meant to be, but it’s a gift I have. I was stunned.

“What do I do now?” I said to my boyfriend, Bill.

“Let’s move to Michigan!” he said. He had twenty acres there, and a small rough cabin on a hillside. No electricity, no phone, no running water. A shack, really.

“It will be like camping, for a while,” he said.

I am not an avid camper, but I was in love and I had just been fired (sort of). I was open to ideas. We loaded up his van and my car, cat yowling from its carrier in the back seat, and drove to the middle of nowhere. We arrived in the middle of the night. It was early April, still cold. We looked at the stars for a minute, then hurried to the cabin and crawled into our sleeping bags.

And so began my apprenticeship in stepping off the hamster wheel. I had already shown tendencies. I liked to unplug my phone, which drove my mother up a wall. And, of course, I had majored in printmaking. But Bill was an expert.

“I’m not trying to prove anything,” he would say, referring to our rustic lifestyle. “I’m just cheap.”

Everyone we knew there was having work bees and building things. Before long, we had a workshop at the bottom of the hill. Bill made furniture on the ground floor; my studio was upstairs.

On winter mornings, I trundled down the snowy steps from the house with my thermos of coffee and built a fire in my woodstove. I didn’t love the icy-coldness of the room before it warmed up to a balmy fifty degrees. But I did love the feeling of having all the time in the world.

I didn’t love how broke we were sometimes. But I loved that we had decided that my job, at least for now, was to go to the studio and see what happened. A lot happened, as it turned out.

Our rustic era is long past. Somehow, we cobbled and salvaged and lucked our way into having an almost-normal house in a little town. My studio is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I have a to-do list.

But I still go into the studio with the sense that there will be time. Let’s see what happens. Maybe I can make a small wonderful thing.

Lynne Rae Perkins

Lynne Rae Perkins won the Newbery Medal in 2006 for Criss Cross. Her book Violet & Jobie in the Wild (both Greenwillow) is forthcoming.

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Anne-Marie Oomen

So loved this description of your studio. My Think House serves that same purpose. And we lived in it while we built the house. Yes, to stepping off the hamster wheel, even for a while.

Posted : May 29, 2020 01:26

Mary Theresa Muto

Dearest Lynne Rae, This exactly what I have always admired about you! Often , those of us who spend time on the hamster wheel really envy those who do not. Never change, my friend, you are a treasure!

Posted : May 23, 2020 09:36

Jo-Anne Wallace

What a wonderful story. I immediately felt a sense of calm thinking of you waking down from your house to your studio and getting the wooden stove to work. Wonderful!

Posted : May 23, 2020 01:38

Tom Murdoch

From someone who used to watch typesetters fit type into a galley, I think Printmaking is an awesome degree. This is a wonderful story told wonderfully well. Thanks for sharing.

Posted : May 23, 2020 12:28



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