Had you asked me, for years I might have said this was my favorite poem, or one of them. Certainly top 40.
To be of use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
I’ve spent so many years organizing my identity around work—what I do, what I’m doing. What I have yet to do. There’s always work to be done, and my god, I’ve loved to be the one to do it.
I am a worker.
I work. I make things work.
And what happens if you stop wanting to? If one day you wake up and your heart says no? Your body says rest? Who are you when you simply can’t, or won’t, or don’t want to anymore, at least not this much, and certainly not this way?
I’ve struggled these past three years something fierce to find how my life fits into my work, to make space for everything I love: my dear ones, my home and husband, community care, getting into my body to move and seek stillness, poems and writing pages on pages, dogs, sunshine, peeling oranges, tea, sex, whispering to plants, fresh air, drinking plenty of water and if there’s time and it’s not a devastating pandemic, I like to travel and shoot pool with my bar friends. It’s a lot of life I’ve wanted, and I haven’t always had a lot of time. Or rather, I wasn’t taking the time. Because my sense of self-worth was tied up in my output; how productive I could be. Work came first, and always.
(This sounds familiar, yes?)
I ran myself ragged, right to the bone, worn thin by the unending, unwinning effort to make everything work and feeling like I was failing all of the time. So last September, I hopped off the ride. Quit a job that didn’t love me back, because that’s not what jobs do. Said out loud what my heart and body had been hollering for years by that point: No more.
No more late nights as a badge of honor.
No more great isn’t good enough. (Jesus christ.)
No more believing I don’t deserve what I’ve earned, over and over again.
No more I’ll do it myself.
No more grinding.
No more helplessly beating my fists against what I can’t possibly change.
No more hiding what hurts and toughing it out.
No more martyrs.
No more ego hissing you must struggle if you want to feel seen.
No more, no thanks, not this, no more.
Which was all well and good, but who are you—you, who thought you were your job— when that’s no longer what you want?
It’s been slow, sensitive labor, learning to see myself differently. I’ve needed to for so long. We only get a few years on this floating blue rock, mere moments in the cosmic drama. Who wants to work until they’re dead?
Still, I love this poem.
I love the image: standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow travelers in our field of practice, finding a common rhythm, straining through mud to move things forward, doing “what has to be done, again and again.” Crying for work that is real.
Work that is real. Not any one job. Not a paycheck, nor title, nor path of ascension. The work you are here to do—the work we are here to do, it’s bigger than bullet points, more than a memo. It’s learning to be in movement with others. To offer what we have to give and do well what we can, in concert with the world around us. It’s ecology; keeping ourselves and each other alive. That’s a project I’ll want in on every day for the rest of my silly, small life.
Yes of course I still love this poem.
And here on the other side of last year, with so much patience and love and coordination, good things are starting to simmer: beautiful, gracious collaborations; taking a minute to pause before reacting and to dream before thinking; wondering aloud alongside my blessed co-conspirators what life might look like if we prioritized living, if we found a way—a million small ways!—to model a world we’d like to live in. All told, it’s not so bad. More on all that soon.
For now, I leave you with an old silly poem about the very first job I ever quit, written for a series called The Last Reading on Earth in (I think?) 2013. The theme that month was Work. It was a good time.
My first job was working as a roller coaster operator
Which is as far as metaphors go
But don’t let that stop me.
I press a button.
Somebody goes screaming.
Somebody else comes back somehow wet.
(This is a lie. I was fired from my real first job
before I worked a single day.)
if I scrambled all the lies that I’ve told me
and took only the letters I need could I write
in respectable serifs across the sky
I am dependable, I am reliable.
You can trust me with your money.
I manage my time like I manage to breathe.
I’ll make that mean whatever you need.
***Chill Sunday Bonus Content***
Here are some fun questions I’ve been wrestling with lately.
Maybe you like wrestling too.
Why do you work?
What defines good worthwhile work?
What does money have to do with it?
What is the purpose of life?
What is the relationship between the individual and others?
Where do family, country, and the rest of the world fit in?
What are the roles of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace and strife in life?
How do your views on work and life complement one another? How do they clash?
Take your time, of course. That’s all we have. And do share whatever feels good. ♥️