“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Remember when you were a child and you pretended to work in some occupation? As a girl growing up in the 50s, I often played at being a teacher, a flight attendant, or a nurse. I couldn’t wait to get my first job. When I graduated from college, I was enthusiastic and idealistic about the difference I could make in the lives of my students. And I have contributed in positive ways to my students, but often in very small ways rather than the grand happenings we see in movies like Freedom Writers. And as I’ve encountered more and more bureaucratic obstacles at work, I’ve often felt discouraged. My enthusiasm has waned.
And the loss of enthusiasm so many workers feel is no wonder, especially given the amount of time we Americans spend working. About a third of our adult life is spent at work, another third sleeping, and the last third in the routine tasks of living. Those are sobering statistics and all the more reason for us to look for ways that we can be happy and productive in our workplaces. Yet so many of us find ourselves in workplaces that feel soulless and boring. There is an increasing reliance on data to drive all of business’ decisions, and employees are treated like machines that can endlessly go faster and produce more, producing a very harsh work environment. From Amazon to school systems, people feel stressed, tired, and unappreciated. What can workers do in such an atmosphere?
Poet and leadership consultant David Whyte, writing in his book about work Crossing the Unknown Sea, Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, has this to say about our needs in the workplace: “The workplace carries so much of our desperate need for acknowledgement, for hierarchy, for reward, to be seen, and to be seen as we want to be seen, that we often overreach….The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”
The last line really stops me in my tracks, especially when I am discouraged by institutional problems and practices. I know that I am powerless in the face of the large university system that employees me and seems to be adopting more and more of a cut-throat business mindset rather than creating a nurturing environment for inspiring students and faculty. Where is my heart? What is it that I can give myself to with abandon?
My answer is two-fold. In my classroom, I focus on three ideas. First, I am present and in the moment for my students when I teach. I do this by beginning most classes with a minute of silence to calm and center the class and by banning the use of cell phones and laptops in my classroom. Anther area I focus on is community. I learn everyone’s name in the first couple of days so that students feel welcome and respected. Additionally, I often have the students work with partners or small groups so they get to know their peers and can work in teams. Finally, I design my activities and assignments carefully, working to provide enough structure so that they know what to do and enough freedom that they can express themselves.
In my writing life, I focus on setting small goals that I know I can achieve on a regular basis. Submit to three new publications every month (still working on this one!), write every day, and when I’m feeling especially stuck, use colored pencils to create shapes and images that mirror my feelings. When I do that, I often find the colors and shapes evoke ideas so that I surprise myself with a new poem.
I plan to keep working for several more years and am committed to staying positive and happy. I plan to keep writing and teaching. I plan to be happy. I plan to see the beauty of life everywhere. And I hold close to my heart these words from author Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are
“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.