I’m taking a break this week because of Labor Day, and I hope all of you are as well. I am posting this fine poem by Marge Piercy because I have always loved the lines about people working hard “who do what has to be done, again and again.” May you always find the courage to enter your work with enthusiasm and a deep sense of purpose. Happy Labor Day!
To Be of Use by Marge Piercy
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 first heard the poem “Lost” by David Wagoner recited in a workshop with David Whyte as he talked about bringing your soul, your essence, into the workplace. David acknowledged that our work journeys often involve times of loss and confusion. Sometimes we stay in the job, sometimes we leave. But always there seems to be a time needed for deep reflection. I love the notion of being in the woods, being lost, and then pausing until you find your way. Good advice no matter where you find yourself! Enjoy the poem.
by David Wagoner
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
What lines speak to you? Is there a situation in your life that is calling you to pause and reflect?
“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.