Daily Archives: February 10, 2017

to be of use

I am the second to rise from the bed each morning. I hear him stir, but I bury deeper under the covers and return to sleep. Later, he tiptoes in to say goodbye, and I stand at the chilly window and wipe away the moisture on the single pane of glass enough that I can watch him walk to his truck and wave goodbye. I only have a few more minutes to fully awaken before it’s my turn at the morning.

For many months after the loss of my niece, these moments were the hardest of the day for me. There is this feeling of suspension in those few moments before dawn. Time moves at a different speed, and the requirements of the day ahead feel less concrete, more fluid. Grief interrupts this suspension, or maybe it rests in it, thrives in it. It’s a daily relearning of what this day means outside of the sleep world where reality is briefly suspended. Those moments would fill me with dread, and then anxiety. I would watch him walk to his truck and trace the lines of the taillights’ red on the damp glass. I would picture the car that would barrel through the next intersection against that other red light in my vision, hitting his truck near the rear of the bed, spiraling him into the light pole on the corner. I’d shake off that thought, return to the covers, and then picture him drowsy in a warm car, slipping over the white line into another vehicle, and I’d wait for the phone to ring. By the time my own wake up call would sound I would be a ball of taut nerves, unable to unwind into the day ahead. He would send me a note to let me know that he was at his desk and not a ditch, but I already knew that. I understood these things to be irrational, but they were no less vivid to me in the moment.

I sought a new practice for how to handle this anxiety, and I found the most help in a yoga class that I joined. It took me awhile, but I learned the techniques I needed to help me release the tension of the day as I headed off to sleep, and it gave me a structure for greeting the new day without immediately lapsing into that same pattern of anxiety. In time I was able to fully stretch into the next day. The best way I can describe it is this – I feel a sense of gratitude for another day rather than feeling like I narrowly grabbed the day away from an impending, but certain, doom. It isn’t perfect, and I have to work a little harder when his commute involves a plane. I breathe into the nerves and visualize our dinner table, warm and loud, with oft-forgotten manners and occasional spills, but also all three chairs filled, plus that fourth one we drag in from the dining room each night and wedge in around our tiny table.


That practice was working well, but it feels as if it’s lapsing a bit. Each day brings a new onslaught of dread and anxiety and frustration. It feels like punches are coming from a dozen different directions, their delivery is jagged and painful, attacking the fundamental pillars of this country. It’s hard to focus our outrage, our action, our work. Now when I stir in the night everything snaps into focus, and sleep is gone. My mind is running at top speed again, and that slowing practice, that breathing practice, is a challenge.

Last weekend was a whirlwind of activity. Saturday I moved from task to task at lightning speed, and during the in between moments I ran through the notes in my head for a talk I was scheduled to give on Sunday. I spoke them aloud in the car, practicing what I might say. I was confident in the message, but nervous about the delivery, unsure about the vehicle, tentative about my voice. Even now, on the flip side, I still am, although I was graciously welcomed and warmly received. This feels like another transition for me – and transitions aren’t my forte. My instinct is to pull back, to say maybe next time, and observe a little longer.

In the middle of these thoughts on Saturday, I received an email with this poem. It was read at the kickoff of the Educators for Social Justice conference, and my friend sent it out to the group of us buzzing around from event to event that weekend. I pulled into a parking lot and parked my car in the last row and read it a few times.

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’ve read and reread this poem many times this week. I’ve had a full schedule of meetings with various groups outside of work, plus the busyness of work and family and home. That kind of calendar can make me anxious and tired, which can transform those meetings into distractions or disruptions in my mind. So I reframed them. I went into them with the excitement that I get to watch people do the work, to watch them do it well, to watch them do what has to be done, again and again. I submerge myself in it; I listen, I watch, hoping to one day find myself sturdy and capable and of use.