Category Archives: general

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.

you might have noticed that I haven’t figured it out yet

I feel as if I’m writing a lot, but none of it is in this space. This space feels like it deserves clear thoughts and edited sentences. Not perfect ones – they rarely are – but thoughtful ones. Or thought out ones. I usually know my first sentence before I start to write, and quite honestly, the words tumble out once that sentence is penned. But I haven’t had a first sentence in awhile, at least not one that has survived the backspace key.

I dabble in Instagram; I can still get sort of wordy there, but the limit of length is helpful to me. My medium of choice is email, fast but focused, full of links, targeted to one or a few. Occasionally I employ the retweet, but I don’t have a real sense of who is out there on the other end, so it feels a bit like talking into a vacuum.

Most mornings I drive the older to school and the younger tags along. It’s just a ten block drive, but depending upon the timing of our one stop light on the route, it can take between a minute and a half to three minutes. Sometimes the radio is still on, and we’ll catch a snippet of the 7:00am, top-of-the-hour news updates. I usually silence the radio chatter for such a short drive, but occasionally we’ll hear something that sparks a question. I try to stuff a thesis into the half block length of the carpool line – this is what they were talking about, this is the impact of that decision, this is what we must do about it, and don’t forget your lunch bag, I’ll see you tonight at dinner, I love you, have a great day.

I worry that I’m talking too much. I try to focus at work, and only stand to talk to my dear friend over the wall a few times a day. And then it all comes out like a giant tidal wave, and I have to apologize for leading with a humorous piece before spiraling into some sort of dystopian nightmare scenario. She’s patient with me, at least.

I took the older one to one of the mayoral debates where she confessed to me that her dad had reminded her to take notes and to listen and to form her own opinions outside of the ones expressed by her mother. I actually loved that, and I knew what he meant. We are aligned in so many different ways, but I average a thousand words to one in the dialoguing of it. She has to find her own voice, and practice it, and stretch it until it is ready for the work ahead. So I know what he meant, but still I think, do all these words of mine mean less for others? Is there a finite amount, like the water in the sea?

I gave a talk this past Sunday morning, but then I worried all afternoon that maybe my talk was really a speech, and I dove into an internal discussion of semantics. It was billed as a discussion, but no one interrupted, they just watched me and listened intently. Thank goodness I had a decent outline – I held the small notebook in my hand and referenced it whenever I worried about rambling. I made my notes the night before, staying up until long past midnight, and on my drive there I worried that I wouldn’t be able to fill all the empty space in the room. Someone had to knock on the door to remind us to stop. I wonder if I might have just continued talking and talking and talking if no one had silenced me. I have too much inside me at the moment, and controlling its release is not easy.

I want to be careful, but who has time for careful anymore? I bounce from one thing to the next, and the words keep spilling over and the notebooks keep filling up, and the carpool line is far too short for me to tell my girls all the things that I need them to know, too short for me to determine how much of that they need to figure out all on their own.

where do we go from here?

I am running on fumes these days, but there are bright spots in the midst of all the chaos. I am very busy at work, with no end in sight to that for awhile. I am very busy at home, deep diving with M into the thousand layers of this house project. I am very busy with a dozen other things – many that bring me great joy and restore my faith in humanity, but that also mean that the slivers of free time that I have lately are usually filled with me making to-do lists, and then scratching them off again.

I cannot write coherently about my utter contempt and disdain for this current administration. I held out hope until midday last Friday that it might not really happen. It has. I am doing my best not to be caught up in the outrage of the hour – as my father has wisely suggested that I avoid – but it is also important to remain connected and engaged and focused, so I’m doing that to the best of my ability on top of all of these other things. There’s no time to sit back and be complacent. But it turns my stomach as well, and the stress filters into so many areas of my life.

I hope to return to this writing space again soon, maybe even by this weekend. I’ve missed it. But bouncing between these various things – house and home and family, to politics and activism and threats to our core values – leaves me spinning and tongue-tied at the moment. I’m not sure where to go from here.