January 30, 2013

The Rules of Civility and Being useful

I just finished reading the most wonderful book about the glamorous life of a group of New York socialites in the late 1930s. I think I enjoyed reading it because it was, for a few minutes each night, an escape to a more exciting time. The elegant, but stoic men went to work on Wall Street or in high-rise office buildings. They wore dinner jackets and drank martinis. The women shopped at Bendel's and had lunch at the Plaza.
Kroger Meat Department (my Pe-pa is 2nd from left)
But then I ran across the following poem and decided that while it's fun to imagine a life of privilege and elegance, that's not really who I am or where I come from. The words in Marge Piercy's stanzas speak to my heart on a much deeper level. As I read the lines, I see images of my great-grandmother...who, as a girl, learned to plow the field because she didn't enjoy her assigned task of chopping corn. I think of my mom's dad who worked his entire career as a butcher at a local grocery store -- "a thing worth doing well done."  It makes me want to jump into my work head first and I feel so lucky to have such work to jump into! I hope the poem brings up some pleasant imagery for you too. Enjoy! 
To be of useby 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.