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What Work Is

August 17, 2011

All of the sudden, my life is full of deadlines. I have a work calendar on my desk at home until I can move into my new office next week (I have an office and there’s a desk in it now… I have so many things to do before classes begin that I will never be able to get through them all… If I don’t get through them I might not be able to keep this job… When I’m wringing my hands I can’t type).

I have a pile of things sorted out for Eleanor to take to college on Friday; she is packing. And I had an actual conversation with Walker last night, about how the two of us tend to be good listeners, but we like to rely on others to initiate conversations and keep them going. I don’t want the departure of his sister—lately one of the only people he talks to outside of ceaseless chess conversation—to make him feel like there’s no one he can talk to about other things. But it’s work for both of us.

The new poet laureate, Philip Levine, has a poem about this kind of work:

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair; blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

I love the turn in the last line; it makes me think that we don’t often use the word “work” about doing what we love, but we do use it about doing what we must. And sometimes what we must do is take care of those we love. And why we work is also to take care of those loved ones. If you love your work, you’re lucky, and if you have people to take care of, you’re lucky too. Now I feel lucky.

And I have to get back to work.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    August 17, 2011 10:37 am

    I love this. And I love Levine.

  2. August 17, 2011 10:39 am

    *sniff* I love this, too.

  3. August 17, 2011 11:08 am

    I love this and Levine too. And also my work and the ones I take care of. A lovely way to start the day all around. I may be printing this one out to hang over my desk.

  4. August 17, 2011 2:14 pm

    I never thought of you as the wringing your hands type 🙂

    • August 17, 2011 9:05 pm

      I sometimes revert to that type. And then I think of my brother telling me (before Eleanor’s adenoid-removal surgery when she was six) “You can worry. But it won’t change anything.”

  5. August 17, 2011 2:33 pm

    I’m lucky, too.

  6. August 21, 2011 8:17 pm

    Another wonderful poem that you’ve introduced me too. Thank you.

  7. August 22, 2011 8:31 am

    I’m glad you all like it! I’ll look for some more Levine poems over the next year.

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