On Work and Usefulness

by Catherine DiMercurio

It’s Sunday evening. We are gathered, the kids and I, in the living room, each with a blanket, a task, and a sense of wishing we’d had more time to do both things that needed doing and to relax together. I sip my decaf Earl Grey and look at my notes for this week’s blog. As the night wears on, we’ll all deal with small bouts of transition anxiety, each for different reasons, as we head into the week. For me, the strain of the workweek comes from stresses on the job, but mostly from pulling the weight of expectation and responsibility along with the heft of the monotony.

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Only a few short years ago did I became the primary earner, or as the IRS 1040 puts it, in all of its official elegance, the “head of household” – unmarried, earning more than half of household expenses, and with at least one child or dependent. The divorce necessitated I transition from freelance work to a regular full-time job with some haste. As I wrote about in earlier posts, I landed where I began, at the same company I started for in the early 1990s. I feel lucky to be there, as I’m not sure my years of freelancing prepared me particularly well for many other fields. At the same time, I do know people who seem to love what they do. When I graduated college, I hoped to find a job that allowed me time and energy to write, but I longed for meaningful work that engaged me, work that I looked forward to doing most of the time.

Pulling with Patience

So how do I make sense of the way things have played out? How to I reframe the narrative that sneaks up on me when a day on the job feels more like a toppling pile of tasks to manage rather than meaningful work to do? I understand the value and dignity of doing the work no matter what it is, of honoring my responsibility to earn, to be the head of the household. I think of a poem by Marge Piercy, “To be of Use.” She says, “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, / who pull like water buffalo, with passive patience, / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

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Sometimes, in my quest for sense-making, I see success and reward and engagement in the work that is done in the margins of my employment/commuting life. In the margins is where I get to be a mom, where I write, where I spend time with my boyfriend, where I catch up with a friend over coffee or on a walk, where I snuggle my dog at the end of the day, where I try out a new recipe, or watch my kids’ games and competitions and performances. The margins are the places where life happens, but it is in the recognition of this too that things can seem out of balance.

As a society, we tell our kids that they can be anything they want if they work hard. It’s not that the message is bad, but it is an incomplete message. You can be things you want but you’ll give up other things to be them. You can be anything but you can’t be everything. You’ll be some things you want some of the time. You may work very hard and it might not seem like you achieved what you set out to do, but you achieved other things, in different ways. There is always more than one way to be happy, and not working at your dream job won’t be the end of the world. You may find yourself in a grey cubicle, sitting for too long under fluorescent lights looking at a screen and wishing your brain or your heart were engaged differently, more fully. But you’ll remember that you are doing the hard work of showing up every day, and earning the paycheck, and being responsible. Your job is as important as anyone else’s. You will shrug it off when someone says to you, “I could never do that. Sit at a desk all day.”

There is value in putting one foot in front of the other every day. There is honor and dignity in whether the paycheck is earned by intellectual, physical, or creative toil. On Sunday night as I write this draft, that is how I frame it, what I tell myself to remember. I don’t have to love each task to make it all feel worthwhile. Does it matter that this is not the job I went to school for or what I dreamed of as a child? Maybe. But does it matter more that the mortgage is paid and that my children’s lives are stable and secure enough that they can begin to imagine what they might want their adult lives to be like? Probably.

The Sunday Night Anxiety Club

The other thing that admits you to the Sunday Night Anxiety Club is the self-induced stress regarding balance. A friend once reminded me about that balance is about movement. Think of a yoga pose or simply standing on one foot. Muscles make micro adjustments to keep us stable. The act of balancing is more in the shifting than it is in some sort of state of perfect equilibrium. I used to think that balance meant that equal portions of my time every day or week were allotted to the categories I valued. And some days I still feel as though balance was achieved if I wrote, and went for a run, and after work had some quality, non-rushed time with the kids. But every day can’t be like that. And every Sunday night there are the reminders to myself that the week ahead will be filled with road blocks—hours at work where I try and figure out how to stay engaged and focused, a bad night of sleep that gets in the way of my writing the next morning, some issue of scheduling that disrupts the chance to work out. And balance will be about pivoting, and peace will be more about reframing than about the proper amount of calm every night before bed, though that is still something to reach for.

Right now, on Sunday night, the three of us are sitting here, making our concessions, our retroactive assessments of balance. Did we get enough done, did we honor our obligations, did we take time for each other? We stumble. Some days more than others. Some times I can’t help but wonder how the hell I’m supposed to juggle it all. It helps to remember the grander-scheme balancing act I’m trying to perform, that I’m trying to teach my son and my daughter that a good work ethic does not mean that you will be happy every moment of performing various tasks, but that you take pride in the fact that you worked earnestly and with the intention to do the job well. That living well is not truly an equation, where the moments of each day yield a result that always looks and feels like happiness. You should not feel as though you failed to live up to your youthful expectations of yourself, or society’s expectations of you, if you don’t go to bed feeling blissfully happy every night. Happiness is a strange alchemy of peace and joy and contentment. But there is wisdom in recognizing the richness of experiences that do not come to fruition in that way.

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Piercy’s poem ends with this revelation: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” Sometimes that work happens in the workplace and sometimes it happens in the margins. I think it is the great task of our lives, one of the most important parts of our journey, to learn what fills us up and to work at those things, whether it is the work we are paid for, the work of being a parent or a partner or a friend, something else entirely, or a combination of all of these.

I do need to step back sometimes, often on a Sunday night when the prospect of the week ahead seems daunting and out of balance, and reframe the conversations I have with myself about the work that I do in the workplace. I need to remind myself that it has a meaningful place within the context of the rest of the work I set my energy to in life. So as you embark upon the journey of your own week, I hope that even in moments of dread or drudgery, you are able to find the meaning there as well.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

 

 

 

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