The Work of the World

Every year on New Year’s Eve, my grandfather would step outside onto their back steps and play his trombone. He played “Auld Lang Syne” loudly and not particularly well. It didn’t really fit with the rest of his life, his everyday life, as the son of farmers, as an ex-Marine pilot and a Shell Oil salesman. There was something artistic and extra about this gesture. I’m certain that no one, especially not his neighbors, asked him to perform for them. I’m so glad he didn’t wait to be asked.

He took an ordinary instrument and made a joyful noise. He lived a very ordinary life, but he carved out some space in this universe for celebration.

As a mom to four kids, I don’t stop to celebrate very often. I move onto the next thing on my list and don’t always carve out space for beauty and joy.

As someone who went to seminary and fully expected to spend my days working in the church, I sometimes worry that my day-to-day life is so tiny that it isn’t making much difference in the world.

There was one week in particular when I was especially anxious about my decision to be a stay-at-home mom. Both of my brothers were featured in their local press: one for his work with a non-profit in New Orleans and one for his interfaith work in Chattanooga. I was so proud of them; they are amazing men. I was also like, “I did 7 loads of laundry today and my house doesn’t look any different.” One nice thing about being friends with your brothers is that they have a history with you: they remember that you once did more than laundry and they believe you will again. My brother Clay sent me this poem by Marge Piercy and I’ve reminded myself of it often.

To Be of Use

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.

The work of the world is common as mud.

What mud can I take and make something useful? Or something beautiful? Or both?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “common” things that make up my life. Pencils, coffee, soap, hair bows and ballet shoes.

I’ve been noticing the very common things in Scripture. Bread, wine, shepherds, burial spices. Mustard seeds, prostitutes, boats and water.

My day to day work is very real. It’s not fancy or flashy, but I get to be useful. When I remember to follow my grandfather’s example, I realize that my life also has tremendous joy and beauty.

The work of the world is common as mud. Let’s make something beautiful.

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  • The Lord put you right where you are for right now to minister to your family and friends. Later on, when the empty nest starts occurring, I bet you end up ministering to the least of these. What was the elderly lady’s name in Circleville who you be-friended ?

  • Still, God, you are our Father.
    We’re the clay and you’re our potter:
    All of us are what you made us. Isaiah 64:8 (MSG)

    Thanks, Anna. Sometimes, when our work seems routine and dull, it is so great to have this reminder!