I’ve come across Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” in a few different places over the years and each time I read it, I appreciate it in new ways. Piercy wrote that she hoped people would take her poems and “remember bits and pieces of them in stressful and quiet moments.”
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.
Not only does the poem seem to suggest that how we work matters, but that we long to be useful. I’m reminded of the work stories of my family and how much we are shaped by those that come before us.
My maternal great grandfather was born in England in 1900.
His leg was crushed in a coal mine accident.
Nothing could keep this energetic man from working.
He immigrated to Canada where he found work digging a canal.
He survived the Great Depression delivering bread from a horse drawn cart.
He is proof that one generation’s sacrifice can be the next generation’s foundation.
My mother’s father worked in a chemical factory for 35 years.
He liked the people he worked with; he felt connected to them.
The problem solving he did at work shaped his identity as a person who fixes things.
His job gave him security and allowed him to provide for his family.
These simple truths shape how I think about work.
These simple truths help me empathize for those without work.
My father’s father lived on the same country road in central New York his entire life.
When he was a young man, he purchased land next door to his parent’s.
He expanded a small country home with his two hands and the help of one mule.
Like his father, he grew celery, carrots, onions, and red kidney beans.
He worked a job for the state during the day and spent his evenings working the land.
Spend one day on the Zurich Road and you learn work never ends when you live on the farm.
My father grew up harvesting potatoes in the muck.
No one’s ever seen a child work so hard without complaint.
But life on the farm wasn’t for him.
He served in the Coast Guard during Vietnam.
After he earned his associate’s degree, he got a job in retail.
He spent his career offering hospitality to others - one interaction at a time.
I learned more from my father about business than I did earning my MBA.
My mother earned her bachelor's degree when I was in middle school.
Her career started when she was forty.
Like her father, she likes making things better.
Not a policy or a procedure crosses her desk without improvement.
Working for a nonprofit allows her to contribute to something that does good in the world.
She once told me she liked knowing her work will outlast her.
Consider how the stories of your family shape how you think about work: What does it mean to do work that is real?
Source: Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)