An Astonishing Work

Photograph by Kenton Martin

The midmorning sun beat down. Our baby rocked uncomfortably in the boat’s bottom, engulfed in an overstuffed orange life jacket that smelled of past fishing trips. No wonder her cries of discontent troubled the peaceful hour’s paddle across a quiet, lakeish corner of river. My husband rowed us skillfully around the watery bend and into a still, private cove, toward clusters of cordgrass that blew in the breeze. The river lapped against the sides of the canoe while I worked hard at matching my emotions to the environment.

The marsh periwinkles remained calm as calm while the wind swept us dangerously close to their reedy home spot. The canoe was almost upon them before we realized it; I could have reached out and plucked many-times-tens of the saltmarsh molluskstiny, spiral-shelled swirls stuck on a stick. Beautiful snails. They were not worried at imminent interruption. They were not worried that their lives werent any bigger than the fingernail-sized shells on their thin, slimy backs.

I have never rested so easily in my own skin, and never settled it comfortably in my mind that the work I am doing at any given moment is the work I should be doing. Am I in the office organizing client files? Perhaps I should be answering e-mails instead. Am I at the university answering student e-mails? Perhaps I should be organizing applications for my boss’s perusal. Am I working on an essay while my daughter sleeps? Perhaps I should be cooking dinner or straightening the house. Am I reading a book while my daughter happily entertains herself? Perhaps I should be actively engaging her in imaginative play. The dolls and stuffed animals look on, beady button eyes condemning me for — what? Not doing whatever it is I’m not doing. 

I could blame Western culture for my pervasive uncertainty. I could blame the loud voice of the media, or the fever pitch of options for advancement these days: education, career, finances, family, children. A never-ending cycle of achievement. Then there are the high expectations I set for myself when I look to my neighbor for comparison. The problem, though, sits deeper inside. I am uncomfortable in my own life-wracked, sin-sacked self, so I desperately seek an exterior affirmation that I am doing something grand and defined with my days.

Poet Tony Hoagland flies in the face of my fear-driven endeavors, penciling in the pleasure of sunlight on his daily to-do list (see  his poem “The Word”). In her poem “Violets,” Mary Oliver goes further, traipsing:

Down by the rumbling creek and the tall trees — 
   where I went truant from school three days a week 
      and therefore broke the record — 
there were violets as easy in their lives 
   as anything you have ever seen 
      or leaned down to intake the sweet breath of.

Mary Oliver could — and sometimes does — say otherwise; she had a terrible childhood. She has learned something about quietness, though, and the healing qualities of nature. And the peace and joy that come not from an easy life, but from being easy in our lives, whatever they may hold or be.

When my daughter was nine months old, round about the time of the rowboat trip, she learned from banging item on item: plastic on plastic toy, wooden block on oak-paneled floor. Hand her a something, an anything, and she would determine its “is-ness” (as Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water) by hitting it resoundingly against something else. “What’s this?” she’d ask, and then she’d bang away. Ah! This is something hard. A wooden block, a plastic bead, a hairbrush. It astounded me how focused she could be on an activity so basic, how much joy she could find in repetition, and how much purpose she could discover in discovery itself.

How much purpose is there in the repetitive and the mundane? In doing the simplest of workaday tasks? In observing, in merely asking, “What’s this?” In being? Even when my pen lays quiet, my mind whirs and worries: “Am I doing enough?” “Am I doing the right thing?” “What, for heaven’s sake, is my work?” And the most telling: “Am I relaxed now?” I am too human even for a weeklong vacation at the river to come easy. The nine-month-old knows more instinctively what I am trying too hard to grasp with my thoughts.

On that day in the canoe, my husband pulled a couple of strong row-strokes and we succeeded, at the very last moment, in pulling past — rather than over — the tall, stiff stalks of river cordgrass along the innermost edge of the cove. We did not squash or dislodge any periwinkles. They remained secure, their all-sufficient homes borne strongly upon their small snail backs, high and safe from the Chesapeake fish and crabs below — and from wayward canoes. Had we rowed right across them, I think they would have hung on just fine. We weren't threat enough to break their calm stillness as they waited out the quiet hours of their days, sticky feet tacked to grassy blades, each creature tenacious in doing his life's work of staking out a home. Tenacious in doing what matters.

I think of my daughter, whose work is simply to learn about the world around her. I think of Mary Oliver on her own stretch of Northeastern Cape shore with the violets, standing still in awe at the world around her. I think of many of us in our offices, at our jobs, in our homes. I think of myself, failing to see the work that is in front of my face, clear and simple, for fear that I’m not doing some more important work elsewhere.

Modern Western culture suggests we work hard our whole lives long, uneasy as we might feel in our skin, to earn a mere decade or two of retirement ease in the end. Or until we have babies — and then, if we stay home with them, work looks awfully different, and we lose certainty when it comes to our moorings of task and purpose. Whatever our workplace, we work hard, ever so hard, the year-round, and take this one week at the river, on the bay, or at the crowded beach, and tell ourselves right now, for this week and this week alone, to turn our brains off, to rest easy, to be for seven fleeting days, content like the periwinkles.

But this is off the mark. My work is wrapped up in the self I knock against every ordinary day. It is in my home. It is there with me on vacation. It is in breathing and being; in worrying less and wondering more; in the act of loving (or cooking or cleaning or playing or resting), rather than in analyzing how well I’m doing it. Don’t get me wrong; my work is hard work (as is yours). But it is very simple. It is right in front of me. 

Another poet, Carl Dennis, admonishes us in his poem “Drugstore”: 

Don't be ashamed of the homely thought
That whatever you might do elsewhere,
In the time remaining, you might do here
If you can resolve, at last, to pay attention.

And Mary Oliver, this time in her poem Messenger, leans against a tree, looking out across the water, declaring, My work is loving the world.She must forget herself in order to do it:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

I am pretty sure Mary Oliver knows something of the marsh periwinkles. May I too learn to stand my thoughts still. May I, as Gerard Manley Hopkins  wrote, have pity on my poor self, and “call off thoughts awhile / Elsewhere.” May I forget myself and my mad-making worries, and in the ensuing calm, see my world more clearly and love the people in it better. Because that is the work that matters. An astonishing thought.

Rebecca D. Martin grew up in the North Atlanta suburbs, but things have gotten much more interesting since. From Athens (Go Dawgs!) to Asheville, Chapel Hill to Charlottesville, Blacksburg to Lynchburg, and back, story has always followed close on the heels of daily life. Some of those stories have been published in various journals, including The Curator, Kinfolk Magazine, and The Other Journal; others are on her blog. Her writing mostly happens during that magical time called "Afternoon Nap," before and after which you can find her changing diapers, looking under the sofa cushions for her cell phone (though rarely answering it), and cooking for her family of three.


Becoming a Songwriter, Part 2

Becoming a Songwriter, Part 2