Common as Mud


Man plowing rice paddy with water buffalo; Hai...

Man plowing rice paddy with water buffalo; Hai Hung Province, Vietnam (Photo credit: Lon&Queta)

I’m still laying the groundwork for the new year. Some do not perceive me as being “back to work” because classes at the University aren’t in session until after the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. But in addition to all of the typical responsibilities I have with teaching, like writing syllabi and wrapping my head around the academic calendar, I have some special projects that are associated with my expanded role in my department. Also, I have had meetings related to responsibilities to my local UU church. In addition, I’ve worked on practice teaching with my fellow teacher trainees, on homework for my yoga teacher training, and on thinking more concretely about beginning to teach yoga this year.

In this time I have had many vital conversations that are essentially about work, and how it is tied to the bigger picture, to community. It’s not easy, because community implies conflict, and therefore conflict resolution, or better still, conflict management. Conflict resolution is necessary when conflict arises. We build conflict management into our organizational settings when we accept that conflict is a natural and even desirable part of our common life. When we are renewing our lives and therefore affect the culture and structure in which we are embedded, we are also committing to either episodic conflict resolution, or more resolute and regular planned conflict management. (Even our conflict management systems become stagnant. This may require conflict transformation, as we saw in the emergence of the Occupy movement.)

However one construes it, we commit ourselves to work: to renewal in seasonal cycles, to community always, and therefore logically, to conflict resolution, management, or transformation. When I think of work, I always think of this poem by Marge Piercy, and its intimations of submerging ourselves in the tasks, of getting down in the mud, of grounding. This is not typically the vision we are given of a spiritual path, all sweetness and light. However, it is consistent with the Eastern view of the lotus flower, grounded in the muck, but emerging sweetly and purely above the surface of the water. I offer this poem as smaraṇa, “remembering” so many friends I’ve seen jumping heartfirst this week into the unknown.

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.

via To Be Of Use by Marge Piercy | The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor.

It is quite a challenge to do a thing well, and to shape our doings into things that satisfy. I am not a potter, but I have felt this beauty in my hands when I have washed a spoon rest made by my daughter, who is an artist. I would regard nearly all that I accomplished and worked on this week to be productive and satisfying, yet so often what I attempt crumbles to dust and smears my hands. The challenge also lies in seeing in failure the joy that may yet be fashioned from the shards and dust. To recognize the failure is to discover real work to be done. That too, may be a poignant joy. May I still and ever cry out for work that is real, and so may we all rise above.

About Richard Hudak

I am Senior Adjunct Faculty in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and I have been a practitioner of Anusara™ yoga. I have completed 200 hours of teacher training within its diaspora community, consistent with its philosophy and alignment principles.
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