‘To be of use’

by Mémé

To be of use
BY MARGE PIERCY

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.

This poem was read at a memorial service I attended recently, for an indomitable woman who spent the last 30 years of her life in making lives better for battered women and their children in many concrete ways. She was fierce, and never took no for an answer when government or recalcitrant donors or journalists or NIMBY types stood in her way.

I sat for quite a while after the final song. I am not ashamed of the way my life has gone – a few regrets at missed opportunities and personal failures – but I like to think that I continue to take good care of my family and with respect to the rest of the world I try to do what comes to my hand to do. But this woman extended her hand every day of her life.

Please share your experiences with this sort of individual or your own thoughts about your place in the wider world.

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58 thoughts on “‘To be of use’

  1. This is incredibly lovely. I am going to save this one.

    It describes my mother-in-law. She was a “stay at home” wife, but the hardest working woman I’ve ever met. She does everything 110%, never complaining, never keeping score, just does what needs to be done and does it right. She’s warm and welcoming and always goes the extra mile. Sometimes when I’m feeling a little lazy or don’t want to put in the extra effort I think of her and find myself motivated again.

  2. People come in shades of “To be of use”. From those who resemble this in every aspect of their lives to others who resemble this in selected areas of their lives to still others who do nothing without significant outside motivation/rewards. I think most of us are made up of various shades because to resemble this is every aspect of life would be as MM said – exhausting.

    In most cases, if I volunteer to do something, I am going to put in the time and effort to do it the best I can. I don’t want to be the one who left the job unfinished or with lower than expected quality.

  3. I love Marge Piercy. That poem captures the memory of satisfaction of having thrown myself into something until I came through the other side. It also reminds me of the pang of inadequacy that comes from never being “sure” that I am heading in the right direction, of envy of those seals that seem so confident in their path; I just sort of throw myself in and hope I’m heading the right way.

    The closest in my real life is my mom, who always has a plan and a vision and a project. It is both inspiring and exhausting; I have just had to acknowledge that I am far more Type B than she is and have never had that same single-minded purpose that makes her plow through walls. I mean, I feel like I channel her at work — I am very loyal to my clients and can be tough and driven to get them to a solution — but then I want to go home and flop down in my comfy recliner.

  4. That poem makes me feel exhausted.

    Agreed, I can barely get myself out of bed in the morning. It would be interesting to see how differently things would have turned out if I had both less to deal with and more productive energy.

  5. “but then I want to go home and flop down in my comfy recliner”

    Those who are up and running, whether work and kids and hobbies and volunteering and whatever, for 16+ hours in the day seven days a week amaze me and make me a bit envious. Part of it, in addition to general high energy level, is being an extrovert where being around others generates more energy. I can think of one or two local women who seem to fit that model.

  6. “parlor generals”

    Makes me think of all those ribbon wearers and social media slacktivists who rarely get their hands dirty doing actual work.

  7. Many days when I wake up in the morning I feel I have been called to serve outside of my family. I don’t know if this is the result of reading a little bit of religious scripture every day. I do feel the need to go outside the familiar and my own comfort zone and do something to help others.

  8. “The pitcher cries for water to carry
    and a person for work that is real.”

    ITA with this. People need productive work It doesn’t need to pay, but it needs to be “real.” Even little children beam when they graduate from pretend helping to really helping with a task. This is also true at the other end of life — many seniors are grumpy not just because their bodies are breaking down, but because of their perception that society no longer has a use for them.

  9. People need productive work It doesn’t need to pay, but it needs to be “real.”

    I don’t know about that. Plenty of people get a lot out of hobbies that don’t involve serving what I would consider a “real” need.

  10. “Plenty of people get a lot out of hobbies that don’t involve serving what I would consider a “real” need.”

    Well, but it doesn’t matter if you think they serve a real need — it only matters if the person doing it thinks it does.

    I mean, DH spends more money just on the lumber for the furniture he builds than we would spend if we bought it in the store, and there is certainly no societal benefit to his doing so. But he takes great pride in making something with his hands that he can envision being handed down to grandkids.

  11. Well, but it doesn’t matter if you think they serve a real need — it only matters if the person doing it thinks it does.

    Exactly.

  12. My husband has to have something meaningful to do – he needs to have a project at home in addition to work. He was going to retire in 2/2019 when he is 70. Now he is saying if he stays another six months he would be entitled to sick day pay – he has over 200 days. Then if he stays until who knows when it would be beneficial because of who knows why. The truth is he is afraid of retiring and having to fill his days. In reality he will have plenty of ways to fill his days with meaningful projects, travel and further education. I fear he won’t retire until he is too ill or debilitated to enjoy retirement.

  13. “The truth is he is afraid of retiring and having to fill his days. In reality he will have plenty of ways to fill his days with meaningful projects, travel and further education. I fear he won’t retire until he is too ill or debilitated to enjoy retirement.”

    I have a colleague at work like this. He is terrified about retirement, yet is not content, and often is unhappy, at work.

  14. yet is not content, and often is unhappy, at work.

    Many people are just not happy people. Better to be paid to be miserable than be miserable for free.

  15. Kerri – if he could he should ease off into part time or “consulting” work. That way it is not such a screeching halt into retirement.

  16. Louise – Neither are real options with our employer. I don’t think he has the gumption to set himself up as a consultant. He’s a bit of a character.

  17. I think I have mentioned this on here before, but I have a widowed aunt who retired more than a decade ago because they made her, who at 85 still goes into the office on public transportation every day to water their plants and generally putter around. I can’t believe a place would allow it, but she needs to feel needed and have a way to fill her time.

    I really liked the poem. It is a regret of mine that I have not done more outside the sphere of family. I think I have talents that could have made the world a better place for a tiny little slice of the universe. When our first child was born, my DH made the pitch that the people who needed me most live under my roof, and asked that I take a hiatus from volunteer stuff and focus on family (in addition to working). Since then, I have made a few half-hearted attempts to re-engage but find that I’ve lost a bit of my previous fire. It is still a goal for retirement.

  18. He’s a bit of a character…I have a widowed aunt

    For introverts who won’t instantly become buddies with everyone at The Villages, work might be the place where they would get the most human interaction – this is especially true if the spouse has already passed and the kids aren’t local.

  19. “When our first child was born, my DH made the pitch that the people who needed me most live under my roof, and asked that I take a hiatus from volunteer stuff and focus on family (in addition to working).”

    Do you think that he was right?

  20. The poem also makes me feel tired. I also simultaneously often feel like I am not doing enough! I try to put my best foot forward when I am volunteering etc., BUT I also feel very little guilt over being a free rider where I can (not being classroom parent, etc.). I think that at some point (depending on how you are built), you can burn yourself out being self-sacrificing, especially if there is nothing concrete at the end that you can see.

  21. “Do you think he was right?”

    Maybe not “most” in an absolute sense, but given the limited amount I had to offer working, being a sleep-deprived first-time mom and trying to adjust to a new normal, I didn’t want to give up any of the time I had with my child. By elementary, when it was clear they both had learning challenges and were not getting support at school, I do think they needed me most. Now, they don’t need me at all, other than I’m such darn good company, so I feel like I should become more involved. My employer allows me to take 1/2 day a month to volunteer, I just need to re-engage. However, I am now trying to put a much bigger focus on health, so I being more protective of my time outside of work. It is possible to do it, I just haven’t scheduled my time to make it happen.

  22. It is surprising to me that Mooshi (but not that Rhett) finds the poem exhausting. In the ten years or so that I have had a window into her life, especially in the tenure seeking years, it appears to me that she and her family make choices to be constantly busy with work and other activities. Their vacations sound exhausting to me.

    Not that it really matters, but the person being memorialized was not religious. She was an old school activist. The service was on May Day, and the songs were appropriate to that (Union Maids, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, This Land is Your Land, etc). It was not easy being her child or spouse and sharing her with the wider world, but that is true for most people who have chosen a life of that sort of service and are not single or past the age of that sort of responsibility.

  23. OK, it’s after 5 ET, so to frolic and detour back to my post this AM: I get a frantic call from DD after school today: she has gone up to see the kittens, and they have clawed a hole into the mattress of the bed in that room and climbed in, and she can’t reach them, and she doesn’t think they can get out, and one isn’t moving.

    So, yah, panic. I tell DD to run downstairs and get a knife and cut another hole in the mattress to reach them. I am still at work and can see from my window that the highway is dead stop. I know DH is at work and unreachable. I leave a frantic message for my mom to go help her, because either she may need to run a kitty to the emergency vet or she will need consoling over her little suffocated kitty.

    Then I get this: http://i.imgur.com/pEApBbT.jpg

    Kitties are, as DD would say, “straight chillin’.” And DD needs to learn the difference between a “mattress” and a “box spring.” :-)

  24. Meme, I agree about being surprised that MM found the poem exhausting considering the way she describes her lifestyle. But maybe she found it exhausting exactly because she knows firsthand about being so busy.

  25. This is a WSJ article. “Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills
    Results of a standardized measure of reasoning ability show many students fail to improve over four years—even at some flagship schools, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of nonpublic results”

    https://drive.google.com/open?id=1aZMajEWGsDg6dMV4KIqt6cEgcPasO3NFA3tFWYe-KdcOQTpXZaQObwvSz08G9aC5BClLetJ9CdVvrs9v

    Some of the biggest gains occur at smaller colleges where students are less accomplished at arrival but soak up a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum.

  26. “even at some flagship schools” — do they mean BigStateU? If so, then I’d contest the “even.” 200-people lectures are generally designed to impart facts/data/substance, not challenge logic/reasoning skills.

    I’d be interested to see whether going to law school changed anything, since this is what they purportedly do (i.e., they don’t teach you the law, they teach you “how to think like a lawyer”).

  27. “It was not easy being her child or spouse and sharing her with the wider world, but that is true for most people who have chosen a life of that sort of service and are not single or past the age of that sort of responsibility.”

    Bingo. Exactly so. Which is why Becky should not be so hard on herself.

  28. Interesting – I didn’t interpret the poem as being about busyness so much as I read it as being fully committed to what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean being on the go all the time, but means being dependable.

  29. Lark – ITA. Doing a job right, helping when needed (without being asked), being a team player.

  30. Random financial question. We are starting to receive a lot of household income (30-50%) as Restricted Stock Units. We are getting them once per year, selling immediately and paying marginal income tax on the proceeds (at 38% or whatever). Is there anyway to handle this in a more tax efficient fashion?

  31. Anon – assuming you are receiving the stock as soon as it vests (and is no longer restricted) It will be ordinary income for the market price at receipt. There really is no way to change that. If you hold on to the stock, you’ll pay cap gains on the gains above ve the market price but the value the stock is still taxable as ordinary income in the year received.

  32. Anon. As long as they are restricted stock units, and not restricted stock, there is no way to minimize taxation or to convert appreciation from date of Grant to vesting date into cap gains.

  33. Anon – ISOs can have favorable tax treatment in certain cases, but options have more risk/less value.

  34. Meme – why do companies do RSUs instead of restricted stock where an 83(b) election could be made? Is it only for the comp deduction or is there something else going on?

  35. Regarding the failure of many colleges to improve critical thinking skills, this is not really surprising.  The same test was used by the Academically Adrift authors to bolster their point that not much learning occurs in most colleges.

    Comparing two schools from the article, small Plymouth State that showed the most improved skills vs. large UT Austin that showed much smaller gains, keep in mind that Plymouth State freshman mid-range SAT scores are 970-1160 vs UT 1210-1480.  If you believe SAT scores are meaningful for critical thinking than it’s reasonable to believe that improving higher scores may be less likely in a “typical” college setting.

    Sadly, college graduates who did not gain higher levels of critical thinking skills often do not realize it, maybe because they lack critical thinking skills.

    Through diplomas, increasingly inflated grades and the drumbeat of college self-promotion, these students had been told they had received a great education. The fact that the typical student spent three times as much time socializing and recreating in college as studying and going to class didn’t change that belief. Nor did unsteady employment outcomes and, for the large majority of those surveyed, continued financial dependence on their parents.

    Remarkably, the students had almost no awareness of this dynamic. When asked during their senior year in 2009, three-quarters reported gaining high levels of critical thinking skills in college, despite strong C.L.A. evidence to the contrary. When asked again two years later, nearly half reported even higher levels of learning in college. This was true across the spectrum of students, including those who had struggled to find and keep good jobs.

  36. July,

    Are they using “critical thinking skills” as a euphemism for cognitive ability? I assume Plymouth State does well because they admit smart kids with more untapped potential. Totebag kids at HSSs are already about as educated as they are going to get.

  37. What does the Totebag think ?

    DD has access to a Math program through school. It is meant to practice topics covered in class. It does not take the place of homework but is do at your own pace with the goal of completing the current year’s topics by the end of the school year.
    DD tells me that some students have not only completed the current and next year’s topics but are now two years ahead. I am just wondering about this. Any experience with this sort of thing ?

  38. Louise,

    Do the kids who are ahead in this program also have to sit through the regular classes?

  39. Scarlett – yes, it’s Math extra practice and the students are doing the practice at home on their own time. They are also the top performing students, most top performers are a few months a year ahead but one or two are extreme – being two years ahead.

  40. I want to clarify that the Math program is an online practice tool. Once you get problems in one topic correct you can move on to the next. It also offers explanations for questions you got wrong.

  41. Louise, it sounds like it might help build speed in solving problems, and that can help with standardized tests.

  42. “Are they using “critical thinking skills” as a euphemism for cognitive ability? I assume Plymouth State does well because they admit smart kids with more untapped potential.”

    That could certainly be part of it. The CLA resluts as used appear to be measuring gains in learning and the evaluation of schools focuses on percentage of students who score above a basic level. This reminds me of NCLB. UT Austin and other colleges could probably game its CLA scores by admitting more students with “untapped potential” who can be pushed up and over that basic level.

    Louise, I don’t think that’s uncommon for families who are seeking higher grades that will earn them higher grades in those classes, which could garner them the benefit of boosting their GPA. Some students use tutors for this. OTOH, some students need this type of “pre-instruction” just to keep pace when they enter the class.

  43. Kate – I think that most companies use RSUs as an alternative to NQ stock options. They are apparently popular at public tech companies because they always have some value (can’t be underwater) and are more effective as an employment retention tool. They can also be satisfied either in cash or shares, which gives cash rich public companies that are in stock buy back programs more flexibility (such as a all of the companies that will get heaps of cash back in the repatriation holiday – the one thing that will pass in corporate tax reform IMHO) As for private companies, RSUs have upside over Restricted Stock or even traditional options in that no formal valuation is required upon grant, and (I had to google this part) apparently they can have a time criterion for vesting wrt to the employee, so they are his property even if he leaves the company, and also performance criterion wrt actually payment or delivery of stock, such as external purchase.

  44. Louise, if the tests adjust to the students level, the students might be working grade levels ahead in very little time, because the students won’t miss [many] questions on the material they already understand. The most extreme case I’m aware of is parents of a sixth grader who tested into differential equations at the university when the teacher insisted he needed to review sixth grade math. Many/most teachers don’t have any idea how to assess where their top math students are.

  45. @WCE – I agree. I also wouldn’t assume that the parents are necessarily pushing this. DS really loves math & will “learn ahead” on his own no matter what tools he has to do it – books, YouTube videos, Khan, etc. We do NOT push this for any gain on standardized tests or anything like that. He’s just interested, and I am certainly not going to stop his curiosity in math. He’s not that way in reading at all, but I don’t think it’s all that different from kids who just read whatever they can get their hands on. I was the same way as a kid – of course my parents were both math geeks so we had lots of books around even in the 80’s.

  46. Thanks Meme. I think that I would have enjoyed being a benefits lawyer. Maybe in my next life.

  47. Louise, IMO Ivy has the right approach– don’t push it, but facilitate it to the extent your kids will use it.

    Something like this would be great to do during school breaks to get ahead and buy some cushion for when other classes and activities create time pressure on the kids. Senior year in particular can be filled with time sinks associated with the college selection process.

  48. Louise, my guess is that it will also be good prep for PSAT/SAT/ACT/SAT math subject tests.

  49. “UT Austin and other colleges could probably game its CLA scores by admitting more students with “untapped potential” who can be pushed up and over that basic level.”

    They could, but are they incentivized to increase their CLA scores? Doing something like this would lower their US News rankings, so that provides an incentive to not do it.

  50. It would be interesting to see how well CLA scores correlate with IQ and (separately) job performance as measured 10 years later. I agree with all the criticisms about CLA as a test. I have worked with many great problem analysts/solvers and am skeptical that most employers want that trait. Certainly Wells Fargo, the public education system and the healthcare system don’t value creative problem solvers.

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