Work & love
Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half our hunger.
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
What we love to do, that we do well. To know is not all; it is only half. To love is the other half…nothing can take the place of love. Love is the measure of life: only so far as we love do we really live...there is no preservative and antiseptic, nothing that keeps one’s heart young, like love, like sympathy, like giving one’s self with enthusiasm to some worthy thing or cause.
– John Burrows, “The Art of Seeing Things,” in Leaf and Tendril, 1908
My mother gave me a tiny pocket edition of Kahlil Gibran when I was a teenager. At the time, I thought work meant chores, or what I did to put money in my pocket. The things I loved to do – carving, ceramics, photography – seemed completely unrelated, especially since I had no interest in selling anything.
I graduated from college with praise, but also acutely aware of my brother and other peers who left before graduation because they either had real things to do or just hadn’t been able to fit in to college. Whatever “success” graduation celebrated, it clearly made me no more qualified or intelligent than anyone else. I had no clear idea what to do next.
A friend had taken a job in an Inuit village north of the Arctic circle, and invited me to visit. I found a cheap ticket to Alaska in the classified ads. My mother helped me shop for a new backpack. The day of my departure, she left the house before I did. I felt relieved and sad. Then she came back, unexpectedly, to retrieve a forgotten item. I surprised us both when I lashed out at her with anger and tears. I blamed her for being blind to my confusion and fear. I was angry at losing my small status so quickly. Late for her appointment, she just said, “well, I’m glad to see you’re human” and left. I got on the plane with a copy of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, notebooks and pens, and a vague idea that I’d write about social and community change in the North.
I spent my 23d birthday drinking beer and celebrating with research contacts. We watched the midsummer sun swing around the bottom of its circuit, just above the horizon, while they told me about trying to teach native kids to be industrial students. The next day, they put me on a tiny plane into the northern bush, where my friend Sue was running a community garden project in a tiny native village. I was curious about how this strong, beautiful, and ancient culture had been broken by money, alcohol, gasoline, and TV, in just a few generations. I had little interest in the gardens, which seemed small recompense for their losses.
Some of our neighbors shared their fish, walrus, and other wild foods with us, but at home in Sue’s cabin, we ate crackers and peanut butter, flown in at great expense from very far away. Sue was also, inadvertently, the distributor for free government rations from a US Geological Survey camp over the ridge. They regularly sent surplus boxes of packaged food and, once, a dozen frozen turkeys. I think the helicopter pilot who made the deliveries welcomed the excuse to see a rare, white, and single US female. Sue distributed the goods throughout the village, but her neighbors asked for alcohol.
We were about as far into the bush as you could get, among people whose culture had flourished there, and for far longer than anything in our own histories, but I was trapped up tight in the world I’d brought with me, a world that demanded a kind of work that would add nothing to the lives of the people whose hospitality I was accepting. Sue’s little box-like cabin provided a safe place to read, write, and retreat, but after a couple of depressing weeks, I left for the southern harbors and fish plants, where the summer salmon run offered surer work and wages. I needed something real to do and money to get home. I pitched my tent on a sandy spit between the town and the fish plants, where the other “spit rats” had built a haphazard, multicolored nylon village. Rubber boots at the door said who was “home” and who was working on the “slime line,” hacking at dead fish – or spending a precious hour or three at the library or a bar.
I landed on the cleanup crew, and spent extra hours hanging out, making up bad doggerel about “holding my hose,” and writing lonesome postcards to friends back home. Sue sent me an announcement for a job running a small community newspaper for the same native corporation that had hired her. I applied with a brief resume featuring my degree, and a 6-month internship at a small magazine. I was surprised when they offered me the job, but it was a one-man office, a long winter, a foreign culture that would be, I’d been told, as familiar to me as China, and a dark, wild-west town full of alcohol and depression. Depressed myself, lacking courage or desire, I declined, and headed home as soon as I could find a ride.
I rented a room in a shared house in Boston and found a part-time job as a sculptor’s assistant. For a year or so, I cast little plaster copies of Egyptian sculptures for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts store, made fiberglass molds for retirees who wanted permanent copies of bad sculpture, and helped make new copies of old architectural molding for historic renovations. At one time, the studio had produced large public and religious art pieces, but the fragments of even those big jobs didn’t convince me that art was as important as working directly in and for the community, something I was trying out on my off days as a part-time volunteer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Acorn had hit a nerve in Boston with a campaign to move homeless people into empty, publicly-owned houses that the City was holding for developers, wanted to replace them with office buildings.
I considered applying for a full-time organizer position, but Acorn assigned new recruits and seasoned organizers according to a military schedule that rotated them through various campaigns around the country. How could they grow community if they never gave their own seeds any time in the ground? I wanted freedom and community, but itinerant organizing seemed to point the opposite way. On the other hand, I told my girlfriend that I never expected to be content because I never expected to see my ideals made real. The purpose of life was change, and I thought I was making a commitment “to be” something other – and better – than an artist who would have to work for whatever status quo the market would support.
Then one day a smart and committed activist buddy from college joined me on a visit to my mother at her home. Around the house, he noticed a couple of sculptures I’d made. “You have talent,” he said. I dismissed the comment as I’d dismissed the work. But his words stuck somewhere, only to rise again on that calm day when my mind was finally quiet enough to hear the voice that asked, “If talent is a gift, who are you to reject it?”
I thought I had been trying to meet the challenge of work, but really I was worrying about how to “choose a career” – one that would make the world a better place, make me who I was meant to be – and make me a living. I had confused my own choices for expectations – some societal and others of my own – and I had confused work with performance. Rewards only went to those who did it “right.” But if work seemed bitter, perhaps my eating it would benefit others, who wouldn’t have to. The confusion left little room for the other half of hunger, which – in my case, at least – was a hunger for beauty – and not just physical beauty, but something bigger that I knew best by its absence.
It took a dozen years before I could give up the bitter bread. While I didn’t exactly beg alms, I did receive gifts from more than a few people for whom work seemed to be more than a paycheck or a reflection of their ego. One poet friend of my mother’s wisely advised me that careers weren’t chosen, like college or graduate school, but made, slowly and gradually, by working. Literally, of course, a career is a path, made or followed, and as I slowly began to understand that, it helped me shift my focus from a future beyond my control, to my own choices about what I actually did from day-to-day.
I most loved losing myself in hand-work: carving, and the feel of shapes growing out and up as hard stone or wood gave way under blade and mallet; finding and following shapes and lines with pencil on paper; even making bread – pulling the dough into a loaf and seeing it bulge out from under its taut, smooth skin. And I loved them because they rewarded work with beauty that wasn’t mine – the surprising life and warmth of crystalline marble, the light and shadows that illuminate shape and form, the flavor and texture of good bread….
It was hard to believe in the importance – or even the usefulness – of that kind of work and beauty, so often labeled quaint or common, but essential to making and maintaining a whole world. I knew nothing of astronomy or horticulture, but (when I paid attention) I could see and feel the beauty of the skies and the green, growing earth. Eventually – finally – after I decided that it was more important to do work that fit me than it was to try and copy others – I found ways to work with love.
Despite what they say about teaching being the province of those “who can’t do,” people learn best by doing, so teachers who love what they do attract students who want to learn – so I soon found myself teaching the kinds of art I love. Working with mud made it all the more appealing. I can talk a long time about how schmearing mud plaster on the walls gives living flesh to the planes and surfaces of the walls we live in, how it can make a living space out of painted, dead, sheetrock box, how it can open up a room to the caresses of sun and shadow, making walls taut or loose, lithe or lumpy – but it also just feels good, like making mud pies.
Still, people balk at “not knowing how.” They tentatively dab mud on the wall, or struggle to make tools do what they want, trying to keep the mud under strict control. Then I suggest that they approach the work as they’d approach making love. “If the tools get in your way, just work with your hands.” They laugh, often nervously, but go back to work with less anxiety, less concern for doing it right and more faith that love will guide them.
The joys of love are similar, whether made of warm flesh, cool dough, wet mud, or cold crystalline marble. They are also brief – though commitment can inspire constancy. We succeed when we risk losing our hearts by giving them away completely. We succeed when we believe. Belief, of course, grows out of love (they share the same root). But it is stronger. When love breaks your heart; when the stone cracks or the bread won’t rise, belief keeps us working. Eventually, love becomes visible again. So “Love is the answer” but not just because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy – love is the answer because it is the essential art by which we may participate in creation.
Recognition of these truths doesn’t require conscious awareness – sometimes it comes about through intuition – literally, through inner awareness (the Greek root is tueri, “to pay attention,” making tuition the price of hiring someone to attend the kids when we don’t have the time ourselves). I used to bristle when people made fuzzy claims for intuitive design, but I had to adjust my attitude as I took in the deeper meaning of the word – and when I remembered how I could abandon a problem to take a nap, and wake up in 15 minutes with the perfect solution – no logic, and no apparent effort required!
Without intuition, lovers would discuss every caress and evaluate every embrace. Instead, we intuitively welcome a loving embrace without reservation, and remember it with joy. By the same token, art – like any work worth doing – goes best without words, sometimes without thought. Since we all live in bodies that fit together well and work, individually and in groups, we all carry an intuitive, innate knowledge of beauty – our own, that of the world, that of what binds us to the rest of creation. Even if we aren’t in direct contact with the world through our hands and eyes, we’re all constantly in our own beautiful, useful bodies — and whether or not we’re mentally conscious of it, we are physically aware of it.
It doesn’t take much to restore that contact and that confidence. I’ve seen people rediscover it simply through mixing mud, barefoot, or squishing it by hand onto a wall or an oven or a piece of sheetrock. I can show you countless photos of people jumping in the mud, an individual experience that is easily and directly shared, that produces smiles and laughter, and that soon becomes pleasant, practical labor resulting in a building or a sculpture (or both in one) larger than all its makers put together. People go home inspired to design their own projects and organize their own “work parties” to sow another crop of work and reap another harvest of love. You don’t “have to be good at” art in order to work at integrating love and practice, belief and intuition. Simply by the doing of it, we better fit ourselves into our homes and communities, we confirm harmony, measure “rightness” of fit, and maintain beauty.
 The rest of the quote (as much as I copied down in my notebook):
The science of anything may be taught or acquired by study; the art of it comes by practice or inspiration. The art of seeing things is not something that may be conveyed in rules or precepts; it is a matter vital in the eye and ear, yea, in the mind and soul, of which these are organs. I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner. Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it...”
Even the successful angler seems born, and not made; he appears to know instinctively the ways of trout. The secret is, no doubt, love of the sport. Love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, is steadies the hand, it arms against the wet and the cold. What we love to do....