Let Me Give You a Hand; Thoughts on Work

Following on the thoughts of a previous blog post about the photography of Lewis Hine, I got thinking about the incredible work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiào Salgado, who took stunning pictures of, for example, the miners in the terrible gold mines of Sierra Pelada. Unforgettable images of this hell of large- and small-scale greed, https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/hell-serra-pelada-1980s/, where men were paid pennies for what owners made millions from…except for what got smuggled away. And so it goes. I got thinking too about the slaves who built the pyramids. And then I found myself, just by happenstance because of my poetry book reading group, reading Pablo Neruda, specifically, The Heights of Macchu Picchu. In these poems, Neruda considers the still-standing edifice of the Incas, and finds himself thinking of the builders. He imagines their sweat and bones in the stone. He writes:

Dame la mano desde la profunda…

Mirame desde el fondo de la tierra,

labrador, tejedor, pastor callado…

Mostradme vuestra sangre y vuestro surco,

decideme: aquí fui castigado…


Give me your hand from the depths…

Look at me from the deeps of the earth,

plowman, weaver, quiet shepherd…

Show me your blood and your furrow,

tell me: here I was punished…

Work is a complex thing. It can be a soul-sucking, time-burning depletion, or it can be an expression of the full being. There can be grace on a production line, I imagine: pride in efficient, high quality work done safely by a team who believe in their product. But when I think of work, I think of solitude. That’s just me. I think of the times I’ve lost myself in my work of mind and hand — the swirl of thinking and logic and overcoming obstacles, being imaginative in problem-solving, articulating something effectively. And having fun in the process. Loving, in fact, the process. I also think of all the jobs I’ve had that were not that at all, were depleting in various ways, mostly because I either didn’t care about it or didn’t feel valued, or both.

My product is not in stone and will not last a human lifetime much less generations. What is the value of work whose outcome is ephemeral? For that matter, what is the value of work that lasts?

I saw an article today in which a tourist referred to Macchu Picchu as just a bunch of ruins. I remember being shocked at how small the Mona Lisa is, as I peered through shoulders and around people’s necks to try to glimpse it in the crowd, then moved on to stand undisturbed for a long time in front of a Dutch master painting of a family bent over a candle. But a recent article in The Atlantic revealed some of the craftsmanship, artistry, and just plain magic of what Michelangelo did to create the Mona Lisa, my initial underwhelm-ness notwithstanding. What a process. I feel richer for knowing what he did.

It seems a form of prayer, somehow, that kind of deep working, the earnestness with which we can approach whatever our work is, a prayer not to some external deity, but invoking the best of humanity.



Fanfare for the Common Man; or, This Is Us; or, Loving Lewis Hine

I attended an art exhibit recently of photographs by Lewis Hine, a documentary photographer who catalogued the American immigrant experience and the American worker experience. Noses blobby or aquiline, cheekbones craggy or hidden in fleshy cheeks, bodies long and thin or squat and wide, the workers whose faces he carefully captured in light and shadow in the early part of the 20th century were at factory production lines, or high up in the skeletons of skyscrapers, or bent over careful handcraft, and reflected all the kinds of faces our heritages shape us into.

It seems like our culture idealizes and idolizes the rags to riches story, and in our dreams we’re the rich who’ve made it. But for most of us, it’s not rags to riches but rags to carefully chosen items from the Sears & Roebuck catalog to a good bargain in the Sears mid-winter sales, and a life lived as decently as possible, with a care to make things better for the kids, and then death, the great equalizer. Most of us are neither heroes nor villains, neither grand successes nor terrible failures.

As so many are finding through the test-your-DNA craze, we’re an improbable mishmosh of ancestry, a shmear of who made us, layered with the ways we’ve encountered the world.

A book by the door of the exhibit invited people to write tales of their own family immigration story, and people scrawled of a grandfather who came through Ellis Island and worked his whole life on the production line, another who made it through law school to end up on the Supreme Court. Hine’s photos show the lines of work, both wear and muscle, laughter and worry, fatigue and rapt concentration.

I listened to my fellow visitors imagining what it was like to be among the throng stuffing the staircases of Ellis Island’s intake building, or recalling a relative who’d worked at the same industry pictured, or noting the likeness between an old photo and a family face.

This is us.

We’re not the riches nor the rags but the way we live, the work we care about, the camaraderie we enjoy. Let’s idolize the doing, not the having-done, the what-money-we-made, and the look-what-we-bought.

Let’s take our funny faces, bulbous foreheads, thin lips, our beady eyes or wide-set, dark or pale, and look at each other with the kind of care Lewis Hine did, loving the variation of lines, loving the same fears and hopes glowing from all the different eyes. Let us now praise unfamous men. Let’s try to work at the hard work of getting along together.

Coming in from the Storm; or, On Friendship

In keeping with the zeitgeist, I’ve been struggling with enjoying Bay of Spirits by Farley Mowat about his ten years spent sailing around and living in the southeast coast of Newfoundland, the endless storm-ridden weather and wonderful stories of the hard and fun-loving people he met in the tiny settlements in the deep, craggy bays of that coastline, as the whole tale is told against the barely-mentioned backdrop of his having cheated on his wife then abandoned her and his two young sons to take up life with a young woman who joined him for this life at sea and by the sea. The bastard tells a good story.

At any rate, I was struck by this quote by a fisherman in one of these tiny hamlets that foundered for years in the boom then long bust of the fishing industry in Newfoundland. He said: “Stormy times as might make a man wonder could he do better on a different voyage…The truth on it be, me sons…I don’t believe as he could. We shapes our course as we wants to, with them as we wants alongside…”

This struck me, as I read it the day after my latest birthday, and the day after I spent a lovely evening with friends, and anticipated a coming evening with my husband in a second evening of birthday celebrating, and feeling rich with birthday calls and cards and well wishes and the riches that have happened upon me on this voyage whose twists and turns I sometimes had a hand in, but sometimes was driven by winds and tides I could not control.

Ahoy, me mateys. Drop ye an anchor and abide a while. Glad to have ye alongside.

Oh, No, Know, No; or Creativity and the Beginner’s Mind

Midway in life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood. Well, my mind was the dark wood. I was actually standing in a well-lit dance studio. Here in my middle age, I decided to take an intro ballet class. Unlike many little girls, I had never taken any kind of dance class, although somehow I managed to learn somewhere along the way the ballet foot positions, but that’s about all I’ve got, except for some basic balance and coordination. All gone now, as I’m standing still as everyone else is moving — my limbs and brain simply unable to work together to pursue this series of steps. A point, step, point, step, hoppity hop, kickish thing, tippy-toe hop. Octopus-like, my limbs have minds of their own. My arms have given up and are heading home. My legs keep refusing to hoppity hop, substituting instead some kind of froggish leap, and then my brain forgets what’s supposed to happen next, so the whole lot of us — limbs, arms, torso, head, peter out of movement and just stand there as the wave of classmates roughly pursue the proper motions around us.

Fortunately, I have no interest in preserving my pride here. I’m just interested in having a different mind-body experience than my normal walking about. And I’m glad I had the idea to disrupt my brain and brain-body connection with this class. It makes me experience the world a little differently, to pay attention differently, and to ask different things of my mind and its connection to my body. And it forces my know-it-all-ish mind to be not-knowing.

And I think about this as I peruse Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which is a crazy quilt notebook of the kinds of assignments she gives to her various classes on thinking and paying attention. She uses many kinds of timed assignments for drawing, writing, making notes, listening to passing conversations, telling stories — all in pursuit of maintaining an attentive yet dreaming mind, of being conscious and being conscious of being conscious, without being self-conscious. Many would-be students say to her anxiously, “But I don’t know how to draw.”

But it’s in between the not-knowing and doing-anyway that magic happens. One note from a page of her notebook says this: “How the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination, and intentional thinking–.”

It’s when my mind is alert but a bit flighty, like I’m humming and skating at the same time — I can’t be too distracted from the skating, or I’ll hit a bump in the ice and fall down; and I can’t be too focused on humming, because, well, that would be kind of crazy (Have you seen that weird humming lady at the skating rink? Yeah, obviously wacked) that I come up with some good ideas, and can start to bring them to fruition.

I’m between projects at the moment, so am rattling around the house distractedly, pausing in the kitchen or living room to practice the hoppity hop kickish thing tippy-toe hop (What on earth are you DOING, my husband asks) and trying to notice things and notice what I notice — in the hopes I will at some point force myself to sit DOWN (my ass apparently also has a mind of its own) and start to work on something. hoppity hop tippy-toe no wait crap


Ready; On Reading and the Pursuit of Happiness

I just watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. Several things struck me. One was how swiftly Joan Didion’s face lapses back into loss, her large eyes oceans of exactly the darkness that grief is, the slash of her mouth across her lined face, the bizarrely flung movements of her hands toward the interviewer, her nephew, as if they were living another life from her face, as today I look at one window and see a twinkle of snow flurries but through another window a blue sky. But the other thing that struck me was the shots of the book shelves — when the documentary mentions one of Didion’s or her husband’s books, the book itself is often depicted on a shelf with other books, some contemporary with the mentioned book, some older, some classics. A life of reading was depicted here, even more so perhaps than a life of writing.

I’ve also been looking through Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, which is a year in her life of monthly blog/cartoons thinking about the US presidents and the concept of Democracy. Her two drawings of the crowds of fluttering flags on the mall for Obama’s inauguration make me sad. (I think too of, in the documentary, Obama protective and carefully shepherding tiny Didion onto the stage for her medal.) I love Kalman’s picture of a pink chair piled with some of the many books in Jefferson’s library, preserved in the Library of Congress. What incredibly well read and thoughtful people were Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, so many of those old “fathers,” for all their faults and contradictions. (Am I still allowed to say that out loud, or is the zeitgeist overwhelmingly bloody-minded about flawed white men?)

Kalman’s curiosity and drollness and interest in US history reminds me of Sarah Vowell’s dear and hilarious meditations on her various historical obsessions. I would like to have them both over for dinner. Throw Didion into the mix, and I’ll just stay in the kitchen and eavesdrop.

The house of my dreams has a wall of white built-in bookcases surrounding a picture window. In the dream, I’ve read all the books. So it must be a dream. I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion, and of the books mentioned by Kalman in her perusal of the Jefferson library, I’ve read none. I’ve read many of the books in my house on its scattered and unseemly bookcases (no white built-ins, no picture window), but many look at me year after year, their covers fading and dusty. I’ve read few of the classics of Western tradition, and yet I’ve read a lot of all kinds of books. (Perhaps my downfall is that I love to re-read.) (Well, one of my downfalls.) My mother, in the days of library card catalogs, used to, for a while, go into each letter of the alphabet and randomly choose a card and read that book, whatever it was, a biography of an obscure historical figures, a translation of short stories from the Congo, a TV repair how-to book. I appreciate and share that magpie approach to reading.

Whenever anyone asks me how I became a I writer, my reply always begins with the fact that I was always a reader. Reading indeed is fundamental, that is, pertaining to a foundation. I love that our country, as wildly flawed as it is, was founded on principles developed by a well-read group of people, as wildly flawed as they were. May we as a people remain an open book.