What Work Is

“Forget you,” says the poet Philip Levine in his poem “What Work Is”. I used to read the poem with the stress on forget which makes those two words dismissive. A few years ago, I started to stress the you which, I think, makes them an admonition, an opening to the possibility of knowing the real work of life. I decided to name this blog What Work Is because it seems I’m constantly in need of reminders of the real work of life.

I’d like this venture to be about affections more than frustrations. Who and what do I love, think is admirable, and wish to share? It isn’t hard to find the objectionable, the frustrating or the hateful. Certainly, I don’t think we should look away from such difficult, tragic, immoral, or unethical things. That is also the real work of life. However, I’m hoping to use this blog to prompt my imagination and maybe the imagination of others toward the work of loving. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment of the Humanities, Wendell Berry says, “By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”

So many of my friends and acquaintances (writers, artists, leaders, teachers, thinkers, caregivers, and so on) have shared their loves and affections with me over the years. I hope this effort (incomplete as it is likely to be) is an opportunity to show my gratitude by giving back.

In the poem, Levine’s character is standing in line in the rain, waiting to be told that there isn’t work today. Levine’s characters are often doing this sort of thing. Edward Hirsch called him “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” I have an affection for these kinds of characters and poems. The young man’s glasses blur his vision and he mistakes a man in line ahead of him for his brother.

How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,   
just because you don’t know what work is.

Let’s do some work.

PS: I’m going to come back sometime and write about that little phrase “open your eyes wide.” It makes me uncomfortable so it seems like something to think about.

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