A few days ago, I picked up Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye, a book of poems a friend gave me last Christmas. It opened to Frankly whose surprising message I’ve been thinking about it all week.
No one has time for the dying.
And they don’t have time for us either.
Our lunch dates and appointments,
their fitful sleeps and crusted eyes.
Students circling in a parking lot
down the road certainly don’t have time.
First period coming too soon will scatter
clumps of flirtation.
Moms in fitness garb
with grocery lists and car pool numbers
stuck to refrigerators,
have too many of the living to pick up, drop off.
At the end we bore the dying,
our teary smiles, pitiful offerings.
Frank said, “If I could only get back
to my desk, back to work,”
and closed his eyes. Last line.
What a surprise to learn
the greatest pleasure of life was
all that daily labor.
What a surprise to learn the greatest pleasure of life was
all that daily labor.
Nye’s father’s last words flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that one of biggest regrets of the dying is that they worked too much. I wonder if they meant work without connection or meaning.
My own ‘daily labor’ has anchored and sustained me through difficult times. When I doubted it, worrying about money or criticism, my wise friend and poet, the late Steven J. (Jesse) Bernstein would say gruffly, lovingly: Do your work!
Which is what Jesse did, even when his brain chemistry was turning against him, or he didn’t know how he would pay the rent. Jesse wrote and performed fiercely, no holds barred; that was his job. He became a legend because of it.
Jesse would set me straight and I’d get back to work, the personal mission at hand. I continue to do my work, still, even though it is flawed and at times shot through with uncertainty. That’s when I look to people who remind me of Jesse’s message.
Patti Smith is one. I love how she seems to have candidly grown from brazen punk rocker to shy, aging poet: a person all along…
…who makes mistakes, as she did, very publicly and movingly during her performance of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at the recent 2016 Noble Prize ceremony. (Video link here.)
At 1:55, in the second verse, she forgot the lyrics and asked to begin the section over again. “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” she said and continued, stumbling once again at 4:10. It’s an astonishing moment that had many in tears. At around 6 minutes, it’s as though Smith drops her fear, and loosens into the song, arms outstretched. Patti did her job.
The entire performance felt like a fierce and instantaneous corrective to “times like these”—a reiteration of the deep, overwhelming, and practical utility of art to combat pain.
“Work” can mean many things, not just the more obvious creative callings. I have friends for whom navigating each day is their work; others for whom it is bringing up a child. For all, there is huge creativity involved. Nye’s poem reminds that “daily labor” can give great pleasure and meaning. Jesse and Patti Smith affirm that it is essential to find.
(Ram Dass took a way big view of what ‘daily labor’ might really be: “We’re all just walking each other home”.)