mud: the work that is real

We found the sun this weekend, or more like she found us.  The kids tumbled in from outside, all smiles and flushed cheeks, never ending stories and runny noses.  They peeled layers off, cheeks flushed red with fresh blood, and smiles that seem to burst forth from deep inside their bellies.  Before I could throw out a reminder about their boots, the mud that had spread into the treads of those boots  and darkened their knees was already loosened and coloring the white tiles of my kitchen floor.  Their story varied over the course of the weekend, but their excitement had something to do with digging deep in the dirt and making soup. Or Chinese Food.  And there was an extravagant  delivery system involving dump trucks.  Our back door was wide open, and I demanded that breeze to exorcise  my house of all of winter’s ills.  I welcomed the familiar sound of the metal spring stretching out and then the heavy thwack of the wood door landing hard back in place.  But it was the constant presence of the dirt, the thick clay-like coolness of the mud, that sticks with me.  Yesterday, as the rain came heavy and fast from the sky, I watched the kids’ fresh dirt trenches fill with water, rivulets of mud soup navigating through the backyard.

The work of the world is common as mud.

This line is written on my tiny patch of chalkboard paint in my kitchen.  When we replaced our oven a few months back we had to rework some of the spacing of our cabinets and I was left with some odd wall space.  One wintry day, I claimed it for myself as a place to write out words so they can be a regular part of my visual landscape, even though I’m not quite hip enough to make it look stylish (and I’m okay with that).  The work of the world is common as mud, it says.  These words, from a gorgeous poem by Marge Piercy, have been following me around now for weeks.  They will not let me go.  (If you are my friend of Facebook, you know this, because I couldn’t keep these words to myself!)  My work these days in nothing if not common.  Like mud, the work of mothering is not unique to me, but is the work of families this wide world over, timeless and spaceless like little else.  Though my quest this year is to see the Story swirling around me, some days the only story I can hear is the one of dirty dishes teetering way-too-high in my sink.  These days it’s easy to feel the quicksand pull of this work,  hearing only the slurping sound of suction as I try to rise above it, futile in my resistance to it’s gravity.  The poem continues:

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

Some days my efforts feel like dust, crumbled and falling through my outstretched fingers.  Holding no shape, the work of my mind, the toil of my hands, only seems to tell the story of dirt pressed deep into my fingernails.   The common mud-work of dinner making, crumbling to nothing as the picky eaters of my table push their plates away, upturned noses wanting only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I make dust through my own self-talk of patience, grasping for the right words in the middle of mind-battling the Eldest.  It is the stink of old mud, left brittle in the sun, when I am again revising sleeping arrangements, desperate to carve out a space of solace for myself, my husband, in this house too small and so full.  I scrub at my hands, and mostly my heart, all smeared with the day’s dirt and dust.  I’m looking for a cleaner version of myself, but the grime remains.  The end of each day finds me exhausted, over saturated with tiredness, and yet with a look back over the day I produce nothing to say: see, this, here.

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.
-“To Be of Use” Marge Piercy

Here’s where I take solace: the amphoras that are now in museums, adored for their sensual shape and their glow of beauty, must also have sweat pressed into their clay.  They bear the invisible finger prints of someone so long ago who maybe didn’t think this vessel was beautiful at all.  It was simply useful.  And that is beautiful.

Like that pitcher, I cry out for work that is real.  Water, oil, wine — all poured out with significance in blessings, celebrations and renewal.  Even the kids, with little care in the world, create real work for themselves, out of nothing but mud. The trick is in seeing how real my work actually is. This work of raising people, teaching and tending, feeding and mending, bodies and souls, can be shapeless and formless, not so clean and evident. But maybe another way to look at it is this: “Work is love made visible,” says Kahlil Gilbran.  Today I may have trouble seeing how my work, with this particular color thread, will appear in the tapestry of my story.  Without a sense of the big picture, it can be hard to understand the importance of this daily, common work of mud.  I want to remember that this, above all else, is the thing worth doing well done.

It’s a story of longevity, and I’ve got time.  This type of beautification comes with age, and with wear.  I’m not ready for that high museum shelf yet.


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