I don’t like work,” Joseph Conrad once wrote. “No man does—but I like what is in the work— the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”
How do we find ourselves in work, especially in menial chores? There is a stanza in a poem by D.H. Lawrence that I think points the way. “As we live,” the poem goes, “we are transmitters of life. And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us. Give and it shall be given unto you is still the truth about life. It means kindling the life-quality where it was not, even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief. “
I needed that poem today. I was cleaning the house and the way I approached my chores transmitted stress, not life. I was edgy and tense because I didn’t want to clean. I fought with a broken appliance I had to fix and felt victimized when one of the screws wouldn’t unscrew. I was like a trickster god was tightening the screw as I was trying to loosen it. I even became cross with my wife when I found the dishwasher loaded with dirty dishes. “That’s here job, not mine,” I mumbled to myself. For the first half hour there was no order or flow to the way I worked. I was pushing through it, resenting having to do it and wanting to be done with it as quickly as possible.
Mercifully, I caught myself before the adrenals let loose with a dose of stress hormones that would tarnish the morning. I made myself sit in a chair in the dining room and follow my breath until I was breathing slow and easy. I quieted my ego by looking out the window as a breeze blew through the trees outside and made the leaves shimmer. It took a few minutes but eventually my attitude shifted. A light inside me switched on and suddenly there was more daylight in the world. I got up from the chair, went back to work and the remaining chores flowed like a dance.
As I was raking the last of the leaves at the front of the house, a bird flying by caught my eye and I watched it land in the Japanese maple tree across the street. The maple leaves had turned a most beautiful color of red. Some of the leaves had now shed, creating a velvet blanket of red on the sidewalk. I looked down the street and noticed that the Sycamores were now completely bare. Their branches were dull gray, though the winter light had given them the look of polished silver in places. From where I stood, the street gradually sloped down to the avenue. Across the avenue is a large field covered in tall green grass and overhead a falcon, suspended in mid air, scanned the field for rodents. Above everything was a lovely welkin. For a moment, my whole being merged with the beauty of this scene and my heart felt as if it might burst.