This week I’ve been on the road, talking to people about their work.  All kinds of people.  All kinds of work.

A man gets up at 4:30 every morning to wave the planes in at the airport.  “You get used to it,” he says.  He likes to watch the sun come up.  And to finish work by noon so he can take a nap or run some errands before it’s time to pick his kids up from school.  He has stock options, and gets free flights, which is how I met him, on the Regina to Calgary run.  When the plane pulled out of our approach on the landing, he went through the different possible scenarios and we listened to the announcement to verify his best guess.

Our seat partner on the flight makes his living testing pipelines for corrosion.  He has an acreage in the south Alberta badlands, but he gets restless.  This job lets him take off for a month at a time in his RV following the pipeline across the country.  “Its a good crew, like family,” he says.  His technology is cutting edge for his field and pipeline maintenance is a growing industry. But there is a cost to all the time away.  He plays peek a boo with the toddler in the seat ahead of us, says he has two boys aged 2 and 5 and he will have them for the week when he gets home.

An accountant I talk to is trying to figure out how to help his company make better decisions by providing them better information and analysis.  A human resources manager longs to move beyond the limited role she is playing, to become a true partner in building the team that can create the breakthrough results her company so badly needs.  A reporter’s head is spinning at the changes in his industry and feels pulled between a desire to break stories that prompt real change, and the reality of trying to court fickle eyeballs in the virtual world.  A manager is suddenly thrust into the breach, when a death, a resignation, and a long term sick leave, create a vacuum – and there is literally nobody left to pick up the reins.

I am moving from city to city, from conversation to conversation, listening, acknowledging, encouraging, challenging, asking questions, pointing out possibilities, helping people to find solid ground to build on amid the shifting sand, a place to anchor in turbulence, a little more courage, compassion, creativity and resourcefulness. And sometimes a project plan.

When I’m in the midst of a week like this, I am always reminded of a Marge Piercy poem.  I’ll risk quoting it here and refer you to her website for the full bibliography of her novels, books of poetry and memoirs.

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
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.

Three morals in this story:

1. A person longs for work that is real.
2.The world is not moved forward by parlor generals or field deserters.
3. But by people who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done again and again.
Yours with creativity and imagination,
Darlene

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