lenten journal: to be of use


    Saturday is the hardest day to write.

    Friday morning I can get up and get going before I have to go to the restaurant where I work ten to ten. My schedule is the same on Saturday, but it’s also the middle day. Sundays are full as well at my other job: two services in the morning (or one and then I rush over to Ginger’s church so I can feel some connection there) and youth group in the evening. This week, Sunday also means finding time to sort through the paperwork from the ski trip to get the receipts turned in – my favorite thing.

    Last night was slow, so I got away a little earlier than usual. When it comes time to cut staff on a slow night, cooks are like produce: first in, first out. I’m the lunch guy on Friday and Saturday, which means I’m there a couple of hours ahead of the other cooks, so I was the first to leave. Ginger and I actually had part of a Friday night together. it was nice. I found out as I was leaving that we have a party of twenty coming in for lunch today. (Do you remember the part where I said I was by myself?) Today should be interesting.

    Much of my work in the kitchen this week has been preparatory. Wednesday I made the cheese fondue, French onion soup, Pomodoro sauce; yesterday I made a roasted tomato bisque (follow the recipe for Roasted Tomato Sauce and add one quart of cream). for some reason, in the middle of all the chopping and slicing and stirring that goes into keeping the fridge stocked and the line supplied, I’m always caught by how much I enjoy both the routine and the work. Though I certainly appreciate being noticed – I know I thrive on affirmation, I love the behind the scense work. The simple tasks and routine actions carry in themselves a deep sense of value and validation.

    I can feel a smile come to myself when I get surprised – again – by this very simple and recurring realization. I wonder why I’m surprised. The best I can come up with is I know how much affirmation means to me. I know part of the payoff in doing something for someone else is in being appreciated (not all of the payoff, but part of it). What surprises me in the middle of my routine is how much of the payoff is in simply doing the job well and doing the jobs that make life easier for the other cooks and make them look good. When I’ve done the prep work well, we sail through meal times creating great food and having a great time.

    There is great joy in simple work.

    As if I’m the first one to notice! That’s so Buddha in the like sixth century BC. But I will relish my insights however they come. The power of daily work may be part of the reason I love listening to Garrison Keillor when he closes out The Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work, and stay in touch.” Not a bad approach to living.

    There’s another side to this for me. Growing up, one of the things my dad used to say to my brother and I was, “If you’re going to be involved in something, you might as well be in charge; someone has to.” He worked hard to instill in us a sense of leadership: we were people born to lead others. I took his words to heart, with mixed results. I am someone who will speak up and take charge. The downside of that is I struggle to know when to shut up and let someone else take their turn.

    Over the years, I have had to learn that, though I do have some leadership skills, my father’s lesson was more for him than me. Some of the places in my life where I have been happiest and felt most deeply fed have been in supporting roles. I still have to own that I speak up way too much in committee meetings, I just don’t have to be the chair. I’m a better associate pastor, for instance, than a senior pastor. I like being the line cook better than the head chef.

    When I was in seminary, my Dad came to visit and we went to dinner. I was just beginning to learn how to articulate what I’m saying here. “I don’t want to always be in charge,” I said. “I just want to be ordinary.”

    “You don’t have a choice,” he answered.

    Ah, but I do. And it is a choice I’m continuing to learn how to make.

    Marge Piercy has a wonderful poem that I first learned about through Bill Moyers’ work. It’s called, “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.

    That I’m still surprised by the simple power of slicing tomatoes and that I can still so viscerally recall the conversation with my father speak how desperately I need to learn this lesson and how the somewhat rocky soil of my life makes it hard to take root. But it is growing. I can feel it with every move of my hand across the cutting board.



    1. Question, mostly not relating at all to your entry (sorry). I am going to open a diner soon and it’s the first time I will have done this and I’ll be on my own. It’ll just be a small hole-in-the-wall type place for working guys. Only serving lunch and a quick grab it and go breakfast. Do you have any advice? I’m feeling more than a little lost and nervous to do this by myself.

    2. I can understand why Saturday may well be your most difficult day to write – but I really appreaciated the insight into your routines. There was just as much ‘good stuff’ (for sake of probably far better words!) there for me as there was when you write and yours words take you far from your schedule. Much, much enjoyed reading that entry Milton. See you again tomorrrow!

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