the work

Photo by Angela Lewis for the New York Times

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work.” – Wendell Berry

I’ve never cared for using the “work” to describe the processes we consciously choose in order to understand ourselves better – therapy, yoga long distance running, whatever it is that helps us to find our “true north. Work seems like drudgery, something that must be done. Work is the three-page article in this week’s New York Times on spring cleaning that extends from baseboards to ceilings to steam vacuuming mattresses. Ugh.

And yet I can’t find a decent synonym. Of those listed in my thesaurus, only “servitude” appeals — servitude to the self.

I have sent myself headfirst into the work in the past weeks and the results have been dizzying. My anxiety, already saturated from the hormonal marshlands of perimenopause, has been painfully palpable of late. (We just finished reading the section in the final Harry Potter in which the Harry, Ron, and Hermione take turns wearing the locket that contains Voldemort’s soul, and the way it twitches with panic, darkening the mood of the wearer, is an apt metaphor for anxiety.) Working with a new therapist, I’ve chosen to mindfully walk into the closet at the end of the hallway – the one with the spiderwebs and the old photographs of people you only just recognize as earlier versions of yourself.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” I’ve said to C. on a number of occasions about this foray. What I’m really saying is, “I’m not sure I want to do this.”

You can throw yourself into the work — silent meditation retreat, anyone? — or you can wait for it to come to you. Because it always does. Sometimes when you’ve been seeking it out and challenging yourself, you almost seem more ripe for The Unexpected Crap. “But I thought I’d done all my work… I figured it out… why does this need to come my way?” you might think as Life hands you a tornado and a flood, followed by a dash of illness and a smidge of financial loss. A friend who is an Anusara teacher, commenting on the recent brouhaha over John Friend, told me the whole thing, though clearly painful and disheartening, was an AFGO (another fucking growth opportunity). It wasn’t something she’d asked for, but here it was, served up tableside like a flaming cherries jubilee. Might as well use it as a chance to flex some muscle and laugh with the Powers That Be!

The photo at the top stopped me tonight. Can you imagine? Really? A wall of intact books and the sky above.What work does this man have ahead of him? The unadulterated effort of picking threw, tossing out, hauling, piling, cleaning. But more so will be the work that awaits when the physical labor is done. The work of letting go that which he can do absolutely nothing about.

Reading Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness Is an Inside Job, I’m taken with her genius insight that suffering is caused by struggling. (Yes, I know this isn’t news, but she wrote it in such a way that I sat up and got it like never before.) It’s like some torture device – the more you move and resist, the tighter the binds; the more you relax and accept, the freer you’ll be. “The moment in which the mind acknowledges ‘This isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I got’ is the point at which suffering disappears,” she writes. So now after a few weeks of going to see my therapist and diving head first into the deep end, I’m floating – not serenely but at least quietly – waiting to see which rapid appears next, knowing there will always be one and trying to be light in anticipation. Breathing in the knowledge that the roof may blow off but a few good books will always stay on their shelves.

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~ Wendell Berry


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