“To be of use”

It’s Monday, the start of another work week, and I’ve been thinking about how COVID-19 has altered the way we do our job. After three months of working differently, many of us are reassessing our relationship with work. How do we want to work going forward? What do we value most about what we do? What kind of people do we want to work with? Poet, novelist, and social activist Marge Piercy offers an interesting perspective on the topic. See what you think.

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.

Marge Piercy

What images or phrases struck you in this poem?

Some questions to reflect on:

  1. What do you value most about your work? Why do you do the work you do? Simon Sinek claims that understanding our “Why” is critical for success. See video clip below.
  2. What kind of people do you want to work with, and what life lessons can you learn from the others?
  3. If you’re “retired,” what does this poem bring up for you?
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” – Simon Sinek


“To be of use” by Marge Piercy. The Art of Blessing the Day, 1999.Copyrighted material used for educational or therapeutic purposes.

Photo: Greek terra-cotta amphora. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  1. “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” My family (heavily on the workaholic side) has always emphasized that work brings a deep meaning and purpose to one’s life. I am lucky to have found a profession that I love because it allows me to constantly learn about so many things – cultures, places, materials, people, crafts, management, politics, etc. I find the “real work” an interesting phrase that brings many questions to mind. What is real work? A lot of my work is based on ideas, imagination and representation before it becomes “real” and physical. I often feel like that water buffalo with massive patience as my projects can take on many years to get finalized but they are oh so rewarding once they are finished. I hope my buildings and spaces can provoke, heal, transform and improve peoples’ lives.


    1. That’s a powerful ending, I agree, and a phrase that has stayed with me since I first read this poem years ago. I think about how we seem to cry for “real work” or crave “to be of use” throughout our lives. I remember thinking of this poem when my son was a young boy – he always wanted to be of use. Same with my father throughout his life even when he was in his eighties – he wanted/needed to “work” and be useful. I agree with you, “real work” is hard to define, but I think we know it when we’re doing it. Like “flow,” maybe we lose ourselves in real work.


  2. What I value most about work is the fact I have work! A lot of restaurants are closing and I am fortunate that I still have a job to go to.The honest answer to why I do the work I do is because I am in my comfort zone. Having waitressed for so long it’s what I know. At this stage in my life I’m not looking to get ahead. I just want to go in, do my job and come home. Is it what I thought I would be doing at almost 60 years old? No, but sometimes you do what you have to do to pay the bills. I love your blogs. They challenge me to think differently. Therapy without paying for it. oxxoxo


    1. I understand what you’re saying, and I hear you about waitressing being in your comfort done. I also wonder if there isn’t a part of you that does what you do because you understand how much joy people get from enjoying a delicious meal and dining out, and you like being a part of that experience. You are a people person too, so being in food service, where you get to interact with different people each day, suits you.


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