The Work of the World Is Common as Mud

Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nevernais (1849)


Washington Monthly columnist Nancy LeTourneau recently shared a wonderful Marge Piercy poem as she endorsed a slow and steady approach to political change. Real improvement, she says, involves long and grinding work—which means that Obamacare may survive GOP attacks. One bill, after all, was hammered out in a painstaking year-long process where every major health constituency was consulted. The other was thrown together quickly behind closed doors to convince the Republican base that their lawmakers would keep their promise to repeal-and-replace.

LeTourneau writes,

Years ago, I decided to adopt the tortoise as my totem. That was primarily based on an awareness that both my personal and professional life had taught me that “slow and steady wins the race.” I had come to be skeptical of anyone who promised that big gains could be achieved fast. Personally that was a result of believing and then being disappointed. Professionally I saw that anything short of slow sustained progress could be just as easily undone as it was accomplished in the first place.

The visionaries I worked with professionally would often see a lack of commitment in my attachment to slow and steady. But the opposite was actually true. I came to value the idea of digging into the trenches to understand what specific strategies could actually advance our goals, lay them out in logical order, and then maintain my commitment regardless of what it took to get there.

This vision of political change, LeTourneau says, it what draws her to Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use”:

To Be of Use

By Marge Piercy

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.

LeTourneau notes that this approach

is less valued in our culture that demands quick fixes. But it is what many of the people who have been responsible for the greatest changes in our political lives have always known. For example, most of this country’s original suffragettes didn’t live to see the 19th amendment passed in 1920 and Martin Luther King was assassinated before the Voting Rights Act was passed. 

Donald Trump, with his short attention span and his love of show, is not willing to harness himself like an ox to a heavy legislative cart or smear his hand with the dirt of policy. He’s not interested in “work that is real.” Barack Obama, by contrast, undertook the hard work required to bring in the food and put out the fires. That is why his legacy may survive.

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