Work and Life and Balance

The autumnal equinox passed earlier this week and it is suddenly not summer anymore.  It had been unseasonably hot until a few days ago it wasn’t, and now I wake up and think about wool socks instead of tank shirts and resolve to haul up clothes from the basement closet real soon now. The evenings slip ever quicker into darkness – the light is gone by seven pm, even with Daylight Savings time lingering – and I have a bag of daffodil bulbs on my kitchen table that want to be put into the ground before the frost comes. It seems like it was just the other day that I paddled my feet in a pond, soaking up the sun, too hot to knit.

I guess there is no avoiding it really, this inexorable turning of the seasons, and why would you want to? But this time I am not sure where the summer went, and I am back to feeling contemplative and wanting to avoid getting any real work done, of which I have an abundance.

But what is real work?

I mean, how do we decide which work is real and which work isn’t? Is it for pay? Then I am surely not working, ever – I am a graduate student not otherwise employed, but I sure think I’m working, at least some of the time. It definitely feels like work, anyway.

Is it about obligation? I think that is a part of it – work as the doing of things we would just as soon not bother with, except that the thing needs done and not doing it would violate a social contract with the people we live with (or perhaps the people who pay us!) Spouse and I have an agreement that, outside of unusual circumstances, one of us will cook dinner and the other will clean up. Usually he is the dinner-cooker and I am the cleaner-upper, but we swapped up this weekend and it has definitely been nice to have someone else do the dishes.

(I am thinking, as I write this, of half a dozen things I could be doing which are Not This. Are any of those work? Is this?)

Sometimes work is the thing that calls you, compels you – do this thing now, and no other.

Sometimes you just know.

And so it was, late Friday afternoon, when the crows sent up an unholy ruckus on the first cool, overcast day of the year – five of them, taking turns slowly circling while the other sat on the wire over the street. Invisible crows called back from the thick trees up the hill. I ordinarily tune out the bird sounds during the day, along with the traffic noise and church bells, but there was an urgency to their cries this time.

From the front porch I saw a small dark blob in the road just below the wire. I hoped it wasn’t a cat. The crows circled and called overhead as I walked down to investigate, snow shovel in hand.

It was not a cat. It was crow, freshly dead or maybe not quite, still limp, eyes hollow and black feathers askew. I was thinking I ought to bury it, but not sure where. Not wanting to leave it in the street, I scooped it up with the snow shovel and laid it in the tall grass on the edge of the vacant lot.

The crows overhead fell silent.

One by one they circled, and flew away.

Later that evening I dug a hole under the lilacs, went and got the dead crow (by that time, quite stiff) and buried it. And piled bricks over the loose earth, to discourage the larger scavengers from digging it up. And of course wrote about it on FaceBook, to a few friends. It seemed like the sort of thing that ought to Mean Something, but I am hard pressed to explain what.

Silhouette of four crows on a bare tree branch against featureless gray sky

Neighborhood crows, taken December 2013.

Sometimes you just shut up, don’t argue, and do the work that is before you. Not because you will be rewarded, not because you promised, but because it is there to be done and you are the one in a position to do it. The dead want to be tended, the harvest wants to be brought home, and they are not necessarily particular about whose hands do the lifting.

I thought of that, picking apples this weekend. Spouse and I made early rounds to our favorite orchards. Both of them have changed hands in recent years – this is the first season for Sandy River without its Apple Man, who left the world earlier this year just a few weeks shy of his hundredth birthday. I remember him as gnarled as his oldest weathered trees with eyes bright as shiny apples. Sandy River orchard is now under lease to a young couple, cider-makers, who are just getting started and not ready for U-Pick customers yet. I wish them well and hope to be back out there soon.

We were able to pick at Mt. Nebo, though, for the first season since its owner died in a freak accident about three years ago. It is now under lease to the owners of a local farm stand, and we chatted with them about some of the heirloom varietals they have in the smaller grove – they have a few kinds we’ve not found anywhere else. I remember what the former orchard-keeper used to say when you’d ask what these or those were: “Them’s pie apples!” and he’d laugh. Got a fine bag of “pie apples” on the counter now, and some winter keepers in the fridge drawer.

It is a good year for apples in Maine, this year; the trees are bent nearly to the ground under the weight of their unthinned fruit, begging to be picked. Even my inexperienced eye says that both these orchards need maintenance. But the trees themselves, they do not care who tends them, only that they will be tended, in order that they may continue to do what they are here for: to share their abundance with the world.

Tree branches bending under a heavy load of bright green apples

Taken October 2009, Mt Nebo Orchard

I think I am starting to deepen into that place – the place of doing the work that is before me without investing a lot of anxiety into whether or not I will succeed, or be rewarded, or be noticed; I am still working on not investing a lot of anxiety into whether or not a particular thing is my work to do, but maybe that will come in time. I am still learning how boundaries work, mine and other people’s, and that will I think be an ongoing process. In the mean time, there is the quiet listening, the discernment, the letting go of second- and third-guessing. Imperfect, iterated, ongoing.

When it hums smoothly, this way, the distinction between work and life becomes arbitrary. I encounter the phrase “work-life balance” a lot, mostly around organization and time management, trying to find ways to fit in all the externally-rewarded things and all the externally-obligated things and still leave space for the intrinsically-compelling things, the things that call us to do them because they are to be done. I am not sure that is actually balance, though. What is well balanced runs smoothly, without a whole lot of fiddling. If you constantly have to tweak it, it’s out of balance.

What would our lives look like if we were able to place the compelling things first? If somehow we spent less attention on success – or survival – and turned instead to becoming that which was always in our bones, our DNA, our native possibility? Surely that is a privileged question. For so many of us, mere survival takes everything we can manage. And yet there is something in an apple tree, however gnarled and neglected, that seeks to sprout new branches in the spring and bear whatever fruit it can.

How then can we cultivate each other’s gifts?

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