…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 music to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again. …
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: To Be of Use
In these last few days of school, released from my normal schedule, I’ve found myself over and over again to be of use. Some kids needed scarves for their samba contest dance. I knew where they are. Others need poi balls (don’t ask)—I found them. I played the proper calls on my repique drum and got the proper responses from the 6th grade “batteria” percussionists. The music flowed, the kids danced, the audience thrilled to the elaborate choreographies entirely kid-made. And yes, it felt both satisfying and useful to know that I created this school celebration in 1984 and kept it going all these years so there would be that extra splash of color and motion in the kids’ school life.
But most of my “to be of use” moments were smaller than that. The 8th grader who needed a piano accompanist for her graduation sharing. I could do that. Another 8th grader who needed the chords to a song, found them too difficult and took my suggestion to play stand-up bass while I played piano and another sang. That worked. Another struggled with his electric kazoo part. I suggested ukulele and next time I saw him, he was figuring out the chords. Still another needed help finding the right cable for his electric guitar. I found it.
And so it went on throughout the day. “Can you teach the last 2nd grade class since James isn’t here?” “Sure.” “How about a last preschool singing time? “ No problem.” “Can you move your car in the lot?” “Done.” “Did you remember that you offered to do a 5-year old music sharing at the potluck?” “They’re ready. First I’m going to play piano at the Jewish Home, will be back before 5:00 ready to go. And yes, I’ll do the same tomorrow night with the other preschool class.” At carpool time, a child taking his work home walked to his car and dropped a big pile of papers that were blowing all over the sidewalk. Did he need to ask for my help? Of course not. He had no free hands and I had two.
And so it went throughout the day and what a fine feeling it all was. There’s not an ounce of pride in me sharing it here, not a single thought that you should admire me. Simply gratitude that I could be of help, that I had some skills that were proving useful and had the opportunity to exercise them. I’ve known of people who had remarkable specific skills—like a Ugandan xylophone expert living in Scotland —and no structure within which to share them, to fully exercise them and offer them back to the world. Then there are those whose skills don’t serve the cause of happiness and helpfulness. I’m thinking of experts in terrorist bomb-making and the like. And then there are those Wall Street tycoons whose skills could serve others, but instead are hoarded and used only for one’s own greed.
But to have the capacity to help and be useful—be it knitting baby caps for baby showers, fixing computer malfunctions or car engines, showing the chords to the jazz song— to be blessed with the right time and place to offer oneself and to be committed to being of use— well, all of that is its own reward and worthy of praise.
More ceremonies tomorrow, my area of interest and comfort and many chances to be useful to close out the school year with festive pomp and grateful circumstance. May I help you?