Friday, February 17, 2017

Well, I declare!

     I recall re-entering the United States after our last trip to China. Several hours prior to landing, the flight attendants came by and handed us a little sheaf of papers -- our customs declaration forms. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows the drill:  wrack your brain to recall what you may have purchased and its value (as well as how much foreign currency you may still have). You also need to mention any food/drink items you still have. If you have more than the "legal" limit, you may be liable for duty tax (or confiscation). Like so many other laws, the rules are often inscrutable, and the process of filling out the form was, for me, anxiety-producing. I began to wonder WHY I had purchased ANYTHING!  I began to think the verse from the biblical book of Job was spot-on:  "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb; and naked shall I go back again" (1.21)! Acquire nothing!
      This memory came back to me yesterday during our monthly "Soul & Role"* discussion. We were discussing a poem - "Burlap Sack" by Janet Hirschfield:

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, "Hand me the sack,"
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

In our subsequent conversation about "leaving behind the heavy dowry", it occurred to me that, often, at the end of the day, I take the "heavy dowry" of the day's events home with me. My "burlap sack" becomes filled with the concerns of the day, as well as memories from the past, and expectations for the future -- many of which have little to do with my life outside of my work. Yet they go home with me sometime preventing me from fully attending to family concerns (as well as interrupting sleep!).
       I brought this up to the group, and began joking that, "Wouldn't it be great if there were some kind of "custom's agent" at the door when we left work, checking to see if there was anything we should leave behind? And maybe we should write up some kind of 'declaration' that we have to present to another 'agent' when we arrive home to see whether or not we could bring that 'baggage" into the house?"  While this question occasioned a goodly amount of laughter, that laughter (at least on my part) masked a dis-ease with how much one part of my life -- i.e., my work life -- can intrude on another -- more important -- part of my life:  family.
       So, now I'm wondering whether or not I should create a sort of "declaration form" that I fill out during the last 15 minutes of my work day. That way I can be clear about what I'm taking home, and what will still be waiting for me on my desk when I return. And maybe another such form for the last 15 minutes of the day...?
      Well, I declare! I think it would be GREAT to let my "thin-ribbed mule.... browse in tall grasses, its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs"!


*"Soul & Role" is a monthly conversation that aims at giving participants an opportunity to reflect on how their "role" at the university interacts with their soul. More information on the program can be found here.
** After: Poems. © Harper Perennial, 2007

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