Work When the Daylight’s Dawning; Work in the Noonday Sun

Dana Wildsmith


            It's five-fifty-five a.m. and I'm sitting at my desk at home, settling in to work for an hour on my current writing project before the daylight dawns. Or I will be working, at any rate, as soon as my brain's iTunes shuffle finally times out on this hymn that's been playing in my head since I woke up with its bouncy rhythm already winding down to the last verse's somewhat sobering lyrics: "Work for the night is coming, when man’s work is done." The hymn's final phrase is a bit daunting to me as a lifelong Woman, in that it implies no end whatsoever for women's work. At least the men apparently get to sit down with their iPad and put their feet up when eternal night falls, perhaps even to carry Angry Birds with them into that good night, while we women will still have ten more essays to grade before we can depart the mortal coil.

            Granted, "Work for the Night is Coming" is an old hymn, antiquated enough in its wording that when an earnest and well-meaning group of hymn up-daters ran willy-nilly through the Methodist Hymnal a couple of decades ago changing men to people, or creatures, or worse yet, to the testosterone-diluting all, those language neuter-ers should also have doctored that ending line a bit. They could have changed "man's" to "our". That would fit nicely: "when our work is done." This keeps the rhythm while tilting the hymn's implied world view just enough to incline men's heads toward the dining room table where they could at last notice any women still at work there. "I'm sorry, Hon; what can I do to help?" they'd say, being good at heart, if easily distracted by GoogleEarth.

            I always welcome any offers of help in clearing away the dailynesses that have piled up by evening.  The mail, for instance, is usually still scattered on the corner of the table where I tossed it when I came home from class. It's mostly just furniture store ads and credit card offers, but I don't immediately toss the ads to the recycle bin or shred the gifts of future debt because I don’t want our Postal Service to die, so I figure the least I can do is appear to be supportive by hesitating for a while before I chuck everything my mail carrier took the time and trouble to bring me. There's a deeper reason for my indulgence of postal detritus, though, a reason inextricably bound to my not-so-precious memories of the years, decades, when I would not have received a credit card offer even from Joe-Bob's House of Forty Per Cent Interest. All of us who have spent the bulk of our adult lives working to maintain a level of poverty are now living with psychological quirks forever marking us like scars from economic fires. Those of us who are not quite able to lose our fear of empty cupboards provide Hoarders ample material for continuing into another successful season. In my case it isn't necessary to navigate around ceiling-high stacks of old Time magazines between my kitchen and my living room, but my Poor Years have imprinted me with such an ingrained assurance of my financial unworthiness that I feel a physical rush of delight and humility each time American Express invites me to its house.

            There's another way my adulthood of never enough money has affected me: I am permanently self-conscious about whether or not people think of me as hardworking. It matters to me that others see me as doing everything I can to be self-sufficient. I can't quite get over believing that this work I do of sitting and staring at a computer screen until light dawns both outside the window and within the dark folds of my brain isn't really work at all, or at least it wouldn't look like work to someone peeking in my window. After all, I'm not sweating. There's no visible dirt on me. I'm not serving a customer or answering a phone or driving a truck or plumbing a sink or shoving American Express Card offers into a mailbox or teaching a class (that comes later). What I am doing is thinking. Thinking, and then typing up what I think. This is work?

            I'd wager there are a bunch of folks who would answer my question with a flat-out No.  If I'm right, at least I'll have a chance to redeem myself in their eyes soon after the sun rises when I gussy up a bit and drive in to my teaching job. Ah, now we're talking!, those traditionalists will say, nodding their heads at each other. Teaching is an honorable and laudable profession. Hard work, helping people understand what they need to know to get ahead in life.  Teachers don't get paid enough.

            I hear the "teachers are greatly underpaid" mantra repeated quite a lot, and I always say Amen to that. It's a truth I don't dwell on, though, except when I view my paycheck once a month. The rest of my teaching life is spent having fun, pretty much. Yeah, there's the whole records-keeping hell, but I prefer to dismiss that from my consciousness until I am forced to deal with it directly, the same approach I take toward mammograms or colonoscopies.

            Each day of my teaching life, I settle into a classroom to talk about language for a couple of hours with people who need to know what makes language tick. Sometimes I stand at the front of the classroom and present my students with grammar facts one after another in a sort of first-date-getting-to-know-me format, and sometimes my students lean forward in their chairs to fling questions at me when the Present Perfect Tense has them as bewildered as a dinner partner's tongue stud might. Both the presenting and the responding satisfy me equally well.

            When I'm lecturing (to use the proper and slightly British-sounding term) it's kind of like singing a solo; I am the only one making noise right then, but if I sing well enough, my students' active listening will gradually be changed by my singing to active accompaniment. Or during those times when there's a question hanging between me and a student, it's like an Old Regular Baptist call-and-response hymn: I keep lining out the answer in various ways until the student perceives what's coming next and can at last sing it on her own.

            But hang on- if I'm having such a good time, can I claim that this is work?  No. You have it way too easy, the Puritans in my head are screaming. If they are indeed right, maybe the second phase of my day redeems me in their eyes through justification by sweat.

            The first thing I do when I come home to Grace Farm after my morning classes is change from teacher clothes to farmer clothes, so I won't ruin my teacher clothes with sweat and dirt. I fling off my nice blouse and skirt, yank on work jeans and boots while Max the dog wails in my direction, "You're not moving fast enough! I need to be Out! Out! Out!" Yeah, yeah, Max, I agree, seeing as how I'm the one who's been in a windowless classroom all morning. I need air. I need sun. I need to haul three or four cartloads of chain-sawed dead trees and fallen branches to the burn pile. I need to turn another section of garden before the time to plant pole beans gets past me. I have needed since October to rake an autumn's worth of leaf mat from the garden shed roof. And every flower pot needs watering.

            So I scurry around hauling and watering and weeding, losing track of how much of the afternoon has slid past me, until Max reminds me that dogs need tending, too. Specifically: dinner. After I feed and walk Max, it's clothes-changing time again, back into teacher clothes for my evening class. I guess I do switch outfits more than most people have cause to, because once when my Great-Aunt Rhoda came to visit, she remarked that, "All you do around here is change clothes."  Not exactly accurate, Aunt Rhoda - we change clothes because of all we do around here.

            Sometimes I even change clothes only halfway. Right now while it is still pre-dawn, my top half is wearing a truly pretty open-weave sweater of the sort I would never wear for working in the woods because all those openings in the weave just cry out for branches to snag in them. I'll be teaching class in an hour, though, not hauling deadfall, so I'm already in full teacher mode from my waist up. But because Max needs his walk before I leave for class, I'm a Lee Jeans girl from my waist down, ready for creek crossings and dew-sodden grass. I'll change to dressy slacks after the walk. My feet are toasting in fur-lined slippers, my normal foot attire for when I'm writing. I'll change to muck boots just before I head out the door to walk Max, and then when we get home I'll put on my school shoes. Right now while I'm writing about clothes in this dark and quiet early hour may be the only time in my day when all of my working lives are visibly connected. That hypothetical Nosy Nelly peeking in my window could look at me and plainly see from the hodgepodge outfit I’m wearing that I am a teacher, a landowner, a writer, a dog person, and ready for action in any of those fields. I greatly prefer to believe this is the impression I would give, rather than that any peeper would back away quietly, certain they're spying on a woman dangerously far gone into nut-case status.

            What you see is not always what you get. Even if my window peeper is a wildly kind and accepting sort of voyeur who assumes my mismatched outfit speaks only of the various responsibilities I carry through my day like a ring of keys, that philosophical Peeping Tom would never see through my clothing layers (I sincerely hope) to those invisible links binding my work lives together. Those links are love and duty.

            Love and duty are conjoined twins. Who can say where their blood flow starts or their blood flow circles back again?  All I know is, if I try to separate my love for the work I'm doing from my duty to it, I end up resenting the duty. I cannot imagine any sane person who would, unpaid, dig poison ivy roots from a flower bed for the sake of the digging itself. This is a job that makes your hands ache, tires out your back and pretty much guarantees you will have poison ivy rash creeping up at least one arm by morning. That's if you're lucky; if your gardening luck has run out, your butt will soon itch with poison ivy from where you sat on a juice-filled root. This is not a job you can do solely for the sake of doing it without building up a righteous bad mood or possibly having commitment papers drawn up for you by your family. There has to be reason and recompense for taking on the poison ivy jobs in life.

            In almost all the work I do, need is the reason, and result is the recompense. My land needs to be cared for, and the result of that caring is an old farm that at times can look so humbly pretty it makes people slow down their cars just to enjoy the yellow jonquils along the front of Mama's hundred-year-old farmhouse.  When I'm into the teaching part of my day, I know exactly why each of my students needs a mastery of English language skills for the simple reason that they've told me why, and my recompense comes when Claudia sails through her citizenship interview, or SivChan passes her GED, or Ruth stops feeling embarrassed and stupid when she talks with her children’s teachers. In my writing life, the need to shape experience into words is a hunger born in me like a craving for chocolate or booze, and the recompense is in scoring a hit of those right words.

            Of course, there are two other ways I'm repaid for the work I do: First, I get a paycheck for the teaching and (if the gods are smiling) for the writing, and second, when I'm teaching I look like I'm working hard. This last fact probably matters only to me, as a residual from my Poor Years. Ironically, when I am deep into my hardest work, there's usually no one around to see. As far as the general public knows, I could be lying through my teeth about being all worn out from three hours of clearing brush on the hill. And most people think of me as loony, not hardworking, when I tell them I get up at 4:30 a.m. to write. They may not even believe me, but they don’t ask me to prove it. They figure if it's true, then the truth is punishment enough for how I've chosen to expend my work energies.

            I've finally come to realize it's actually this private side of work I value most.  The work I do when no one sees, hones me like exercise. Because I have worked to clear the hill on many a fine afternoon, I was strong enough to lift our beloved dog Fred into a cart and pull him out of the woods when he went down to the ground with a stroke. Because I try and try again to help Genoveva understand the Present Perfect, she trusts me with the sharing of a family hardship she's struggling through. And because I write when I could be sleeping, those early morning dreams we wish we could remember come to me while I'm awake, and I write them into stories.

        return to nonfiction


Dana Wildsmith is the author of an environmental memoir, Back to Abnormal: Surviving with an Old Farm in the New South, which was a Finalist for Georgia Author of the Year in Essay; four collections of poetry: One Good Hand, Our Bodies Remember, Annie, and Alchemy. One Good Hand was a SIBA Poetry Book of the Year nominee. She has served as Artist-in-Residence for the Grand Canyon National Park and for The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, and has been a Poetry Fellow with the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Her work is widely published in journalsand anthologies, including most recently: Writing By Ear, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Women, Period.She lives in Bethlehem, Georgia.