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In praise of the 'shining refuge'

This air of promise and purpose may be because of the hardworking individuals who make up our workforce.
Last Updated : 11 May 2024, 22:28 IST
Last Updated : 11 May 2024, 22:28 IST

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“May is the month of expectation, the month of wishes, the month of hope,” says Emily Brontë, and she is right. There’s a sense of promise in the air. And do you wonder why that is?

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind this month? Yes, I am talking about International Labour Day or May Day. And it doesn’t matter when the question is asked; one of the first things we think about is what the day stands for.

This air of promise and purpose may be because of the hardworking individuals who make up our workforce.

I am always struck by the fierceness of the message in Men Of England, where Percy Bysshe Shelley says, “The seed ye sow, another reaps; / The wealth ye find, another keeps; /The robes ye weave, another wears; /The arms ye forge, another bears. Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap: / Find wealth—let no imposter heap: / Weave robes—let not the idle wear: / Forge arms—in your defence to bear.”

Work and labour have changed, especially since the pandemic. We work from home and commute occasionally, if at all. We wonder how things were before. “(…) wonder how i ever had fuel for those past travels / i rest / and i rise / and listen to the body that’s carried me here as it whispers the way forward,” says Camisha L Jones, speaking for so many of us in On Working Remotely & No Longer Commuting With Chronic Pain.

Poets have always advocated for people’s rights, and poetry has been nothing short of a vehicle for social change. But it isn’t only poetry that speaks of labour and work. I am reminded of Premchand’s Godan and Mulk Raj Anand’s Two Leaves And A Bud, both of which created a vivid and unforgettable picture of agricultural labour in the country.

In We Shall See (Hum Dekhenge), Faiz Ahmed Faiz writes the immortal lines, “We shall see/ Certainly we, too, shall see/that day that has been promised to us/ When these high mountains/ Of tyranny and oppression/ turn to fluff and evaporate/ And we oppressed/ Beneath our feet will have/this earth shiver, shake and beat (…).”

Labour is often pushed into regimented boundaries. 9 to 5. Positions on a career ladder and promotions. But what of the daily toil of a stay-at-home partner or parent? The thanklessness that often accompanies cooking, cleaning, ironing, setting and clearing the table, and the rest.

In Loving Working, Naomi Shihab Nye embraces the work, citing it as an excellent way to keep moving forward, away from sorrow, as a way to cope. She calls work “a shining refuge.” She ends by saying, “(…)The glory in the doing. The breath of the doing. Sometimes the simplest move kept fear from/ fragmenting into no energy at all, or sorrow from/multiplying, or sorrow from being the only person living in the house.”

The miracle of work often lies in how it helps us not just get by but get on with life and living. Take, for instance, The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It ends with, “Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,/ For the lesson thou hast taught!/Thus at the flaming forge of life/ Our fortunes must be wrought;/ Thus on its sounding anvil shaped/ Each burning deed and thought.”

Isn’t work indeed forged in the flame of ambition and conscientiousness? And do we not shape our thoughts, life, and purpose, on this anvil we call life?

(The writer is a poet, teacher, voice actor and speaker. She has published two collections of poetry. Send your thoughts to her at bookofpoetry@gmail.com)

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Published 11 May 2024, 22:28 IST

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