A Different Kind of Useful
Since you were a child you were fascinated by them, “
the ungainly workhorses of rivers and harbors,
well-worn, chugging motors, never fast, never graceful.
As a child, you sat on the riverbanks and drew them,
ignoring the ships or sailing craft for the rusty tugboats,
sketching not just the lines but the wear,
the scrapes and rust of work. Somehow fascinated
by the scars of being
I blame my mother.
Not that she knew the first thing about tugboats.
I doubt she ever actually noticed them.
She had an eye for beauty, something else that took.
but, she taught me, to exist was not enough.
To be ornamental was not enough
One had to be useful.
She would point things out in the old homes
and historic places we frequented. My father would join in.
The beautiful hardware. The designs that delighted me,
all had a purpose, she reminded me.
They were useful.
Neither of my parents were much for art museums.
We did historical museums. Furniture museums.
Maritime museums. A collection of the useful,
all with their own practical beauty.
We were raised to be that way.
No rust on us. We had things to do.
I was the odd one though.
Show me a Rembrandt. Show me a Dali.
Show me a Mondrain. Titial, and something happened in my breast.
I could not describe it as a child.
(I have always struggled describing emotions).
I could not tell what it was, but it was, I was sure.
Show me Dickens. e.e. cummings. Whitman.
Wallace. Donne. Show me their verse.
Pretty nothings, my father once called them,
long before I started my own.
Pretty. Not useful. Ornamental. Brickabrack
of words and paint.
To this day, I prefer Shaker over Victorian.
Colonial over Lush. Simplicity. Everything,
yes, you guessed it by now.
Over a very useful (to others) life, I slowly
let my own verse, my own drawings
become replaced by things more useful.
I never saw it for the erosion it was.
I was following in my paerent’s footsteps
Useful. They were, I think, proud of me.
A collapse. Not all lives have them.
Mine did. An undoing. An unraveling.
A climbing out. A reclaiming.
The dark opportunity to become
who I started out as. Less rich. Less influential.
I was never made for that despite my success.
I see that now.
Finding out as I did. As I revisited. As I
slowly found the words to say
what I had been somehow less able before,
as I found what was left of me
and painted him anew, far more conscious,
far slower than growing up, I grew whole.
In my bedroom, I have my grandfather’s trunk.
The rumor was that he help his old love letters there,
but when he died, it was mysteriously empty.
I claimed it for my own.
That was maybe thirty years ago? I am not sure.
The trunk is full of cards and notes
of where I have been a different kind of useful.
One less measured by dollars and influence, but
by bits of the heart, gratitude, kindnesses remembered,
all one on one. Never seen but by the writer of the notes
A decade and half later,
my pretty bits and words have healed me,
now and again healed others, I suspect, were I to count them.
i have probably made more of a difference,
quietly, one on one, with my lack of influence
than I ever did with it. More powerful being less useful,
Merely trying to find my way in words and paint,
and occasionally being useful in a way never imagined
by the makers of tugboats, or my parents,
who, I think, would be proud of me still.
About this poem.
Seriously, this was supposed to a shorting. Oh well.
Inspired by my hospice work, and learning the value of being useful through others’ eyes.
I really did used to draw tugboats as a child. My parents really did raise us to be useful, something buried deep in all of our (My two sisters and I) DNA.
Things really did come undone. I really did heal. Art and poetry played an outsized part in that healing, along with a pair of loving pastors and really smart and patient therapists.