10 thoughts on “Perspiration and Inspiration

  1. I really love where you went with this, Linda.

    As I wrote you yesterday (how interesting that is, juxtaposed with your post), I have little tolerance for hard physical labor. I never did have much, but now I have an aging body to go along with the basic intolerance. I am a very good starer out of windows. Reading your words about it makes me long to have that kind of exertion though. A wooden boat is a gorgeous thing, and this task has the elements of sensuality you describe so well.

    Maybe if I did not work during the day I would be able to dedicate myself to physical labor. I don’t know. I just know I’m out of shape, and at the end of the day I don’t have the will to work hard. Sometimes I run on our property for exercise.

    What I love most about this post is where you went with the creativity of those who labor. It reminds me of assumptions I had that got rattled reading Pablo Neruda – discovering that the people of Peru adored him – the working people of Peru. There are cultures where poetry is a given part of life. Even if they didn’t have the energy left to write it, they valued it, and the writer.

    I often tell my student advisees to get out and work if they want to write. Don’t go to some college’s creative writing MFA program and sit and write. Go work, gather the material of life and write about it.

    Thank you for this – wonderful.


    Isn’t it ironic? While you’re involved with people, words, and thought during the day and find it difficult to engage in physical tasks at its end, I spend my time in physical labor during the day and then try to keep a creative focus at night. Those pesky issues of balance and rhythm keep coming back, don’t they? It’s no wonder I keep re-reading Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea. She’s still one of the best at probing the issues.

    As for Neruda and his people ~ the respect and love was mutual. I’ve always loved these lines:

    “Give me, for my life,
    all lives,
    give me all the pain
    of everyone,
    I’m going to turn it into hope.
    Give me
    all the joys,
    even the most secret,
    because otherwise
    how will these things be known?
    I have to tell them,
    give me
    the labors
    of everyday,
    for that’s what I sing.”

    Neruda surely would approve your advice to your students. I know I do, and Thoreau was of a similar mind when he said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” I’d take feeding your chickens over sitting through a symposium any day!


  2. Your love of the work you do really resonated with me, reminded me of my year-long love affair with color (and painting!) when we were building our house; I still look longingly at our brushes, wish for an occasion — maybe even the artistic ability — to put them to good use again.

    Like you, I’ve found a strong connection between physical work, especially rhythmic physical work, and writing. I seem to need both, or nothing good happens in either domain. But there has to be a balance: the high heat of August or the arid intellectual plain of January — both are killers. Personally, I’m with you: let’s keep August off the schedule.

    Wonderful piece; thanks so much!


    I do love my work, but a real appreciation for its gifts took some time to develop. The first fifteen years, I learned and practiced the craft, not unlike a musician working through arpeggios and scales. Now, with the techniques so deeply ingrained they’re truly second nature, I have the freedom to let my mind roam where it will for hours at a time. Not many people have that as a “perk” of their employment!

    As for balance, I sometimes amuse myself by imagining that life itself corrects our course over time. We don’t even realize it’s happening until we stop and look back, and realize what’s happened. In my own case, the first thirty years of my life were filled with books, reading, academics, study and degrees. The next thirty were all action – work, travel, sailing, establishing a business. Now, at 62, I’m clearly in the last third of my life, and my sense of things is that I’ve entered a new phase ~ a time for thought, reflection, and writing. I try to balance each day, but clearly my life as a whole has a certain balance and symmetry, too. I didn’t intend it, but I like the way it’s working out!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece – maybe you should pick up one of those brushes!


  3. Lovely, lovely piece. I felt as if I were sweating (not perspiring, not in that heat!) alongside you and collapsing at the end of the day. I hope we wear gloves while we work.

    And of course, I also want to sing some Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger now too.

    What would they write about? That’s inexcusable to me. I wish I were shocked by it but, sadly, I am not.


    Of course you realize we’re both raising eyebrows with all this talk of sweating and perspiring. As an honest-to-goodness (and quite wonderful) Southern Lady said to me once, “Dear, ladies don’t perspire. We glow.” Um-hmmmm… And gloves, of course, for use with alcohol or solvents. But with sandpaper or a brush, gloves get in the way. Welcome to the world of the 80-grit manicure :-)

    As for “What would they write about?”, combine one part racism with two parts ignorance, shake well and garnish with a twist of elitism. Best consumed with John Carey’s “The Intellectuals and the Masses”, along with related diatribes from both sides.

    If that’s too much for you, here’s a little Pete Seeger-recorded work song from the Ellis Unit, part of the Texas prison system just up the road.
    Work Songs in a Texas Prison

    Thanks so much for stopping by – stay cool!


  4. As I read your entry it is 55 degrees outside and not much warmer inside. I am kind of pining for the heat and humidity. ;)

    I often wonder how many stories and songs are never written simply because there is not enough energy left at the end of the day to work on them. My mom retired earlier this spring and I am so happy she will finally have some time to enjoy her photography.

    Oh, and as someone who enjoys painting (the house kind) I get the lure of varnishing. There is something about the whole process; the cleaning, the sanding and then the fresh new paint (or varnish in your case) that is very rewarding.

    Hi, Kit,

    I smile every time I hear someone say, “I’d retire, but I don’t know what I’d do with myself”. I could fill up a few lifetimes with things I’d like to do that keep getting put on that proverbial back burner. Like so many people, I’ve stopped thinking about retirement now, but I’m glad for folks like your mom who still can take the step.

    It’s funny – my first varnishing actually happened decades ago. I’d moved to Kansas City for my first job. I lived in an old home that had been divided into five or six apartments. (It was a big house!) There was wonderful wooden trim around the windows and doors, wooden baseboards and beautiful crown molding – except all of it was covered with paint. I decided I wanted to strip and varnish it, and my landlord gave me permission. Good grief – what a job that was. I think I must have done a terrible job, but it did look better than when I started.

    Here’s the amazing “rest of the story”. Forty years later, laughing about my first efforts and how I’d turned from woodwork to boats, my mom said to me, “I never thought you’d enjoy doing that.” As it turns out, her father varnished woodwork in homes for a time during her youth, and she worked with him. I never knew about it. I’ve heard it said that certain talents and aptitudes skip generations – I can’t help but wonder.


  5. Another two-in-one.

    I read the varnishing description as a metaphor for the creative process: the stripping, the sanding, the resanding, the staining, the Good Enough, the sweat and sunblock in the eyes, and whammo! a kidney punch for the voices of the unheard. That teacher should be banned for life.

    I taught ESL to adults for five years, and the best of it was what the students–from the most stylish young Asian wives, to the young man from the Dominican Republic who caught jobs wherever and however he could and was raising two girls toward (he hoped) a better life, to the Ecuadoran grandmother–taught me. They all had stories to tell, and that they wanted to share. More even than the grammar, or pronunciation, or sheer lovely weirdness of the English language, they needed someone to listen. To render them, for an hour or two twice a week, un-invisible. I will never know if anything that I said stuck, but every word that they spoke has…


    The first thing that crossed my mind when I read your comment is that there’s more than one way to make a person disappear. There are the horrific disappearances sponsored by governments and militaries, of course, but it’s just as effective to ignore, ridicule, or belittle a person. Someone who’s been marginalized – shoved to the edges of society for whatever reason – has a hard time making their voice heard.

    As I try to think my way through this, I’ve become increasingly bothered by what seems a clear conclusion. If the hard, exhausting work of a society becomes the responsibility of certain segments of that society, a collective voice may be silenced, too. The answer to that isn’t a creative writing workshop, for sure. A little rearranging of the structures of society might be one good step toward literary equality.

    You’re exactly right. Everyone has a word to speak, and we all need to be heard. Denying someone the ability to speak or refusing to listen when they do diminishes our humanity. I’m glad you were there for your students.


  6. ds’s comment has prompted me to think of my experience as an ESL teacher too. One teaching strategy is to “activate prior knowledge and experience”. The students’ previous experience is crucial as foundation for further learning, and they have much to offer in a learning community, the class.

    I’ve appreciated your post in that yes, every one has a story to tell. But not every one would want to or could tell it. It’s the writer who’s burdened by such a task, I suppose, to be a voice for the common folks… but come to think of it, aren’t we all the common folks?


    Now, there’s a question: “Aren’t we all the common folks?” How someone answers that tells so much about their world view, their acceptance or rejection of others, their political resentments or economic aspirations. We’re talking about class here, and my own conviction is that class, rather than race or gender, is the great fault running through American society today. I could “write a book” about differences in the way people treated me, and radical differences in their expectations of me, once I became a varnish worker. With tongue firmly in cheek, I might even title it “I Passed for Blue Collar”… There’s nothing like engaging in what people unconsciously define as “downward mobility” to give you a peek into some interesting attitudes.

    I’m all a-quiver over your comment about previous experience being the foundation for further learning. It’s the action/reflection model and Paulo Freire all wrapped up in a nice, neat package. I do think Freire skirted some of the same practices he criticized, but there’s no doubting his influence in elevating the importance of dialogue in education, and even now I know that my “learning spurts” follow that pattern.

    A perfect example: last night, I read about sea slugs (!) on Jeannine’s excellent blog, Going Coastal, Sedgefield. The post reminded me of Leech Lake, one of my childhood vacation spots. By the time the next hour was over, I’d learned innumerable facts about the lake, Minnesota and leeches – not to mention a bit about slugs. It was so interesting I hated to get back to my real-life chores – but that’s learning, at its best: interesting, absorbing, and valuable for its own sake.

    Now that I think about it, that’s not a bad description of good writing, either!


  7. Hello Linda! You are certainly correct in stating that there are benefits to not having to deal with office politics. I would trade almost anything on some days to get out of that game playing. Most of the time I refuse to get involved, but sometimes that seems to hurt my career as much as getting over-involved in them.

    There is something very rewarding about physical labor. When I look back on my life my ‘favorite’ jobs have been those that included the satisfaction of a job completed and well done. As a kid I worked on a melon farm all summer, hoeing weeds at the beginning of planting season and working all through summer picking various vegetables, setting up irrigation, picking melons when they came in and ending the season on October 31st in the pumpkin patches. It was hard work at the time and during the hot months of Nebraska summer it was not fun, but I always felt good about myself and about the day’s work. That isn’t something that is as easy to achieve in the corporate world.

    I also agree that summer heat really does sap the creativity and energy. I realized a number of years ago, in looking at my journals, that my reading would disappear over the months of July and August and those months would pass in a haze where I couldn’t recall doing anything of value. Over the last couple of years I have made a concerted effort to not let time be wasted like that. Being cognizant of it certainly has helped me to better enjoy a time of year that, as an adult, I really hate. Give me spring, fall and winter. Summer is a burden I feel I must bear!

    Hi, Carl,

    While you were working away in the Nebraska fields, I may very well have been detassling corn in Iowa. You’re right about the satisfaction at the end of the day. One of my first clues that a change in my own life might be in order was my increasing satisfaction with home chores like floor scrubbing – there was something so satisfying about seeing what I’d accomplished. Of course, there’s something else that may add to the satisfaction – the very physicality of the labor itself. If going out to jog produces endorphins, surely slinging pumpkins or grinding away on wood could do the same thing!

    As for the heat – mental attitude can help a good bit. When I first went to West Africa, a very wise person told me, “You’re going to be miserable the whole time if you let it get to you. The best way to deal with it is to drink a lot of water and not think about it.” Hard to do sometimes, but certainly dwelling on the misery doesn’t make things better. And when I started varnishing, a fellow who’d been in the trade forever told me to turn off my air conditioner at home and stay out of movie theatres and restaurants. His contention was that going from cold to hot and back again causes more problems than the heat – our internal thermostats don’t know what to do. Since in those first years his advice had the added advantage of saving money, I took it, and it did seem to help.

    I love the long days of summer, but my own favorites are spring and fall – I think it’s the changes.


  8. I love how you speak of your work; your passion for it. And the challenges, particularly in the summer heat of Texas of all places, where it’s hot and humid and pretty relentless.

    The premise of the stories one could tell if all the energy, creativity, passion weren’t sucked out of them really resonates with me as well. I’ve seen it myself, when I’m too stressed to deal with one more thing, even if it might be the thing I love the most. I’ve seen it with others who don’t even know they have stories because they don’t slow down enough to see them dashing by. And I’ve seen those who may have them but reject some of the things that could make their life or work easier so they would have that energy — whether it is for stories, art or simply play. As always, you provide much food for thought. Thank you!

    (PS — I just realized after all this time of visiting you, I haven’t updated my blog roll to include you, so I will, if you don’t mind!)


    Your comment about being “too stressed to deal with one more thing, even if it might be the thing I love the most” reminds me of something I haven’t thought of in years – the fact that there’s “distress” and “eustress”, good stress as well as bad. Even the good things in life – a promotion, a new baby, marriage, retirement, successes of all sorts – can bring stress and exhaustion in their wake. It’s interesting to me that the advice for dealing with stress is very much the same no matter the stressor – and of course, one of the most common bits of advice is to slow down and simplify! It’s always easier said than done, of course.

    And I chuckled at your reference to finding ways to nurture energy for “stories, art or simply play”. The nice lady who wrote that book oh! talked about wouldn’t approve, I fear! When she says, “Get to work!”, I have a very real sense that the Puritan school marm has showed up in the room, and she isn’t pleased! That’s one of the best things about my occupation. There’s absolutely no temptation to take myself too seriously!

    And I’d be delighted to be on your blogroll, of course. That’s pretty nice company to be keeping! Now that it’s the holiday weekend, I’ll even have time to come by and visit!


  9. Hello! I found your blog via the Great Blog Connector Alpha Inventions.. and must leave a comment because your blog is wonderfully written and diverse. I especially relate to your comments about “varnishing” as I’m that kind of person, too. I can deadhead my flowering shrubs for hours at a time; create a pointillism piece from scratch without any sketch because I love the sense of starting with a blank canvass and letting my mind have its way with me; I love painting models of space ships of museum quality, just to name a few of my solitary activities. My muse always comes to me while I’m taking a shower so I have tablet and pen sitting on the sink.

    I think I’d enjoy varnishing, too. I like to be active and think. I analyze everything down to a gnat’s eyeball. I like to get my hands dirty in the soil and dig up large rocks and make raised, rock-walled flower beds. Sometimes I think it takes a lot of effort to keep up with a conversation because my mind wants to think, contemplate and meditate. You wrote, “My solitude is sandwiched between the bloom of sunrise and sunset’s poignant glow, while I think my thoughts and devote my energy to making something beautiful,” and that just about says it all, doesn’t it? I “make” poetry and I hope some of it is as “beautiful” as your creative work here. I plan on returning as time permits..:)


    Thanks so much for taking the time to read my entry, and for your very kind comments. I enjoy the essay form because I do enjoy a wide range of topics, and the freedom to write about whatever catches my attention is pure pleasure. Beyond that, I’ve always believed action and reflection belong together – as you so obviously do.

    The connection between varnishing and deadheading flowers is obvious to me. Repetitive work can free the mind, and allow unexpected thoughts to bubble to the surface – a truth I didn’t recognize until some years into my varnishing career, when I no longer had to focus so sharply on my work.
    Best wishes on your own creative endeavors. I’m looking forward to stopping by and enjoying your work.


  10. Linda,

    You captured your subject beautifully. I grew up a few yards from a marina. The boats were not for pleasure. They were work boats. The watermen built their own boats – the Chesapeake deadrise. The design of the deadrise lends itself to the harvesting of oysters. I can recall my father and the other watermen bringing their boats up on the the railway to work on them, scraping the barnacles from their bottoms and repainting them. It was difficult work but not as precise as what you do. I’ve been waiting for you to write a piece about your work. I enjoyed it very much.



    Is the Chesapeake deadrise similar to a skipjack? I love oyster boats ~ there are very few left around here now, but there are some, and it’s fun to watch them work. There’s one Texas scow sloop down at the Maritime Museum in Rockport – built from plans still carried in an oysterman’s head. They used to work the waters in fleets, but began to disappear when the oysters did. The oysters are coming back – I wish the boats would.

    I also enjoy working in a boatyard when I get the chance. It’s not the best environment for beautiful coats of varnish, but it’s full of interesting characters and a lovely kind of camaraderie that isn’t often found these days. There’s no reason to romanticize the kind of hard, dirty work that goes on there, but still… It’s a cherished part of my life. I suspect you have a few wonderful memories of your own growing up days near that environment.

    It’s always a pleasure to have you stop by.


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