Sisyphus and the Word-Rocks

I never can remember where I’ve left my car keys.  It slips my mind that I’ve been told to stop at the grocery for milk. I forget to swing by the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions and occasionally I forget to feed the outside cat.  I’m always forgetting this password or that, and I’ve completely forgotten the names of some of my high school chums.  People who claim to know about such things tell me this everyday-forgetting is unremarkable.  A little more age here, a few things more interesting to ponder there, and the mind wanders off, unconcerned with milk, kitties or keys.

Most recently, I very nearly forgot I’d promised Ruth, of the lovely blog Synch-ro-niz-ing, that I’d accept her invitation to join with a group of bloggers and write about the beginnings of The Task at Hand ~ more specifically, how it received its title.  It’s a story I’m happy to recount for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer pleasure of remembering those first, halting steps onto the path called “writing”.

In late 2007, a project or two brought me to the point of wanting to learn how to post images to the web. Simply in order to have a place to “practice”, I began a  blog at Weather Underground.  It wasn’t an obvious choice for a blogsite, but I wasn’t a blogger. I simply was messing about, exploring and experimenting.  My first entry was a pecan pie recipe. My second, about a trip through the Texas Hill Country, suddenly veered off into memoir, and I was writing.  I posted again, and then a fourth time, amazed to discover people  reading and enjoying my words.

Two months and a few posts later, on a whim, I joined the Bay Area Writers’ League.  I certainly never had thought of myself as a writer, but I was curious to see what people who defined themselves as writers might look like.  As it turned out, they looked pretty much like me: in love with words, with stories to tell and more than willing to spend their time listening to the first, halting efforts of beginners or the polished, compelling presentations of published authors.

At the January meeting, I was introduced to the concept of “flash fiction” and decided to participate in the monthly contest.  The challenge was to respond to a photo posted in the group’s newsletter with a hundred words (or fewer) of either poetry or prose.  When I saw the photo selected for the contest, it took less than a second to recognize Sisyphus.  Too clever for his own good, Sisyphus may have brought his punishment upon himself, but images of that punishment have compelled artists for centuries.  Unfortunately, I had no idea how to cross the gap from image to words without falling into cliché.


Three days later, while working on a boat and thinking about not much in particular, the first line came to mind, fully formed.  The title came next, and then days of shaping words for meaning and sound.  In the end – and quite to my surprise – I’d written a poem rather than a piece of prose.  It’s title? The Task at Hand.

 The Task at Hand  did win the little “contest”, and from the beginning it seemed so right, so truth-filled, there was no question it would serve as the title for my first “real” blog at WordPress.  A non-writer, I’d written a writer’s poem, with room for all of the discipline, all the surprise, all of the faith and clenched-teeth perseverance that writing requires. Did I know it then? Of course not.  Even now I only know it only in glimpses, in fits and starts, and in those passing moments when a “right word” appears.

At the Bay Area Writers’ League, it’s the custom for the winner of each contest to read their poetry or prose aloud at the next month’s meeting.   After I’d read The Task at Hand, a fellow came up to me.  “So. This your first poem?” he asked.  “Yes, I’ve just started writing.” “Let me tell you something, then. That poem’s like a suit of clothes that’s two sizes too big. That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You keep writing, and in a few years, you’ll start to grow into it.”

I’m like a kid that can’t wait.



The Task at Hand

Even the right word takes effort.
Quarried from a crevice of the mind
it stumbles into context from a surprised tongue
then slips again toward silence.
Breaking chains of metaphor,
pulled from its page by the gravity of doubt
it defies usefulness,
heaving past frail allusion
blocking passage after passage
with its heavy presence
until turned and nudged and tried again
for perfect fit
by one who never tires ~
the Sisyphean poet.


Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

15 thoughts on “Sisyphus and the Word-Rocks

  1. It wouldn’t surprise me that you or anyone would forget this bloggy invitational, Linda. I’m actually amazed anyone remembered! I’m very happy that you did, because now I know your blog is founded in a real story about something you did – not just an idea created in your head. That doesn’t surprise me either, because I’ve learned here that you are maybe the most down-to-earth, connected-with-your-world blogger I know. I appreciate your integrity, a lot.

    Sisyphus! Now I know why you like big words. It’s like you’re saying, ‘Bring ’em on, baby!’ You can do it with one arm tied behind your back. :)

    Thanks so much for participating!


    My pleasure, completely. And I’m especially pleased to bump into words and phrases in your comment like “integrity”, “connected”, and “down-to-earth”. From the beginning, my goal’s been to write with integrity and honesty, but without self-absorption. It can’ be tricky, but it can be done.
    Especially after decades spent living primarily in my head, it’s fun to ponder the real world, and share my views of it with others.

    I spent a little time last night pondering how important titles are, even for blog entries. At 1 a.m. I almost re-titled this one “Sisyphus in a Skirt”. Obviously, I thought better of it. ;-)

    I’m looking forward to reading the other entries.


  2. That is fantastic work, I can see why you won! And what a wonderful origin story for this blog. Thanks for sharing it (again I assume).

    Thanks, Carl.

    When I started the blog I was so naive I didn’t even offer any explanation of the name. Later, I put a bit into a page, and tucked it into the sidebar, where it languished. This was a good opportunity to tell the story with a bit more detail. Now I’ll turn it back into a page and put it on the sidebar again, next to my “About” page. That way I can read it from time to time, when I start wondering, “What in the dickens am I doing?”

    So kind of you to stop by – glad you enjoyed the read.


  3. I’ve often wondered how you chose The Task at Hand. Some names are self explanatory. Thanks for the explanation. It’s nice to know.


    The only time I’ve ever considered changing it was about a month or so ago. For some reason, “Varnished Wood and Unvarnished Truth” seemed like a good idea. I’ve learned whenever something seems like a good idea, I should resist with all my might. I resisted, and “The Task at Hand” it remains.

    Sometimes I think the title doesn’t matter at all, as long as it stays the same. I’ve got one friend who’s changed hers three times, and I’m about to the point where I can’t even find it any longer!


  4. Oh, Linda! I love this story — it’s terrific! And the two sizes too big — divine!

    (Thanks for introducing me to Ruth! One of these days we’re actually both going to get to the same spot on campus at the same time and have a cup of tea! Who would imagine a person I’ve never met in Texas would introduce me to a person in my own backyard!)


    I just wish there weren’t so much in life I have to grow into! But it’s a wonderful way to look at things – and a big mistake to think all growth stops when our bones are fully formed.

    I love that you and Ruth have the chance to meet each other. I just wish I could be there, too! Maybe some day – wouldn’t it be fun to take a year and travel the country and visit everyone we’ve met and enjoyed? The Grand Tour, modern version!

    Thanks so much for taking time to stop by – this little project brought a lot of new blogs to visit.


  5. The layout seems very soft, calm, and warm to me. I enjoyed visiting and appreciate your excellence.

    A job well done.


    Thank you for stopping by, and for your kind words. I see you’re a new blogger – I enjoyed your entries, and wish you all the best!


  6. Linda,

    It was good to read your story. And maybe better for you to write it? But yes, the waiting for how the story unfolds… that’s the hard part.

    Henri Nouwen wrote a great little article titled A Spirituality of Waiting. It’s available on the internet if you’re interested in reading the full article. But let me share these few bits, which I pray will be a gift for you — as you wait in Advent for Christmas to come.

    We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.

    After reading your writing now and then, I would say Henri knows of what he writes. And so do you, my friend. I wait with you.



    I’ve bookmarked Nouwen’s article for reading – after Advent. Last year I avoided doing much Advent-ish reading while I was writing about Advent, to try to keep the focus on my thoughts. Nouwen especially can write eloquently – I bumped into “The Wounded Healer” during my social work days –
    and it’s easy for a piece of writing to become an echo of his voice.

    What he says about waiting certainly is related to my comments about growth, which always is a movement from something to something more.

    I did enjoy writing the piece – or should I say, re-writing. As I noted to Carl, there was a bit of this hidden away in my blog, but it was over a year old and differently focused. The best part of the experience was realizing that, to one extent or another, a year and a half of writing has made me a better writer. That’s what’s supposed to happen – fun to have a bit of evidence!


  7. Your writing seems so effortlessly beautiful – hardly Sisyphean at all! But that’s the secret, isn’t it – to look like a swan on top of the water, while underneath the feet paddle like mad :)

    I enjoyed reading your story :)


    How nice of you to stop by! And what a terrific metaphor for the process. I’ll bet that applies to your music, too, and probably to everything that’s worth doing. After all, that swan may be beautiful, but she’s not going to get anywhere if she doesn’t paddle ;-)

    Glad you enjoyed the read!


  8. I thought your poem was very eloquently expressed and that it was a worthy inspiration for the title of your blog. I enjoyed visiting here today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


    I just went out and hugged the ficus on my balcony for you. I would have gone down and hugged one of the palm trees, but it’s late and dark, and better to do that in the daylight.

    I so much enjoyed your story of your blog’s naming – I’ve met so many Canadians from the Prairie Provinces and the West, but you’re the first Eastern Woodlander! We’re still trying to get over the loss of the century-old oaks in Galveston, destroyed by hurricane Ike. There will be replanting, of course – but trees take time, too.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your kind comments. Wasn’t this a fun thing to do?


  9. For the past two years, I’ve learned much by watching the Sisyphean Poet/Writer at work, dedicated, persevering joyously, giving, sharing, and inspiring. Unlike the ancient Sisyphus, the task isn’t one that leads to futility, for I’ve seen, together with many, the fruits of her labour, and they are sweet and abundant. The initial task at hand has turned into a lovely harvest. Thank you Linda, we are all beneficiaries of the Sisyphean talent and commitment.


    Such kind words, my dear friend. It will be fun to see where this leads in months and years to come. That doesn’t necessarily mean a hunt for “real” publication, of course. As you know, I’ve found blogging can provide its own rewards, and I enjoy it very much.

    Just now, I’m nearly beside myself with another joy – I’m looking out my window at SNOW! Real snow, falling more heavily every minute. The temperatures are dropping and they say we may have some accumulation – what an absolute wonder! It’s time to bake, light candles and drink hot chocolate. If we’re lucky, we may even add a snowman to the mix ;-)


  10. Hi Linda,

    I had to come along and see why you were still up at 1am, when I got up early the other morning. Do not worry about forgetting things, it is just a normal event when one has too much to remember… I have the same problem – now what was I saying?

    In a way, I am glad the photography course is over, as I can now pick up my pen, (metaphorically) and write. There are eight more stories of Cottondale Woods that are festering in my brain!


    I keep remembering someone’s comment, made years after the “you can have it all” nonesense was beginning to lose its lustre. The woman (I haven’t a clue who it was) said, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.” There is so much wisdom in that – as you know, creative energy sent in one direction means less for other projects. That’s quite apart from the time issues, of course.

    Part of the reason I accepted Ruth’s invitation to take part in this little project was the deadline. Even self-imposed deadlines don’t have the same “oomph” as an external one, and that deadline adds a special “something” to the writing experience. I imagine you had something of the same experience getting that portfolio ready! But now we’re both past those, and ready to re-engage. I can’t wait to see which direction you go next!


  11. And to think it all began with a recipe for pecan pie. (oh, and a little piece of torn sandpaper, as I recall).

    Unlike Sisyphus, you make this all seem easy, which it is not. Like Ruth, I admire you for writing with the courage of your convictions, and the conviction of your courage. Two very different things, and both necessary. You teach much. Thank you–and if you will pardon the expression–“rock” on!


    You recall the sandpaper correctly. And the pie recipe? One custom-made for folks with corn allergies who can’t have the usual pecan pie, made with corn syrup. Mine uses nothing but sugar, butter and eggs for the filling – hence the reason for publishing it in the first place.

    You’re awfully kind, you know. But that “looking easy” is something to strive for, and if I manage it now and then, I’m happy. It’s the same in varnishing, for sure. People always are standing around watching me work, and when the varnish is flowing, they say, “Gosh, that looks easy!” And it is. There are some tricks, of course, but putting the varnish on is a snap.

    It’s what comes before that makes the difference – the stripping, the sanding, the hours of finicky prep work. Without that, the most skilled varnisher in the world couldn’t make a piece of wood look like anything. And for that glossy, table-top finish? Lots of sanding between coats: putting on, taking off, ad nauseum. Again, the same with words. Put them in, take them out. Ad nauseum ;-)

    Thanks so much for finding time in your new routine to stop by – I appreciate it so much!


  12. It’s such a totally different story (I think?) but I can’t get Robert De Niro out of my head from his character in The Mission, pulling up the cliff his horrendous burden of guilt clanging behind him. To watch him be redemptively released from it at the top of the gorge is one of my best of all movie moments ever. Maybe you can help me connect the dots to what you have written here about the Sisyphus/Hurculean task of writing. I’m guessing there IS something redemptive about writing and being “released” from the task at hand once you place the final period, even if it hasn’t started out from guilt or punishment.

    Anyway, strike that…other than that I couldn’t get the movie image out of my head.

    One of these days I may follow suit and do Ruth’s bidding about the naming of my own blog (the other one). I was especially intrigued that Jeanie found my sister Ruth in her own backyard. Apparently Vagabonde found me through Ruth and could have met me in Atlanta if I had stayed. It’s a small world after all.


    I just read the synopsis of the movie – I’d never heard of it. Of course, I’m not much of a movie-goer and never have been, so I’m constantly bumping up against “new” movies – this one appears to have been an especially creative variation on a theme that appears over and over in history. Change the time frame and change the site to D.C., and you might even be able to…. oh, never mind ;-)

    One thing I will say is that I’ve never equated “effort” with “burden” – at least as far as writing is concerned. Burden seems to imply effort that’s unusually onerous, or undertaken by necessity rather than choice. In a culture that seems to think any kind of effort’s an imposition – well, all sorts of things begin to seem burdensome.

    As for being “released” once the final period is placed – you just made me think of another parallel with varnishing. There’s an old saying among varnishers – “There is no final coat”. In the same way, I wonder if there is a “final period”. Of course there’s an end to a blog, or an essay or a poem – but the task is larger than any one entry… Interesting new thoughts!

    And the world’s even smaller than you think! Jeanie found Ruth because, when I saw Jeanie was going to Paris, I emailed her and said, “There’s this other woman in Michigan who has this wonderful blog with entries about Paris – you need to see it!” I had no idea at the time they’d end up being practically in each other’s laps, but so it was. That six degrees business is just so true!


  13. Once, as a regular viewer of Inside the Actors Studio, I imagined how I might respond to the infamous questionnaire adapted by James Lipton from Bernard Pivot.

    “What is your favorite word?” he queries.

    “Le mot juste!” I proclaim imperturbably — with my best French accent inextricably tangled in Southern drawl.

    As I grow older, the kind of specific recall required to fetch forth exactly the right word on demand becomes ever more problematic. My eighty-eight year old father has succumbed to senility. I fear that in another quarter century the same fate awaits me, if I should live so long. Meanwhile I can still hope to find that perfect, satisfying word. Sometimes it just takes a little longer.

    Speaking once again as a practicing couch tuber, I was introduced vicariously to stonemason Lew French on CBS Sunday Morning. Here is a man whose method would drive anyone else to madness. His secret weapon is patience. He picks just the right piece of stone, then

    until turned and nudged and tried again
    for perfect fit
    by one who never tires ~

    he does his thing. The result is astonishing.


    How I smiled at your “word-search” reference. When my own mom and I carry on conversations, she’ll come to an empty space and stop. At that point, my task is to search around and find the word she’s missing. If I get it right, she goes on. If I miss, she says, “No, not that”, and I keep searching until I find the right one.

    The Sunday Morning piece on Lew French was entrancing and astonishing, and certainly encouraging. To see a master approaching his craft in such an artful manner, and to hear him expressing some of the same attitudes and opinions I share – well, it’s just encouraging. That one goes in the file for occasion viewing late at night, when the turning and nudging isn’t going just right. Thanks so much for sharing it!


  14. How fascinating that your blog title has a story behind it. When I saw your blog title, I was wondering, what task?

    Thank you for sharing Linda.

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