Editor’s note: Tess Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, including “Work & Days” and “Rift Zone.” She is releasing the anthology “Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens & the Hands That Tend Them” in August. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I know they say that April is the cruelest month. But honestly, May, just before the school year ends, seems to be pretty wild, as well. How can everything on earth be due now?
Recently, just when I thought I was far too busy to take on another thing under the sun, I remembered that I had volunteered for a whole day at my son’s school to teach some poems to the sixth grade class and then to take a bunch of third graders to do weeding and garden bed-clearing at a community orchard.
Oh yes, and after that, I was to host our daughter’s Girl Scout troop for pizza around a backyard firepit because every campsite in driving distance had been rained to bits by our devastating megastorm California winter.
I’ll be honest: As I looked at these promises flickering up from the electronic gaze of my phone’s calendar, I was not pleased. I saw no time to rest. None of these promises of my time looked like a chance to read or daydream or even just to answer my email in peace. None of them looked like the cocktail I wanted to nip out for with my partner.
Really? I thought! Tess, why do you keep doing this to yourself?
I’m sure a lot of you can relate to the brisk clip of deadlines to meet this month; mine include a persnickety grant application on a finicky portal that seems designed by a malevolent god who wishes to grant no money, to anyone, ever.
My mom and daughter have both been through some tough spells health-wise, and we’ve had days sucked dry by the tiresome vicissitudes of America’s health care system. Anyone who has spent a day multitasking while listening to a distant endocrinologist’s poorly chosen hold music will know what I mean when I then ask: Do you want to spend the whole weekend volunteering?
Surely, it’s OK to say no. I was raised by a generation of women who read the book “Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.” I am sure there are still meditations there for many of us today.
Volunteering in communities still feels like feminized labor — run the PTA! Run the arts organization! The youth group! A Sunday school! Bake the cookies! Save the whales and the world while you’re at it! I just edited a book about gardening, which I love, but oh, golly, some days, do I really want to tend anything more? After feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic years, I’ve been wary of any more in any form.
But the other fact is, and I know this, too: It is good to tend. Community feels good. Activism feels good. Cultivating feels good. Before the pandemic, when I had a practice of doing some organizing on behalf of a homeless encampment, I had a regular and deliberate pathway for transforming the sadness and fury I feel about the stuck places in the world.
I had a place where I could put my shoulder to the wheel, face my grief and try anew. I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, many fences are down, many sites need care. When I sink beyond the first rung of burnout, the first desire to tune out, I realize that some of the so-called work that needs doing now is simply holding up the necessary pillar of having hope or community at all.
I am so glad I did not cancel. For the record: I am too busy right now. And: As it happened the appointed day was a blast. The sixth graders were wiggly but insightful. The third graders tore crabgrass and wild fennel out of the garden bed and made it ready for tomato starts.
The Girl Scouts ate pizza and built a fire and sang several silly songs: one about black socks that never get dirty, one about the grand old Duke of York, one about a man named Joe who works in a button factory. The Girl Scouts, now 7 years old, were rudely torn from many other mortals at age 4, when the pandemic started. They are deeply excited to be in a troop. They giggle a lot. They learned how to strike matches, some for the first time.
“Poems are really just imaginary journeys, aren’t they?” a sixth grader asked me as we all looked over the W.B. Yeats poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” — in which the poet imagines going away from everyone to live alone on an island in a “bee-loud glade,” but then somehow, at the end of the poem, remains in the city, changed by his imagining.
I happen to love that poem, because you can voyage to a very peaceful island cabin that Yeats builds in language as much as he builds it by actually going there — it’s a place that’s restorative because it hints at possibility, more than it ever offers completeness.
I cherish aloneness. But I cherish possibility, too. Sometimes we go out and work in community because we want to alter and renew our sense of what is possible. I thought about how, working in a garden, spending a day with kids, singing songs with friends around a fire, while real and lived, is also a journey, one that can change us, making us imagine a different kind of future.
When we volunteer or work with others, we alter our orientation to ourselves, to one another, to our path in the world, even if only for a few hours. In a world that’s been deeply uneasy, in which tempers often flare, we build spaces, where we can, for just a little bit, live in deeper communion with one another. In the glade, it’s we who are singing.
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One of the worst parts of the pandemic was that it shook me, for a while, out of some of the activist practices that have grounded me. I think I’m not alone in needing to rebuild community. And community, is of course, a practice, not a thing.
This year, I’m still finding my way back to that work. I think of these hours in gardens and schools as offerings, not just to the world that is, but toward the world I would like to imagine could be.
For what it’s worth, my little journey helped me. Last year, author Laura Vanderkam wrote in The New York Times that quitting is not the answer to burnout. She recommended, instead, a shift, a reorientation, a deliberate practice of meaningful action.
I agree. Coming back to my desk, after maybe 36 hours away, the unwieldy portal seemed less finicky, the grant application less trying, the various burdens a bit more light. I had not been off to an island cabin, but there was some wild fennel in a jar on the table, a little campfire smell in my work sweater, a bit of song inside my head.