Our Sisyphean Tasks


The first time I really understood what is meant by the term “Sisyphean labor,” it was in reading about the sand women of Araouane, an ancient village in West Africa, six days by camel from Timbuktu. Daily, these dedicated women sweep and scoop sand from the doorsteps and interiors of village houses. The Saharan sand shifts and blows constantly; the sand women and other villagers sweep and scoop, rest, and wake up to continue their work again.

Norimitsu Onishi’s account of life in the disappearing village communicated something important, it seemed to me, about human life and effort in general. For all of us, there is some labor, whether one of love or obligation or even chronic illness, that we must do over and over and over. And the task is endlessly replenished.

In Massachusetts, where I live, we are experiencing a season of record snow fall, as are many areas of the U.S. Daily, it seems, my husband and I are shoveling snow and lifting it onto piles that are shoulder height. Still, the snow keeps falling and the plows keep charging down streets, depositing dams of ice and churned-up snow at the end of the driveway and sidewalk.

In the middle of the night, we hear the town’s backhoes and dump trucks removing the big piles from around intersections. In the day, I look out the kitchen window into the backyard and see the snow blowing and drifting in shapely mounds. We budget more time in the morning to get the cars going, to see the kids to school, to travel to work. We keep a mental inventory of things we need everyday: dry boots, dry coat, hat, gloves, a little extra food and supplies on hand, batteries for flashlights.

The snow is no longer a novelty; it’s a daily condition of our lives, the thing we must confront before we do the tasks of what we consider our real lives.

One snowy evening, after a creeping drive home, I shoveled again. Another storm had begun, and our strategy is to try to keep apace with the snowfall, spreading our shoveling out across hours, rather than doing it in one big session. I carved a nice exit from our driveway into the street, and I paused to admire it. “Nice work, Jane,” I murmured to myself.

A few minutes later, I heard the lumbering plow and saw its yellow hulk, its lights. I stood aside, watched it pass, and saw a dam of snow return to the end of my driveway. The driver’s window was open, and, perhaps expecting me to curse him, he leaned out a little and said to me, “I’m sorry; I do the best that I can.” I didn’t think he could hear me over the rumble of his truck, so I smiled at him and mouthed the words, “It’s okay.” Conditions are hard, and we are all trying.

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