Work has always been a significant factor in my life, and I have counted my blessings every day for the work of teaching. Growing up, I watched members of my extended family engaged in hard physical labor—working in the fields, caring for animals, making clothes, cooking, cleaning. On it went from early morning until sundown. Now our society tends to think of “leisure activity” as involving some kind of physical activity: for my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, “leisure” meant getting away from physical activity for a while; it meant sitting on the porch in a rocking chair telling a story or two before bedtime.
This week I’ve been trying to observe all the work and workers around me, taking note of all those who make others’ lives easier through their labors. I watched closely as the post office clerk climbed a tall ladder to retrieve packages; I listened in as a young waiter took orders with a smile; I observed workers on a wayside cleaning crew scouring the area for litter and trash. I marveled at the teachers pouring back into their classrooms, ready for another year with their young charges.
Work, as we know, comes in all colors and flavors: Mike Rose has written eloquently on the dignity of work in The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (which includes a chapter on Mike’s mother, who waited tables.) We also know that work can be grinding – beating people down to exhaustion and beyond.
Still, at least in this culture, we seem drawn to work, in part perhaps to help give our lives meaning. I think it’s worth taking time to talk with students about their conceptions (and preconceptions) of work—what they think it is and what they think it is for. I often introduce such discussions with a favorite poem, like this one by Marge Piercy:
To be of use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
On this Labor Day week, I’m grateful for work that is real – and for all those who labor.