“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
~Studs Terkel, Working
Sometime, either near the end of college or just after I graduated, I read Stud Terkel’s book Working. It was a series of accounts of different people describing their work and the various feelings, thoughts and perspectives of what they believed their work meant in the world. I am sure there were a variety of professions but the ones that drew me in most were those we describe as ‘blue collar’ jobs, jobs that often go unnoticed in our culture. They are not jobs that draw attention or get much play in any media. They are often behind the scenes and invisible yet completely necessary to our existence. These jobs are often filled by people who work hard, long hours and come home physically, mentally and, no doubt, spiritually exhausted. Think about the countless road construction workers standing in the heat of a Minnesota summer repairing and rebuilding our roads. Bring to mind the many pickers and harvesters bringing food to our tables. Imagine the line cooks, the bathroom cleaners, the office maintenance workers who show up in the dark of night to prepare shiny, clean spaces for higher paid workers, all work that goes unseen most of the time.
Since retiring just over a month ago, it probably makes sense that I am thinking about work…what it is…what it means…how we approach it…what meaning it brings to our lives. And yet I have always been fascinated by this daily activity we engage in that pays our bills and creates the life that defines how we live out our days. Studs Terkel’s book may have contributed to this fascination for wondering about people’s work life. I still remember Terkels’s account of the jack hammer operator’s description of coming home at the end of the day, settling into his recliner to watch television and feeling his body vibrating from the tool’s movement still finding a home in his muscles and bones. Since, I have never passed a jack hammer worker on a construction site and not said a silent prayer of awe and thanks for the work they are doing.
Terkel writes: “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.” There is probably some truth in this. And there are also people who take the job they have landed in and make it somehow enlarge to fit their spirit. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be in the presence of just such a person. My husband and I traveled to Milwaukee to do the interment of my father-in-law’s ashes at the cemetery in the town where he had lived out his life. His death in December had been a surprise to us as he was a vital, 92 year old in seemingly good health. We celebrated his life with a memorial service but had yet to have this final moment of closure.
The day of the interment could not have been farther from the weather of winter. Heat in the upper 90’s and sun beating down, we arrived at the cemetery knowing we were to meet someone from the mortuary and, we were told, the gravedigger. Even writing that word conjures up images from a Dicken’s tale. In all the graveside services I have been privileged to attend, I had never seen the gravedigger. They had always been unseen players in the drama that was being played out. But this man, rough around the edges and wearing cutoffs and a ragged, Rolling Stones tshirt…the one with the large red tongue protruding…arrived to stand with us in this humid, hot final act of saying goodbye to one of the finest men I have ever known. We said a prayer and read a poem and then placed the lovely, cherrywood box in the ground.
At that moment, the gravedigger shifted from unseen player to something more. “Wait.”, he said, as he went back to his truck. Coming back he leaned over and placed a woven bit of palm branch on the lid of the box.”I brought this from church.”, he said. In the pounding heat, we may have mumbled some thanks, I don’t remember. I do know that the impact of that moment has traveled with me in the days that have followed.
It seems to me that this man, doing what we might call menial labor, had chosen to enlarge his work and make it big enough to fit his spirit. He had chosen to stand fully in the power of his work, claiming and connecting the movement of his shovel with the movement of the faithful offering the dead back, not only to the Earth, but to the One who breathed them into being. It was a holy moment, one for which I am thankful.
For Dwayne…and for all those who enlarge their work to fill their spirit…may you be blessed beyond measure.