Labor Day - originally a time to recognize the dignity of labor - has come to have a host of other meanings. For many, it's summer's last hurrah - the last long weekend of vacation. For millions of children, it's now back-to-school time. For us here on the Outer Banks, it's a sigh of relief - we pretty much get our beach and our roads and our restaurants back to ourselves. Up north, it marks the beginning of cooler, bracing fall weather that puts an extra bounce in your walk. It's time for all creatures to harvest - to store away in preparation for winter. In the commercial world, this marks the beginning of a frantic two-month period of conferences and seminars and trade shows before the holiday tempo takes over.
A lot of us governed our lives as young people by what is known as the Protestant work ethic - imbued with a strong sense of guilt if we did not spend most of our waking hours doing something worthwhile. Unlike European countries that literally shut down for at least one month each summer, our vacations truly had to be earned. I know one woman who can't even relax on family camping trips: she always takes along her recipe files or photos or some such project to organize. Even in church she was always busy with needlepoint or knitting.
As middle class Americans we tend to define ourselves by what we do more than what we are. I'm an engineer or postal worker or nurse or homemaker. Or minister. And, even at this late date in the 20th century, we still hold pretty rigid stereotypes about how those roles function. We find it necessary to specify "male nurse" - otherwise nurse is a feminine role. Do you know any stay-at-home dads? They really take a beating in the opinion of most people. Anyone working below the level of their intellect, education or natural gifts presents us with a real puzzle - the classic underachiever. For a supposedly classless society, we put a lot of emphasis on status.
I guess the departure from that mindset was one of the things I found most charming about Maine. A lot of the bright, well educated young people were turning their backs on the business opportunities of Portland and Boston, and returning to the land. Some made a living raising herbs, and giving lessons in making grapevine wreaths. Some raised goats and supplied local restaurants with delicious cheeses. One couple started a winery, using only native Maine fruits.
Someone I especially admired was the head of maintenance for our seminary in Bangor. The school had been established in the early 19th century, and many of the buildings dated from that period. So there was plenty of routine and emergency maintenance, and Bud loved every minute of it. The building I lived in had once been a hotel, and had a sort of shabby genteel charm. Somehow Bud kept the ancient furnace and plumbing working most of the time. My apartment had only one door, opening out into the parking lot. And that door had a very large, crotchety lock. I came home for lunch one day, just as a blizzard was cranking up, and the lock had totally died. I tried the windows and they were locked. So I hunted for Bud. He managed to dismantle the lock, let me inside, and then for two hours patiently sat in the open doorway repairing the lock, while I huddled under a comforter on the couch and the snow swirled around both of us. It was quite a learning experience.
I would have been tempted just to buy a new door and a new lock. But Bud was proud of his ability to fix just about anything. He told me that, at home, he kept a work bench in front of his large fireplace, and his favorite occupation on long winter evenings was to sit there and repair all kinds of things that were never beyond mending; things others would have thrown away.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. That's really a heart-breaking assessment. But Thoreau wasn't talking about Bud or any of the other folks in Maine who had such pride and satisfaction in their chosen work. A person like Bud never just worked for a paycheck. He was someone to envy - and emulate. With all the materialism with which we're bombarded, I'm delighted with a few current TV commercials. The ones for Crown filling stations, with the eager young employee saying, "Crown is my life." And the ones for Wal-Mart with the whistling happy face and employees dressed as clowns. They speak to satisfaction in the workplace, not status. I'm reminded of the song from Cinderella which charmed me as a child: "Whistle while you work." Work should give us satisfaction and pleasure; sometimes even joy. People are just more productive when they're happy.
For years I've thought my auto insurance company - USAA - must be a great place to work. For one thing, I always get a live person when I call. And they always take time to ask how I like my new home, be it Connecticut or Nashville or the Outer Banks. And to tell me how things are at the home office in San Antonio. And somehow, while transacting business, there's always time for a laugh.
Certain parts of the country get a reputation for friendly employees - or otherwise. It was such a joy, after ten years of surly treatment in NYC, to move to Florida and have grocery clerks smile and say, "Now y'all hurry back!" That's part of what I love here on the Outer Banks - I've just been here a year, but in my customary rounds of the bank, post office, drug store and grocery store people already greet me as an old friend. I never buy a cheesecake that the bag man doesn't advise me to be sure to tell people it's homemade!
Most of us work because we have to - it's how we survive. But there can be a spiritual dimension to work, as well. Catholic spiritual advisors suggest using rote, routine tasks as a time for meditation. On the other hand, Buddhists say "be mindful." When washing dishes, concentrate on the flow of the water, the iridescent sheen of soap, the sparkle of the dried goblet. Be thoroughly present in each task that you do. I'm reminded of an economics professor who, in the mid-seventies was seriously trying to relieve his wife of some of her traditional chores. So he took over the laundry for one. And he discovered the delightful smell of clothes dried in sunlight. He started looking forward to wash day. Either way, work can often serve as a release from life's problems.
We measure units of mechanical work in horsepower; units of light in candle power. Perhaps we should more consciously measure our efforts in terms of satisfaction. Starting with school work - is the grade really the most important thing? Or is it what we learn - including what we learn about ourselves in terms of satisfaction in our ability to organize - to master new skills - to find solutions - to see the correlation between two seemingly disparate things or events.
Very few of us can escape work of some sort in our lives. Nor would we really want to. It's an inevitable as death and taxes. What I hope we can do is put some of the joy - the satisfaction - the non-material value - back into our work lives. And I hope we can all take time this weekend to celebrate the rewarding role of work in our lives. Amen