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Happy Labor Day

Sara ponders the meaning of work.

Work is how we spend the coin of our lives.

I was busy, laboring to get things done before we went on our three-day trip to a wedding in D.C.  I needed to go to the cleaners, to physical therapy, to get my hair cut and also to the Post Office, to send off the fruits of my labor. 

At physical therapy, I was attended, as always, by a wonderful, caring therapist. Even though it was an ungodly early morning hour, he was kind, relaxed and engaging. I huffed and puffed through my routine and was rewarded with hot pads and electrical stimulation to relax my back. Each of us could have regarded the session in this way: it was his job, he had to go through the motions, and I had to go through the motions because this was my prescribed therapy. If I don’t do it, my pain increases. But he brought more than technical know-how to the transaction—he brought all of himself. As did I. We labored together towards the goal of making me stronger, of lessening my pain. When I left the clinic, I didn’t feel as if I had lost an hour. Instead, it seemed an hour well-spent.

I went to the cleaners, to pick up the silk dress I bought for the swanky wedding I am going to, purchased for five dollars at the Potter’s House. It was hot in there, and I couldn’t think of a less pleasant place to be. Yet the woman who took my ticket was pleasant and courteous. She could have been grouchy. I would have been.

 I went to have my hair cut.  My hairdresser was his usual outrageous self, full of stories.  He makes each of his clients feel cared for, and he remembers your stories from month to month. While there, one client vented about her ne’r do-well son-in-law, another told the amazing and inspirational story of her recovery from cancer. Another spoke wistfully of someone she had once loved. Someone shared a recipe.  Someone else shared a website. I consulted with his partner about the color of my dining room, which we concluded I would keep, with some minor additions. My hairdresser could have simply cut my hair—that is what I paid him to do. But he does so much more—he creates a protected atmosphere that feels like home, that feels like the place you can go and be accepted for yourself. Which is why people keep coming back. Yes, it is good business, but it also just good. Anyone who works with the public knows how hard it can be to be “on” all the day. I’m sure there are days it takes it out of him. 

I went to to post my package. My son Adam ordered a malt while I packaged up my parcel. Harriet, the pharmacist, greeted me with a big smile and hello. I sent off the manuscript of a novel I’ve been working on intermittently for years. I have labored over this work, not because it has brought or will bring me riches, or fame, but because it was work I had to do. Writing it has helped me maintain equilibrium in the face of chronic illness and a traumatic injury. When working on it, I did not focus on my pain or discouragement—I was able to plumb the emotions those experiences brought up, yet turn them into something which I hope is “artful,” something that goes beyond my individual experience. Something that perhaps others can participate in and reap something from. Working on it, I wasn’t a vulnerable invalid, but an empowered creator.

 We work, we labor, for many reasons. We work to survive, to pay the bills, to have independence and freedom. But work is more than that, as Philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his latest book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, "Everybody has to work…., everybody needs to work because it's right at the core of who we are …..You can't get through a conversation with anybody without the person saying to you, 'what do you do?' And they're not just asking you, as it were, for a piece of information, they're asking you for your soul; they're asking you what keeps you going, what kind of a human being are you? Not to have an answer to that is really terrible. That's what makes unemployment so tragic -- it's not just the money, it's the denial of your sheer existence."

He goes on to say: "We want from our work now what we've always wanted -- which is the sense of connection to other human beings, a sense of helping them, a sense of imposing order on a chaotic world -- that's what we love work for….it keeps us focused, and on a good day, we manage to make something which is that little bit better than we manage to be in our private lives and in the rest of our lives.”

 I had a good day. I felt surrounded by a web of caring workers.  And then I sat down to do my work

Pat McAlexander September 07, 2011 at 12:05 AM
Excellent column, Sara. Very wise. Good luck with your back and with the novel.
Patty Freeman-Lynde September 07, 2011 at 02:37 PM
It is true that without work, it is hard to feel you are real. I am sending some positive energy with your manuscript. Congratulations on getting to this point! I look forward to reading it when it is published.

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