It is Labor Day Weekend, three days celebrating work, workers, working. In Minnesota, most educators spend this weekend in last minute prep for their upcoming teaching, finalizing lessons, tweaking syllabi, deciding that last activity to make the first class session a little extra special. For me,this weekend requires significant time preparing opening comments for our academic year, trying to put something together that strikes the balance between serious direction and opening year excitement. Today, I feel the tug of the school year calling, and my feelings are complex, a mix of gearing up and shifting gears. Dis ease requires a zipline of up and down energy that is at odds with the labor traditionally channeled into this weekend. But I still find myself working to bring one more beginning into the fray, one more lesson by the great teacher in my life, one more Labor Day in which the labor is rewarded with the prize of anything and everything ALS.
I am keenly aware of the etymology and multiple meanings of labor. The holiday is about the noun, whether we are talking about the person who accomplishes the task, or the task itself. But today in this time of ALS, the richness of labor’s etymological genome is in the verb. To do something with great effort, to totter under the weight of the work seems to acknowledge dis ease’s exacting teachings. Tottering and effort are the honors ALS insists will be bestowed far beyond parsing the meanings between noun and verb.
In these labors, we honor work.
I love the whole concept of honoring work, for work has always honored me. Once I realized how hard I would have to work–for my education, my living, my family, my music, my exercise, even for the intellectual forms guiding my thinking–a life-choice presented itself. Either I could find the joy in hard work or I could resent it, and early on I admit that my disposition toward work ranged closer to resentment. But as I matured, I consciously chose joy for the most part, and I hope that those who knew me, who still know me, remember our time together as mostly joyful, because the work together was energizing. For me, even leisure required hard work. Most people would probably find the level of planning I needed to create a vacation space antithetical to the goal, but working so leisure could occur was a joyful premise in which I willingly and enthusiastically participated. Truly, the idea of honoring work and workers hums like a spinning plate in my psyche.
Up until 2010, Labor Day Weekend was a time Ev and I would traditionally seek to balance the work of preparation with the work of play through long bike rides in southern Minnesota. We rode wonderful adventures in our annual last big bike of the season. Headquartering out of Preston, we loved riding the Root River Trail, especially east of Lanesboro where the trails were ours for the taking. I still hold in my heart a picture of a road weary Ev sitting on the grass in Waylon eating the last ice cream cone sold at the pie shop on a warm Sunday with 14 miles left in an 86 mile day. Later in the ride, we were held up by a Minnesota rattlesnake sunning himself on the bike path, and we flew the last eight miles to Preston like a hot wind awaiting soothing whirlpools and air conditioning, inspired more than a little by rattles and fangs and the irritation of a snake forced to leave the sun for the brush by impatient riders with 15 foot long branches dancing encouragement around it. The last time we rode, it was a time for listening to language we didn’t understand, the last 30 miles with me playing catchup, and Ev thinking I was just being nice. We worked to play, and we always brought home apples and corn and summer’s last melons for that last summer meal of the season. I would cook, and Ev would bake apple pies to honor the upcoming autumn and to fulfill a Christmas promise gifted to our sister-in-law, Hanna.
I have learned through experience that this weekend is a time to get out of the way of the work needs of my one true love. For her, Labor Day carries that delicious tension between utmost readiness, unfelt preparedness, and the inability to predict the full needs the children will present in the first week of school. Of course, within a couple of weeks, she will have the kids pegged–who will need “the look,” who will need kid gloves, who will need coaxing, who will need reins and who will need giddyup. It is a loving endeavor not for the novice or the faint of heart. And I will live vicariously through the stories of delight and weariness she shares, at least once she has made the recovery she needs upon home arrival. There is nothing like the work required to unlock a child, and there is absolutely nothing like a child with the sudden epiphany of new knowledge. Ev approaches this task as the sacred trust it is, and I cannot help but note the light she shines even when she is exhausted from pouring herself into her teaching.
My work focus this weekend is habitual and necessary. The sun will splash into our little den, windows on the east and the south, and light my way through multiple and disparate resources. As I struggle to bring them together in a coherent narrative, reflecting on the privilege I still feel for the task ahead, I must resist the temptation to make this weekend’s preparations more than they are. It may be my last time for this particular work at hand, but it is no more special than years before, and it doesn’t mean this time will be any more profound than any other time when the work was less perceptible for its meanings. I have a habit of imbuing beginnings and endings and last times with greater meaning than they possess, and I need to circle back to labor’s truths–the honest liturgy, introspection, worship–no matter the meanings dis ease projects.
I still strive to bring the holiness of work–of working–into what is coming in the minutes and hours and days ahead. The requirements are not so different from before–constructed focus walking the line between seriousness and excitement–and yet the requirements loom as work for which I suspect I will never demonstrate complete mastery. Work is not so much about labor but life, and life is not only what we have done, but how we do it. When dis ease overwhelms, reframing its effects is always helpful. This week, the future is dis ease work, hard work that requires all I have learned from labor’s lessons in teaching, leading, artistic expression, spiritual knowing. It is a future that requires the ultimate in work ethic, with no space for any less than all in. I hope I will meet its challenges, engage its possibilities, realize the person I have sought to become, even as physical functions become impossible, abilities no longer realized except in the challenges they present. Labor is nothing more than the faith that what will be is ultimately joyful, even as diminution seems to call for sadness. I know this mystical presence, for it teaches me that labor is not stern control, but chaotic love.
And in the end, as with all our labors, life has this odd ability to work itself out.