When my daughter grows up, she wants to be a teacher, a police officer, or a retail clerk in a women's and children's resale clothing store. She is six years old and just starting kindergarten. Though smart as a whip, she doesn't really know what work is. She knows that after we drop her off at school, my husband and I drive downtown to our respective office buildings and sit at desks, on which there are computers, telephones, and piles of paper. When she comes to visit, she favors the cold water from the water cooler and the view from my window of the street below.
She believes work has to do with money, with time we spend away from her. When she describes me to a teacher or a friend's parent, she says, “My mom is a magazine editor.” She doesn't say, “My mom takes care of my baby brother when he wakes up in the middle of the night,” or “My mom spends a lot of time in the summer preserving food for us to eat in the winter.” She's not wrong that work is often about money, about time spent away from the people you love. But she has yet to learn that any effort on a task or toward a goal counts as work. So while she knows something about jobs, she's still trying to figure out what work is.
Poet Philip Levine writes that work is about waiting in the rain for a job that might not materialize, about doing the night shift so you can study German and sing Wagner during the day. Although Levine is describing Detroit factory workers in his poem “What Work Is,” for many Oregonians—white or blue collar, shift or salaried—“waiting” is a reality during this recession, which has seen the state's unemployment rate remain higher than the national average for months on end. Other Oregonians who are employed—whether happily or just gratefully—are trying to figure out how to get it all done: job, family, German, Wagner. All of us are called to, defined by, steeped in the work we do or want to do.
Another of my favorite poems digs a little deeper into the complicated relationship between work and identity. In Robert Hayden's “Those Winter Sundays,” the narrator looks back on his childhood and remembers how, on “Sundays, too,” his father would rise early and “with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze,” chasing the cold from the house. And the powerful last line: “What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?”
Work isn't something that happens only at a desk or on a factory line. Instead, what we focus our energies and efforts on—the work we do, whether for pay or for love—is what tells others who we are, what we value, of what we are made. Through our labors, we become known to one another, and that is the best kind of work of all.
No comments yet.