The great oral historian and author Studs Terkel captured the spirit of labor in his work. He committed his life’s work to documenting the experiences of everyday Americans getting up and going to work for a better life.
An homage to work, his recordings are preserved in the Smithsonian Institute for posterity. Stories of adversity, working through the pangs of misery that life can impart on every soul doing his or her part breathing in the smoke and must of achievement; the gentle labor of earnest desire baking in the hearts of dreamers.
I loved reading his work and the work of poets who recorded the grind of life on people who were trying to work it out in their own way. Raising families, working through the sweet sounds of labor’s call to provide possibility and opportunity for a new generation and make sense of what seemed sometimes like tormented duty to satisfy an earnest desire for more.
Carl Sandburg’s poem a Father to His Son:
“A father sees his son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
“Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.”
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum monotony
and guide him among sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
“Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.”
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
and left them dead years before burial:
the quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
has twisted good enough men
sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use against other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.”
This aspirational poem conjures the prose of reality for me. I think of my old man and the sacrifices he made for my family in the name of work to keep our hopes and ambitions alive. All of it a quest for understanding through his daily waking. In boyhood, working with “Ollie the iceman,” delivering ice blocks to homes and businesses in Batavia, New York. Working his way up from the bottom to the top of the corporate ladder. Starting in his father’s store and dreaming bigger for bolder causes greater than him. Making it work as an inside salesman at US Steel and then moving on to other creative adventures to make his talent work.
I think of my mother cleaning up the missteps of business when my father lost his job, and heading out on her own to make life easier for us after being a stay at home mom; doing office work at Ameritrust and then as a switchboard operator for our public school; connecting people when her genius took a backseat. A woman who started her career out of necessity to keep her family going by working as a secretary for a law firm at Moot Sprague in Buffalo, New York.
All the while something beautiful was being built. In the midst of struggle and the pangs of uncertainty meeting the daily grind of people in our world, achievement reigned supreme. One neighborhood, one household venture at a time.
The smell of steel and sweat baked into the uniforms of workers on a hot, humid day. Every acquisition of dirt a badge of necessity. The iron casts of molton lava being forged one by one mold at a time to make the bridges and roads that would carry goods across our country and lay foundations for more work and labor.
Labor Day is a Holy rest. It gives a nod to the unions and trades that offered stability in frail uncertain quests. It’s a day to take stock in those who toiled to make our world what it is today, but it’s also a sabbatical and reminder that there’s more work to be done – to not forget that there are laborers working ungodly hours and making sacrifices in their own ways to make new ambitions come alive.
What would the likes of Terkel and Sandburg say of today? Have we fulfilled the American Dream in our own right or are we mindfully doing the quiet work of humility in our corners of the world building something beautiful one brick and one worker, one dream at a time?