Labor Day is an odd holiday. On Thanksgiving, we celebrate by acting thankful. On the 4th of July, we celebrate by acting patriotic. On Halloween, we celebrate by acting just a tad demonic.
Labor Day, on the other hand, we celebrate by not laboring. In fact, most of us don’t even want to think about our workplace on Labor Day.
My work is conducted mostly by the ends of my eight fingertips and the sides of my thumbs. That is to say, like many in the information age, I work at a computer. So when, infrequently, I get the chance to do some hard physical labor, it’s a refreshing change of pace.
As was the case a week ago Saturday, when I spent six hours across the street from Austin High School on the 200 block of North Pine Avenue, doing lawn work for Josephine Poole-part of a one-day service project called the “Austin Labor of Love.”
Austin High School rose penitentiary-like in the background as our crew of three, Nell Schultz (Oak Park), Jerome Crosswell (formerly Austin, now Naperville), and myself set upon Josephine’s jungle of a yard with missionary-like zeal (thanks to Nell’s extensive collection of gardening tools). The lovely old willow tree on the side of the house needed attention. A side stump had rotted and dead branches begged to be pruned. The hedge had consumed the front fence and needed taming. A dead tree in back required removal.
Jerome disappeared and returned with a tree saw, which he applied to the dead tree, while Nell and I set upon the bushes. A luxurious, drenching rain the night before had softened the ground, so we uprooted a good number of invasive elms, mulberries and maples from the hedge. It was muddy and muggy and we were sweating like crazy, but it felt good.
Like a sequel to “Stone Soup,” kids started appearing around the yard, drawn by curiosity or summoned by Grandma Josephine, who presided on the porch, overseeing all. At first they watched, then at Grandma’s urging and our encouragement, pitched in. They stayed with us the entire six hours, providing invaluable cleanup support, which came in handy since we filled at least 15 large trash bags with yard waste.
Kids from the neighborhood stopped to gawk and talk. A block to the east on Central, you could hear Danny Davis’ annual Back to School Parade passing by. Our support crew wanted badly to go and watch, but to my surprise they resisted the temptation.
One might have wondered why, with this much manpower, they didn’t keep the yard in the impeccable state in which we left it, and the thought did cross my mind, but not in a cross way. Not even a judgmental way. I have as much propensity for procrastination as anyone when it comes to cleaning my own apartment. I know how hard it is to get motivated, yet how good it feels when the work is done. I also know how enjoyable work can be, and how much easier it goes, when you have company.
On this day, the work was both enjoyable and very satisfying as we surveyed the results.
“Better than a paycheck,” as Nell Schultz put it.
It’s no coincidence, I suppose, that the two consequences meted out for eating that apple in the Garden of Eden were working hard for a living and pain in childbirth, and that the word for both is “labor.” So it’s also no surprise we have mixed feelings about work.
Mrs. Poole, who has lived here since 1969, worked in a factory in Carol Stream until two years ago. One of her jobs was welding, so she knows a thing or two about labor. But since retiring, she mostly stays inside, feeling lazy, she said, and doesn’t even enjoy her own front porch anymore. If our work gave her a reason to come out more often, it was worth the effort.
I didn’t take part in this one-day service project to change anyone’s world. I was there to broaden my boundaries a little and because-who knows?-it might lead to something.
That’s hope in action-and worth celebrating.