In honor of Labor Day, I found myself thinking about work, particularly about good work. Here’s a smattering of what I uncovered, mostly from my family home.
“It’s good work if you can get it.” That’s a sentence I heard frequently from my carpenter father, but it’s a common saying with several implications. First, it’s saying that good work does exist, implying that there’s not-so-good work as well, perhaps even bad work. It’s also saying that not everybody can get good work, that it is either relatively rare or the competition for it is stiff, or has specialized requirements—something that makes it harder to come by.
My dad loved building houses, even when that included hard work under soggy conditions. Working hard didn’t bother him so much as working without appreciation for what was accomplished or regard for his skill. Good work for him was work where he could decide what needed to be done and do it, even if that required other people to work with him. So much the better if other people thought it was good work, too.
My mother had a decent regard for the work she did making a home for him, herself and for us. I remember watching the TV show “Queen for a Day” as a child, and asking her once, “Don’t you wish you could be Queen for a Day?” And she said “No, I wouldn’t want some stranger coming into my house!” She worked pretty much from dawn to bedtime, but I sensed that she was proud of her efforts and felt she was making progress in her life.
That progress was amplified when a family we knew well on the other side of the state sent us their piano. It was an upright, a player piano with piano rolls and pedals to pump, which made the rolls go around and the piano to play by itself. Ostensibly, the ownership of the piano was so that we children could learn to play and read music. My mother could play, but reading music escaped her. She played by ear, and played so well that no one could imagine she had not been trained.
Where my mother excelled was in finding chords. The music she loved, the romantic music of the 1940s that carried so many people through World War II and its aftermath, had more complex chord structures and progressions than the popular music written before that decade. When she’d start to hear a song in her head, or on the radio, she would head to the piano and find those chords, then the song’s melody and rhythm, and most times she’d have it down before she left the piano bench. Since this wasn’t considered work, much less good work, she confined this effort to the hours before my father came home from his job.
Although my parents each honored the hard, good work the other did to keep hearth and home together, it wasn’t until they divorced that each of them found themselves doing good work that used their real gifts. My father found himself organizing people in his small town of Sebastopol to pull down an old Girl Scout building board by board, saving even some of the nails, to build a new square dance hall using those materials. Most of the labor was volunteer and unskilled, but under his leadership and the contributions of others’ skills and donated materials, they accomplished a rather amazing feat: a new community building built to code.
My mother eventually got prodded enough by her friends to start playing her music in adult day centers and nursing homes, where she found the people who needed to hear the music she needed to play. And in giving to them the gift she’d been given, she found herself whole at last. The pandemic shattered her “therapy sessions,” as she called them, but at 97 she still hopes to be able to get back to “playing for old people.”
I think now that “good work” has something to do with vocation, which religious writer Frederick Buechner once described as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” May we keep working for a world where that kind of good work exists, and where many people, not few, can find it.