Monday, September 07, 2009

An Ethic of Work

Whether it was babysitting, summer harvest work, or other kinds of typical youth employment, I have been working steadily since I was 13 years old, growing up in the wheat and pea fields of northeastern Oregon.

Babysitting for the neighbors was a minor part of my work history; I didn't particularly like taking care of kids, with one exception. Jennifer N.'s parents had some fascinating books on their living room shelves: the Boccaccio, Canterbury Tales, and other such semi-titillating non-sacred tomes. My family's shelves were particularly laden with Bibles and religious literature. The N's had no such restrictions on their choices.

But all us pre-teen girls were champing at the bit to turn 13 so that we could work for the big pea-harvest outfit in Athena: Weber and Kirk. There we would work 12 hour days for 85 cents an hour, driving huge, heavy-laden cabless trucks full of peavines from field to field, depositing these loads in front of viners manned by migrant workers who pitched the vines onto conveyor belts which carried them up inside an immense rotating drum (think cement truck type drum) where the motion would pop the pea pods open so that the peas could rattle down into boxes below.

It was filthy work and we loved it. We zoomed our trucks across the open fields raising clouds of dust, on our way out to the area we were harvesting. We didn't drive on the roads, only in the field, which is why we could do it at age 13! We'd come home at night sunburnt, dirty, blowing black boogers into equally black hankies, collapse into bed, and get up the next morning and do it all again, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week for about four or five weeks. The camaraderie of pea harvest leveled all social barriers; we were all in it together, the popular kids and the not-so popular.

Wheat harvest was a little more easy-going, with long periods of sitting in our trucks (my first one was a 42 Dodge) waiting for the combine to be ready to dump a load, and then we'd head for the grain elevator. You had to be 16 and have a license to drive in wheat harvest, because the elevators were on county roads. A much classier job, indeed.

Eventually I went off to college and struggled through the normal summer and school year jobs of the typical college student, mostly retail sales. But after college, when I had few prospects and very little actual training for anything, I landed a job as a welfare worker in Skamania County WA, in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, and started on a trajectory of a different kind: the so-called "helping" professions.

From welfare caseworker in Washington, I went to a stint as an American Baptist Home Missionary in Denver. After marriage, I took the time to acquire teaching credentials and began a 25 year-long career as a public school educator (6 years as a Spanish teacher and then 19 as a guidance counselor). Ministry is my fifth career and everything else was preparation for it.

I am thinking about this today, Labor Day, because I realize that at age 67, I need to think about when I might retire. I'm certainly not ready yet; I'd like to put in several more years in ministry before I hang up my stole. But the congregation is starting to do some long range planning and I know this is a question that will come up eventually.

Anyhow, if I were to work till age 73 (not a bad time to hang it up), I will have worked pretty much non-stop for 60 years. That seems like a work ethic to be pleased with. And I'm happy to say that I have liked, even loved, my work for all of those years. There have been moments of great pain and stress and fear but none of it has been so daunting that I couldn't learn something important from it.

I can't imagine being idle for any extended period of time; that's the drawback to such a strong work ethic, I think. Idleness doesn't come easily. Even now, working half-time, I fill up the other times of my day with other kinds of ministry and work. I like having responsibility; I like filling needs; I like being useful.

"She was useful" is not a very poetic epitaph and easily misconstrued. But that's what I hope my life is and has been: useful in valuable ways.

16 comments:

Elz said...

You have my compliments on a life well-lived. Perhaps retiring from this congregation will only open up career number six.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Elz, I appreciate the thought! Who knows what might come along?

Robin Edgar said...

:"She was useful" is not a very poetic epitaph and easily misconstrued.

Indeed it is but OTOH it sure beats "She was useless" doesn't it. ;-)

I'll take useful over useless any day.

ms. kitty said...

How right you are, Robin. Thanks.

LinguistFriend said...

There are some surprisingly good poems on the topic of work, like Marge Piercy"s "To Be of Use", somewhere in her book "Circles on the Water" (I can't find my copy, damn it), and harder ones in "The Moon is always Female". Only recently have I acquired Hesiod with his "Works and Days", which makes one stop dead at times. On the other hand, is there something that you would rather be doing? Under the circumstances, of course, you might not want to answer.

ms. kitty said...

I really like Marge Piercy. "To be of Use" is in the back of our hymnal, I think. I don't know Hesiod.

But there's nothing on earth I would rather do than be in ministry, of that I'm sure!

Robin Edgar said...

All things considered the Moon probably *should* always be female in terms of cosmic symbolism but it isn't. . . The Moon was and even *is* considered to be male in a variety of cultures. Interestingly enough there is a South American Indian tribe which believes that its *male* Moon god menstruates when the Moon "turns to blood" during a total lunar eclipse. Talk about not being clear on the concept. . . ;-)

Robin Edgar said...

That was fast!

Feel free to consider this a private message or not. . .

BTW This is what I was referring to. One of my more erudite efforts, or "silliness and fantasy" arising from a psychotic experience if you believe *some* U*Us. . .

ms. kitty said...

I've published your comments, Robin, but they don't seem particularly germane to the topic. Remember the guidelines!

Robin Edgar said...

My two most recent comments were responding to, or at least inspired by, some of the content of Linguist Friend's comment. As far as it goes though the material I linked to represents hundreds of hours of research and writing and subsequent website building. I think that might fall under the general topic of work ethic and being useful. Don't you?

Robin Edgar said...

And I did expressly say that you could consider the second follow-up comment to be a private message if you wanted to. I often send private messages to bloggers using that method.

ms. kitty said...

Sorry, Robin, for overlooking the relationship of your comment to LF's comment. I'm a little preoccupied tonight by tomorrow's responsibilities. You're quite right.

Robin Edgar said...

Really do try quite hard to be right most of the time Rev. Ketchum. Like all people I do make mistakes but, much more often than not I am right when I say something. Your unsolicited apology is much appreciated even if quite unnecessary and I hereby graciously accept it. If only more U*U ministers were as ready, willing and able to admit mistakes and offer apologies as you have proven to be in your human relations with me. The U*U World would be a much more pleasant environment to live in.

I hope that your church year got off to a good start. Mine certainly did in its own special way. ;-)

For future reference, if I submit a comment to you and it says "private message" in it (usually right at the beginning) it means that there is no need for you to publish it. It is simply an easy way for me to send you, or other UU bloggers, a personal message of some kind. Maybe in future I will use the term personal message instead of private message. You and any other UU blogger may publish any personal message I send you via blog comments at your discretion.

Regards,

Robin Edgar

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Robin.

Judith said...

I am realizing how great it is to blog and then I discovered yours.
I look forward to connecting, now that I have turned 90 and on an island in the Pacific where we have no UU organization. Writing is what I do, but it is lonely, as I live in a community of old people who have little money. I have friends and can drive, so am thankful. Your life story and homily means alot to me.Thanks.
Judy Robeck (former member of JUC in Golden until 1985)

ms. kitty said...

Judy, how wonderful to hear from a longtime friend! We all missed you so much after you left JUC; I'm delighted to reconnect. Thanks for chiming in. And I hope we can stay in touch, if only through blogging.