Maybe it’s a cultural thing; maybe it’s a middle-class thing; maybe it’s a rust belt thing; maybe it’s simply a family thing: when a problem arises, or something unsettles, all signs point toward work as the solution. Labor will cure what ails you, whether it’s physical or mental or emotional—it may not be the quickest path, but it’s a righteous one and it feels good.
I have gathered over my life friends of similar ilk, and family to back me up. We don’t freeze or flail or pout (much), not because we think we’re better than those who do, but because progress validates our trials and misfortunes, and keeps us feeling alive. (Note: sometimes freezing, flailing, and pouting are indeed the quickest routes to harmony, and in those cases we Workers take extended detours, but usually find our way back on track).
Within 48 hours of my mother’s death I had ordered a near half-dozen books on grief, trying—striving!—to navigate this strange land as efficiently and as best as possible. This despite advice from all those books that there is no such thing as efficient grief, and there is no best way to do it. It turns out that extensive information and belabored anticipation may arm you, but they don’t necessarily protect you from difficult situations—you end up in full siege, battle-ready or not.
Nevertheless, accustomed as I am to the work-it-out philosophy, I seek to accomplish, well, anything. I make lists, and cross things off, and make more lists, and chastise myself for avoiding the unpleasant. I plan timelines and face surprised reactions from loved ones who find my ambition disconcerting. I move forward in some measures to compensate for feeling utterly moored in others. And I hike. Well, Zizou and I hike together, in matching gear and early in the morning, lately through the forests of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. (This after an extraordinarily complicated and maddening journey to bring the old pup from the Horn of Africa back to the US. This canine has more patience than I will ever have). The hikes are an embarrassingly on-the-nose metaphor for the progress that I crave: literal movement, step by step, sometimes parallel to more figurative emotional movement, and sometimes substituting for it. They feel good not just because being among trees and rowdy frogs and balletic cranes is a tonic, but because they feel like work: I plan the routes and prep our backpacks and sweat up the hills, we both get dirty and wet and succumb to tiredness when we finish. And the work feels right.
Of course, as it would, the universe sneaked in a hidden metaphor within the metaphor, a quick wink at the futility of so much effort. We tend to hike during the work week, when so many would-be wanderers are lodged at their desks and we have the trails to ourselves. This means we’re usually on our own, and point-to-point hikes aren’t feasible, since we wouldn’t want to call on anyone to pick us up at the end. So, we only hike loops and out-and-backs; we always end where we started. All that forward progress, all that movement, all that sweat, the tired legs and the hundreds of thoughts that zing through the brain over the first three or so miles before the body settles into a rhythmic hum…all that labor takes us rather inefficiently back to the beginning. I’ll leave this sub-metaphor where I found it, for you to take as you will.
Work for the sake of work, value in futility, the satisfaction of circles.
I acknowledge too the efforts made by loved ones and farther-flung-ones to support and embrace. I realize that labor—work—is how I measure caring, and is what makes me feel loved. This is our language, we Workers: this is how we extend tenderness, affection, and warmth, where our words fail or the foreignness of new landscapes all but terrifies. We drive and fly to reach one another, we cook meals, we send them, we check motor oil, we check in, we check items off lists, we arrange tables, we ask questions, we deliver coffee in bed, we drive to urgent care and track antibiotics, we use our muscles and our brains to manifest what our hearts don’t know how to. No matter how overwhelming the mountain before us, or how long a shadow it casts, there is always—always!—a task at hand, something to be done right here.
The tricky thing is discerning when the work is a process of coping and when it becomes a process of avoidance as we traverse the plains and wilderness of new emotional territory. The universe nudges me along, although considering my innate level of stubbornness, those nudges often manifest as awkward shoves. For example, the week or so of migraines that prevented serious rumination when my brain was smoking in overdrive in Mali. Or this week, following a four mile South Mountain climb in Pennsylvania, I sit five days later with my leg propped up in front of me, suffering a cat bite and infection that has kept me frustratingly immobile but also forced (!) to luxuriate in extensive napping and sleep longer nights than I otherwise would. That is to say, nothing short of this would have caused me to slow down, and I’ve enjoyed the added benefits of a doting aunt and compassionate cousin (Workers, both), including breakfast served in bed, and bespoke advice from a medical professional with whom I built sandcastles when she was still in diapers.
The work pulls me out of bed in the morning, it requires a cup of coffee and some clarity of thought, and it gets my feet moving underneath me. The work is my paradigm and path, and I’m glad to share it with people who understand that having a project (or twelve), having a plan, having a purpose—however insignificant—keeps the world right-side up and makes everything make sense. And when I set the work down, or the universe rather bluntly knocks it out of my hands, the Workers keep on working all around me, propping up the world with their labors of love, so that I can rest.