Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hard Work

Juan Miguel working on the new walk
Ramoncito pouring cement
Recently we needed to add a concrete walkway to our backyard, so our partner Tracy  could navigate the yard in her wheelchair.  As always when we need heavy physical work done in Banámichi, we turn to Ramón Lopez and his crew who have served us so well in the past. This time, the crew consisted of Ramón's brother Juan Miguel, another tall, thin nameless relative of Ramón's, and Ramón's 11 year old son. Work stays in the family here!

At first I thought that Ramóncito (little Ramón...names stay in the family here too!) was here to watch. But no... he actually contributed significantly to the work. He shoveled and mixed cement and helped to pour it. I was totally impressed. He seemed so grown up. Can you imagine any 11 year old that you know cheerfully and willingly helping to do such hard physical labor in the August heat and humidity of the Sonoran desert? I never heard him complain. In fact, he seemed quite happy to be helping. He smiled, he laughed with the men, and he did his share of the work while seemingly striving to be as much like the two men as he could. There were no signs of any child slavery going on.

In the US, Ramóncito's participation in the project might be labeled child abuse. After all, we avoid buying Asian rugs and Nike shoes that have been worked on by little fingers. Children are a nuisance in the work place, or in danger of being injured. The boy's presence on the job forced me to think through my deeply ingrained attitudes about children and work. How did I feel about him being here in my yard, in our employ? Many of the concepts I held came from my own childhood. (This is one of the things I love about living in assumptions are constantly challenged, and I am forced to expand my understanding.)

Our family spread: success in the new world
My father was a wholesale florist, growing carnations and chrysanthemums  on a farm on Long Island for the New York City market.  My parents were first generation immigrants, dedicated to making a success of it in the new world to which they had come. They carried the work attitudes and values of Northern Europe, and of a much earlier time in our history. Everyone in the family was expected to contribute, me included. True, they paid me, if you consider 10 cents an hour payment. Even given the economy of the 1940's and 50's, I knew I was being used.

My mother pretending to enjoy dis-budding
There was a great deal of work to be done...some of it outrageously heavy and some of it simply very tedious.When I was about Ramóncito's age, alone I moved slowly down the aisles of carnations in the greenhouses meticulously picking extra buds off the carnation plants so there would be only one perfect bloom on a single long stalk. In those days there was no MP-3 player, not even a lousy transistor radio to distract me from the misery. Sighing frequently to suppress the screams of boredom I felt rising in my chest, I dreamed with resentment about everything else I would rather be doing. I  mentally calculated how long I would have to do  this odious, never ending job in order to earn even a dollar. And then once I had that elusive dollar, the money was not really mine. I was expected to save every red cent I earned and use it all to buy birthday and Christmas presents for the parents who were forcing me to work. UNFAIR,  UNFAIR!   There was no joy, no praise, no one to tell me I did a good job. I was scolded if I made mistakes, and called lazy and worthless if I was too slow, or dared to complain. This was child slavery and torture to boot.

Once when I was a couple of years older, my father filled a wheelbarrow full of spent carnation plants. Actually, he went beyond filling it - it was loaded so high I could hardly see over the top.The he told me to wheel it down the long narrow path to the compost heap. Never one to disobey, I strained to lift the wheelbarrow. It was heavy and impossibly unwieldy.  I struggled to push the thing for a few feet before it listed to one side, twisted out of my grip, and dumped off the path. Hot tears streaked dirt down my cheeks. My father standing there laughing at my discomfort was the last straw. I scooped up heavy, wilted carnation plants and furiously flung  them back into  manageable piles in the barrow and wheeled them back to the compost heap. I  hated my father and everything about physical work. I swore to avoid it forever more.

Although the decision itself was soon forgotten, it soon generalized to hating any physical activity. I became skilled at avoiding gym classes, and  became a teenaged couch potato with my nose constantly buried in books.  I learned to love school. If I was asked to do something, I now had important homework. This was the one excuse that was somewhat acceptable.

My dislike of physical work followed me well into my 40's. About that time I discovered what I knew to be my spiritual path (Siddha Yoga), and so one summer I found myself  spending a few weeks at  Shree Muktananda Ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. The norm in this place was to do work one was assigned as service, without complaint cheerfully and enthusiastically, and without attachment to the results. Oooookaaaay......

One long summer evening I was in the garden of the ashram with a large group of other students from all over the world. We were laying sod. We were all covered in mud and my discomfort and resistance to this kind of work was nearly overpowering. As usual, I thought of excuses to run away and escape the work. Then, the group began to sing an (east) Indian chant. Soon the chant became so bouncy and compelling that I quit muttering and joined in. I was in a long line of people passing heavy rolls of sod from one to the other until the rolls finally reached  the people actually putting them into place. Soon I was filled with joy and happiness, and the work actually became pleasurable. As each roll heavily fell into my outstretched arms, I felt love. As I rolled it out of may arms and into the arms of the next person, I felt love. The rolls began to feel lighter! At this moment our Guru (meditation teacher) walked out into the field to be with us.Soon the field rippled with laughter and light-heartedness. The whole experience of physical work was transformed for me, and I actually began to enjoy it.

More and more since this time I have willingly taken on a variety of large, heavy physical projects - renovating gardens, hanging gutters, and in Banámich, digging and planting a garden, building the mud oven, and so on. Now, I find the work deeply satisfying. When it is done, I can look at it and see what has been accomplished. I find it connects me to my  physical being. I become fully grounded in my body. I feel the pull of gravity, the temperature of the sun and the air, I smell the earth and the air, and feel the pleasant tug at my muscles. I become more solid, part of the wholeness of the earth -  and thereby more at home in the universe.  It fills a need in me for the practical, the tangible, for what is solid in life. In some way I can't explain, this connects me to my to my very soul.

Through physical work, I have discovered that contentment is not a result of  idleness and detachment, but rather of deep engagement with whatever is needed in the moment. I love just plunging into a project and forgetting everything else in order to flow with the work. I am soothed, comforted, nurtured and fortified by the work .

So back to Ramóncito and the cement mixer. I have concluded that if children are forced to do constant labor against their will and without respite or support that it is abusive. It is one thing to be part of a family and contribute to the effort to sustain it in an age-appropriate way, and it is something else entirely to be effectively  held a prisoner to economic necessity or parental will. And so I still would not buy rugs made by children or knowingly participate in commerce that is built on involuntary child labor.

However given the supportive environment in which he was working, think about the life lessons that Ramóncito was learning that hot August day. In addition to learning a skill, he was learning about the satisfactions of hard physical work and the unique happiness of a job well done. He was being initiated into Banámichi manhood in a positive way. He was learning to have a strong work ethic from his dad and the rest of the crew. He was learning self confidence, self-respect, and the value of money. Perhaps he was even learning about the value of getting an education -  I know Ramón aspires to that for his children.

The boy did not suffer. He was happy and proud to be treated as an adult. Work as a positive experience! What a novel concept.


  1. Hey June, Thanks again for hosting me, James and Gingee last week. It was so great to spend time with you and Dan and be in your home and my old hometown of Tucson. This post was and is so thought provoking. Thanks for taking the time to put it down in words. Take care. Thinking of you guys on safari in Africa right now.

  2. Hi Miss June! How are you this week? I'm waiting patiently for a blog post on that trip! See you. Wink wink.