The first dress I put on this morning was missing a button. I found another dress to wear, but the missing button was a harbinger of discomfort and frustration to come: the shoes that rubbed a blister on the back of my heel, the hem of the second dress that felt a little too short, the cool breeze that stopped just short of actually refreshing in the humid late summer air. It’s Labor Day Weekend, and above all I should be resting, but I’m tormented by the thought of the pleasant barista at the coffee shop down the street from the church we started attending in our still-new-to-us town. She should be resting, too. Why was she making me a butterbeer latte on Sunday morning? Why, in my struggle to avoid shopping during the long weekend, did my post-church coffee run not count? I didn’t think of it, and thinking of it now only makes me more tired and more in mind of total depravity.
Pastor Dwight spoke on Ecclesiastes, but I can’t cite more than that because I spend the first thirty minutes of each church service wrangling Junia until the church is ready to reopen their nursery post-COVID (if we are ever post-COVID) and until we’re ready to leave her in the undoubtedly good hands of the volunteers there, and I didn’t catch the citation. (Dakota takes over when the bell chimes ten-thirty.) But Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about work: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot” (3:22), for example. That seems like a fine place to start.
I don’t work anymore, which is to say that I work harder than ever: after fifteen years with the city schools, I’m taking an extended child care leave. I’m at home for the foreseeable future, taking care of Junia and trying to get our old, long-unimproved house up to speed before I do go back to work outside the home. I enjoy so much of the work: walking her through a local nature preserve, holding up two t-shirts so she can choose one to wear, even reading the same books over and over again. And yet there is much of the work I do not enjoy: trying to catch her little arm before she hurls to the floor whatever portion of her meal is not to her liking; buckling her into her carseat over her protestations; failing to interrupt the wobble that precedes a fall, that precedes a terrible moment of silence, that precedes several minutes of red-faced crying that can only be soothed with yet another round of breastfeeding.
What does the work that I do not enjoy have in common? Her momentary dissatisfaction, to be sure, but at its root, the fear that I have done or not done something. That I have not acted quickly or smoothly enough. Not at all surprisingly, this is exactly what I did not enjoy about the paid work I did in the past. In teaching both children and adults, the real work is observation and response, attenuation and amplification, approach and retreat and approach again: continually meeting people where they are and leading them closer to where they want to go. This work comes with a lot of pressure. The most precious currency in this work is time, especially where children are concerned. They only have so long to be in school, to be in the care of adults who want (one hopes) to do right by them. When to support, validate, encourage; when to challenge, correct, even chastise— these are matters that call for good judgment, which must be continually cultivated, and can only be cultivated through trial and error. And while I will have much, much more time with my daughter than any teacher will, the time pressure, if anything, feels higher. If I take her plate the moment she throws food, I worry that she won’t get enough to eat; if I never take her plate and allow her to keep throwing food, I worry that she won’t develop any sense of manners or respect for mealtime. There is no obvious timeline for when one concern supersedes the other and then reverses. And yet this is the work, and since this is the work as it is currently constituted, I am called to enjoy it.
I came home from church, changed out of the not-quite-right dress and into my uniform of leggings and t-shirt, and went to the kitchen to make lunch. I knew what song I wanted to hear: “All These Things that I’ve Done” by the Killers. Their lead singer, Brandon Flowers, is an observant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which I’ve known for a while, but this was the first time I really heard the song, which is a not-terribly-ambiguous prayer, as a plea to build a bridge between work that’s already been done and the work that’s yet to come, the “direction to perfection” the narrator seeks, rather than a mere expression of regret for things done in the past. “All these things that I’ve done” aren’t merely sins committed; they’re the labors started and offered but unfinished and imperfect, even when begun with good intent. I made lunch for my family while Dakota played outside with Junia, wringing out the last of her morning energy in the sun, while singing along with the famous “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier” bridge by the gospel group The Sweet Inspirations.
Even joyful work needs to be met with rest. The discomfort I felt called not for judgment, but patience and compassion. Pastor Dwight reminded us to treat those who are still laboring throughout this long weekend with extra kindness and respect, which I suppose I ought to remember includes myself. When all these things that I’ve done are frustrated, imperfect, and incomplete, I leave them in the care of God, who cares for all who labor.