In Praise of Work

I have seen the work of men and women, observed it as a child and taken its lessons to heart. I earned my first money suckering tobacco in a neighbor’s field. For two hours’ work in ’62 I was paid fifty cents. For my daily work milking cows, helping with hay and all the other crops we raised, I was fed, clothed, sheltered and schooled.

I saw hired hands sweat in the sun, eat at our table, help with the harvests. I saw my mother and sisters work hours in the garden and kitchen as they picked, cleaned, prepped and canned. They drove trucks and tractors, helped out in the barn and fields.

I saw neighbors in the hard work of farming, worked alongside old men and boys, sweated, blistered, callused. A few were overcome by sun and fatigue. Some fainted and fell to the ground; others had to be helped down from the wagon. Even though we sometimes worked with tools honed to a sinister edge, I never saw anyone injured to the point of needing medical help. Nonetheless, I did know one man who nearly lost a hand to a corn picker and another who did lose an arm to one. That didn’t keep them from continuing their lives of labor on the farm.

Like them, I’ve stacked hay in barns so hot that three minutes in would have me drenched with sweat. I’ve taken an axe and chopped through pond ice so cattle could drink and I have milked with numb feet and aching hands. I’ve worked for gentle men and harsh women. I’ve worked for the wealthy and for the weak. I’ve worked for some who were generous and some who were stingy. I’ve worked for the compassionate and for the indifferent.

I’ve known work, hard work, since I was a kid. When I was five years old, like my brothers before me, I woke in the dark and dressed for work in the milk barn. I fed cows and calves, hogs and pigs, carrying buckets I could barely lift. It was the way of life, as natural to us as breath and motion. It was expected, demanded, common to our culture and core to our existence.

In these sixty years of knowing work, I’ve seen a few shirkers and a lot of hard workers. I’ve seen people take pride in simple tasks, in doing them well. I’ve seen many who asked for nothing other than to be treated fairly and with simple dignity. They sought no attention, no recognition other than an acknowledgement that they had done their jobs. As long as they were paid fairly and treated decently, they would do whatever it took to get the job done. In fact, often in spite of being paid poorly and without decent treatment they got their work done.

It is to people like this that we owe our existence as we know it.

The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the tools we use, the vehicles we drive, the homes in which we live, the schools where our children learn, the churches in which we worship, our highways and backroads, our stores and shops. We drink clean water, enjoy the conveniences of air conditioning and indoor plumbing, and every other aspect of our lives because of the simple fact that people do their jobs.

We should give thanks for them every day of our incredibly blessed lives.

H. Arnett

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Evening Serenade

My two sons and I play guitar
in the back yard shade of an old maple tree
on a day so hot it wilts fence posts.

Making the most of the shade,
a bit of a breeze eases our way now and then
while the kids play slow games in the grass.

This time of day passes too quickly:
shades of color from a dying sun
soften the silhouettes of hickory and oak,
ash and gum in the woods out past
the gray-weathered sides of a black-lined tobacco barn.

Ripening wheat the height of a man’s chest
rests bearded grains on long slender stems
in the field that hems the yard.

While the older kids shoot arrows toward the weeds,
the two-year-old dances to a faster beat of folk and bluegrass,
head bobbing, arms shaking and feet thumping against the dirt.

Dan romps on the deep Conga while Jeremiah and I
keep time on the acoustic guitars
and even the kids join the singing
and something that feels like music
moves through the stems and branches.

The last lonely part of the day
fades away until all that’s left
is a sweet, soothing sense

of truly being together
in a way that makes you believe
that your best imagining of what family could be like

is playing out right before your eyes
while the sky eases into dusk
and the darkness comes as gently as a soft sigh
and you finally find that three-note harmony
in a song you’ve sung a hundred times before.

Even in the deepening tones of a humid night
and something as random
as a lightning bug’s soft blinking

You know that an evening like this
never truly ends
and your heart whispers its own vespers
in a voice and tone
known only through a Father’s Love.

H. Arnett

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Academic Retreat

In a large cabin by a small lake
rimmed by cattails and surrounded by brome,
we meet in the sometimes home
of a man whose life has been defined
by broken lines of oil wells and wheat
and lately the wine aged in oak barrels
in a single room.

Walls of glass allow the view to pass through,
acres of grass on this side of a narrowing gravel road
where trucks pass with their loads of harvest
and the occasional car crackles along,
tires grinding limestone and a new tunnel of dust
rising up behind the straight lines of intention.

We are here on a short retreat,
two days of meeting to make plans
for how to keep in hand the purposes
that guide the work of a small college.

We begin by sharing short stories of concerns,
learn that a colleague’s wife has coded twice
during the ambulance ride toward the frantic hope
of an emergency room while we are gathered here.

There is nothing we can do except for prayer.
No amount of worry or care can change the fact
that even if we were there
not even every ounce of strength or energy or skill
could thread the thin line that separates our lives
from finding out what lies beyond.

And yet in faith
we remember that the power of divine solicitation
has moved mountains of fear,
saved sinners from the nearness of destruction,
spared some lives when others died,
and carried us through unimaginable darkness, pain and testing.

And thus we learn the lessons of living,
and realize that we may have the greatest power
in those long agonizing hours of knowing
there is nothing we can do except for prayer
and may find a most comfortable helplessness,
a calm and settling despair in the passing
that may one day become as natural as Kansas dust settling
back onto stone and grass.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, College, Death & Dying, education, Higher Education, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetry, Prayer, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Road Hazard

Coming back from South Haven toward Ark City on a bright summer day, I found myself driving in a short line of cars. A half dozen of us, well-spaced, made our way from A toward B at a rate not exceeding the speed limit, at least for the time being. A few vehicles making their way from B toward A moved toward us at a similar rate of speed on a long straight flat just a few miles east of I-35. This is not a math problem…

Without obvious reason, the car leading our line suddenly slowed. Being the third driver back in this particular pack, I thought a reciprocating deceleration on my part might be a good idea. The idea of avoiding impact has been a long-standing concept that I have practiced faithfully over the nearly fifty years of my legal driving career. There were one or two failures to accomplish the goal but I still find it a worthy ideal.

After the oncoming vehicles had passed, our lead driver swerved over into their lane and I saw the reason for the almost-stop-in-the-middle-of-the-road maneuver: a huge strip of blown out truck tire lay across our side of the road, nearly covering the whole lane. Several other large chunks of tread and tire scattered nearby, creating a rather significant road hazard.

While the cars in front of me played follow the leader, I flipped on my turn signal and pulled onto the conveniently wide and flat shoulder. I moved the shift lever into park and activated the emergency flashers. In less than a minute, I’d moved all of the blowout components off the road. As I lugged the seven-foot-long strip over and folded it onto the grass it occurred to me that this might be more than just making the trip a bit more convenient for those who would follow.

Originally I just figured on helping the eastbound folks have an easier trip: no huge tire pieces to dodge, no sudden slamming on the brakes, no taking a loud and unpleasant thump to the undercarriage. I realized that it was possible that I could be preventing a serious accident. Everyone so far had avoided incident but what if someone came upon that particular pile of rubbish a bit unawares? What if someone was really into absorbing the scenery of south central Kansas? What if some driver was reaching down for another French fry? What if—no matter how far-fetched it seems—someone was texting while driving? Any of those folks, suddenly seeing a rather ominous looking obstruction in their lane, might suddenly find themselves doing something very unhealthy in a possibly panicked over-reaction. Their over-reaction could set off a chain reaction of events with life-altering implications.

Okay, so maybe, I just saved folks a few seconds and made their day more pleasant by moving the road rubbish out of the way. But if some small inconvenience on our part makes things better for other folks, isn’t it worth doing?

Might be some way to apply that concept to my work life, my neighborhood, my kitchen…

H. Arnett

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Kindness on Cowley 20

Randa and I both woke up around five o’clock Saturday morning. After an earlier than usual waffles-on-the-porch breakfast, we decided to take advantage of the day’s cool beginning to do some landscaping. After three hours of digging and transplanting hostas, lilies and some very large tomato plants, I decided to take a bike ride.

Against an eastern breeze, I made my way across the Walnut River bottoms and headed up the edge of the Flint Hills right past Spring Hill Vineyard and Wheat State Winery. A variety of blooming wildflowers scattered on the banks added a welcome bit of color: blue, pink, red and orange among the hues. From the crest of the second series of slopes, a panoramic view opened up. Miles of green prairie pastures scattered with scrubby hardwoods spanned between the horizons.

With the temperature edging well into the eighties, I made my way up a long slope. A guy in a red quad-cab pickup passed me and disappeared around the curve a quarter mile ahead. I shifted down another speed and pedaled on, taking an occasional draw from the tube of the hydration pack strapped to my back. The bit of ice I’d packed in had all melted a few miles earlier but even though the water was no longer cold, it was still water. That’s important in this kind of weather.

As I rounded that curve a few minutes later, I saw that red pickup stopped in the road ahead. As I continued on the slighter slope toward it, the driver began to back up. A hundred yards ahead of me, he stopped and got out of the truck. I continued watching him, cautiously, and kept pedaling, though at a slightly slower rate. I could not tell what he held at his side but saw something in his right hand.

As he came closer, the young man lifted a bottle of water toward me, its sides covered with condensation. “I know you’ve probably got water with you,” he grinned, “but I figured you might enjoy this.” The bottle felt as if it had just been taken out of an ice chest.

“I do have water,” I replied with genuine gratitude, “but it’s not nearly as cold as this. Thank you very much! This is really very kind of you.” We introduced ourselves and I thanked him again, “God bless you, Tom; I really appreciate this.”

He walked back to his truck and soon disappeared over the hill. I tucked the bottle into the holder on the bike frame and pedaled on a bit. I stopped on the downward slope and took a couple of pictures of sumac growing against the limestone cut. Just another half-mile up the road, I stopped by Rose Valley Cemetery and leaned the bike against the bank where yucca blooms sprouted from tall stems gleamed white in the mid-day sun. I twisted off the cap of the bottle and took a long drink of crisp, cold water.

With another sixteen miles to go, I gave thanks for the day and for someone who went out of his way to give a cup of cold water to a stranger on hot day.

H. Arnett

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Riding a Low Ridge in Southern Kansas

On the first Sunday in June,
the sort of mild but sunny day
that sometimes comes soon after May,
I rode toward the river
on Geuda Springs Road just north of Ark City.

The smell of ripening wheat
sifted through a slight eastern breeze
as I turned toward Udall and pedaled up the long slope.
Old free-form posts splotched with lichen
and stapled with heavy-rusted strands of wire
strung along the bank,
wavy forms that shouldered the edge of the field,
defining the boundary between
the fine-drilled lines of hope that men intended
and what happens to grow beside the road.

Off to the west,
along the suede-vested bottoms of the Arkansas River,
long blades of shoulder-high corn shimmered in the sun,
sweeping seams of silver and green glimmering soft reflections.
An abrupt rise of hardwoods ran in straight lines
along the fences, intersecting corners
and twisting along the ditches and streams
that drain into the sand-strained channel.

Miles beyond that,
an hour’s ride from here,
the great spokes of turbines mined the wind
in their slow spin,
sending a collective surge through black wires
spired between tall spines of creosoted pine,

rising above asphalt and grass,
above rank weeds and the seeds of grain,
above everything but the tallest cottonwoods
gentling rustling the shadows of leaves
across the face of quiet waters
passing beneath an old bridge
where swarms of swallows have lived
for as long as anyone can remember.

I could ride for days
in a thousand different places
and see nothing finer than this.

H. Arnett

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So Many

So many hands
grow callused from the wear of work
that others do not even see.

So many arms
grow weary from their long labor,
lifting and lugging into the wee hours of darkness.

So many hearts
grow worn and torn
from secret cares and undesired distances.

So many lives
grow the long shadows
of dreams gleaned of hope and void of faith.

So many hands
grow stronger day to day,
willing to lift the burdens of others
whom they encounter along the way.

So many arms
grow their reach in spite of the leaching sun,
shouldering the shared work
that is done in the spirit of humble helping.

So many hearts
grow larger with each added sharing,
somehow finding strength and air
while moving in the midst of smothering cares.

So many lives
bring light into darkness,
knowing that hope is stronger than dreams,
that overwhelming faith can grow from the smallest of seeds,
and that love abounds beyond the needs of our faint perceptions.

H. Arnett

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