I’ve cut grass and cleaned offices and guarded buildings; I’ve been a grill cook and a college teacher and a karate instructor. I’ve bussed tables and stocked labs and punched numbers; I’ve managed more emotional twenty-somethings than I can count, hired people and fired people and balanced razor-thin budgets.
The hardest job I ever had, though, was cementing and tarring a flat roof under a blazing North Carolina sun. I was working for my grandfather, lugging forty-pound bags of cement up a ladder, mixing and spreading and leveling on one end, then moving to the other end to spread thick hot tar over the cracked and fading tar he’d spread there years before.
The sun would set that roof to cooking around ten in the morning, and by lunch I’d feel baked. He’d work slow and methodically, sweat coming off his head and neck and soaking his shirt, me shirtless and slick and feeling like I wanted to throw up, but knowing I couldn’t stop if he didn’t stop.
Sometimes, when the heat was merciless and my legs were like rubber, my grandmother would call up to us from the lawn, and we would peer over the edge to see her holding two icy glasses of lemonade. This was mercy, a cool sweet glass of mercy, and I would drink it down, the wind drying the sweat on my chest and back and cooling my skin that was hot to touch, the cool in my throat and my belly, strength returning to my arms.
We call it Labor Day, and we imagine that labor is just the work of our jobs, counting numbers or turning lathes or changing diapers, but it’s everything, isn’t it, the very drawing of breath and pushing it out in a sigh and taking the next step, a step taken in faith or hopelessness or perhaps just resignation. This very life is labor, and sometimes we yearn for nothing else than a day of rest from it, from the expectations we can never meet, the broken things we can never unbreak nor mend, the aches of our bodies and hearts, the disappointments and the memories of lost things.
It is a deep labor, this life, and sometimes there is no rest, no matter what we call the day, no matter whether we punch the clock, or sit in a lawn chair, in defiance of at least one spiteful Monday in the long string of them waiting to gobble us up. It is a deep, abiding labor, this life, and some days we need rest, if only to make it one more day.
So on this day, your laboring day and mine and all the world’s, may we have rest, or at the very least, a glass of sweet mercy.