My invisibility astounds me. This lovely big old house contained me well. Sure, it quite easily and naturally kept the inside in, but it also served as a sort of fortress to keep the outside out. Now even that defensive barrier’s crumbling. The outside first started seeping in. Now it swamps the place.I wade through narrow aisles between impossible stacks of boxes. How could these few shelves and cabinets contain all of that? I declared my desk a safe zone. Nobody touch nothing on my desk. It’s now piled high with untouchables, but not for very much longer. Today, the possessions I retain control over will shrink to fill the usual suitcase and computer bag, and a box or two of otherwise unmovables, as if packed for a week’s trip rather than an indefinite journey.

The packers delight in their work as only menial laborers can. The more cerebral and physical professionals seem to lose a dimension or two when they engage. The menial laborer, the clever ones, find extra parts of themselves there. These four absolutely delightful women, two moms and their daughters, took off their shoes and got down to work. Yes, they prefer to work barefoot. Unashamedly. They engage in endless chiding, genuine laughter infuses their effort with warm meaning. While The Muse and I tried, and even took pride in how well we’d prepared for their arrival, their job entails little more than ordering our disorder, which seems to be the primary element common to all menial labor.

Most work doesn’t seem nearly menial enough. Either it’s too encumbered with process or too physically or mentally taxing. Menial work might be informed by experience, but never routine. Each engagement’s unique, so there’s no possibility of following any step-wise instructions. It depends upon feel, so only a human, never a machine, can do it. It cannot be infinitely speeded up or meaningfully slowed down. It must find its own pace, and this depends mostly upon the person engaging in it.

Packing The Muse’s dishes demands more than just boxes and will, but deep understanding, too. Nothing’s regularly shaped. Delicate cups sit on sturdier saucers next to impregnable and much heavier plates. There’s a tea pot, too, and candle sticks. And candles. And linen. How to pack this variety securely so that the puzzle might reasonably unpack to be reassembled on the other end? This requires chess-quality mindfulness; care combined with uncommon tactical attention.

Each room presents unique challenges, and within each room variations emerge. It seemed unlikely that all that stuff could disappear into all those boxes, yet they make steady, almost invisible progress. Stuff disappears into boxes, each meticulously labeled then sealed. Menial work seems more practice than process, a wakeful meditation, part trance and part decisive action. It demands little enough attention, though, that conversation’s never encumbered. One can listen to music, even dance along to it, and still make steady progress. Conversation thrives around it. This work makes itself up as it goes along.

You’re only as good as the work you’re engaging in right now. So what if you perfectly packed a house yesterday? That work’s gone as soon as it’s finished, and nobody long remembers it. Today requires a fresh demonstration of mastery. Tomorrow will, too. Experience translates into a form of deep, non-transferrable judgement, a skill of sorts but hardly one that anyone else might label as such. No equity comes with it. Even the veteran gets paid by the hour.

I reflect on just how many invisible menials surround me. The gardeners and laborers who walk like shadows across my floodlit landscape, yet engage in more real work than I usually do. I rely upon their generosity because I cannot finely direct them. I’ll know their good work only when I see it, if I even notice it at all. The menial laborer learns motivation without the promise of reward. Pavlov despised them. They must make their work its own reward or wait for heaven to deliver it. We sometimes tip menials, but rarely reward them; and even when we do reward them, it’s a one-time thing. No siphon’s started to any such similar payoffs out into the future. Tomorrow will always be another day.

I think our culture’s almost forgotten the menials, equating them with trivials, though nobody but them could replicate their contribution. They have always been under-appreciated, but they are not doing this work for appreciation, recognition, or fame. We might sincerely appreciate the job they’ve done, but the appreciation seems more slanted toward gratitude that we didn’t have to do it, as if we could have done it, but not nearly as well. Set any bloviating boaster up with any menial task and watch him make a fool of himself. He’ll over-think and under-perform, become unnaturally self-conscious and usually walk off the job, distracted by some activity more suited to his nature.

Even the menial knows she’s supposed to work her way up, but she discovers that she’d rather retain the freedom to work barefoot and chat with her friends while working rather than sacrifice such important parts of herself to a mere paycheck. She works for money, but also for the love of the work, which she nonetheless endlessly complains about while continuously engaging in. Once anyone learns the trick of turning menial labor into self fulfilling action, they stop aspiring for so-called better situations. The “lowly” cook, elevated to head of the household staff, not only loses the opportunity to cook, but also the responsibility to manage their own work all by themselves. Then, they become responsible for other people who should be responsible for themselves, and the long, slow decline begins.

My best, most favorite work has always been menial. Yard work, like free form drawing, entertains me like no other work. It demands just enough attention, but no more. It’s never conspiring against me or playing politics or hurt or discouraged, it just is. I can choose my level of engagement. Should I trim around the trees this time or leave a studiously ragged edge? My choice. My choices proliferate, and who could complain about having to do one’s own bidding? Of course, through another lens, the yard work drips with obligation. I cannot choose not to mow the lawn, though others can and do. For me, the choice to not engage seems anti-life, a denial of potential, an almost criminal refusal of some essential call. What could be more important than accepting this invitation to really be; not in role, not under ignorantly judgmental overseers? Menial work, properly engaged in, seems about 90% play.

I pity the professionals, the white collar guys lining up for the train to head off to an office to engage in important work. They cannot work barefoot, and so cannot expose their barefoot selves to their fellows. Their armor plating must be maintained. The game dominates play, and subdues its feral influences. The rules might be more important than the game, and they engage in the game with self-crushing sincerity. They really need that martini afterwards. The menials seem to have the superior work/life balance, in that their work is indistinguishable from their life. They needn’t be anybody other than just who they are to do their work. In fact, they must be who they are to do it well.

Few managers seem to understand the menial, who doesn’t require management at all other than to direct them to which field to work in today. The strategy sits safely away from their concern, though it informs their focus to ensure they’re working on the right things. Getting those things right falls beyond management’s purview. Though management might employ measurement tools designed to calculate rates and assess success, the menial understands that none of the resulting ‘indicators’ mean anything, and retains the only judgement qualified to judge the quality of their work. They can fake irrelevant results to satisfy the metrics’ expectations, but they’d rather just decently do their decent work.

Washington DC seems filled with important people, but when we first arrived, The Muse noticed that for every important person, a raft of menials supported their work. These menials were invisible unless you looked, and if you looked, you couldn’t really see the importance of the important people anymore. Yesterday, I was accepted into the menial’s world for a while. Though they insisted upon calling me Mr. David, and I was cast as the overseer, they let me smart mouth along side of them. They asked me questions about this and that. When they asked me where they might get some lunch without having to drive their big truck, I told ‘em I’d drive them over. After they’d gotten their food, they asked if they could eat inside so they wouldn’t have to eat in their truck. Some people won’t let you eat inside? Nodding heads. I was gonna ask if you’d grace my kitchen table. Anyone need ice? How about a real plate and silverware? Thank you, Mr. David. It’s just civility, people.

I will be disappearing from here tomorrow. This feels like slipping my identity, losing my hide. The packers won’t return tomorrow, for their work will be done. No monument will be erected to celebrate what I’ve done here, and none will remember the wonderful menial work these packers did, either. Monuments are reserved for monumental deeds, those rare occurrences that couldn’t find lunch without some menial guiding them.

I believe that this moove might represent a move away from the damning spotlight of self importance, a disease elevated to lifestyle here, toward accepting the more satisfying shadows of almost invisible work. Writing seems menial in the extreme, and engaged in as if it was supposed to change the world, it seems particularly fruitless. But writing for its own sake, for the joy inherent in the very act, seems a more productive contribution to creating a world that works for all. This takes considerable menial labor, but how could it work for all if I wasn't working? I feel as though I’m moving further than just 2/3 of the way across the country, but maybe disappearing into who I always should have intended to be.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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