Why tough work makes me happy
…and How to Fix a Wet Basement with Interior Weeping Tile
“I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself…what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
So says Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As I relate to the meaning, digging into brute labour, what may begin with darkness breaks out “the inextinguishable light of belief and love.” My work has tended to be at extremes, 20 stories high, window cleaning towers – or breaking concrete and burrowing 6 feet into the earth. Both remind me of the spiritual element that infuses work. Hard work lifts the mind and deepens the soul. Often maligned as a burden – “Oh, that’s so much work!” – selfless exertion for a higher purpose has created some of the best times of my life. Reimagined for its deeper potential, work can crack through “the mere show” of life, and deliver what “the show” really means.
To a few of Marlow’s thoughts, I suggest a variation. One is to challenge that no man likes work. I do
– mostly because “what is in the work” transmogrifies the work itself. Getting out of my own way has revealed hidden gems in otherwise grueling tasks, turning dross to gold. Digging has become a joy, drawing on the vitality of the body as water from a well. Digging is resistance. The shovel to earth immediately evokes strain and obscures the ease of life, unless you put yourself aside and give the body to the work. Then blade breaks ground; each strike opens me up, resistance creates flow. And that’s the other note I challenge in Marlow’s statement: the hidden reality is not only ‘for yourself.’ I suggest it is despite yourself, for something deeper than yourself, and therefore a source of endless surprise and pleasure.
When digging, I play an album – Kind of Blue, Led Zeppelin II, a Beethoven symphony – or listen to the silence as it mingles with my thoughts. This is a sublime combo of relaxation and exercise: meditation through exertion, indulging in the luxury of doing nothing, while the breath, sweat, and blood of work proclaim I’m alive. All the while I’m doing nothing because my self is dormant. Something more basic and pure engages, and I dig its movement. In a world of increasing distraction, screen time, and social distancing, menial work plugs me into the circuit of a million farmers, warriors, and mystics of ancient days.
Work is a spiritual enterprise. Work bonds mates hustling on ladders, in trees, beneath the ground. Work bonds the soul to the body, and creates perspective. While digging 6 feet down around my house to seal cracks and wrap drain pipe around the foundation, I ditched doubt and embraced the wilderness of an oversized job. Once given to its grit and mystery, I was in heaven. The struggle is only when I compared the toil with conventional pleasures: drinking mojitos in Mexico, coffee in Melbourne, pure water in the mountains, but I realized that the comparison springs from self-importance. Why do I matter so much that I should be anywhere else but down in the pit, digging the summer away after full days cleaning high-rise towers? The preference is self-absorbed. Dropping the comparison leaves one thing: a narrow, gruelling mine that heaps treasure into my being. Confined to the pit, the heart bursts with life.
And this weeping tile job glows, like so many others, in my memory. Alongside living in Australia for six months with my wife, deep-woods camping with my brother and father, or living in Rwanda after high-school, The Big Dig remains one of the superb experiences of my life. To dig with me, I hired a Mexican refugee named Eduardo, recommended by a friend of a friend. Unsure who would show up, I was dazzled by this stalwart rock of a man, a round body and Buddha-sweet face emanating power, humour, and reliability. I dug with this man for weeks. He slept in my basement in exchange for work, kept impeccable books, and even attended my bachelor party and wedding after the summer of endless shoveling.
Soon after, he had to return to Mexico and I’ll likely never see him again, but I believe we are comrades in eternity. The monster job of excavating my house (after years of salvaging it from other forms of dereliction) became a precious bead on the thread of my life.
Even without beautiful Eduardo, I love it. Now I’m breaking new channels to install weeping tile on the interior of the basement, which I’m attacking alone, with no less appreciation for the nectar of hard labour. Friends say “this basement is a monster! How many times have you broken it up to get the water out?” This is the third time, but the installation of interior drain pipe is a new solution that multiplies the effectiveness of everything else I’ve done. Rather than the tons of concrete and gravel I am hauling from the deep, I’m captivated by the thrill of negotiating with water, one of nature’s greatest and sweetest forces. Like the childhood joy of protecting a sandcastle from the waves, or creating pathways for a forest brook, managing water is sensational. Every layer deeper releases new energy into the mind and body. I’m amazed that ‘the problem’ is God’s wine, the life-blood of every living creature. What an inspiring and luxurious foe!
Meanwhile I get a killer workout, shoulder, back, arms and legs electric as I pick-axe, shovel and lift primal material into the sunlight. In the physical exuberance, “what is in the work, the deeper meaning” surges into the work itself. That’s how getting into “the heart of an extraordinary darkness” releases the inextinguishable light of belief and love.” The wonder of work is breaking ground, to be surprised how material moves – in the earth, mind or spirit. Who knows what’s possible when we dig into what really matters?