The Pleasures of Occasional Physical Labor

Volunteering for several organizations in the Providence area allows me an opportunity to meet my neighbors, help out community members and break the occasional sweat. I’m on the board of our local community garden, work on the plant sale committee for another organization and finally I’m a designated schlepper for another organization. Given work and family obligations there is only so much time available so I choose to take a leading role in some organizations while taking smaller roles in others.

Our local library like many libraries is perpetually under-funded and over-utilized. The Friends of Rochambeau was created in 1981 as a way to help the library both by raising money and by organizing volunteer efforts for the library.   One of their biggest activities and fund-rasiers is a semi-annual book sale – which starts on Monday March 30th.  People donate books to the library throughout the year and volunteers sort, price and ready them for sale. Most of the volunteers that do this sorting are retired and lifting heavy boxes of books isn’t easy for them. This is where my role as designated schlepper comes in – I leave the organizing to them and for a few hours simply lose myself in the task of hefting boxes, walking them down a hallway and putting them on the proper table for display and sale.

There is something liberating in doing a rote task that requires physical effort but not too much thought. You can feel your hamstrings, back, hands and shoulders as they lift the boxes. The perpetual dust that books attract, collects on your face causing the occasional sneeze  while your forehead drips sweat. Not very glamorous, but after a few hours its very satisfying as you look in on an empty storeroom and a now full exhibit room with books ready to be sold. It’s almost like a Zen meditation exercise.

I also experienced this type of Zen when I was in the Navy whenever the submarine was loaded for deployment. Submarines have small hatches and so most things have to be loaded into the boat by hand – all food and most equipment are moved from the pier to their proper place on the boat by use of a “load-line”. Basically it’s a line of sailors extending from the pier side pallets to the storerooms with each sailor about 3-4 feet apart on alternating sides. All items are tossed person-to-person. Sometimes it’s a 5 minute job and sometimes you are loading food for hours.

Historically sea shanties used to be sung by sailors for these and other tasks,  with the rhythm of the songs allowing a physically demanding task to go by quickly – catch, twist, toss, twist, catch, twist, toss, twist, catch, twist, toss, twist.  Although the widespread use of shanties was declining occasionally someone would break into a few songs and we’d sing along. After a while in a good load-line your mind leaves your body to do the work on auto-pilot, while it’s thinking about a vacation, the bills, what to cook for dinner or nothing at all. Not something you want to do every day but you know your efforts will feed the crew, of which you are a part, while deployed and you can literally enjoy the fruits of your labors – provided the cooks remembered to order the canned fruit cocktail.

Reminiscing about physical labor is a lot easier to when you don’t have to do it too often, and as a sales engineer helping companies outsource portions of their IT department, my physical labor was usually limited to lifting my carry-on bag into the overhead bin or sprinting to catch a flight after the returning the rental car.  And while I wouldn’t want to do it 12-hours a day every day, it can be a lot of fun because it’s so tactile. After you are done you have  a visual confirmation of what you’ve accomplished.  -t


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