Let Me Give You a Hand; Thoughts on Work

Following on the thoughts of a previous blog post about the photography of Lewis Hine, I got thinking about the incredible work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiào Salgado, who took stunning pictures of, for example, the miners in the terrible gold mines of Sierra Pelada. Unforgettable images of this hell of large- and small-scale greed, https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/hell-serra-pelada-1980s/, where men were paid pennies for what owners made millions from…except for what got smuggled away. And so it goes. I got thinking too about the slaves who built the pyramids. And then I found myself, just by happenstance because of my poetry book reading group, reading Pablo Neruda, specifically, The Heights of Macchu Picchu. In these poems, Neruda considers the still-standing edifice of the Incas, and finds himself thinking of the builders. He imagines their sweat and bones in the stone. He writes:

Dame la mano desde la profunda…

Mirame desde el fondo de la tierra,

labrador, tejedor, pastor callado…

Mostradme vuestra sangre y vuestro surco,

decideme: aquí fui castigado…


Give me your hand from the depths…

Look at me from the deeps of the earth,

plowman, weaver, quiet shepherd…

Show me your blood and your furrow,

tell me: here I was punished…

Work is a complex thing. It can be a soul-sucking, time-burning depletion, or it can be an expression of the full being. There can be grace on a production line, I imagine: pride in efficient, high quality work done safely by a team who believe in their product. But when I think of work, I think of solitude. That’s just me. I think of the times I’ve lost myself in my work of mind and hand — the swirl of thinking and logic and overcoming obstacles, being imaginative in problem-solving, articulating something effectively. And having fun in the process. Loving, in fact, the process. I also think of all the jobs I’ve had that were not that at all, were depleting in various ways, mostly because I either didn’t care about it or didn’t feel valued, or both.

My product is not in stone and will not last a human lifetime much less generations. What is the value of work whose outcome is ephemeral? For that matter, what is the value of work that lasts?

I saw an article today in which a tourist referred to Macchu Picchu as just a bunch of ruins. I remember being shocked at how small the Mona Lisa is, as I peered through shoulders and around people’s necks to try to glimpse it in the crowd, then moved on to stand undisturbed for a long time in front of a Dutch master painting of a family bent over a candle. But a recent article in The Atlantic revealed some of the craftsmanship, artistry, and just plain magic of what Michelangelo did to create the Mona Lisa, my initial underwhelm-ness notwithstanding. What a process. I feel richer for knowing what he did.

It seems a form of prayer, somehow, that kind of deep working, the earnestness with which we can approach whatever our work is, a prayer not to some external deity, but invoking the best of humanity.


2 thoughts on “Let Me Give You a Hand; Thoughts on Work

  1. happy new year, Marilyn. You wrote here: “There can be grace on a production line, I imagine: pride in efficient, high quality work done safely by a team who believe in their product. ” Take it from one who knows: production work as Marx knew, deadens, alienates the human mind. Our minds and bodies are not meant for stultifying repetitions, quotas, all quantified, time theft accusations for taking too long in the restroom relieving your self . . . . Any pride one once may have had is broken along with the spirit from which it came. take care, Donna


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