SummaryDr. Mitchell Kalpakgian draws from Homer, Chaucer, and Robert Frost to show how a creative touch can transform daily work into a labor of love.
In Homer’s Odyssey the heroic Odysseus suffers a storm on the sea that washes him ashore in the land of Phaeacia. Exhausted, famished, and destitute, he desperately needs the hospitality and kindness due to a suppliant.
When he awakens from his sleep under the covering of leaves, he beholds the princess Nausicaa with her maidens on the seashore. They have come to wash clothes and enjoy the beauty of the day by the ocean.
Gathering all the clothes into the cradle of the wagon and carrying the food prepared for her and her maidservants, Nausicaa proceeds to drive the mules to the beach to perform her domestic work; however, it is not the menial chore of washing dirty clothes but a labor of love.
Nausicaa reproaches her father for not appearing in clean clothing—a king who needs to appear at his best in public:
“And you yourself, sitting among the princes, debating points at your council, you really should be wearing clean linen.”
Nausicaa also thinks of her three unmarried brothers, “bachelors always demanding crisp shirts from the wash when they go out to dance.” Housework is not drudgery to Nausicaa because she performs her duties as acts of love and goes about them with a creative touch.
To make the time and day of washing clothes more than a chore to be endured, “Her mother packed a hamper—treats of all kinds, favorite things to refresh her daughter’s spirits.”
In this simple scene Homer makes the duties of domestic life more than tedious housework. The art of civilized living knows how to infuse the ordinary duties of life with a sense of delight to make the time pass enjoyably.
Nausicaa enjoys the companionship of her maids, relishes the delicacies her mother has prepared for their noontime meal, and looks forward to playing ball with her companions and swimming in the ocean. Nausicaa has mastered the art of balancing work and play at the same time.
The work on the job does not need to be tedious or unpleasant if it is supplemented with some simple pleasure.
With some imagination, enjoyment can alleviate many kinds of chores and tiresome work. In the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket, the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales agree to participate in a storytelling contest to and from their destination to provide entertainment and conversation during the long journey.
As Harry Bailey, the host at the Tabard Inn who proposes the idea, explains,
“Indeed, it isn’t much fun / To ride in utter silence, dumb as a stone / So let me offer a special diversion, a game . . . .”
Everyone will tell two stories both going and returning from Canterbury. Whoever tells the best tale—that “Which offers us the ripest wisdom and the most of / Pleasure”—wins a free dinner at the Tabard Inn. Anyone familiar with The Canterbury Tales will recall the stories that both instruct and delight.
The Knight and the Clerk tell lofty stories that explain the religious and philosophical reasons that Fortune does not rule the world but serves as the handmaiden of Divine Providence.
The Miller tells a rowdy tale about a foolish carpenter who sleeps in a tub on the roof because a clever scholar has duped him into believing that the stars foretell the coming of another Noah’s flood.
The idea of the storytelling contest invites good fellowship, stimulates interaction and exchange among the travelers, regales everyone with hearty laughter, and provides a stimulating liberal education.
In a scene from the Iliad, Homer describes some of the scenes on the shield of Achilles that depict the agricultural life of the people. In the harvest of the grapes in the vineyard, “the delicious fruit was being carried in baskets by merry lads and girls, with whom there was a boy singing the lovely song of Linus in a treble voice to the sweet music of the tuneful lyre.”
In a similar scene the harvesters gathering the corn divide their labor: the reapers with their sickles cutting the grain, others gathering the corn and binding it into bundles, and servants preparing a feast to celebrate the fruitfulness of the land’s plenty and to reward the laborers with a festive end to the day.
Work is accompanied by pleasure and the anticipation of a delicious banquet. The day’s work and the necessary business of the day need not be an isolated, joyless activity without savor or zest.
In Robert Frost’s poem “One Hundred Collars,” Lafe, a man who travels to rural areas to collect bills for newspaper subscriptions, always finds time to cultivate friendships and revisit his acquaintances during his business trips.
When introduced to a new acquaintance at the hotel where he is staying for the night, Dr. Magoon asks, “You drive around? It must be pleasant work.” Lafe responds, “It’s business, but I can’t say it’s not fun.” He mentions the relaxation of enjoying the outdoors and seeing the beautiful countryside.
As he travels by horse and carriage during the spring through the farming districts of small communities, he delights in the beautiful scenes of pastoral serenity:
“What I like best’s the lay of different farms, / Coming out on them from a stretch of woods, / Or over a hill or round a sudden corner.”
The mare is so accustomed to these roads that “she’s got so she turns in at every house . . . . She thinks I’m sociable. I maybe am.” Somehow this bill collector is welcomed wherever he goes because his friendliness brings lighthearted cheerfulness and lively conversation.
He takes a personal interest in the families with whom he does business; he is not a mere businessman collecting money:
“I never dun. / I’m there, and they can pay me if they like. / I go nowhere on purpose: I happen by.”
Lafe’s enjoyment of the beautiful surroundings, his leisurely pace of traveling without a rigid schedule (“the mare / Stops when she likes: I tell her when to go”), and his simple courtesy and gracious manner add a special human dimension to his job that brings him into contact with the goodness of honest, hardworking people and a deeply human way of life.
Housework does not have to be confined to menial chores. A job does not have to be restricted to the earning of money. Daily chores and everyday routine do not have to be governed by rigid schedules with no room for human interaction, affable conversation, or times for reflection or contemplation.
Washing clothes, picking grapes, gathering the harvest, and being a businessman all serve other purposes besides the earning of a livelihood and the need for food or money.
No matter what a person does for work or profession, he can accomplish it in a perfunctory, unimaginative, and impersonal way or do it with a creative touch, a human manner, a gracious way, and a kind heart.
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