Monday, September 12, 2011

How Do We Treat "The Help?"

Some people are calling the blockbuster film "The Help" a chick-flick. Personally, I see it (and Kathryn Stockett's wonderful book that inspired it) as a compelling account of the battle for dignity in dirty work.

If you aren't familiar with the story, it's a 1950s tale of black women in the Deep South who are domestic workers ("the help") for white middle-class women who treat them, at best, as mindless or invisible. Confronted with a sudden opportunity, the domestics decide to risk everything to tell their stories to a national audience. And those stories are unforgettable.

Take Aibileen, an aging domestic worker who has lovingly raised many white children, only to see them grow up to be as condescending as their parents. Aibileen is a far better mother to the toddler she tends than the girl's real mother will ever be. And Aibileen's knowledge of cleaning and housekeeping is so extensive that she becomes the anonymous source for a local newspaper column.

What breaks my heart is that Aibileen is actually fulfilling her calling in life -- doing her work with such mastery and originality that the world ought to take notice. Instead, she is dismissed, derided, and humiliated. That's why she is willing to assume great personal risk to share her story with the world. It reminds me of the incredible response my co-researcher and I received when we started surveying zookeepers, another under-appreciated group. They practically fell over themselves to tell us about their work.

The movie made me think about how I treat "The Help" -- the people who do the mundane and unglamorous jobs that make my life more convenient and more pleasant. Do I sometimes look right through the custodian or the food service worker? Am I missing opportunities to be inspired by their excellence because I'm so caught up in my own professional importance? Do I sometimes forget my own words from my BYU speech?: "We do great violence to the souls of those who offer their callings in less-glamorous ways when we consider them invisible or treat them as minor cast members in the great drama of our professional lives."

On a final note, since we're talking about domestic labor, I just have to share the lyrics of one of my favorite songs from the musical "Working." The words are adapted from an actual interview Studs Terkel conducted with a cleaning lady. Her fatigue, her yearning, her hope -- it all moves me (as does the powerful gospel tune it's set to). Brilliant!

Mama worked just like her mama before her, 
Domestic workin' was their trade.
They was laundress, cook, and live-in help, 
Thursday girl, babysitter, and a hotel maid;
They worked six days a week, all day long
Never could get out of debt.
Those were the days when the minimum wage was... anything you could get!
They was Cleaning Women without faces
Coming and going on a first name basis.
You're talkin' to somebody who knows... and after too many years... Lord!
I dont' wanna be in one more laundry room; 
I don't wanna pick up now another broom,
One of these days, just wanna sleep til noon!
All day long I'm thinkin', my kids is in the streets somewhere,
But the lady of the house don't think you thinkin' half the time.
Always talkin' round you, like you ain't even there.
It's gettin' so it does somethin' to my mind!

I've got a daughter with a head on her shoulders, 
Purdy as a picture too! 
She ain't gonna hide that purdy face behind 
Kitchen doors, scrubbin' floors like her Mama do,
If my legs don't give out and my back hold up, 
I'm gonna make her a better day; 
You'll never see her gettin' down on her knees, 
Unless she's down there to pray! No more...

Cleanin' Women, without faces
Sh'gonna walk in-a on this last name basis! 
She'll be the first in this family 
To have a face you can see! 
She ain't gon' be stuck inside no laundry room
When she sweepin' she be pushin' her own broom 
Day may never come when she can sleep til noon,
But long as she can get up singin' her own tune
Only that day 
Can't come too soon!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Another Tip for Finding Your Calling (and a Labor Day Greeting!)

My friend Stuart just shared with me this amazing quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: 
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

I love that sentiment. It points out the connection between calling and art. 

Since it's Labor Day, now is a good time to share another principle I have learned about finding your calling in life: Callings almost always involve aesthetic creation -- building something of beauty, or doing something in a beautiful way. So, if you are struggling to identify your professional calling, here are some questions to ask yourself: 

- When have I felt creative? 
- What have I done that has caused people to stop and look in wonder? 
- When have I stepped back and looked at what I was doing with deep satisfaction? 
- What was I doing the last time I wished that a lot of people could see my efforts?
- When have I felt that what I was doing was beautiful?  

If you can't easily think of times like this, don't give up too quickly! Go all the way back to childhood if you need to. Think about all different kinds of activities you have done -- not just at work. I guarantee that there is a spark of creation within you that has surfaced occasionally. Go on a quest to identify it!

If you are going to emulate Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Shakespeare in your work, you will need to find work that creates space for you to exercise this creative spark. Discovering what has triggered that spark in the past will give you some useful cues about how to bring art to your work. 

As Martin Luther King suggested, you can find artists in almost any line of work -- from street sweeper to entrepreneur, from factory worker to physician. In fact, let me give a Labor Day nod to one of my favorite artists, Mahonri Mackintosh Young, who dedicated much of his work to depicting the nobility of the manual laborer. Here's a massive sculpture he did for the 1939 New York World' Fair (the only image I could find that was open source): 

You can see more of his wonderful sculpture and paintings here (Springville Museum of Art site).

As Young's art shows, what looks to some people like menial tasks can become epic and noble when we bring our creative gifts to them. To find your calling, look for your creative center. And then look for ways to create at work! You might find that your calling is not as distant or as elusive as you thought. 

Happy Labor Day!