By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 30 August 2013 in The Madera Tribune
As one of my part-time jobs, I serve as a security guard. Knocking against my thigh with each step, my heavy-duty flashlight hangs from my utility belt. No batarangs, smoke bombs, or other superhero gadgets dangle beside it, but sometimes it really shines, so-to-speak.
More than a week ago I returned home after my shift while a large portion of the west side of Madera, California, had no electricity, doubtlessly due to a late summer thunderstorm. My oversized cylindrical companion suddenly held an indispensable and rare power.
Though I saw neighbors relying on cigarettes and cell phones to see by, it appeared no one had a simple flashlight at hand that evening. Yet what a difference it made when trying to unload groceries and navigate inside and out.
Disappointment mixed with relief when the alternating current surged anew, a seldom noticed hum met ears, and blocks of the city lit up as usual in a moment. My flashlight, no longer the brightest luminary, seemed to dim and my nascent Internet withdrawal symptoms disappeared.
There is much we take for granted in the "civilized" Western world, which so easily pampers and entertains us. We tend to forget our fragility and our dependence on others.
My father recently reminded me of what my eldest nephew, Michael, did to amuse himself as a tween about 20 years ago. While staying at my parents' minuscule farm, he took a long tree branch, hay bale twine, and a "single tree" to harness my dad's mule, Jenny, to a red Radio Flyer wagon. With his improvised setup, he then drove his sister Bernadette and cousin Joshua like a charioteer for hours around the property.
My father would be surprised to see similar ingenuity from his youngest grandchildren. Whether young or old, we rely more and more on technology even in our play.
His laments evoke twinges of guilt personally, because I've always been a more abstract than hands-on creative sort. As a child, I would skin my knee and play in the mud, but I loved books more than any of that. When computers and video game consoles arrived belatedly at our home, I rejoiced and explored their potential for play and creativity as deeply as I could.
Geek, nerd, and dork were appropriate labels I embraced long before the first two of the trio ceased to be insulting. I dreamed, among many other things, of being a roboticist or computer programmer.
There's nothing wrong with all that, of course. Yet life is more than a binary system.
Despite my preferences, I knew manual labor. We children would assist our dad with his landscaping, tree trimming, and janitorial service around Madera and occasionally beyond.
I remember waking up a few hours before school to help my dad sweep or mop St. Joachim Church before eating breakfast and attending classes for the day. The human-like statues in shadowy side aisles in the large building spooked me greatly before dawn, and the shiny brass cross on the main aisle doors gouged a few ounces of skin, flesh, and fat from the side of my chin once when I failed to get out of their way fast enough.
Summer days could start early and end late as we pushed lawnmowers across the growing green blades that blanketed the yards of customers. But between tending to local fiefdoms, oh, the joy of an after-lunch nap as well as that of an ice cream sandwich or even water from a hose on a sweat-drenching afternoon.
I never quite appreciated the physical work then as I would in my year as a novice monk at Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Oregon, not far from Woodburn, Salem, and Portland. We novices would often work under the late Father Dominic, a former college professor whose life had changed mid-stream when the abbot reassigned him from the ivory tower of academics to the fields and orchards.
I felt the satisfaction from spending one's self fully on a tangible task. Though never a vegetable admirer, the tomatoes I helped cultivate and harvest for a season were the best I ever tasted. I also saw the humility and wisdom of the priest who worked along with us, a passionate bespectacled scholar turned leathery farmer with muscles that were legendary.
During my years of temporary monastic vows that followed, Fr. Dominic's health faltered. I recall being by his bedside near the end, and at his funeral after. My heart wept.
May we never forget the beauty of the simpler powers and gifts of life, and the labor that makes possible so much that many take for granted.
Thank you, God, for all of them.
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Epilogue: happy 77th birthday to my own father, Joseph, who inspired this column.