What If We Sang While We Worked?

Leo Keene holds his beautiful Blue Moon garlic

Leo Keene holds his beautiful Blue Moon garlic

A red-headed, red-bearded, pipe-smoking carpenter came to work on some ugly walls and ceilings of our old house not long after I moved in. His fine works holds up well more than 20 years later. I think of him often, though, for a completely different reason. He sang his way through each systematic task as he repaired our house. I don't remember the songs, but I remember sensing in his songs his pleasure in his work, his contentment glowing through the house like a yellow sun. People sang as they worked on their farms as I was growing up. One energetic uncle sang each evening as he headed to the barn to milk after a day teaching fifth grade: "Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, they have taken you away, and I'll never see my darling any more..." or "The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be..."

My beloved childhood dentist hummed as he worked, and made up little songs to keep me amused during my long sessions in his chair. My equally beloved present dentist also hums as he works, and it soothes me like musical Xanax.

If I ever catch myself singing without realizing it, I am washing dishes, folding clothes, chopping an onion. My hands are changing something, making something, without a lot of focused conscious thought. Though I use my hands in my "real" work, 80 percent of which involves generating words on keyboards, it is a different sort of handwork somehow, with the hands doing the brain's bidding. Typing ideas onto a keyboard does not -- so far -- lead to singing while I work.

I once interviewed a weaver who is a leader in crafts-based sustainable economic development  in western North Carolina. I wanted to identify busy people who work to carry out positive community change. I asked the weaver how she managed her civic work along with her demanding, time-consuming craft. She said something like, "Oh, all of us [crafts people] who are involved are lucky. We get to use our hands. We get to work with materials. That gives us strength and ideas for our civic duties."

"We get to work with materials." That sentence stayed with me because I did not understand, at first, what was so great about materials. Eventually it helped explain an experience I have often: an insight, a solution, a useful phrase, a way forward comes to me when I stand at the kitchen counter stemming parsley after hours of fruitless struggle at the computer. In my life, perhaps, the ingredients for dinner are my materials, and putting my hands on them completes a circuit as necessary as breathing for my well-being.

Recently I realize, too, that people just don't sing "Darling Clementine" or "Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight" as they work unless that circuitry of well-being is running smoothly, running through hands at work with materials. I'm a slow learner. I gave no thought to the wonders of song-inducing work the day I left the farm for college, bent on finding great ways to work that didn't involve the sometimes grueling hand work of growing, harvesting, processing, cooking and preserving homegrown food.

Along with a lot of others in the country, I am happy to see and take part in a revaluing of hand work as well as head work. This revaluing extends well beyond rural people, young people, old people, back to the land people, or crafts people. In the past week, the New York Times has run a front page story on young people's increasing interest in hard labor internships on organic farms; the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran a first-person account of the satisfactions of running a motorcycle repair shop instead of being a "knowledge worker," and the food section featured a New Yorker who feeds her family partly by canning foods she buys from farmers markets.

Though none of these articles mentions singing, each underscores the satisfaction of making or changing things -- materials -- using hand work. Singing is bound to follow. If you need to prime the musical pump to get your handwork-to-singing circuitry moving, try Rise Up Singing.