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Blueberries, Memories, and the Honor of Work

I put blueberries on my bowl of steel cut oatmeal this morning and it led me down memory lane to you and one of our Camden, New Jersey summer visits. I hardly remember how old I was, maybe around 7, probably younger. You took on summer work at a blueberry farm. You would leave very early in the morning, well before I was up. The truck would drop you off in the afternoon and you’d come home tired, dirty, and with your day’s pay. I waited on the front porch for you in the afternoon. Occasionally you’d bring a pint or two of blueberries and we’d sit on the porch eating them. You said that mostly “Spanish” (speaking) people worked on the farm.

Mom often came to my see me perform with BlackNotes, an awesome DC based band. :)

You’d describe the work to me and tell me what the people were like. You’d explain that your pay was determined by how many pounds of blueberries you picked at the end of the day. It sounded so exciting, though it must have been grueling. I’m certain that in my child's mind I made the work much more romantic than it actually was.

You were always so industrious, always working. Back home in DC, I’d remember when you’d get fed up with the working conditions of your current job and you'd wake up and declare to the universe that you were going out to get a better job. You’d leave our two bedroom apartment with your resume, sometimes handwritten, and actually come back with new employment! Who else could do that? You were so personable, a natural sales woman. You’d come home to report that you'd secured a job at People’s Drugstore or some little restaurant or bar. I recall nights of your waitress days when you’d dump loads of tips onto the bed and we’d count out the money. Silver coins and bills all over the place! I thought we were rich. You’d make a killing in tips because you knew how to serve people. It was easy for you to smile. You liked making others feel comfortable, seen, and heard. It was how you showed love and care.

Because you worked as a waitress, you stressed the importance of tipping well. You would tip extra when we ate out at restaurants (which was rare) and you’d give my dad an admonishing look when he didn’t leave enough money for the waitress, who in most cases, was a woman. An expression of solidarity. You knew what it was like to put in long, tiresome hours. You knew that work well. You lived that work. We ate because of that work and the hard labor dad put in at the museum. Were you still here, we would talk about the recent events surrounding former Cosby Show actor, Geoffrey Owens, who was “shamed” for having an honest job at Trader Joe’s. Work is work. People need work. It’s how we maintain a sense of dignity in our lives. We’d talk about it at the dining room table where you’d always sit and you’d say something like,

It’s a damned shame how they're making that man feel bad about working at a Trader Joe's. Aint nothing wrong with that! I know some folks that ain’t never had a job at a pie shop tasting pies and they trying to make him feel bad! At least he ain’t out there selling drugs or hitting people over the head and taking their money. Some people aint got nothing better to do than to mind somebody else’s business. People get on my damned nerves.

Yes, ma. They do get on my nerves, too! Especially the people who want us to believe that immigrants and other people that they’ve “othered” don’t want to work or that they stiffing the system. It’s nonsense. Most of us want the same thing – an honest day’s pay for an honest day's work so we can take care of our family’s needs. So we can rest well at night and fight the looming stress of debt and deprivation. So we can buy our kids new shoes and take them to the dentist. So we can spend a few days relaxing with our loved ones in the park, at a beach, or take in a movie for a little escape from the daily grind. Sadly, millions today don’t have the security that accompanies a decent job. Many work under exploitative conditions, if they can find work at all.

As awareness of mindfulness grows, I hope we factor it into how we treat people -- workers, non –workers, former workers, disabled, workers, and those looking for work. We’re all human. We’re all deserving of respect, not imposing cellphone cameras and judgmental social media posts. Whether a former actor, teacher, or exotic dancer, we deserve respect and a sense of privacy. Mindfulness and contemplative living are about extending grace, honor, and respect to all beings.

Thanks, mom, for teaching me the core lessons of what it means to be human. You keep on teaching me – even from the other side. I’m listening and learning. Still.

All my love, Chelly

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