My first summer job was looking after Duggan Grey’s lawn. I was 14-years-old, and Duggan was a veteran of the Second World War. He would pay me $100 a month, and would always invite me inside for a glass of water after work to tell me war stories.
My favourite part of the job — even though I dreaded it at first — was helping Duggan craft a bonsai tree in his front yard.
It was a large pine, and it had wires strategically attached to its branches and base. Over time, these manipulations would make the tree lean over like a taller-than-a-human version of the bonsai Mr. Miyagi has the character Daniel prune in Karate Kid. But Duggan was too old to climb the ladder and reach the top branches, so I’d climb up with pruning shears, wire cutters, and spools of wire to make sure the tree was engineered correctly to bend and grow in the right way.
Even though putting my face in pine branches in the heat of summer was less than ideal, I began to fall in love with the work as I saw the tree take new shape over the weeks. Slowly, like the tree that eventually bent toward the sun, I was bending towards an appreciation of the art of work.
As I’ve moved on to other jobs like golf course grounds keeping, barista gigs, and now creative ministry, this experience from my first summer job has shaped my understanding about what work can and should look like — that the meaning and art of work is much like God’s presence in the every day things we typically view as inconsequential. Really, the meaning and the art are in the details, and we just have to be intentional and persistent in our search for them.
A person trimming a tree and cutting grass can be just as much of an artist as the person who paints, just as the person who crunches numbers or pushes a broom and empties wastebaskets for a living can be as much of an artist as the writer or the musician. It just depends on a person’s willingness to re-evaluate what the work and art means, and how those two things relate.
How you define work and art is up to you. But so goes a story I once heard: a man is walking down the street and he sees a worker, building something. The builder looks tired, angry, and worn out, so the man stops and asks the builder, “What are you building?” The builder sighs and says, “A stupid wall.” Then he goes back to work with a frown on his face.
The man who was walking wishes the builder all the best and keeps moving down the street. But he gets only a few feet away until he sees another builder working on the same construction site. Except this builder is smiling, focused, and appears to be satisfied by the work he is doing. So the man stops and asks the second builder, “And what are you doing?” To which the second builder replies with a joyful grin, “Me? I’m building a beautiful cathedral.”
There will be days when work is mundane, when we struggle to find meaning, art, and joy in our tasks. But our perspective matters. We’re invited into the construction of something beautiful, even if it’s an accumulation of the everydays. Because meaning exists in the unremarkable maybe even more than in the momentous: when a kind word, a voice of reason, and yes, a beautifully shaped tree can have the profoundest of impacts.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Klearchos Kapoutsis.