I have lived virtually my entire life in the state of Oklahoma and its familiarity encapsulates the concept of home for me quite nicely. Home isn’t simply a place of refuge or an idea of safety and security. It’s all of those things, all at once, and it’s always changing and evolving. Nearly everyone I love lives here, just as there are too many people that I loved who died and are buried here. I’ll meet new people in the next few years who will become part of that same comfortable, familiar feeling. The same holds true for places, as well. As time progresses, new scenes and locations become part of my identity and some places that will become part of where I feel at home haven’t yet been built. All the while, more and more places that were once central to my life become unique homes to ghostly embodiments of my memory.
There’s a nondescript garage on the corner of Waverly and State in my hometown. Behind it sits a pile of red bricks, which is all that remains of my childhood home. There’s an empty field on Fenway Avenue, where a huge mound of dirt once stood that was, by far, my favorite place in the world. It’s been bulldozed to make way for a few tract houses. A movie theater in which I first saw Return of the Jedi, occasionally worked at part-time during high school, and professed my love for a girl who ultimately didn’t love me back is now nothing but a patch of overgrown grass in a crumbling parking lot. I used to ride my bicycle into the Bandshell at Sooner Park and marvel at the authority its acoustics lent to my unconfident, shrill voice. If it hasn’t collapsed due to age, it can’t be far from doing so.
This isn’t meant to be an elegy for places erased by the indifferent passage of time. These places are irrevocably part of a state that I call home. A state whose motto, labor omnia vincit, reminds me that hard work can overcome most obstacles that befall me. On a day like Labor Day, which celebrates the sacrifices and contributions of America’s workers, I like to think about the skilled hands that built this tableau against which my life plays out.
The older I am, the more I appreciate the tremendous efforts that millions expended to help construct this society of which I am a small part. Labor Day has always been a strange holiday to me. Its commemorative purpose of honoring the contributions of American workers to our society is easily lost. One could point out a series of dignity-restoring victories won by workers that have been all too easily surrendered for insulting pay and today’s bevy of panem et circenses, complete with distractions for all seasons and celebrity nude photo leaks on a schedule as regular as the cycles of the moon.
For most people, Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer. Families pack up for one last day at the lake, one last cookout in the backyard, or one last dip in the pool before the imposition of autumn eliminates the possibility of such activities. It’s a moment impregnated with the first seeds of the fear of death. We know autumn is on the threshold and winter is just behind it, but we can thrill our souls with one last vibrant, love-filled day in the summer sun.
This year, my mind kept returning to Oklahoma’s latinate motto and what the concept intended to relate. Its origins go all the way back to Virgil and the early decades of the Roman Empire. Over time, the phrase became an oft-used slogan in progressive labor movements and is still employed in such a way, to this day. The phrase indicates a belief that with enough diligence and work, one can overcome anything. Any obstacle in our path can be overcome when we set our hands and minds to the task. This belief lives on in the gritty optimism of millions of people, whose hearts brace their minds with the simple incantation that one more day’s work might “get it”, whatever it might be.
In my life, I’ve not always believed this to be true, for better or worse. I had dreams of playing professional sports, like many boys do. My status as a late physical bloomer translated to a lack of confidence and an easy target for ridicule. No amount of work would make me taller or more athletically gifted. Despite hours of shooting around by myself, I eventually recognized that the formula for athletic greatness was not encoded in my DNA. Later in life, after the siren’s song of freedom had unraveled my early designs upon academic success, I found a certain rhythm and comfort in the value of my educational labor. I couldn’t chop down the tree of knowledge through any amount of concentrated effort, but I could learn to slowly cultivate it and nurture it until new fruit was brought to bear. Now, in my day-to-day work, I find that the obstacles of an overloaded schedule are only surmounted when I set to the task and labor diligently until they are obstacles no more.
The struggle with the idea behind labor omnia vincit emerges elsewhere in my life. I often make terrible first impressions upon people. I’m anxious, I perspire too easily, and I have a sense of humor that requires acclimation, to put it mildly. I’ve been justly accused of being obnoxious and patriarchal, not to mention unsettling to others at times. All that being said, I have a few good friends whose affection I’ve won by virtue of my persistence and continual personal evolution. I’ve labored under the notion that with enough carefully calculated labor, I could force someone to feel about me the way I wished they truly would. I could make them accept me on my terms, as I wished to be accepted time and time again, fragile fantasies of relationships shatter on the hard reality of human existence. Quietly and desperately, I would redouble my efforts in the hope that hard work and dedication could substitute for, or somehow generate, sincere feelings, ex nihilo. Even more than that, I believed that if I only worked a bit harder or endured for just a bit longer, it would all work out.
An objective observer, standing at a safe distance, is able to point out the folly of such an approach. Yet, as the garden of a failing relationship wilts from want of rain, it is the gardener who stubbornly believes that life can bloom verdant once again. It is only when the garden becomes dust that the gardener finally sees that no amount of labor can reverse its demise. Some never see this.
On Labor Day, I think of the phrase labor omnia vincit and all that it implies. I think about the place on Earth I call home and the obliterated, meaningful places that no amount of labor will revivify. I think about the millions of people, whose hands and minds built small but critical parts of this world in which I live. I’m deeply grateful for those who sacrificed so much, that I might be able to work with dignity.
I think about the calming peace that envelops me when I’m lost in work. I think about the heart that is undeniably evident in a person’s life’s work. I think about the power of perseverance and hard work. I think of how it does undeniably change hearts and minds and I think of moments when no amount of work can halt an inevitable end. I think of my short life, of how much work I’ve put into building it, and how much work lies ahead of me in continuing to evolve into a better, wiser person. I think of my own inescapable end, which I hope is distant in the future, and I want to believe, like all people do, that signs of my work will remain long after life has abandoned my body. I’m alive here, today, because someone in the past worked to preserve the possibility of my existence. My life bears testimony of their hard work. I want to leave the same echo.
While hard work can’t always earn for me every reward that I seek, it is all I have. I am only the work that I do in the world around me. So are you. Our minds only exist as they are because we have worked to nurture them. Our families only exist as is because we and others before us have worked to form and sustain it. We will pass and our ability to work will cease, but our individual striving becomes part of the work in which all humans contribute. In that way, we never truly pass. In that way, our work lives on beyond ourselves. Labor omnia vincit. Work conquers all.