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Work, the Way Henry Sees It

As Amish carpenters restore a barn floor, they refurbish a customer's outlook

When it was time to replace the wooden floor of the old horse barn (we used it as a garage), we felt strongly that the Amish should do the work. Someone tried to convince us that we should fill in the floor with cement, but the ice and snow from the car drained between the wooden planks too well for us to be tempted by concrete.

We were eager to learn more about a group who had a reputation for doing the best work at reasonable prices in our corner of rural Wisconsin. Both the Petersons' and the Diemers' houses had been built by the same crew, and driving by those homes made you slow down, even if you didn't know the tradition that produced them. Hiring the Amish meant driving 45 minutes one way to get the men, and then back again each night. But nobody doubted it was well worth the extra effort.

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Foreman Henry bid our job to be 1-1/2 days' work for four men. The good humor that surrounded their industry made all of us want to watch them work. They soon discovered that the floor wasn't the problem; it was only the support beams that had rotted.

Carefully, they removed the planks for reuse and gutted the foundation. Little time was wasted as they worked in tandem - one prying the planks loose, another sizing the new 4-by-4s. Henry secured the support beams, and the fourth man pounded nails into the joists. They were done in six hours, giving them plenty of time to talk to my neighbor about his sagging porch, which they completely rebuilt the second day.

Their only break was lunch, and yet they seemed rested and eager to see their families as I drove them back to their homes. How I longed for that kind of peace in life.

"Henry," I asked, "do you ever feel a sense of pressure about your work?"

After a long pause, Henry laughed softly and said, "Yes, I guess that's what you'd call it, 'pressure.' " He said the word as though he was speaking a foreign language.

"Sure, I've felt that before, especially when someone's waiting to move into a house. But what I always tell myself is that the world isn't going to fall apart if I don't get everything finished in one day." He talked about the importance of not setting unrealistic deadlines, and that he often turned down jobs in order to stay honest with himself about how much he could handle. He liked having the space in his schedule to help out people like my neighbor.

"But aren't you worried about getting stuck without work and being short of money?" I knew that Henry and his wife had 13 children and supported two sets of in-laws.

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"There are things more important than material gain." He said it in the same tone Moses must have used on Mt. Sinai. This topic of conversation was over.

As we pulled onto his property, he invited me into his workshop to see the children's furniture and wooden toys that he and his son loved to make in their spare time.

Looking over the dolls' cradles, I noticed a little girl peeking around the corner. Henry welcomed her, and I was presented with a pan full of lettuce, a cucumber, and green beans from their garden. The girl said her mother would be pleased if I would stop by the house before I left. I had filled the pan that morning with purple and white clematis, and her reciprocal gift was a promise that I was invited to know them better.

Walking into the house, I had to fight the desire to turn on some lights. The house was hushed in the haze of the late-afternoon sun. The immaculate, uncluttered kitchen had 14 freshly canned quarts of beans and as many quarts of beets. This was only a small beginning.

The grandmother explained that the family usually ate two quarts of beans at each meal. They would can at least 150 quarts of each of the dozen or more vegetables they grew each year. But, again, there seemed to be no sense of strain, only order and confidence that the job would be done.

The blush in the cheeks of their 18-year-old daughter as she showed me the blocks of her friendship quilt; the soft giggles with the children's smiles; the gentle way a naughty toddler was reprimanded; the enthusiasm of the teenage boy taking his hoe to work the garden: Seeing all this, I felt that these people had proved their dominion over the whole earth.

They had to love their work in order to accomplish so much in the day. Yet the way they loved their work gave them time for their families. This, I thought, is what I most needed.

There must be a way to work without feeling as though the world is about to fall apart. I'd always felt that maintaining a sense of pressure would help keep me on task and counter a lurking laziness in myself that I feared. But now I saw this was just a charade of self-importance.

Henry did the work for us eight years ago, before we moved to the big city. What his example keeps reminding me, though, is that life is not divided up into parts that are in constant competition with each other. Loving to work in a right way means seeing work as part of life, not as the whole of it. It has something to do with the eagerness to get to the office this morning after I took time to check the paint color for the bedroom. Life at home is not in conflict with the demands of the office.

Life is just one thing. The patience needed to clean out under the kitchen sink is the same life that makes me answer the office phone. It is the same rhythm that puts a meal on the table and plays Ping-Pong with a child. If life isn't divided up in parts, then we don't have to feel pressure to edit out the parts - picking and choosing who, what, when.

We're allowed to laugh, sitting at our desks. We're allowed to feel at peace with all the voice-mail messages, to open our hands wide and stretch our arms broad to welcome life on the expressway, in the garden, at a church meeting, in the grocery store.

It's all the same life, the kind that Henry says doesn't fall apart.

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