Ralph Gardner Jr: I'm Honored

Aug 24, 2019

The Great Stone Barn
Credit Lisa Malone Jackson / Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon

The clouds were low and billowing, and that apocalyptic steel grey color that in science fiction movies portends the arrival of alien invaders and the end of life as we know it.

I chose to view it as an omen that one shouldn’t take oneself too seriously, since I was one of three community builders about to be honored at the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon gala last weekend.

The other two were Brenda Adams, the tireless head of Columbia County’s Habitat for Humanity and Sarah Steadman, who directs the Mount Lebanon Residency, a community of artists and farmers dedicated to supporting the local arts. That’s when she’s not running her farm, The Abode, and its CSA or writing poetry.

In other words I was in good company. Too good company.

As I said in my remarks, I was frankly surprised to be acknowledged unless it was as a stand-in for Everyman, for John Q. Public, because my knowledge of Shaker culture -- ignoring any tenuous claims I might have to being a community builder -- was essentially limited to those handsome knock-off Shaker baskets that one found at better museum gift shops.

But as I also said in my brief remarks – and when I say brief I mean two minutes on the nose; something of an imposition given that my toast at my daughter’s wedding ran to seven full pages – a single sentence of wall text I read last year at an exhibition of Shaker Baskets at the Columbia County Historical Society had really resonated with me.

“Labor was a form of worship,” it said of the Shakers.

I think that sentiment moved me for two reasons. The first is personal, the second political, even global.

I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of advancing age or not but my satisfaction from my work continues to grow. I don’t mean from particular accomplishments or successes or artifacts produced but from the process itself.

Someone who put it well was Paul Shaffer, the bandleader on the Late Show with David Letterman who went into a funk after the show ended.

Shaffer thought retirement, not that I consider myself by any stretch of the imagination retired, would be fun, that he’d finally get to smell the proverbial roses. But then depression set in. “No one wants to smell the roses,” he told my friend Randy Cohen on Randy’s public radio show “Person, Place, Thing.” “It’s an admission of death.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far. But what it took to draw Shaffer out of his depression was a call from a record producer asking him if he was interested to get back in the business.

“It was clear as day,” Shaffer told Randy. “As long as I can keep playing the piano I think I’m okay.”

It had nothing to do with money, fame or success, as far as I can tell. It was simply the opportunity to do what he knew and loved best, to be in the moment, to pursue the work that, if you’ve been fortunate enough to discover it, makes time stand still.

The second reason that simple sentiment on the wall at the Shaker exhibition moved me is because it stands in contrast to so much of what seems to be going on in the world today.

The Shakers were distinguished by profound and almost revolutionary beliefs, among them humility, simplicity, and gender-equality; and as I’ve already alluded to, hard work. I’m somewhat more skeptical about their attachment to celibacy, which helps explain why there aren’t many Shakers left. But no creed is perfect, or for everyone.

Yet we seem to be living in a world where the secret to getting ahead, starting at the very top, is faking it: inflating your accomplishments and blaming your failures on someone, anyone, else.

Hard work is a fool’s errand, the message seems to be. It’s only for those too dumb, poor or socially unconnected to game the system.

However, that’s emphatically not true. For many of us the work is what it’s all about. It’s the rewarding correlation, the quantum physics, between effort and achievement.

I think what angers me about the current occupant of the White House, and it’s a long list, is that he seems to have gotten away his whole life with not doing the work, unless your definition of work is spinning deception – whether it’s about your I.Q., net worth, or North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons.

My hunch, and I may well be wrong, is that the Democratic presidential nominee with the best success of beating Trump won’t be the one who matches his bluster but who serves as a paragon of substance, of truth over fiction, of reality over illusion.

The rain eventually came at the Shaker gala. But by then we were seated under a sturdy tent – the food tasty and abundant (and served communal farm style, perhaps in a nod to the Shakers) – and in the shadow of the monumental and majestically lighted Shakers’ 19th century Great Stone Barn.

As an honoree I also received one of those lovely, handcrafted and inscribed oval three finger Shaker boxes. While I’m all about the work, prizes can be fun, too.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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