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Mark Vinz / Special to The Forum , Published September 07 2009

LABOR DAY: A time for reflection

Why is it that Labor Day always seems to sneak up on us? No matter what the holiday might mean to us individually, the one thing most people seem to agree on is that it usually comes too soon.

And all too often it’s also a reminder of what we haven’t managed to get done during those so-called lazy days of summer, from the house repairs that somehow didn’t get completed, to the trips that somehow didn’t get taken, to the fish that somehow didn’t get caught.

That Labor Day as a national holiday has existed for well over a hundred years is a fact most of us don’t know, just as we probably don’t associate Labor Day with celebrating unions and other labor organizations.

Far more important to a lot of people are the Labor Day sales – those same sales that seem to have taken over most other holidays, and which, before long, will fill the stores with all the trappings of Halloween.

When I was a child, I couldn’t quite understand why a holiday with “labor” in its title meant that people did exactly the opposite of laboring on that particular day. What I could understand all too well was the way that it marked the end of summer, or at least that glorious summer vacation from school (even if it never was as glorious as I’d hoped it would be). To me, in spite of parades and picnics, it was truly a day of mourning.

School tends to start well before Labor Day any more, but the holiday still serves to mark some tremendous changes in our lives. For one thing, just about everything that took priority during the summer is suddenly replaced by new emphases, new schedules – ones dominated by school and jobs.

And if, for most people, Labor Day is no longer the time to take in the dock and close the cabin, life at the lake goes through some major changes too. As one of my friends is fond of saying, after Labor Day, most of the jet skiers and water skiers tend to disappear; you can actually hear the loons again.

But whether we’re at a lake or just taking a drive in the country, it’s also the time to notice that the fall harvest is under way, the days suddenly seem to be getting shorter and the first leaves are turning – from sumac on the hillsides to patches of red and gold in the branches above it.

It’s then we know that before much longer we’ll also be noticing leaves turning in town, just as we’ll be hearing the honks from V’s of migrating geese. Indeed, by the end of September, as the old song lyric reminds us, the days will inevitably “dwindle down to a precious few.”

In that sense, Labor Day is the time – perhaps as much as at Thanksgiving – when we realize what we have to treasure. Even the resumption of football, which many of us have waited so long for, somehow reminds us that we’ll eventually be watching games that are played in truly awful weather.

Enjoy it while you can has become our theme song, and no one sings that chorus any louder than the snowbirds, beginning to turn their thoughts to the perpetual summer of whatever place it is they’re fond of talking about.

Certainly, those who live in places that are spared the kind of winters we typically get in this part of the country must have a very different reaction to Labor Day and all it heralds. But to me, it’s what our northern Labor Day has come to represent that I celebrate the most – the seasons, and all the changes they take us through.

What I learned as a child from my Minnesota and North Dakota grandmothers was to make the best of what you have. Some of that, of course, is a kind of survivor’s pride, that no matter how bad the weather will get, we’ll know how to appreciate it (and do our own kind of gloating after surviving it). Beyond all our litanies of how bad things can get (and will get, and have gotten, many more times than once) is a resiliency that is truly amazing to people who live in more temperate climes.

It’s what they see on TV each time we weather a blizzard (or a flood). It’s what they hear in our stories, too, for even snowbirds rely on spreading stories of what they’ve endured! And it’s what outsiders can glimpse of things truly important to those of us living up here in what Eric Sevareid called the blank spot on the nation’s consciousness –the way we’ve learned to value and depend on each other, to pull together, to take absolutely nothing for granted.

I’ve inevitably strayed from my Labor Day topic, or perhaps I haven’t, for more than anything else, it seems to me, Labor Day is a kind of marker, as surely as a birthday or graduation, and as important in its own way as other holidays, such as Easter and Christmas and the Fourth of July. It’s a marker that asks us to remember just who we are and what we’ve got.

It’s a holiday that reminds us, too, of mixed blessings, of the rich complexity and contradictoriness of life and of its abundant ironies, especially the gaps between what we expect and what actually happens.

Just as I dreaded the start of school so many years ago (and had not even an inkling that I’d spend most of my life as a teacher), I treasured our family’s annual visit to the Minnesota State Fair above any other outing of the year.

Beyond the exhibition halls and lurid sideshow banners, beyond the pronto pups and cotton candy, what I remember best is the Ferris wheel rides and the giddy sense of freedom that for a moment could lift you far above whatever it was that you were dreading. And if you had such things as Ferris wheels and cotton candy to look forward to, then what you dreaded, finally, didn’t seem so bad.

That’s indeed what Labor Day remains to me – the beginning of a season that drives us inevitably inward, a time of change and preparation, an occasion to celebrate the cornucopia of our lives.


Mark Vinz is a professor emeritus of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he also served as the first coordinator of MSUM’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in many magazines and anthologies; his most recent book is a collection of poems titled “Long Distance.”