The big sign flashed the message "Night work--7 pm to 7am" in glowing orange letters. I brought my vehicle to a crawl along with the rest of traffic funneling down into in one lane. Crews were placing orange cones, revving up huge machines designed to scrape up the old layers of road, while others prepared to pour fresh asphalt. In the failing twilight, the big work lights were switched on, and as I slowed even further while passing through the work zone, I caught glimpses of the flaggers' faces; fresh alert, ready to face another night's work.
I have to come clean and admit that I've never held a regular or "real" job. Never worked entry-level, food service or retail. My "real" work experience has been strictly free-lance art or writing related, and so I find myself admiring people who work on big, vital projects like roads or buildings. I'm also someone who appreciates an early bedtime, so the idea of working at night in a construction zone seems strangely exotic, even exciting. The idea of being up and doing something important and worthwhile, while most everyone else is home asleep, seems romantic to me, even though the reality can be wearying, dull or dangerous.
Ambulance drivers, 911 dispatchers, police, fire, emergency room doctors and nurses, pilots and flight attendants, truckers---a whole world of work awakens and continues long after most of us have renounced consciousness. Nurses make the rounds of the newborns or the failing elderly under their care. Large-animal vets are on-call to assist at the birth of a calf. An amateur astronomer meditates in wordless delight on the wonders glimpsed through the small eye of his telescope. Students cram for make-or-break exams, an artist is consumed by a muse that won't let him rest as he puts the final touches on his masterpiece. A poet scribbles wildly away into the night while the bookworm starts "just one more" chapter of her exciting read.
Parents, too, know the dark, quiet world of night feedings or anxious hours spent checking the fever thermometer at regular intervals. And then there are those who are awake because they are praying. Praying because they are committed to an hour of Nocturnal Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Praying because they are in pain and can't sleep, and they choose to offer up the watchful hours in some form of sacrifice for their family, neighbors, world. Watching in their own small way alongside the guardian angels, and the One who is always alert, always listening, always watching, always caring.
Sometimes, on warm summer nights, I have the urge to leave the house and just stand in the middle of the street, enjoying the silence. Below me, the blacktop radiates the heat it absorbed during the day, while in the cool darkness above, the strongest stars and planets can be discerned above the glare of streetlights. It's so strangely empty and quiet---at first. After just few minutes of mindful listening, so much life and activity can be noticed. In the animal kingdom, there is a changing of the guard at dusk and if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a coyote, an owl, a bat or a raccoon as they swoop or waddle about their business of survival. Beneath the stars and the bright streetlights, the neighborhood, the city itself, seems like a different place. But it's not, it's just occupied by a different set of people. The sounds of distant emergency vehicles responding to a call reminds me of human sin and error, and I say a quick prayer for the accident victim and the first responders.
For a few minutes, I join the wakeful ones, the ones who must work or keep guard, the ones who send up their unnoticed prayers like the sound of a hidden stream running in the blackness below the overhanging branches of late summer's trees. And then I head for my bed and a peaceful sleep, knowing that all around me, so many souls are awake and busy at their night work.
Day is done, but love unfailing dwells ever here;
Shadows fall, but hope, prevailing/Calms every fear.
Loving Father, none forsaking/Take our hearts, of Love's own making,
Watch our sleeping, guard our waking/Be always near.
---from the hymn, Day Is Done, (c)1968, James Quinn, S.J.
To hear the same melody, with different (very different---in Welsh!) words, click here
(c) 2022 S.Kirk Pierzchala. A version of this post was originally published in 2014 on the blog Beauty in Belief.