Oh, Rihanna, always talking about work, work, work, work, work.
People who always talk about work are uninteresting. They are half people, only fulfilled by the doing, addicted to busyness and business. They’re our walking manifestation of the cinematic business tycoon. Constantly in a rush, unable to stop and connect. A veritable Miranda Priestly.
And yet, we are nervous for those who don’t work. Unemployment is demonized, a culture state to be feared and avoided. We buy into the bootstrap narrative and tell ourselves those who don’t work, who live in poverty, simply aren’t doing enough to help themselves.
I want to talk about the idealized state, a spectrum balance between work and leisure in which our labor becomes life-affirming. Labor is a good thing. We are designed to labor and be fulfilled by the fruits of it. Labor sustains us, feeds us, clothes us, make us happy and weary in equal parts.
On Saturday, from 6:30am until nearly 5:30pm, I worked at the Borough Hall Farmer’s Market. Borough Hall is this beautiful little square, with a fountain in the middle, the water constantly blowing to the left on Saturday from the wind’s influence. The weather was a nuisance; storm winds converged on the market all day, threatening the canopies intended to protect the produce (and the workers) from the kindly offering of pigeons. At the market, you are of course outside all day. Farmer Fred (his actual name, y’all, dreams do come true) buys you breakfast from a not-too-shabby deli across the street, and breaks are encouraged. You leave with cash at the end of the day, worn and weary, but happy. So happy from the feeling of a long day outside. Of handling beautiful, bright produce, or chatting with the wealth of humanity that is New York City, or petting cute dogs that escape their owners and end up under your table, the crisp wind burn on your cheek, the satisfying sip of coffee from your thermos, all these sensations descended upon me as sheer, satisfied exhaustion on the train home. I put in a hard day’s work. I walked with cash in hand. I went home to rest, full and easy from the day.
I believe in work.
I believe in the labor of the physical, emotional, and mental facilities to moor ourselves against the tidal waves of chaos the entropic universe pitches our way.
Politically, I believe capitalism is an inhumane system that necessitates many suffer while very few succeed.
I do believe, politically and personally, that we as humans are designed to labor, well and with intention. Without labor, we are unmoored. We are isolated from the community at large, and isolation breeds enmity.
Saturday reminded me of my love of labor. It put me in my body, lifting boxes, running my hands over tomatoes, counting change, weighing the tent poles down against the wind. With my hands and limbs occupied, my mind was free to wander. Wander and construct and build thoughts that had been incubating over the past months. I felt held by a presence of moment and mind. My love of physical labor led me to think about the nature of labor itself, how it isn’t merely physical, and isn’t always so fun. Labor is exactly as it sounds—a push, a discipline, a thing that must be done to maintain something else. Thomas Edison, problematic in his own right, is quoted saying, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dress in overalls and looks like work.” Labor is a necessity. We labor in love. We maintain friendships. We work out our bodies. Our language envelopes the act of working, of producing and preserving. It is a powerful construct; that of labor. It is a dear one, that I believe arises out of our need to plant things in rows, to give order and ultimately sustainability to a chaotic environment bent on overgrowing, overproducing, flinging us faster and faster until there is nothing more but the stars exploding past in blind space.
Work reminds us we are here. It allows the illusion of permanence. We can create something, hold it up, and say, “This is an extension of my time here, a semi-permanent manifestation of existence.”
We must prep the food to feed ourselves. Wash our clothes to present fresh and positive bodies. Grind the coffee to get the caffeine. In our culture of instant gratification, the pleasures of the prep, wait, and consume are often over looked for convenience.
There is a balance. All work and no play does make Jack a dull boy, after all. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I felt the most desolate, the most lonely and aimless, when I was without some kind of job for two weeks. I’m more productive with the structures of Four + Twenty and the market to keep me anchored. The pressure of time, of needing to be somewhere at a certain moment, forces me to generate and prioritize. It forces me to do the thing, whatever the thing is, because if not now—when?
I’m privileged enough to find fulfillment in the work I do. I’m lucky to have the space to do other labors that bring me great joy.
In this regard, labor can be used by oppressive systems of power to keep those below, below. This is capitalisms bastardization of labor. Of course women’s liberation was born out of the era of the extreme housewife—there’s only so many times you can dust a counter while the kids are at school and the husband’s away before you realize the futility of your efforts and the decay of your mind. Of course if you keep people of color from employment opportunities, they stay in cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement. Of course. Of course.
Work is often painfully simple. It is often opening the laptop to write the paper. Picking up the phone to call the friend to maintain the connection. Work is doing the dishes so your significant other doesn’t have to. Work is the twenty minutes of yoga you fit in to stay sane.
We are worth more than our ability to turn a profit. But we find worth, we find purpose, in our ability to labor. We labor in relationships, asking the banal “how are you’s” and checking in. We labor in friendships, going out for drinks and staying when a shoulder is needed to cry on. We labor in community, work in a team to pull espresso, or get the order out, or meet that deadline on a pitch meeting. We labor to build a sense of presence and purpose. We labor because we are here. We labor to create the space for play, for leisure. The highest highs are enabled by our lowest efforts. Effort on the ground is made manifest in our soaring.
We are here. In order to manifest a life worth living, it is not enough to allow the weeds grow over your yard, allow the dust to collect on your shelves. It is not enough to sit inside day in and day out and wonder why no one talks to you. It is not enough to be a nice guy when there is a man working on his career, his physique, and his mind who is also kind and out in the world for women to see. It is not enough. We labor because we love, because life is enthralling and enormous and demands to be lived. Labor, true and fulfilling work, fills the gaps of being alive with the feeling of living.
We grow larger as we take the time to build things we love. We create and thusly expand. And then we rest, in the quiet earned exhaustion of a job well down. There is no easy way to become.
I think of Jack London’s credo. Though the authorship of the entire credo is subject to debate, the essence of it feels very London and very apt here. I revisit this quote often, and perhaps you might enjoy it as well. I’ll close with it, as with any good sentiment, it’s been shared before, and shared better.
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
Such is labor. Such is life. Such as we do, we are, we become. I love you. I miss you. I hope to see you soon.