Labor enough

Here is a confession, or perhaps just an admission: I don’t know what to write about here lately. Much of the time recently, I feel in retreat from the world, but writing for others is an act of communion with it. It is an act of staking a claim in it. For me, it has always been a means to understand it, to wrest some kind of meaning from my experience of living in order to do so more purposely and fully.

This week, Maria Popova highlighted a book by poet Lewis Hyde, who makes a distinction between work and labor. I encourage clicking over to read her words about his (if this topic interests you), but the gist of it is this: Work is what we do “by the hour,” and often for money, an “intended activity that is accomplished through will.” Labor is something different; as Popova understands it, “At the heart of the distinction is the recognition that those fruits [labors] are offered to the world not as a service or a transaction but as a gift.” Hyde offers these as examples of labors: “Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms… .” If I were to apply the distinction to what makes up the bulk of my days in recent months, washing the dishes is work I do, but making a home is my labor, a gift to those who come within its sphere.

Honestly, though, I’m finding the distinction a little fuzzy. How can they not be, when money is what we need to survive in our current world, and some labor is paid and some work is not? Yet it is clear to me that writing a blog–this kind of blog, at any rate–is clearly on the side of labor, and not work. It’s a labor I have been feeling ambivalent about.

What do I have to offer here? Do I have anything to say that anyone will benefit from hearing?

It’s a challenge to create a gift to the world when my instinct these days has been to retreat from it. Until now, I’ve had no choice about engaging with the world; continuing my existence required me to live deeply with it. Grading papers, planning lessons, submitting book purchase orders: These are all acts of work, and one can, I suppose, do the work of being a teacher or librarian without doing the labor of being an educator. But I never could, and laboring as an educator requires full immersion in the world. Now, I have a choice. Now, I finally have the resources I need to give myself to labor of whatever kind I might choose, and all I want to do is hunker down in my little shelter from the world.

I’d like to think it’s just a seasonal thing. Winter is a time of hibernation, of course. Or, perhaps, it’s a recovering from burnout thing. It feels like something more or different, though. The world feels increasingly foreign to me, and something with which I can’t keep up. Don’t necessarily want to keep up. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve been wondering what it will mean to be a writer–or any kind of artist–in a world with ChatGPT.

Which, in my head, quickly leads to more important questions: What does it mean to be human? What will it mean to be human? (And then I just want to bury that head in some sand.)

I want to think that we will always need human poets and other writers to help us answer those questions, but answering them–laboring for the world–requires us to be of it and in it. And right now, I don’t much want to be there. I’m feeling weary of this place in which mass shootings, videos of police murdering someone following a traffic stop, and politicians unashamedly, openly intent on either breaking or profiting from our systems are so commonplace that they hardly seem to register. A world so full of inane and/or vitriolic chatter, so much sharing that is the opposite of a gift. (Might my silence be a gift?) A world that has changed and is changing so fundamentally, so rapidly, in multiple ways. We cannot create poetry or any kind of art from a place of numbness, and I feel largely numb to the world outside my own, private one.

I think this is at the heart of the difficulty I’ve had even engaging with fiction, which was once my way deeper into the world. So many books now feel like just so much more of that chatter, taking me to places I don’t really want to go. The few that capture me lately tend to take me to a world that is, in some way, fundamentally different from the one in which I’m living.*

And yet, here I am, sending these words out here. They aren’t poetry, but maybe they are a kind of storytelling. Maybe this post is a small chapter in the story of one who was born into the old world and has to figure out how to adapt to the emerging one at an age when adaptation is becoming difficult. And maybe, for those of you sitting around the metaphorical fire with me, that is labor enough. At least for today.

Speaking of work and labor and other worlds, this week I encountered these images in a book from 1946, taken at the Hyster factory in Portland, Oregon. There were women doing every job. I wonder if they were able to keep them when men returned from the war. I do take some comfort in knowing that the world has never been static.

*Two books I’m currently reading that are holding my interest:

Cover of The Net Beneath Us by Carol Dunbar.
I picked up this story about a woman living off the grid in Wisconsin following her husband’s logging accident because I remembered a compelling essay the author wrote a few years back: Truce, in Literary Mama.
Cover of Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
Who doesn’t love Kate Atkinson? Her most recent book is set in 1920’s London. I’m listening to the audiobook of this one.

16 thoughts on “Labor enough

  1. Marian says:

    I hear you on not knowing what to write here, and on feeling in retreat from the world. I have mostly decided that my own silence is a gift—that there are simply too many voices on the internet for mine to be there too—but FWIW, I think you do actually have a lot to offer, not least of which is being a voice of reason (and a much-needed reality check) in a world that seems to be going off the deep end.

    For a very long time now I’ve really only been able to read classics, words written by authors who are long dead. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but I do know that it’s only in those books that I find any comfort or escape.

    • Rita says:

      Well, (as I think you know) I’ve always appreciated your voice. I’d happily swap yours for many, many others that are on the internet. For whatever that’s worth.

      I’d love to know what your favorite classics are. Maybe I should try that. My preferred genre for some time now seems to be historical fiction. I suspect it appeals to me for some of the same reason classics do to you.

      • Marian says:

        Thank you, Rita. As I was trying to respond to your post yesterday, my mind was so filled with half-formed thoughts about work versus labour, ChatGPT, and the state of the world, that I forgot to say the thing that I meant to say, the thing that Kate said so well: “. . . selfishly, I am grateful for the gift of your labor here because you remind me I’m not alone.” I also need to add that because I’m no longer writing on my own blog, I feel I’ve become that really bad friend who happily receives calls or texts but never reaches out herself. 🙁

        Funnily enough, my current read is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which is of course the predecessor to Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. I have so many favourite classics! I love all the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell (especially North and South), Charles Dickens, Shirley Jackson, Wilkie Collins, and Jane Austen. When I’m feeling especially low, I reach for children’s classics. Winnie the Pooh (yup!) and the Moomins provided much comfort during the pandemic.

        • Rita says:

          You are not that really bad friend! And, I think I’ve been that friend lately with the people I know IRL. Been struggling to reach out/connect there as well as here.

          Thank you so much for this list! I should read David Copperfield while I’m waiting for the Kingsolver book. It’s one I’ve never read. I loved and read all of the Brontës when I was young, but there are many by other writers on your list that I’ve never tried. Elizabeth Gaskell is one I’ve never read at all. I’m sure you know I wholeheartedly endorse children’s lit as fine reading for adults. A good book is a good book. I’ve never read any of the Moomins books, but my daughter has made me interested in those. I appreciate the suggestions.

  2. Kate says:

    I wonder if one of the reasons my blog goes so silent (and why I deactivate my social media so often) is because the world is often shit but through my work and labor at home, I can make my corner of it…not shit. Especially for the three people here who have to go out in the shit daily. What’s the balance between engaging and “hoeing my own row” and how much row is really mine to hoe?!? (And being an introvert and knowing all the ways I can spend my day NOT engaging in things that break my heart…I will happily work and labor and then play here too!)

    I get wanting to be numb, or to be quiet. I see it. And I’m grateful for you sharing that part of the story. You aren’t alone. (And selfishly, I am grateful for the gift of your labor here because you remind me I’m not alone.)


    • Rita says:

      I think I am struggling to find that balance. I thought I would find contentment and meaning from serving my own corner–and I do, mostly (though I’m struggling a bit with the Sisyphean drudgery of some of the work of home-making)–but that alone isn’t feeling like enough. And I don’t think that’s about capitalistic socialization around productivity. At the same time, it’s feeling like all I have the capacity to do, most days. I just don’t know how to to BE in this dumpster-fire world we’ve got going right now. I don’t think I need to sacrifice myself to the flames, but it also doesn’t seem right to pull up a chair and roast marshmallows, you know? A third option would be to try to put some fires out, but it feels like all I have to offer are tiny spoonfuls of water. I know the solution is to combine my spoonfuls with those of others, but how, and where should we aim them? I’m happy with the idea of using some of my spoons here, but then I want to have something meaningful to say. I appreciate all that you (and others who interact with me here) help me think and feel OKer as we figure out how to live.

      • Kate says:

        The Sisyphean drudgery gets us all – especially when it becomes our job – the one we traded for a paycheck. Dishes. Laundry. Wiping down dirty slushy floors. But it’s also one of the few jobs I know where the satisfaction of a job well done is so immediate – even if it isn’t long lasting.

        And yes – to not wanting to roast marshmallows but only having spoonfuls and wondering where to aim them. THESE things that you’re saying have meaning.

        • Rita says:

          Thank you, Kate. It would be nice if the satisfaction could last just a teeny bit longer, wouldn’t it? 🙂 You know I’ll keep talking here. I probably couldn’t really stop. Not for long, anyway.

  3. Kate says:

    Oh and I recently read Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver and it’s the first time in AGES where I’ve found a fiction book that I just LOVED. Highly recommend.

    • Rita says:

      It’s on my holds list with the library. Wait time is currently at 16 weeks! She is a favorite writer, and I’ve heard so many say the same about this book.

  4. Sarah Kain Gutowski says:

    Just popping up here to say this post resonated with me (most of your posts do, but this especially). I’m someone who grew up with a Midwest Methodist for a father, which means the idea of “work ethic” was deeply ingrained in me and often muddled with the word labor, and now being a unionist married to a unionist, the distinction becomes blurred even more. Especially because my union is for educators — which people often describe as a calling or vocation but I’ve never felt. I’m not one of the true teachers. I just kind of fell into it. I’ve never felt called to it, even when I love doing it.

    Sorry to meander/babble on your space here — I guess I’m saying that I welcome Popova and Hyde’s definition of labor, just as I’ve always loved the idea of vocation (again, vocation as “a summoning or calling” and not as “suitability for employment”) and felt much more at home with that word when I think about my writing life. Although in moments of doubt I never think of myself as “summoned,” but rather “called to” — like the Pied Piper called to children. I hear it and want to join, even at my own detriment (ha!).

    This is to say — thank you for the post.

    p.s. Have you read “Wintering” by Katherine May? I read it at the end of the old year/beginning of the new. It’s quite good, all about accepting the idea of hibernation and the natural cycles in our lives (and about resisting the idea of productivity as a constant in our lives).

    • Rita says:

      I am the granddaughter of a first-gen German immigrant; I get the inculcation of work ethic. And this: “I’m not one of the true teachers. I just kind of fell into it. I’ve never felt called to it, even when I love doing it.” Teaching was the thing that was supposed to make writing–on my own terms–possible. I purposely chose K-12 education because I didn’t want writing tied to my livelihood. Writing was my calling, if I have one. Which, I suppose, is why I feel all sorts of… (insert word that means some combination of unease, ennui, bewilderment, etc.) about not feeling much compulsion to write when I now, finally, have the conditions in which to do as much of that as I’d like. (And I have so many thoughts about unions/education/labor/vocation that I’m not even going to get started on that. But, yeah. There’s a lot that could be unpacked.)

      I suspect we’d have a great time if we could get together and talk about all of these things over a drink of some kind. As that’s probably not possible, the comments section is a fine place to exchange thoughts. Please feel free to share as much as you’d like. Meandering/babbling is always welcome. 🙂

      Finally, Wintering is a book I’ve found great value in, and it’s made more than one appearance on this blog. I think this was the first one: Sharing because there might be some things in there useful for someone still in the thick of teaching/writing/parenting/etc.

  5. Ally Bean says:

    I often don’t know what to write about on my blog. I go back to my own personal prompt that I share in my “Hello!” section. I say I’m answering the question: “What up, Buttercup?” I think of it as my thesis statement for the blog– and while I’m the first to say it’s simplistic, it motivates me.

    I also believe, referring to Lewis Hyde’s thought, that blogging is not a “service or a transaction but… a gift.” I don’t take myself too seriously but I do realize that by talking about things, often small things, in my real life I give other people the opportunity to feel understood. And I believe that is important in our fragmented world.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Waiting For A New Deck That I Shall Call GodotMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I agree that opportunities to feel understood (or just not alone) are important in our world, for sure. I’ll think about your question next time I’m feeling stumped. 🙂

  6. Kari says:

    I have so many thoughts by the time I get to this section of your blog, but my attention deficit brain forgets them all. So please forgive me if my thoughts are jumbled. I used to struggle with both of these concepts (work/labor), most likely because I felt guilty for not working, writing with abandon, and being able to spend time with my children. But when you said, “What do I have to offer here?” it hit me like a bolt of lightning.

    You have a lot to offer, and if you decide to open a Patreon account, I would gladly pay for it. Besides the point, but it’s always worth mentioning.

    I decided a long time ago that my contribution to the planet would be to share information that lifts others and to try to help as many people as possible through my words, pictures, links, and so on. I also decided that because I am a blogger, I will strive to learn from other bloggers in order to become a better human being. That’s it. Nothing deeper. 

    These words we share on our blogs are undoubtedly storytelling, and future generations will be grateful for them.

    • Rita says:

      I really love your mission statement: “to share information that lifts others and to try to help as many people as possible through my words, pictures, links, and so on.” Which has me thinking that thinking about a mission statement could be a helpful exercise. I know MSs get a bad rap, but I find good ones to be really helpful. Thanks for helping me learn today. And for what it’s worth, I think you do a really bang-up job of meeting your chosen purpose.

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