While work hours declined dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century, thanks to higher wages, economic growth, trade unions, and progressive legislation, they have increased during the last three decades. Americans now work an average of one extra month per year than they did in 1980, and single mothers work an extra six weeks. Employees often work overtime and outside their job descriptions for fear of losing their jobs if they refuse. Cutbacks and downsizing have further increased workloads, making it all the more necessary to operate at the top of one’s game all day long, without any lapses. Fear of what one night of lost sleep could do to one’s appearance and performance the next day has become a common concern.
– Kat Duff in The Secret Life of Sleep
We know it is zip code and native tongue, it is the body that houses the name. It is a solid school building and a safe walk there. It is scouts and sports and skate parks and dance troupes with coaches as supplemental mentors. It is a small stack of cards: library and HMO, towing and voting, ID and credit. It is the transcript and the stamp of the alma mater, and the names of the friends collected in those four years. It is the legs and the shoes at the bottom of them, it is a specialist with attention enough to notice the gap and intervene early, it is refrigeration, it is screened windows, it is the magnetic attraction of luck to fortune already acquired. It is all of this as water to a clownfish.
We know that what carries the slim minority into a state of relative comfort (and I include myself in this group) is so much more than individual choice. We know that economic and cultural forces are at work, and that each of us is hamstrung by this web of history.
We understand how pernicious the issues of violence and poverty and racism and discrimination, yet we cling desperately to the notion that it can be earned. That if we have it, hell, we’ve worked our asses off and we deserve it. And if we want more of it, we have to work harder and faster and better and more enthusiastically. We have to work like the Zuckerbergs and Buffets. We have to dig down deep and apply all of what we’ve got plus a whole bunch of what we pretend we do. We have to practice the seven habits, win friends and influence people, and for heaven’s sake Lean In.
Maybe we whoop and holler in defense of individual drive and boldness and entrepreneurial pizzazz because we know — we know — this paper house in which we’re squatting is mortared with wet sand. One dry spell, and we’re bare ass on the ground sweeping up scraps. We have to believe we have some control over the plot of our own story. The hopelessness on the other side of that myth is too much to bear.
The delusion is only made brighter by the expert sales-and-marketing team over at Global Enterprise Central, whose satellite offices now populate every square inch of our visual space. The success is individual, the work is individual, the failure is individual, the choice is yours. You know you’ll never win the jackpot. Plug away and you might win a handful of crumbs. And this: you’ll most certainly lose everything if you ignore the imperative to give it 180% every waking minute of the day.
I move through my little universe as a woman who has forgotten all of this. I am a single working mom (I hear clanging through my skull). It is ALL ON ME. Our home, our transportation, his health care, his health. Food and fitness and educational opportunities and emotional well-being. A culture of creativity. Activities that are mechanically and artistically and mathematically and spiritually and socially improving. Kinship with an extended clan. The composition of our family. My retirement options. His college prospects. Friendships and community, living with purpose, a daily contribution to the healing of our planet.
Every penny, every minute, every word, every choice: pivotal.
All of it, my responsibility.
On me. On me. On me.
Somehow, slowly, I remember.
I remember that this is a false schema.
I remember the words I heard dozens of times back when I could still hear, before I was whirling around in this strange vortex of suburban, struggling single motherhood. These words:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. sent this truth out from Birmingham, he wrote to the nation. He wrote across decades, which means he writes to us now. And he is not writing alone. Also Howard Zinn and Haunani-Kay Trask and Sojourner Truth and Oscar Romero and Cesar Chavez and Granny D. In word and action, these and so many others remind us of the thousands of threads tying us to each other and to the fate of this planet we inhabit.
It takes an act of courage to hold these truths in the front of our minds. We have to remember that our daily slog is insufficient. It falls far short of what will save us. In fact, the only thing that will save us — save what is much more valuable than my son’s college fund and my well-stocked refrigerator — is dedicating the best of ourselves to cultivating collective action for equity, justice, and ecological redemption.
We have to hold our gaze steady and press our shoulders hard against the forces that profit from our forgetting. Yes indeed, someone out there is drinking deep from what wells up in the gaps between us. It may be more complicated than a pack of fat cats laughing wickedly as they punch buttons on the control panel, but only a little more complicated.
Dirty deals go down every day suppressing legislation that could free us to live our better selves, all in the name of growth. Yet here we are, working harder and longer and all we grow are stress and anxiety. We forget even to consider joy an option, grabbing little snatches of it in a 5K run or trivia meetup or reading a single book to our child at bedtime while trying desperately to keep our own eyes open for this fleeting moment of quality time.
We individualize self-care along with everything else. It is a choice to eat garbage or pure plant-based goodness, as if the relentless stress and omnipresent high-calorie junk are unrelated to forces bigger than ourselves. As if every urge is a psychological manifestation that is located in the private depths, bounded by our own personal pathologies. As if the work to become fit and well and healthy, to rise to the thrive and flourish bar of the latest self-improvement buzz, is up to each of us individually.
As if we succeed or fail at being well, just as we do at earning a living or protecting our kids, all alone. As if this myth of individuality has broken free of any logic that may have once checked it.
I remember now.
The personal is political.
Vice versa too.
Like the prophetic leaders who came before, I am the one who gets to check the forever hungry, forever leaking-in presence of the myth.
Publicly, honestly, I get to check it. I can make choices to hold precious the work and lives and creative efforts of the members of my community. Of my human family.
Simply by treating my own life as a creation separate from the razor-toothed gears of the factory line, I strike a blow against the false schema of the self.
This week, I start with the basics.
I choose sleep.
Because I remember.
I remember that rest is fuel for courageous and creative action. I sleep to nourish, sleep to dance, sleep to love and befriend and speak and repair and join together.
I remember to weave my way back to a mind and a body whose purpose can be much greater than the rows of ones and zeros that have tried to define the shape of me for too many years.
To weave my way back into the garment that binds us all together.
To wrap myself in it, even as I ready myself to open my arms and invite what is waiting into the fold.