“Work is the one thing you can count on. Everything else is fragile,”
Lately, I’ve been feeling exhausted. When in this state it’s easier to get sucked into the mindless waste of time called too much social media and not always doing the things that are good for you like not getting enough sleep, indulging in junk food, and not saying no to the countless emails I get from PR people offering gifts of “things” I really don’t need. I confess I stayed up too late a couple of nights to binge on the Netflix series, MAID. I’m obsessed with it. It details the struggle of a young mother and her ability to leave an abusive relationship when she has no funds and the systems that are set up to help her actually don’t. It explores the nature of “work”, particularly service work, and may help us all better understand “The Great Resignation” we are experiencing among workers these days. Of course, there is the wear and tear of dealing with my mother’s condition and all the new diagnoses like languishing, ambivalent grief, and other pandemic associated ills, but I know myself enough to know which kind of tiredness goes in which box. This feels like something else. Something familiar but I can’t quite put my finger on it. What it is has been elusive until now.
Fate has blessed me with the perk in my life that people (and books and TV shows) come into it when I most need them to. About 5 months ago, introduced through Instagram, I met a woman named Christine Platt AKA The Afrominimalist. Having just published a book, she generously sent me a copy along with a lovely package of thoughtful objects. The book, The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living With Less, was exciting to receive as I am on the quest to live a slower, more intentional life with fewer things. While Minimalism is both the aesthetic and the philosophy we most associate with living with less, it is often rather barren, antiseptic, and lacks those personal embellishes and details that denote authenticity and give us an understanding of the life of the person who lives there. While I like many of the pieces associated with minimalist fashion, it always needs something additive and can’t express personality if left entirely on its own. There must be a dash of flair or originality to make it yours. A natural-born “pusher of the envelope”, like someone else we know, Christine set about doing minimalism her way and the result is a roadmap to living with less authentically and with intention rather than an imposed design aesthetic. Here, you become the designer. She begins by helping us look at our history (and the importance of culture, including language and our positionality) to understand why we find it so hard to live with less and so hard to let things go.
I’ve excavated my history in the past and understand that childhood experiences of living with less the consequences of your parents never having enough money and the anxiety (and humiliation) you witnessed and experienced around that fact results in a worrisome scarcity approach even when objectively it’s clear you have enough. I don’t think that many understand that poverty is a trauma, it lives in your body in things like bad teeth or bow legs from rickets and through behaviors that are no longer functional or necessary. I’ve had a binge and purge relationship with “things”. This worldview was reinforced by times as a young adult I did not have money and my long-time social work career working primarily with women who never had enough to sometimes feed their children or pay the rent forcing them to depend on partners or employers who oftentimes abused or exploited them in some way. These memories returned while watching MAID to where I had a visceral, physical experience. Doing that work was like living with a big red flashing light that kept reminding me of what happens if somehow you fall into the situation of “not having enough”. Either you had experienced what she had, or you feared you would. Despite the privilege of whiteness and education that protected me from many of my clients’ fate, my stomach remained in a perpetually knotted state whenever I thought about money, which meant having to work as much as I could because that brought independence and safety. The main character in MAID had privilege too; she was white, pretty, and smart and that made people want to give and do things for her. It’s not that acknowledging privilege takes away your experience, or hers, as many people mistakenly believe it does, it’s knowing that same experience is just harder for others than it is for you because of things they have no control over and things you may not realize you have.
I found it easy to apply Christine’s lessons to the “things” in my life and how I’m thinking about design in my new home but it was only when I tuned into a conversation she was having with another woman who inspires me, Rachel Cargle, that an epiphany came like a ton of the pavers waiting to be turned into a patio in my backyard. Perhaps the ground was prepared by MAID to receive the fertile seeds of insight that sprouted. Christine mentioned these principles could apply to anything, even our work. I never thought about work as being the “thing” in my life that I’ve had too much of or that I can’t let go of. Fueled by the terror of one day there will not be enough money in my account to pay my bills (often irrational but a powerful motivator), there has never been a time in my life where I’ve just had one job (even when that one would have been enough). When I turned 16, I got a job in an A & P but still held on to all my babysitting jobs besides a heavy load of schoolwork and extracurricular. I worked three service jobs in college and worked as a nurse’s aide during my first master’s degree. All my full-time social work jobs were supplemented with trainings, private practice, consulting work, and even a part-time job in another agency. My other degrees were from programs that allowed me to work full time at the same time. While an academic with a very heavy teaching load of 4-4, I worked on grants and projects for additional income and eventually started Accidental Icon, where I was generating more income than at any other time of my life. After five years of an insane schedule, I thought I could retire from academia without the attendant anxiety, but signed up as a consultant for a five-year grant just to “hedge my bets”. The pandemic gave my work-related beliefs more credibility as it half reduced my income (still enough, by the way). How do I respond? Sign up for another grant. “I just need to get through until I am 70”, I say, “because then I can access my retirement money.” “Then I will stop working.” Knowing full well I won’t, as I am already negotiating something that will extend past 70. As I become older I realize the thought of living on a fixed income while possibly not having the option of working to supplement it, obviously was contributing to my intense need to be working now. As my mother’s mind began to slip away she started to engage in hoarding behavior, her response to loss. On visits, I would find pats of butter, fruit, sugar packets, and whatever else she could squirrel away from the dining room inside the seat of her walker, sometimes rancid and rotten from being there too long. It makes me wonder what all this “hoarding” of jobs has done to my insides too.
In this mindset, aptly described by the quote at the beginning of this post, relying on anyone else to provide financial support, like your partner, even when they attempt to reassure you that all will be fine, is not something that quells that dread when you sit down to pay those monthly bills. It also does not factor in or give a monetary value to the amount of caring work for children, family members, and parents that are happening alongside these many jobs adding to the feeling of exhaustion. It does not include cooking, cleaning, and project managing our renovations things I continue to do myself. This worldview is not something that can be physically sustained in older life and perhaps that’s why I am now being compelled to reckon with it. That and the upstairs bathroom that desperately needs cleaning.
I find that what I want to do when I am happiest is write, work on my house and garden, and spend time with my granddaughter. So I push in enormous blocks of time to do these things. This means I’m doing some sort of work from 6:00 AM to 7:30 PM and some nights like last Wednesday, well beyond when I arrived home at 11:00 PM. Here’s the epiphany: I found the right box to fit my exhaustion in; I have way more work than I really should have in my life or NEED to have in my life. Worst of all, most of it does not even inspire me or make me happy anymore. How much do I really need to live healthily and to be happy? To be secure in my older life? It’s far less than I ever would have imagined in my delusional world of fear.
I’m ready to apply Christine’s process to my work and figure out how to develop an intentional, sustainable, authentic, MINIMALIST and happiness producing relationship to “work” however I may define it. She’s like a therapist who is treating my “work disorder”. I know I’d like to continue doing some form of it, for the other things I get from it that are not monetary in value. Wouldn’t that be interesting to create a different value system than money around the work that we do? Because it’s very important for me to note that all the work I’ve done in all its various forms brought moments of joy and beauty to my life; it’s just that there was too fear-driven much of it to even enjoy it more than I did in those fleeting moments.
I’ve got the history part and the why I find it so hard to let go down. I have to slowly take much smaller bites of it, and pause long enough to feel that I’m full. Then I can get on to the fun part; designing an intentional, minimalist, and authentic approach to the work I want to do as I get old.
What’s your relationship like with work? How has it changed as you get older and how are you thinking about it now?