Economy featured

Why wage work?

November 10, 2023

In my part of the world this is the first day with less than 10 hours of sunlight. In my garden, shaded as it is by mountains, trees and buildings, this translates into the last day with at least nine hours of sun shining on the plants that grow there. This is effectively the end of growth. Those few veg plants that tolerate Vermont winter temperatures — with protection — will hunker down now and wait for the return of the sun before growing any larger.

I have also discovered that plants that are damaged or stressed in this low light period rarely recover. This was exacerbated by the very late freezes in May, but I suspect that the stressed overwintered plants would have been unproductive even with a “normal” spring. However, I did get a lot of garlic and fava beans — for those are plants that thrive in cold, dry conditions.

Most plants neither grow nor heal themselves in these weeks around the solstice. This makes protection and proper moisture absolutely necessary in the resting months. But that is a tricky balancing act. If I cover up the plants, I have to uncover them to water them by hand with a can filled in the kitchen sink — because none of the outdoor taps are connected in the wintertime. I then have to quickly seal it all up again before it cools under the cover. This is not as difficult in a small cold frame with a hinged lid, but it is very hard with row cover. So this year, I am only growing the most essential early spring roots in the veg garden. I will probably sow more in March under cover, first warming the soil in the beds with black fabric for proper germination temperatures.

To get ahead of the snow predicted for yesterday, I started putting the garden away last weekend. With the artificially shortened day on Sunday, I didn’t get far. But all the veg garden pots were emptied and put in the garage, and the rain barrel was dumped and also stored in the garage. I will compost the remaining bean and tomato plants and store away the trellis frames this weekend.

I am trying a new thing this winter. I have several large heavy-gauge plastic pots and a few old fruit crates that I turned into planters after they were lightly contaminated with the basement mold. (I just couldn’t throw them away.) I have not yet had long-term success with bulbs in New England. The rodents and deer even dig up poisonous daffodils and hyacinths (but then they also seem to be eating highly toxic yew… must make for serious indigestion at best… ). And the worst bulb predation happens in summer, not spring, most often in the morning so that I don’t discover the gnawed and discarded bulbs until they’ve spent a whole day desiccating in the heat.

So this year, I bought a selection of highly cold-tolerant bulbs, including the tulips I love, and I’m planting them in the plastic pots and wooden crates and then covering the tops of the planters with water-permeable landscape fabric secured with rope. And maybe a bit of plumber’s tape… I can water from the bottom of the plastic pots, and the wood crates are very good at wicking water up from the soil. (Hence the mold issue in the basement… ) So I shouldn’t have to uncover anything over the winter. Tulips are fairly adaptable to dry conditions anyway. I grew them out in the high desert of New Mexico without much supplemental water. In any case, it is possible that I might have blooms to greet the spring next year.

I think I need that small reward. Gardening has not been rewarding for its own sake for a while now. There is so much work for so little pleasure. No butterflies or bees. Excessive rodents. Weeds running rampant. Perennials and young trees dying. No carrots. Tomatoes not putting out fruit until September. And so little time. With the summer eaten up in the flood, maintenance was put on hold until the days were already running short, and all that work needed to be wedged into my two weekend days — along with everything else I have to do to maintain my life.

In the fall, weeknight gardening is just not possible. Wage work takes up over ten hours of my day, which is most of the daylight in the autumn weeks. And then comes the time change and there is no daylight at all left over after the workday. This is no end of frustration for me because wage work does nothing to support my body. It doesn’t feed me. It doesn’t shelter or clothe me. It doesn’t stimulate my intellect or creativity. Work doesn’t love me. It doesn’t even pay the bills. If I were to rely solely on my wage work income, I’d not be able to have a garden at all because I couldn’t afford even this small bit of soil — and then I’d have to spend more money on food… Meaning I’d have to work more wages… Or eat cheap crap… Which is how most people live.

I should say, this is how most people exist. We are not living. We are just enduring time in our bodies.

This last fortnight has made me extra sensitive to all the ways in which we are not working with or for our bodies. For a start, here’s a scary story from my Halloween. Son#1 is working in cramped conditions. His office is shoved into a temporary structure while the main building is being repaired after flooding that destroyed everything — from HVAC and electrical systems to flooring and walls. All the work that happened in that large space is now compressed into a two room building that is smaller than an average Brooklyn apartment. There are trip hazards, among other issues, and, well, he tripped on a rolling desk chair and knocked his head on the edge of a safe that, for lack of alternate space, was stored under his work station. We spent a very scary Halloween in the emergency room. He had a severe concussion that left his memory in a shambles for a day or two. He still has staples in the back of his head.

We both spent the rest of last week in my house. I cooked too much food and worried excessively. He slept. A lot. Which was his primary prescription. But he did not even consider staying home from work for longer than the five days that the ER doctors said he would need to be under 24-7 watch. Partly, this is because he feels fine now — though I have noticed that his text messages are somewhat less coherent than normal, so I know he’s not completely recovered. This is also because he is not overly fond of social distancing. He tends to fret when he’s alone. But I think the main reason he did not take longer was that he feels that he can’t take that time to fully heal. He’s not allowed healing time. It’s not that his employer would not have given him paid leave or that he would lose his job; neither is true. I think it’s more the social conditioning of work in this culture. Work comes first. It’s shameful to take time to heal from whatever harm you’ve taken. It’s viewed as weak or lazy. So he did not take that time.

He will probably be fine. But how many millions (or billions) of others will not be? How many can’t afford to take the time to recover? How many have a choice, but choose to plow on with work anyway, denying their own needs, because like my son they feel obligated or embarrassed by their weak bodies? How many of them never heal? And why is this acceptable? Why isn’t the inverse true? Why isn’t it shameful to put wage work first, ahead of even your own body’s needs?

We don’t get much living out of our lives because we’re too busy working for wages to pay others for our living needs. We don’t do any real work for ourselves because we’re too busy doing busy-work for others. Oh, we complain copiously. We bemoan the wasted days and live for quitting time and weekends. But we never seem to question this system overmuch. We work and we work and we work for wages that never cover what we need. We fall ill from exhaustion and lack of sleep. We don’t cook nourishing food. We don’t exercise our bodies. We don’t put time into friendship or family. We don’t take time for healing or grieving. We fall behind in our lives, knowing full well that there will never be a time to make up for that time lost. But we never once ask why not just skip wage work and go do the work that is needed by our bodies — including recovery and rest. Why do we never rest?

I am not a morning person. Or, rather, I am not a physically active morning person. My body prefers to wake slowly, though my mind may be quite busy. I can read critically and write quite expansively in the predawn dark. I do most of my best thinking and reasoning when I first awake. But my response time and physical coordination are laughable, if not downright dangerous.

I also don’t appreciate eating early in the morning. I need a good deal of water and I like tea, but my body doesn’t like to engage with digestion of solid food much before noon. At the weekends, I can eat what makes me happy when my body wants food. But those other five days of the week? I can’t put off eating until the end of the workday, much as I’ve tried. But I also feel uncomfortable — all day long — when I eat a full meal in the early morning.

I don’t know how typical I am. But I do know one thing: None of us have workday body rhythms. Some are like me and don’t function well out in the world in the early hours. We make the morning commute a disaster for everybody. We are perpetually distracted by indigestion and exhaustion. And we are not overly gregarious. My work smile is probably scary.

Others are like my ex-husband who loves to get up well before dawn even in the summer but who is physically and mentally done with the day by mid-afternoon. You might think this is because he is old, and I guess this is a fairly typical old-person circadian rhythm. But he was like this when we were in our 20s, up in the dark morning and nodding off before the dinner dishes were put away. Not much for evening conversation. I think he would be a happier person if he could have nine hours of sleep and an afternoon nap each day, but that can’t happen with his work schedule.

My sons and sisters tend to be most active in the evening. When free from work scheduling, they will sleep the morning away, eat a hearty breakfast sometime after noon, and be up and going until midnight or later. So we’re all different in my family. But I do not know anyone who naturally follows the rather unnatural schedule of getting up at the same early morning hour every day of the year regardless of the sun, working outside the home for eight or nine hours, squeezing in meals and all care work on either end of the workday, and passing out by 10:00pm. This is not natural. Human bodies don’t function like this. We don’t thrive. We barely exist.

What this means in bodily experience is that most of us do not feel good most of the time. We are worn down and sleep deprived. We get sick frequently and suffer from many chronic maladies. We are muddled and have long reaction times. We don’t think creatively or reasonably. We try not to think at all and spend quite a lot of time staring blankly at screens. We are deadened, shambling through days of vague aches and pains, never able to engage fully with anything but the messages of stress coming from within our bodies.

This is not living. It is not taking care of these lives that we have been gifted. It is disrespectful and rather stupid. A waste of carbon… We are not getting much out of wage work. But wage work isn’t getting much out of us either. How can it? We are sick and stupid and can’t focus on anything. We forget. We miss deadlines. We break things. We periodically collapse — and for a lucky few, that means wages paid for no work at all. Why does industry allow this? Why isn’t it recognized that it would be better for business if business made work healthier for working bodies?

Then again, why do we need to work for wages at all? Why not work for our bodies? Take care of ourselves and our needs. Take care of our gardens and our homes. Take care of our families and friends. Why does wage work exist?

Yes. I know… capitalism, modernity, social hierarchy systems, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, and so forth. But why do all of us cooperate with this system that benefits so few? Especially now that it is imploding!

There is so much work that needs to be done, and almost none of it is in an office or a shop. The garden of the world needs to be weeded. This home needs to be cleaned. This body needs nourishing food. And we all need to rest and recover — so we may build new, more durable, more beautiful, more rewarding relationships with the world when the spring returns.

Because it will… spring will come. And with spring, flowers…

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.