The Forty-Hour Week
Last fall, my commitment to “saving the world” shifted from 24/7 to 9-5. The short story is that I graduated and got a job. And then there’s the long story.
September in the mid-‘90s. On Back To School morning, Daddy would snap a picture of my sister and me in the garden, standing proud in new dresses, lunchboxes and bikes propped against the railroad tie steps leading up to the fir trees. Those photos emanate pure happiness. Summer was over and that was a good thing. It meant the end of 100-degree days trapped down-valley on the farm with the flies and gopher snakes, and no more dizzy afternoons of deliveries in the squinty 5:30 p.m. sun, buckled helpless and sticky in the back seat. Dependency—living according to someone else’s schedule—that was the rub. School was my turf. Not Mama’s, not the babysitter’s. All mine. Reading lists, 20 classmates in alphabetical order, recess, and the best part, homework. School was a game to play and win. The school bell rang daily at 3:30 but that did not signal the end of my job as a Busy and Important Person.
Elementary school extra-credit exercises eventually gave way to high school club fieldtrips and then campaign meetings and conferences in college. Wielding the same fervent, perfectionist habits of a 3rd-grader tackling her vocabulary lists, I turned to face contemporary crises of global proportion, head-on. A drive to exceed expectations—those of my parents, Mrs. Adams, Professor Carson, Van Jones, and ultimately my own—kept me up late at night. “Just one more email, then movie/dinner/bed…” Complaints aside, of course this was to my liking. Who doesn’t want to feel needed, especially when you can respond on your own terms?
September 2010. My parents wave from the garden steps. For the first time, rather than turn left to college in Washington I veer right on the I-5 southbound toward California. Halfway through the San Bernardino valley I lose a bet with myself and switch on the AC. The dashboard thermometer reads 112 degrees and my spine is a gutter of sweat. Creature comforts will define the edge of idealistic purity; the body ultimately wins out over the mind.
Anyhow. I want the bouquet Mama grew and wrapped in wet newspaper to survive this drive to southern Arizona, where there won’t be any replacements. Nor will there be classmates or exams or lecture periods. Every weekday the clock hand will meet 5 p.m. to signal the end of my job as—gasp—a Regular Person.
September in Tucson. Summer won’t end. No flowers. No respite from the heat. (Why the hell did I move to the desert?). “Leave work at work,” warns my advisor. It means forgetting such news:
Bad Economy Tests Voter Support for Land Conservation
FERC Approves Shipments on Rocky Mountains Pipeline
U.S. Chamber Launches Campaign to Promote Canadian Oil Sands Resources
Methane Leaks off Siberian Coast, Speeding Climate Change
When these are the headlines flooding our inboxes every few hours: How? When your friends and family are activists, farmers, and scientists; when your bedside reading is Bill McKibbon and Grist; when folks back home thank you for saving the planet for their grandkids: How? When fighting from 9-5 cannot possibly stem the rising tides: How?
Old habits are hard to break, and the hardest of all are those that identify you. The distinction between the earth’s biotic health and my own sense of corporeal wellbeing are blurred. For so many of us, sustainability in the planetary and personal sense aren’t far removed. Wildfire – eat – drought – drink – carbon dioxide – breath – tornado – study– chaos – sleep – extinction – live. On the flip side of the passion now paying my bills lurks obsession, alienation, even insanity.
* * *
“Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2
A few secrets: Last September I still deemed people selfish and weak for watching sports rather than the news. Anxiety and guilt accumulated along with unanswered emails during Happy Hour with friends. And I seriously considered canceling all my upcoming flights (dirty, luxurious, hypocritical travel) to see my family. But day after day in that once-fabled “Real World”—where the cause is a dream and the boss a nightmare, where salary figures and societal worth align accidentally, where fluorescent lights and gasping copy machines drain your youth like soda from the straw of your swivel-chair spine—these days continued to pile swiftly one on top of the other. Students went back to school and I showed up at the office. Till something snapped and I faced up to these facts:
Life is short.
There is an endless amount of (home)work in the world.
In the office, passion is secondary to productivity.
By either measure, mine is a drop in the bucket.
Thus I began directing my passion on my own terms. That which fuels my contribution I embrace. When it spills over to despondency I will “clock out.” Happiness is unquestionably good for the self and good for others and the whole lot of us are mortal. For that life, which would I rather be: a buoyant balloon that lifts up others from 9-5, or the tired rubbery thing in the corner, half-inflated, 24/7?
In January I took a job without climate change in its name. I wheel my bike in the office door in the morning and out, eight hours later. Poetry and bestselling novels are stacked on my bedside table. Every day, I go for a run, ride, yoga class, or salsa dancing—oh, and maybe go grocery shopping, do the laundry, clean the bathroom, cook dinner and pack a lunch, or call my folks. Every night I try to meditate on absolutely nothing but my breath.
* * *
The freeway drones southeast towards Arizona. A copy of Desert Solitaire is stuffed, dog-eared, in my purse on the passenger’s seat. Ed Abbey reads to me.
One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.
That September, the nation’s elected leaders did not pass a climate bill. The year following will unfurl with the most extreme and bizarre weather this country has ever seen. But in Tucson there await new friends who rock climb and pound garden mint into mojitos and then dance down the moonlit streets in costume. If the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, we may as well decorate that basket with a few flowers. Before they wilt in the heat.