Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Working at not working

My mother went out to work for a few years before she got married. After leaving school, she was a clerk-typist with the LJ Williams firm. I remember the boss of the firm, Louis Jay, a plump man with a mole at the side of his nose. His daughter Cynthia was one of my mother's friends who would visit from time to time. Louis Jay also visited on occasion at the farm - perhaps he was trying to encourage her back out to work, or just checking that she was alright.

Yvonne became a housewife shortly after she was married, with her first child born barely nine months later. So for all the time I knew her, you could say "she never worked a day in her life!" But that would not be true of our mother. She was not just wife and mother but a strong partner to all my father's new ventures using her high school education and typing and book-keeping skills - not to mention her Trini middle class values - to keep him and our family on a conscientious and socially acceptable path.

It must have been hard and thankless work: selling in the traditional Chinese shop on your feet all day with customers clamoring to be noticed or waiting to be served; a child or children (my sister was born the year after me and another three years after that; and I have a memory of three of us romping on the bed having been told to stay out of the shop where we were perfectly willing to hand things over the counter if someone asked) in the back room to be fed and tended. Later, on the farm, she was the secretary for the business; and though she was replaced in the poultry houses, she made her own flower and vegetable garden and continued to be tiger mother to five willful children. She was always doing something; never had a maid and did all the housework herself, with child labour. She and my father worked every day. Weekends were when the house was cleaned. And Sundays were spent in the kitchen cooking up a big meal. That and the mandatory "after lunch" nap were the watershed of the week.

My father did make his own leisure: weekly card games and when he bought a small power boat, fishing and taking the family "down the islands." But I am hard-pressed to say what my mother did to relax. Perhaps it was in her flower garden that she found space and time for her mind to unwind while her hands continued to plant and weed and mulch and prune and water. Such beautiful flowers emerged from weedless earth beds!

Forty years have passed since I was a teenager hiding behind the bed to read when I should have been vacuuming the carpets. And after a life of mainly sedentary "work" hunched over a typewriter or computer, I harbor a great deal of ambivalence about "work."

I tend to feel guilty if I am not working - or at least being productive on a daily basis, including weekends - and continue to rise just before or at sun-up with a rolling list of "things to do" in my head. A more active routine now keeps me healthy. Walk the dog. Sweep the yard. Check the trees. Then cooking, cleaning and laundry. All of which allows me the mind space - background hum of vacuum cleaner now replaced by television news and noises - to reflect on how we value work (sweeping the yard $5?), and ultimately how we value the worker; and especially those who are not part of formal systems - housewife, mother, grandfather, companion, child minder. But I also worry about "gainful work" even as I become content that the universe will provide.

In these times of "not working" I think about an ideal work situation. Sometimes I see a monastic community in which everyone has a job to ensure that we feed ourselves from farm and garden and kitchen, with surplus to give away. What's attractive about this imaginary place is the "tending of the hours" - everything done in daily, hourly routines that can free a mind for regular periods of meditation or reading, mindwork and music!

So if you find me becoming less communicative, more reclusive - even as I continue to juggle the challenges of twenty-first century life on a small overheated island - know that I am looking to establish a new life's rhythm not just of working, of being.

Afterthought: The unions claim to have given us "weekends" and regular work hours. What they fail to recognise is not that work should be regular (because leisure is not a logical outcome) but that it should be meaningful, adding grace and dignity to life, whatever the circumstances. 

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