by Marie Doyon
In 1912, textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts staged a three-month picket, to protest for fair pay, tolerable working conditions, and good quality of life. One young woman in the picket line carried a sign that read “We Want Bread, but We Want Roses Too.” The protest came to be called the “Bread and Roses Strike,” a term now synonymous with the attitude that a fulfilled life requires more than just the bare minimum for survival.
Several months ago, in repentance for our recent Netflix binging and out of fear that we were inadvertently sinking into the sedated, sedentary lifestyle prescribed by modern culture, my boyfriend and I made a plan to combat unproductive idleness.
We decided that five out of seven days a week we each had to do at least one of the following: physical exercise, project cooking, reading, writing, spiritual practices, or outdoor activities. We wrote a list out on our chalkboard where we had to see it every day.
Dutifully, if grumblingly, we began to hack out an irregular regimen. We baked bread, putzed around the garden, played tennis, read books. It was always a bit of a hurdle to start out, a hurdle we dragged ourselves and each other over flailing. I have always considered myself an active and industrious person, so I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why it was so difficult to get into gear. Why the feet dragging?
One of the books I read in this period was Michael Pollan’s Cooked. He posits that modern society teaches us to define work and leisure as a dichotomy of production and consumption. Production takes effort, yuck. Companies devise millions of ways to do the work for us, for just a small fee. If you have the money, and any sense at all, you opt out of exerting the effort yourself. Consumption, on the other hand, is pleasurable, and thus not something we want to outsource.
But what happens to all those wonderful activities that occupy the nebulous middle ground? Making a yummy cake, reading a great book, tending your garden—these sit at a curious intersection of production and consumption. They all require some investment of effort, even if the return is pleasurable. And we certainly have our pick of store-bought cakes, movies and books-on-tape, and organic veggies—enough selection that we never have to voluntarily undertake these activities again.
But by making production the hard antithesis of leisure, maybe we throw the baby out with the bath water. Sure, our lives are made a lot simpler by the hundreds of timesaving devices our houses team with—washing machine, fridge, electric mixer, hot water heater. But I would argue that there are some labor-intensive things that actually enrich our lives.
The list of activities has long been erased from our blackboard to make room for more important doodles, but the intention remains with us, and surprisingly, so do the newfound habits. Without much consideration or grumbling, in the past week I have made two crumbles and a pie, cooked dinner for 12, chopped wood, cleared brush, and started a new novel. It wasn’t a hurdle. It was just a pleasure and a part of life. Somehow work and leisure are beginning to overlap and intertwine. I still indulge in the occasional Netflix marathon, but by and large production feels like less of an imposition and leisure feels more rewarding.
I am not sure what the ideal scenario would look like, but I think it involves striving toward a happy medium, where work and play are compatible, if not interdependent. A little more work in your play, and a little more play in your work—sounds like a recipe for a more fulfilling and productive life to me.