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.” This line, adapted from a James Oppenheim poem, has greatly shaped the attitude and language of labor protestors for over a century since the strike in Lawrence.
In Oppenheim’s original poem he writes, “Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew/Yes, bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.” Oppenheim, and those who protested under the banner of Bread and Roses, believed fervently and unapologetically that to live our bodies and spirits need more than physiological baseline requirements that Maslow outlines in his hierarchy of needs. We need love. We need beauty. We need flavor. We need physical, mental, and emotional engagement. Pleasure. “Work, sleep, eat, repeat,” just does not cut it.
In July one of my closest and most beloved family friends passed away unexpectedly. He was freshly 50 years old, having out-survived his Becker’s muscular dystrophy prognosis by about two decades. Since the age of 26 he had been wheelchair bound, losing a little more mobility each year, until he could only move his hands, feet, and face, relying on a ventilator to regulate his breath and a pacemaker—just in case.
He had attendants on call 24 hours a day to help with everything from cooking to getting him in and out of bed, washing, dressing, eating—everything he did was assisted. And yet here was a man who knew better than anyone how to enjoy the Roses of life. Hell he even loved the daisies, daffodils, and dandelions.
He maintained a strictly open-door policy, stopping whatever he was doing anytime he heard a knock. Long-time friends, new acquaintances, and regular drop-inners would all be ushered in, given a seat, a wide selection of goodies (you had to eat, there was no getting out of it), and their host’s undivided attention. For his inviting and generous ways, he found himself quite the local celebrity. A go to friend, advisor, and shoulder-to-lean on for people anywhere the ages of 9 and 90.
Life was so much work for him. He couldn’t blow his nose without someone there to raise his hand to his face. His pre-bedtime sequence of preparations took several hours. And still every day he did it. And every day he was filled with joy.
This was a man who always had “the best” of everything. The best chocolates, the best sausage, the best smoked fish, the best ice cream. We would tease him affectionately for his penchant for superlatives. I mean, seriously, this man could pour you a glass of tap water and tell you it was the BEST, most refreshing water you’d ever have. In retrospect, I think he truly had the strength of his convictions—the sheer enjoyment that he got out of the good things in life and especially out of sharing these things with others no doubt made the water sweeter.
He modeled a perfect balance of Bread and Roses. One day I called him stressed, complaining of deadlines, work drama, and unending To Dos. Instead of the well-meaning, paternal “Keep at it, kiddo,” that I was expecting, I got a laid-back, level-headed, “Don’t work so hard. Go enjoy yourself.” Talk about a serious reorganization of priorities.
So, let’s put play on equal footing with work, people above paycheck, and live the best life we can. Life is, after all, so much more transient than we’d care to acknowledge.