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Resting inside daily life
How to practice the end of capitalism
Here on Massachusett land on the cusp of the winter solstice, the sun sets just before 4:15 pm. As it heads toward the horizon, it paints the brick buildings and the bare tree branches in thick gold light. By 5 o’clock it’s dark and cold, and I have the urge to lie down on the couch for the rest of the evening. But instead, I work for another hour or so, squeeze in an exercise routine, make dinner, clean up, and then allow myself a few minutes on the couch—often in the form of watching TV with my sweetie (fun but more dissociating then restful) before we drag ourselves, yawning, to bed.
Last year around this time, I had a brilliant idea. As a freelance writer, I’m in charge of my own schedule—and I decided I would plan my year so that I could take all of December off. Just as the land around me was going fallow—resting and going dormant—and the creatures around me were preparing to hibernate, I too would slow down, not work. It would be my way of celebrating and honoring this solstice time of darkness and rest.
It was a beautiful idea. And impossible. Project timelines got extended, my to-do list grew long, and the ups and downs of the pandemic led me to book a trip to see my family for Christmas. In short, this month is much fuller than I had planned.
As I scheduled and filled up the December days, I felt measures of sadness, regret, resentment, and most of all, shame that I failed to achieve my vision of a fallow December. It’s not that I don’t want to be doing the things I’ve filled my month with—I do. I love my work and my family. It’s that I set a goal of rest for myself, and I was unsuccessful.
Ironic, right? Inside capitalism, even the pursuit of rest is a thing I can fail at and feel inadequate about.
Of course, even to consider this kind of rest means I have enormous privilege. I have the flexibility and economic security to structure my work life and time in the way that I want. If I really wanted to, I could figure out how to keep four weeks of my life clear of most obligations.
But upon return, I would have been digging out of my inbox, battling with my to-do list, and scrambling to meet looming deadlines. How quickly would my nervous system have been ratcheted back up to the speed of a hectic life under relentless pandemic and late capitalism? In a recent edition of Culture Study, “How Our System Revenges Rest,” Anne Helen Peterson looks at how unforgiving capitalism is for anyone who tries to take a break:
Our days have accumulated tasks and responsibilities that behave like invasive plants: if you neglect their maintenance, even for a day, they threaten to pull the entire enterprise asunder. The less societal privilege you have, the more true this feels. People with good credit, power and seniority within their organizations, and an emergency fund can afford to (momentarily) fall behind. Their apologies for a delayed email, a late bill, a late kid will be accepted. For everyone else, drop one ball and risk catastrophe: lost hours, lost jobs, lost credit, lost cars, lost homes.
We can also ask this question: Who is applauded when they take time for themselves, and who is branded as lazy? Like everything else, rest is racialized and gendered. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are deemed unworthy of rest inside the legacies of white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. Inside heteropatriarchy, so are women. And in the intersection, Black women are never supposed to rest. I’m thinking of this grieving tweet from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor last week, after the death of author and feminist bell hooks.
All of this seeps into my subconscious understanding of rest, production, and worth. How easily did I give up my vision of a restful December? What did I take on this month that I didn’t have to because some part of me was actually afraid of a stretch of time with no obligations?
In honestly answering these questions, I have to reckon with how much I have internalized the idea that my worth is measured by how much I produce, how successful I am. How actually going fallow, deep down, feels too frightening to actually manifest.
Is rest inside capitalism elusive by definition, then?
“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” wrote theorist Fredric Jameson. In this newsletter, in my poetry, in my thinking, I try to do this harder thing: imagine what the end of capitalism might look like. And what might replace it.
If somehow, capitalism disappeared tomorrow, would I be able to rest? Would I know how to? Would any of us who have lived generations under capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy know how to take up rest?
What would it look like, I’m wondering, to order our days so they feel full and nourishing? How might we structure our time where rest is part of the natural cycle, not something to strive for and achieve? Where rest is integrated into every day, not separate or apart from daily acts of living? Maybe that looks like following the agrarian cycles of planting, growing, harvesting, and resting. Or maybe it looks like something different, something new.
I’ve written before of my interest in creating little pockets of anti-capitalist life. When it comes to rest, I’m thinking about how I might find practices to help me move toward a time when I am no longer bound by capitalist expectations externally or internally. Where I can rest without shame or worry.
I am always learning from writer adrienne maree brown. Her poem, “not busy, focused; not busy, full” led me to think about flow and presence as practices in deprogramming myself from the constant forces of capitalism:
now my body aches to remember when I was busy
when I was so capitalist in my anti-capitalism, that is to say so productive in my revolutionary performance
but now I am not busy
I am breathing
I am moving at the pace my body allows, ever forward, mentored by a tortoise
I hope to never be busy again
I owe this quiet breath to my grandmother
I am creating at an astounding rate
and some of it I even write down
some moments I get so still
I can sense how it is all connected
and that the tissue is love
and I know my love could never be wasted
or too small a contribution
These lines are in praise of being present in the world and in her life. Being still and quiet and attentive to the moment. I also read them as a description of flow: those moments when you are entirely present and fully engaged in whatever you are doing; where you are so wrapped up in, yes—the work—that time, and everything else, falls away. (I like to think about this as Eight of Pentacles energy, too, the Tarot card I happened to draw this morning.)
Being in the flow is energizing and exciting. It’s not the same as resting, but it’s a way of engaging with work and life that fills my cup rather than drains it. It is a state of being that perhaps leads to deeper rest. Rather than the pursuit of checking things off my to-do list, it’s about being fully present in whatever I am doing, whether that’s writing, gardening, cooking, walking. It’s about not letting my mind race ahead to what’s next or analyzing the quality and value of the work, but simply giving my full mind-heart-body-spirit attention to the task at hand.
While this is not exactly rest, it can be a form of engagement with work that’s different from what capitalism demands of us. It’s a state of being that’s akin in some ways to meditation and perhaps a step toward true rest.
I’m also thinking about the practice of “snack-sized” rest, taught to me recently by herbalist Gina Badger in her Group Spells: Foundations. Rather than having us vow to take a 20-minute nap in the middle of the day or meditate for an hour, Badger asks us to think of tiny ways that we can disengage from work and rest for a few minutes. For me, that looks like knitting for 5 minutes midday, and taking a 10-minute walk in the late, often golden, afternoon—which I find I can stretch to 20 or even 30 minutes some days.
I recognize I can do this because, once again, I have the privilege of setting my own schedule as a freelance writer. I don’t need to clock in or out. But what if all workplaces allowed snack-sized rest?
That might sound unlikely to impossible in this day and age of late capitalism, but I’m thinking about smoke breaks. My first job at 14 was as a hostess at a small Italian restaurant in a suburban strip mall. Lois and Mary were the seasoned servers—a mother-daughter team with similarly raspy voices and an ability to stack a frightening number of plates on a single tray. Except during the busiest dinner rushes—when they were clearly in a flow—they would take a couple cigarette breaks during each shift. They’d invite me out as they gossiped about Frank, the grumpy owner and cook, or the most recent ridiculous customer.
Whether it was Big Tobacco’s lobbying or just a cultural norm (or Big Tobacco creating a cultural norm), I don’t know, but going out for a smoke break was just something people did in the 80s and 90s—and still do, though with more stigma attached now. I knew people in college and after who took up smoking just so they could go out for a break during shifts at their minimum wage jobs.
What if we transformed smoke breaks into knitting breaks, walking breaks, or simply staring-out-the-window breaks? Advocating for “snack-sized” breaks in the workplace—or just sneaking them in—could be one tiny step toward learning to rest inside capitalism, in preparation for a time beyond capitalism.
However I do it, or you do it, I think the key is to not treat it as a goal to strive for, and then feel bad if we fail to do it. Maybe it’s simply about practicing integrating different states of being into daily life: inviting flow, filling my cup with engagement and presence, taking small moments to rest and feeling neither shameful nor proud when I do. Just present, just alive, just still, and full.
I associate the Eight of Pentacles with flow, and the Four of Swords with rest (following Lindsay Mack’s teachings that all of the Fours are about rest in some way). If that meaning resonates for you, pull those cards out. If not, choose one card each that most represents flow and rest for you.
Put them next to each other, side by side, and imagine they are the overlaps in a Venn diagram. In a semi-circle next to each, pull cards for the following questions:
1. What is the biggest barrier for me in accessing rest/flow?
2. What can support me in working with this obstruction?
3. What is available to support me in accessing rest/flow?
4. How can I best call upon this support?
Are there overlaps, echoes, key messages across both rest and flow? Is that the sweet spot for you?
Draw a Venn diagram, with one circle labeled “rest,” the other labeled “flow.”
Journal about the questions above, including the final questions.
Go back and fill in the Venn diagram with colors, symbols, words from your journaling.
Keep it in a visible place for a month.
There’s so much wisdom in this month’s offering by Jessica Dore on “Poetry, rest, shame, forgiveness.” I’m particularly struck by her offering that rest is what makes creative work sacred.
I can’t stop raving about “Pandemic Time with Fania and Angela Davis,” from the podcast by adrienne maree and Autumn Brown, How To Survive the End of the World. The conversation between the Brown sisters and the Davis sisters is funny, enlightening, and nourishing. And bonus for those of you who are fans of Black roots music, adrienne shares her playlist of Black roots singers in the show notes, which I now have on repeat.
Robin Wall Kimmerer and her writings are some of my greatest teachers right now. I recently listened to her read her essay, “The Serviceberry, An Economy of Abundance.” It’s wonderful. (h/t Trina Stout)
There are so many beautiful tributes to bell hooks appearing in my feed. I particularly love this pairing of bell hooks quotes and images of organizing, created several years ago by Mijente. It underscores how her writing—accessible, profound, and powerful—supports and informs the daily work of world-building and organizing for justice. Rest in power, bell hooks.
Shout-out to friend and friend of this newsletter, Tate Williams, and his third annual list of organizations to donate to in his wonderful newsletter, Crisis Palace. I love his framing of philanthropy as reparative justice, and the awesome list he has compiled.
Y’all. I just learned that hopepunk is a thing, and I’m doing it! Reader Nancy Lynée Woo kindly reached out to me to tell me that she was writing her MFA thesis on hopepunk, climate change, and poetry, including my collection, Last Days. I am now obsessed with hopepunk, and am excited to engage with many of the works of literature, TV, movies, etc. on this list/hopepunk explainer.
For those of you in the Boston area, check out this fun, very Cantabrigian 2021 Harvard Square Poetry Stroll. (You can also stroll/scroll virtually, if you’re not in the area.) I’m honored and bemused to have my poem “Equinox” hanging from the fence of a house that T.S. Eliot lived in when he taught at Harvard. (Also amazed that this poem is one of the most read poems on Split This Rock’s website!)
That’s it for me for this month. I’m taking January off from this newsletter (yes, a kind of resting!), so I’ll be back in your inbox on February 16 with the full moon. Until then, I wish you flow, rest, and rejuvenation as we head into the winter solstice and a new year.