Mmm, doesn't the smell of a bonfire make you feel punkin' spicy? Growing up, I internalized the United States cultural values of hard work as its own reward, high scores, and monetizing everything. From the age of 13, I scrounged for paltry wages (childcare, tutoring, arts and crafts sales, retail and food service and office temp jobs) while earning high grades at expensive private schools. I learned to feel guilty about "wasting" time relaxing without multi-tasking or enjoying a hobby with no intention of turning it into a hustle. I didn't have enough time to eat or sleep properly, and it made me sick and tired all the time. I was curious and drawn to new experiences, but I always felt ashamed of spending any time or resources pursuing an interest that offered no clear path to a paycheck or an award that would reflect a flattering glow upon my forebears. I had a healthy rebellious streak, but I learned to justify my transgressions with proofs of respectability and excellence.
As I entered adulthood, I felt increasingly weighed down by the expectations placed upon me to chase the always-moving goal posts in the game of meritocracy, until finally, my survival instincts kicked in. I quit graduate school, nailed down a part-time job in radically progressive nonprofit communications, and married a bicycle mechanic. I can't pretend it hasn't been difficult at times to live like Molly Weasley in a Death Eater's world, but I can honestly say that I am not sorry.
Now it's 2020, and our nation's billionaire-bloating, earth-destroying, profits-over-people, oppression-exploiting economic system has been thoroughly exposed as the death cult it is.
Now, our heroes are the nurses serving on the front lines. They are the teachers working miracles to keep our children educated and connected through an uncontrolled pandemic without federal leadership. They are the Aunt Tifas marching in protests against fascism and police brutality. They are the moms and dads raising anti-racist families. They are the kids schooling world leaders on the urgency of climate change. They are the small business owners hustling to raise funds and awareness for the social causes neglected by our deadbeat government. They are the conscientious friends and family members checking in on each other by phone and text while holding strict boundaries of physical distance to keep more outbreaks at bay. They are the artists keeping our souls' flames alive through a mental health storm and the architects of plans for more resilient civilizations.
At this moment, no part of me wishes that I had spent the past 15 years working long hours for a soul-sucking advertising agency so that I could turn around and pay teams of underclass servants and wage-slave gig workers to care for my child, feed my family, clean my house, and wash my laundry. I do not envy the complicated, high-stress, ethically knotted lives of those who must now figure out how to keep all those plates spinning through a cluster of disasters--or choose which ones to drop and on whose head.
I wrote two years ago about the importance of doing less, but the amount of "nothing" required of me during the pandemic has started to give me anxiety. I'm thinking about re-reading The Great Gatsby, now that I'm old enough to appreciate it. F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to warn us of the cynical emptiness of consumerism and competitive social climbing almost a hundred years ago. At the time, not many people were interested in novels about the unraveling of the rags-to-riches version of the American Dream, and so the author gave up and binged on alcohol and other vices until he died young, believing himself to be a failure.
Decades later, his cry of despair was dubbed a Great American Novel and canonized in the required reading of our high school students, who are ironically still being sorted and herded through the school-to-prison pipeline and a system of higher education that costs more and creates fewer economic opportunities with each passing year. Schools force our kids to read this coded warning, then send them to the metaphorical slaughterhouses anyway, absolved by the excuse that at least we warned you. We taught you what a metaphor was.
On second thought, maybe I won't read The Great Gatsby right now. It sounds depressing.
What I will do instead is focus on supporting my daughter's online-from-home school year, which I am grateful to be able to do without a lot of logistical hassle. My life is simple and adaptable, designed around the human needs of my family. I get to work from home, part-time. I get to make sure my daughter feels encouraged to follow her curiosities and her interests and that she is not obligated to justify those privileges by providing contractual plans to sacrifice them on the altar of capitalism in the end. Such parental empowerment is a gift at a time like this.
I get to make these choices because I prioritized human relationships that make them possible: I chose a spouse and life partner who shares my values and takes as much pride in domestic labors of love as he does in his income-generating work outside the home, and I arranged to live humbly and affordably near supportive family members so that we can easily and naturally care for each other. We support our child's creative, intellectual, and social interests without overscheduling or over-pressuring her to perform, and we raised her with a sense of responsibility, ownership, and pride in the care of our household. I am not an overwhelmed, chronically exhausted "wine mom" who jokes about how much she hates her family, and that is by design. My family is not a ball and chain. My family is, as Bette Midler would sing it, "the wind beneath my wings." And not because I get off on sacrificing myself for my husband and child (ew) but because we all appreciate and support each other as human beings whose happiness matters.
Everyone needs that kind of support to live their best life, and we can make it happen for everyone, regardless of whether anyone else has a husband as amazing as mine. We learned over the past year of enhanced unemployment and stimulus checks that the United States can, in fact, afford something like a universal basic income. We can, in fact, afford universal health care. Everything we need is not as expensive as we’ve artificially made it.
Until we get there as a nation, I try to contemplate and practice the good life as exemplified by the world's Blue Zones, where people live most contentedly, in the best of health, for the longest time, without necessarily being the wealthiest or most privileged according to a United States framework. These communities take pride in meaningful work (it isn't the difficulty of the labor that counts but the significance of what is being done) and understand the value of money, though the focus is on wasting less and needing less rather than constantly grabbing for more. Life revolves around family, deep friendships, and the savoring of simple pleasures. These are the kinds of cultures that truly enrich and nurture human life.
The ongoing pandemic makes the social components of Blue Zone living a lot more difficult, but it's a great time to slow down and focus on all the rest: natural movement throughout each day, a satisfying but non-excessive diet rich in fruits and vegetables, a sense of purpose in one's work, and rituals of relaxation and winding down at the end of the day. For those of us blessed with a wonderfully suited romantic partner, other loved ones living with us, or beloved pets, we can focus on enjoying quality time with the ones we're with at home.
Meanwhile, I like the idea of continuing to transform my house, gradually and safely and within my humble budget, into a haven where I will be able to host family members and friends in joyful comfort in a future year, coming soon, when we can all let down our bog witch pandemic hair and visit freely at each other's houses again.
My wish for the United States is that when the (hopefully short-term) crises of Covid-19 pandemic and disastrous federal government are over, we rise up stronger than before, with a different set of priorities and cultural values, so that we don't have to keep repeating the mistakes of the past and can move on to tackling long-term issues--like climate change and the prison industrial complex and structural inequalities--so that we can become a nation that is truly a great place for its citizens to live and thrive.
I'm one of those people who tastes fresh beginnings in the apple-bright crispness of autumn, so let's raise a mug of cider to the fall of the death cult and the start of a better way of life.
Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World, available through your local bookstore on October 23, 2021 and in ebook formats on November 11, 2021. To support her art and not the death cult, please consider placing hardcover book orders through your most adorably radical local indie book shop. If you can't find one, try plugging your zip code in at indiebound.org. Thanks and happy reading!