My country celebrated Memorial Day last holiday weekend. Ostensibly, the day is to honor veterans who died. Usually “for this country” is tacked on to end of the observation, but I don’t think any of us believe that anymore. From talking with my military friends and relatives, it would appear that not even those who swear oaths and take up weapons believe that they are fighting to protect anything but the bloated wealth of a very few people.
The core of the celebration is honoring the dead, but the mechanics of the celebration don’t seem to relate well to that theme. There are flags and fireworks and parades, the usual expressions of pomp and patriotism. Sometimes we make the effort to parade around a few wizened tokens of military service. Rarely do we do anything to alleviate the suffering of actual veterans who served and did not have the good sense to die for the cause. Recently, there has been a revival of grave decorating, but this doesn’t seem to be tied specifically to veterans. Rather it may be a symptom of our plague era when there are more graves to garland and fewer ways to say goodbye to our dead. I sold hundreds of baskets of grave flowers all summer long last year, as long as there were flowers blooming…
However, the main way to honor the dead in this country seems to be to pack your gas-guzzler with plastic paraphernalia and drive to some place that isn’t your home, preferably one adjacent to water. Then, you fire up the grill and roast dead birds and cows (or whatever is in hamburger and hot dogs). And you grouse at your spouse and make sure your kids don’t drown or set themselves on fire and you drink quite a lot of beer. The NYTimes told its “Morning” newsletter readers to go to Vermont… which sent a frisson of panic through me at the thought of yet more New Yorkers, trailing their diseases, invading my home. It should be noted that Vermont hardly experienced COVID until late last summer when the tourists, desperate to get out of their stale apartments after years of quarantine, dispensed with masks and common sense and drove north in hoards. Then we all got sick. And it really hasn’t relented since…
All this got me thinking. Mainly about transcendence. As most of you know, I have deep problems with this notion of an afterlife, but today it feels like the veritable root of all evil.
There would, of course, be much less war, much less violence for the sake of “causes”, much less killing on behalf of others, if it was commonly accepted that this is the only life we get, if we accepted that there is nothing else. No eternal reward. No paradise or hell or whatever on the other side of dying. No honor in death… or in killing… Not even a whispered memory of your name. Just a day of flag waving and grilling meat and driving the clogged highways to generically honor “the fallen”. If there was no Valhalla, there would be far fewer young men willing to die for the preoccupations of old men.
If we accepted this as our single, solitary chance to live, then we might do better at living. We might focus on life, on the here and now, on being. Not on death and legacy. We might even look around us and see the rest of the living world and appreciate that it too is in its one given moment of existence. We might rework our metaphors so that life is not a path through to something else, some nebulous after, but a being in this something, this tangible present. If this is all, we might not waste it so profligately.
Because we do waste our lives… on more than just war and tourism…
I have been trying to find a job that is a bit more in keeping with my physical abilities in these aging days and that might utilize my skills and expertise. This has been a depressing exercise, not merely because nobody wants to hire an old woman. For me, this experience has drilled right down to reveal the rotten core of our ideas of work. And life. And transcendence.
I was talking with a friend about the job market. This friend is a mid-level manager with dozens of holes in his staff. He is working long hours, nearly seven days a week, to cover all the vacancies that he can’t seem to fill. There is sickness and death, but there is also just a general inability to meet the demands that work puts on low status workers. Young people are having a hard time finding places to warehouse their children during work hours. Some are also trying to care for older relatives as well. The exploitively rising cost of housing, already ludicrous before COVID, made it impossible to afford to live near work. But then COVID gutted public transportation, making it impossible to get to work at all. My friend hired a woman from out of town. It took her months to find an affordable living situation (not anywhere near the office)… and then she got sick the week she was supposed to move…
I observed that nearly all the vacancies I saw in the world of writing and publishing were jobs that a person could not afford to accept. These are the positions that do all the real work, communicating, scheduling, organizing and so on. What used to be called a secretary and is now called an “assistant”. But should be truly called “the only real workers”. These are the jobs that have been put upon young people mostly because older people don’t want to do that work. In the last half century, these are the jobs filled by young women, because women can do multi-tasking, and because women don’t command much in the way of salaries. Women are highly productive and cost effective. However, these days women are increasingly unable to fill these jobs. For a large number of valid reasons. But mostly because they can’t afford it.
Starting salaries for a typical editorial assistant range around $40,000 annually. This is an industry that is highly concentrated in very expensive cities — mainly New York. However, you could not live anywhere near Penguin Random House headquarters, for example, on $40,000. Even two such incomes would not pay for an apartment on Manhattan and would be insufficient to meet expenses for a young family pretty much anywhere in the Five Boroughs. My manager friend started talking about ways to force those wages to pay the costs of living where you must live in order to earn them.
“If you put three or four women in a Brooklyn apartment, it might work,” he said.
To clarify, that is three of four people in a two room apartment of maybe 600 square feet total. This, indeed, is the usual living arrangement of the working class. Or actually it’s pretty good relative to the global norm. The Indian telemarketer who is trying to sell you computer upgrades probably shares one room with four to six others, sleeping on the floor and cooking on a communal hot plate. Bathroom facilities, if they exist, are probably three floors down and rarely functional. Climate control consists of hanging plastic bags over the broken windows and going without clothes.
The way my friend defaulted to making the women wedge themselves into the unreasonable wages made me thoughtful. Because this is what we do. We try to accommodate ourselves to meet the demands of The Market. We do not try very hard to force The Market to meet our needs. We don’t even question why this situation exists. And I think that’s down to transcendence.
Squashing several bodies into a room by night and working by day at busywork to support other busywork, none of it the least bit needful, much of it outright destructive in many ways, is the definition of wasted time. This is a wasted life. This is not living. This present is only barely tolerable and that because it may lead to some future that is less intolerable. We are demanding that our young people, especially young women, give up their one chance to be young, to give up years of their life, for no reward. Particularly this generation of young women, who have only about a 20% chance of ever owning a home or about a 40% chance of starting a family, these normal life things that wage work used to aspire to buy. And that slim chance is given that they don’t get sick and die while in this limbo.
This culture demands that we give up our lives and just exist day to day, doing busywork to feed corporate profits. Why? Why is that acceptable? Why is that not an embarrassment for this entire culture? Why did it not shame my manager friend to even suggest that four women should put their lives aside in order to bolster the bottom line of some publishing company? For that matter, why does he continue to do four jobs a day, and very little else? He doesn’t eat or sleep well. He has no time to read or cultivate any sort of interests beyond his job. He experiences nothing of this his only life except the boxy office he is entombed within. And he is not young. He does not have many more years to waste, paddling furiously to stay above water, working non-stop just to stay in one place. Why?
It’s not that we are all good Puritans, delaying our gratification until maturity. Because most of us know that we’ll never see improvement in our life situation. Gen X knows they’ll never retire. Millennials suspect that they’ll never have a job to retire from. We all can see that whatever money we manage to scrape together is immediately taken from us before we can spend it on our own lives. More importantly, we all know that our time is unrecoverable. Nothing in the future will buy back a wasted present. Nah, we aren’t working toward a brighter future… We know that this present is all there is to this life… but… we waste it nonetheless. Why?
I think it’s because we all believe there is something else at the end of this misery. Remove the afterlife, and there is no reason to accept this system of wasted lives. We must have something more than this life for this life to be an acceptable way of living. Remove the eternal future, and the intolerable present will not be tolerated. Full stop. If we don’t have an afterlife to hope for, then we will not waste the life we do have.
And look at what all will fall apart when that realization hits! We won’t accept living situations that are not living. We won’t do many of the things that don’t need doing except as wage work. We won’t kill and be killed for causes…
Humans have always believed in some form of spiritual life. But this idea of a continued existence for each individual after the death of the body did not really take hold of our imagination until managers needed to coerce labor and lords needed to conscript soldiers. Before that, we were just beings that were connected to the universal spirit — to which we returned when our bodies wore out. This idea that each of us gets more than this one life only became necessary when those with power and wealth began to demand that the rest of us give up our lives in order to serve them…
Well, we need to be done with serving them. We have served them quite enough. And they never deserved our service to begin with. It is time to stop. It is time to take our lives back. It is time to reclaim our time. It is time to give up the eternal and live in this wonderful, this unimaginably precious, present. It is time to live again.
Consider that. Hold that idea in your hand. Feel it. Mold it into something comprehensible. What would it be like to enjoy today always? To live without fear for the future. To understand finite time. What would it be like to live fully in this Earth? No eternities for immaterial souls. No transcendent realm of gods and kings. No division and rank. No separation and isolation and dualism. Just this lovely planet and its miraculous life.
So much misery would just melt away if we could be Earthlings again.
And I suspect this living of life fully each day will involve much less in the way of Memorial Days…
©Elizabeth Anker 2022