Cause it’s a bitter sweet symphony, that’s life
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money, then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places
Where all the veins meet, yeah
The best day of summer was the Sunday Cory and I nibbled mushrooms and spent hours lolling in a river as warm as bathwater. Lying there staring at the robin egg sky as water currents tickled my skin, I laughed until I cried. It felt like I had been born in that river. As if Earth itself had quaked and shifted, pushing me from deep inside its core in a birth gush of freshwater.
I slipped the straps of my faded Target swimsuit down my arms and pushed it downward, shimmying out of it. I dangled the dripping suit enticingly toward Cory, who was watching me from a rock on the shore, and then sank back down, letting the welcoming water consume me.
This is how it’s supposed to be, I thought. This feels so right.
We swam, we snacked, we joked and laughed. I wrapped my arms and legs around Cory’s slender body like an overgrown koala, and he waded around as the water streamed around our bodies, and we talked our talk. Alan Watts, the universe, time, metaphysics and meaning of life jazz. What it all means, who we were and are, who we want to be, and who we don’t want to be.
“I don’t want a funeral and no grave!” I tell him at one point. “Cremate my body and pick it up from the place in a brown paper sack or a shoebox. Nothing expensive. The funeral industry is a racket. You can do what you want with the ashes. Plant a tree, put me in a necklace, sprinkle me on popcorn, I don’t care. No official memorial! Have a party if you want. Play music I like, get drunk and tell funny stories about me maybe and that’s it. No formal shit. Pinky swear!”
Me, the loud one. Wildly gesticulating as I perform my tales and try to get my favorite to laugh. Him listening to my stories and theories, casually slinging brilliant observations and hilarious asides that are far more intriguing than my bullshit, loud-talking entertainment. After six years of our brand of jive, his humor and smarts still take me by surprise and make me want to hold his head between my palms and suck on his lips.
I like the way you experience the world, best friend.
Later, we lazily watched violet thunderclouds crash our technicolor universe. They moved slowly down the valley dragging a thick curtain of rain that transformed greens and blues into gray as it swallowed the summer day.
We crouched low in the water, only eyes and foreheads above the surface like hungry alligators, as raindrops spattered around us, slow at first, then faster and faster. We dared each other to stay hunkered in the river as the storm roared overhead and stayed like that, giggling like misbehaving kids, until thunder groaned, and the steely sky winked a promise of lightning. It began to rain so hard I had to shout at Cory to be heard, as we gave up and stumbled over slippery river rocks toward the safety of our car.
“Is it hailing?” I shrieked with laughter.
Getting caught in that storm with Cory felt more right than any day of work I’ve experienced in years, maybe ever.
A memory I hope flashes in my mind’s eye as I die.
What if I just stopped doing all this shit, I sometimes think. Quit making meals and washing everyone’s clothes. No more keeping on top of grocery inventory like a frenzied restaurant owner, invisibly restocking the fridge and cupboards with everyone’s favorites. They don’t notice. All they know is a Twinkie is there when they want one. What if I stopped scrubbing the gag-inducing orangey piss buildup around the toilets? No more monitoring bathroom mirrors for tiny white flecks courtesy of enthusiastic brushers. Or zit poppers.
Hold on, I’ve got a Zoom meeting.
What if I stopped pulling discarded socks coated with so much dog hair, they look like they’re wearing tiny fur coats from under couches and beds?
Wait up. Gotta delete seven more work emails that don’t pertain to me, even though they infiltrate my inbox every, single, day.
What if I stopped rinsing out sinks shellacked in toothpaste after kids brushing their teeth leave unsightly turquoise globs that harden into cement if you don’t tackle them on the soon side?
Another Zoom meeting that could’ve been an email. Need to field these two Slack messages, one asking me if I can jump on a call for a “quick chat.”
It won’t be a quick chat. There is no such thing. There will be small talk, and medium talk, and big talk, then more small talk before goodbyes.
What would happen if I just stopped trying to do so much every day? Are the toothpaste police going to arrest me for sink and mirror infractions?
Gotta delete three more emails and respond to one from Violet’s teacher. Oh shit, forgot to fill out that permission slip, and the medical form for sixth graders— better do that real quick. Damn. I need to download some kind of e-signature, sign-online app thingy that’s different from the one I already have for work.
Let me just thumbs up two more messages in this Slack group chat real quick. I’m here! Monica is work work working away over here.
Fuck. Burned my stupid hardboiled eggs again because on my way to transfer the laundry, I got distracted cleaning a window covered in so many fingerprints and dog snout streaks it was opaque. The water boiled away, and the outraged eggs are laying half-exploded against the scorched bottom of the aluminum pot I should probably clean before I leave to pick up the kids from school. SHIT. The kids! School! I’m late. I’m hungry. But I’m late!
Rushing to the next thing while obsessively checking my phone for work emails I often think: This kind of life feels wrong. I’ve made a mistake. This overwhelming pace, my priorities, always clutching this stupid phone, it all feels so unnatural and bad bad bad. I created a lifestyle for myself and my children all tangled in this spiderweb before I understood what was happening, and now it feels too late to unravel. The Earth is such a miracle; just being alive is magic. There is so much beauty to experience, and it all goes by so fast, but I’m trapped. Stuck playing Bill Murray in the Groundhog Day of my bullshit busylife.
Ever feel that way?
When I was a new mom with a full-time job as a producer at a Salt Lake City news station and struggling to get an online writing career going, Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, was urging women to “lean in” to pursue their ambitions, telling anyone who would listen that women can have it all! She wrote a book encouraging women to aspire to the leadership positions that men typically hold. Sandberg may not have been the first person with that particular message for women, but she’s the one that stands out most to me.
Next thing I remember, women everywhere weren’t just getting up in the morning, they were “rising and grinding.” That meant anything from waking up early to work out and carefully execute 30-minute skincare/makeup regimens, to standing in line for a $5 Starbucks before dashing to work to grovel for a promotion, and proudly hashtagging all that shit with #hustlin and #grindin’.
The women who have it all were telling us that women can have it all so we should want it all. Right? Even if we don’t want it all. Even if we are tired as fuck.
T I R E D. AS. FUCK.
Sandberg’s message has experienced several tune-ups along the way courtesy of bloggers du jour, including Rachel Hollis of Girl, Wash Your Face fame, who tells us we need to get up at 5:00 in the morning if we want to be as successful as she claimed to be. Take a look at the morning schedule Hollis was not so humbly bragging about as recently as 2019:
Folks, this is just preamble shit Rachel does before she really starts her day with a workout, before diving into her kids’ morning routines. “Some days I work out by myself, or I work out with a trainer. I always, always, always work out every single morning, seven days a week without question,” Hollis embellished with a third “always,” just in case you missed the first two. “I also put some effort into what I wear for my workout every single day, because if you go into any kind of gym that has a mirror, you want to look in the mirror and be like, ‘Yeah! That girl is cute. She’s killing it!’”
She’s killing something alright…
My soul, my will to live.
The preachy perpetuation of the hustle mentality by women with public platforms like Rachel and Sheryl who are riding a capitalist wave of millions on the backs of those aspiring to be like them feels no less shameful to me than telling teen girls to eat less than 1,000 calories a day so they can be thinner. Might I be so bold as to suggest that glorifying the hustle & grind is as detrimental to women’s mental health as not eating enough is to our physical health?
“I have the best advice for women in business,” Kim Kardashian told Variety earlier this year. “Get your fucking ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.”
I literally do not know a woman in my online or IRL friend group who isn’t working herself into an exhausted depression just to keep up with baseline societal expectations of womanhood and/or motherhood. We all routinely talk each other through small, medium and large breakdowns several times a year.
The intense pressure to not just live but perform life like an athlete training for the Olympics is not my definition of success. “Encouragement” is typically shotgunned at us from wealthy women claiming to embody female empowerment, even as they commodify a goopy Gwyneth level of “wellness” most of us will never achieve or afford. Nor should we want to! This is probably the best time to note that many women praising hustle culture have no problem affording childcare and house cleaners, and neither did most of their mothers.
Clearly, Kardashian’s unfortunate statement— taken out of context, as she claims, or not— is privileged and problematic in myriad ways I’m not looking to get into here, though you’re certainly welcome to. I share the quote specifically to highlight that hustle culture is alive and well in a 2022 post-pandemic world where people’s general health is at its lowest in decades. Bone-deep burnout is so rampant it’s harder than it’s ever been to find a therapist and we’re living through an era dubbed The Great Resignation.
Kardashian is far from the only female celeb who has glorified the grind. J. Lo, often lauded as a “triple-threat,” is constantly referred to admiringly as “the hardest working woman in showbiz,” and not too long ago, Beyoncé, writer of several empowerment anthems, celebrated a version of girl power based on making and spending money.
“In the closet that’s my stuff, yes / If I bought it, please don’t touch,” she sang in “Irreplaceable.” Destiny’s Child sang about “all the honeys making money,” connecting women’s independence with the work hustle. “The watch I’m wearing, I bought it / The house I live in, I bought it / The car I’m driving, I bought it.”
I get it. A rallying cry for female independence in a male-dominated culture, i.e., I don’t need your money, I earn my own. But the rallying cry has dissolved into a hoarse sob of exhaustion and overwhelming feelings of failure.
For decades, our culture has maintained an obsession with an unrelenting grind that pegs you as lazy if you aren’t up at 5 AM, cartwheeling through a jam-packed day, not to mention the ugly assumption that being poor means you simply aren’t working hard enough.
Hustle culture holds that there’s always more money to make, and a bigger title or promotion to chase. But it’s not just about work. As Rachel Hollis cheerfully points out, it’s about your workout regimen, and jamming as much yoga-riffic motivational schtick into your day as possible. And then there are the intense make-up tutorials, or “aspirational” house renovations streaming into phones and TVs worldwide.
Nothing is ever good enough. Staying home isn’t good enough. Going to work isn’t good enough, and neither is doing both. You need to be hustling a promotion by arriving early and staying late, and by the way, you should consider updating your skincare regimen, you cheap CVS bitch. Probably, if you drop $80 on the latest cream J. Lo is hawking, you’ll land that promotion. You also need a new hairstyle. There’s a tutorial for that. Plus a better wardrobe, a new car, a new house.
Girl, wash your face and go, go, go! Hashtag feminism, I guess?
I suspect we’re getting played.
Hamster-wheeling our lives away on capitalistic endeavors in pursuit of an even busier lifestyle fed to us as aspirational by the very same hustlers making money on our grind. Also, I know we’re seeking equality in the workplace, but why are women busting ass to sustain a patriarchal work culture in which men are still far more rewarded, especially when, generally speaking, we’re still working harder than men at home, too?
“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
― John Maynard Keynes
Busyness in the 21st century is often considered the ultimate status symbol, Silvia Bellezza, an associate professor at Columbia Business School, explained to Vice. “By being busy, a person signals to others how they themselves are a scarce resource on the market. Not having time to rest indicates you’re in demand and that your intellectual capital is highly valued. As a result, others consider you to be higher status.”
Why have we collectively bought into this bullshit?
An overflowing schedule isn’t aspirational— it’s difficult and stressful. I am usually filled with anxiety over the notion of all the things I need to get done, not just for work, or for myself, but for everyone around me. The logistics involved in coordinating the lives of children are no joke. There is no calling in sick. Parents, often moms, are crucial cogs in the machinery of the day-to-day lives of children. Breakfasts, packed lunches, dinners, homework, chauffeuring to and from school, activities, events, and appointments, not to mention perhaps the most draining job of all: monitoring and regulating the emotional well-being of everyone in the household.
One orthodontist appointment leads to a kind of dual key-turning missile launch coordination that defies logic. Call the school, fill out an early dismissal form on a website, see if Grammy can pick up the elementary-age kids, reach out to this person to reschedule that meeting, take another meeting over Zoom while waiting in the parking lot, then haul ass home to make dinner. Hat-tip to those of us dealing with blended families, and exes, and the coordinating of custody schedules, pick-ups and holidays.
Words cannot accurately reflect the exhaustion that often pervades my mind and body, yet when I try to sit quietly or slip into bed for a quick 30 minutes of afternoon shut-eye, I somehow feel lazy. My mind won’t stop urging me to check email, move the wet clothes from the washer to the dryer, go for a run, or at least stretch on my yoga mat. I cannot stop thinking of all the things I should be doing.
I deeply resent being unable to enjoy doing nothing.
Get off your ass, wake up early, work out, look cute doing it, get a raise— even our appearance has been co-opted by the hustle. Here’s a 15-minute skin care regimen including seven products, none of which are available at CVS or Walmart, before you move on to a make-up routine ain’t nobody got time or money for, because apparently wandering around in public with your naked woman face hanging out is not advisable if you want to be perceived as “successful,” and don’t enjoy being told you “look tired” by the same clueless men who tell women to smile.
We’ve been conditioned to feel apologetic for not smiling, lazy when napping, and ugly without makeup.
This summer I stopped wearing makeup most days and tried to clean my house less. Things are organized; I still wash the dishes and do the laundry, but mopping, dusting, and vacuuming have fallen off my regular schedule.
With four kids and several animals eating all over the place, and walking in and out of the house all day long, I realized I had a choice: I could bitch at them all day long and clean myself into resentment, or I could let it go and live with it. Do you think any of them noticed? No. They didn’t give a shit when I mopped and they don’t care that I don’t.
It was all for me. A societal/self-imposed prison of perception.
The obsession over a clean house feeds a perception of what successful motherhood looks like forced on me by a materialistic, productivity-obsessed society. With an eye toward The Dude, I am reevaluating my priorities with a Lebowski level of productivity in mind. Beer and bowling, anyone?
Do Millennials know The Dude?
A clean kitchen floor no longer feels as successful as sitting on the porch listening to an audiobook while the kids play video games and grind flavor blasted Goldfish into carpeting I will vacuum when I’m goddamn good and ready to vacuum.
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
― John Maynard Keynes
“We’re incentivized to spend the time we’re not working figuring out how to become better, more efficient workers at the expense of our leisure,” Anne Helen Petersen notes in her 2020 book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. “We’re encouraged to monetize our hobbies, to turn even our smallest pleasures into another income stream.” Side hustle, it’s called.
At 45, I’m typically considered too old to be a millennial and too young to be a gen Xer. I recently learned about xennials, the so-called “micro-generation” born between 1977 and 1985, and also known as The Oregon Trail Generation.
We were the first group of high school kids to go to the library to research our papers and then transition to online study. This makes us the last group of kids to experience childhood without the internet. Although I’m technically not a millennial, I am experiencing the soul-sucking burnout usually attributed to that generation and have begun cheering for Gen Z, who has apparently coined a new term called “quiet quitting,” which, as far as I can tell, is the antithesis of hustle culture.
Despite its name, quiet quitting does not mean quitting in the traditional sense. It’s just letting go of the idea of going above and beyond at work as we’ve been conditioned to do, as TikToker @zkchillin put in his viral video. “You’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life. The reality is it’s not, and your worth as a person is not defined by your labor.”
It’s a sign of the late capitalist times that simply doing the actual job you were hired to do is considered a form of quitting.
Always on the cutting edge, even Queen Bey is over the hustle. “I just quit my job, I’m gonna find new drive,” she sings in her new song “Break My Soul” off her latest album, Renaissance. The song continues: “Damn, they work me so damn hard / Work by nine / Then off past five / And they work my nerves / That’s why I cannot sleep at night.”
Unlike Beyoncé, most of us can’t quit our jobs. But we can change our minds about work life and adjust our definitions of success. At the very least, we should consider a new work paradigm in which balance is possible and performing required duties without subscribing to hustle culture mentality isn’t a viral phenomenon— it’s just considered doing your job.
These past few years, when promotions I would’ve jumped at years ago were dangled, I’ve thoughtfully turned them down. I’ve spent a lot of time considering what success looks like for me. While work is necessary— somebody gotta pay for all the healthcare, and that still ain’t affordable without a full-time gig— devoting most of my life to title-chasing and scoring a higher salary no longer feels successful. It feels misguided. Stressful. A waste of precious moments on things that don’t and won’t matter.
“We have not to seek the Truth, we have only to remove the lie. Then the Truth stands in all of its Radiant Beauty.”
When productivity is considered king, and we define success in terms of money and busyness, we become caught in a rat race of our perception of time as a resource. Obsessions like checking/deleting emails take over our existences, and we judge our days based on how much we’re able to get done. We excuse the busyness by living for an event that will happen in the future: the promotion, the money, the things you can buy with your money that will somehow lead to a future where our lives are organized, and calm, and we’ve somehow “made it.”
“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”
Thing is, there will always be too much to do. You will never permanently clear out your inbox. In fact, the more emails you return, the more you receive, because you’ve set that expectation. Similarly, the more money you make the more things you buy that you need to make more money to maintain. You will never get to the end of the to-do list, or feel like your body/house/life is at peak levels. There is no moment of truth coming when things will finally make sense, and “real life” can begin at last.
Understanding that concept is not defeat— it is liberation.
“There’s this ubiquitous, subtle sense that somehow this portion of our lives, right here, isn’t quite it. That everything we’re doing is for the purpose of some future time. Or that we’re going to get our lives figured out soon. That we’ll get on top of things and we’ll live as we want to live but for now many of our tasks are just things we have to get through to get them out of the way so that real life can begin sometime later,” says British journalist and author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman.
Burkeman holds that we spend most of our lives avoiding the indisputable fact that our time is finite. In other words, we’re all going to die soon. He explains in his book that we each only get an average of 4,000 weeks of life. Contrast that with the fact that the whole of human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia has unfolded over the span of only about 300,000 weeks. To think of our tiny portion of time set against the duration of the existence of the Earth itself means, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote, “Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute.”
The key consequence of this finitude is that our choices about how we spend our time right now truly matter, yet we spend much of our life engaged in tasks we think will bring about a future that never really materializes. Burkeman continues, “We might tell ourselves, maybe subconsciously, that real life is going to begin when we finally graduate college or when we get married or when we have kids or when we retire and that’s so that we don’t have to face the anxiety of knowing that, in fact, right now, this is our only shot at life. That we need to do the things we care most about, right now.”
It’s true. We’re all dying. Right now! Don’t avoid it.
Think about it.
Perhaps, like me, you will become much less inclined to return that 10 PM email. Maybe you’ll spend a half-hour watching a bird outside your window tomorrow! Or just do nothing. Sit there. Breathing. If death comes for you next week, or in 30 years, you won’t regret these things. You will, however, most likely regret sending another email. A nurse recorded the most common regrets of the dying and one of the top regrets was people who “deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
“Time you enjoy wasting was not wasted.”
Know what success looks like to me? Leaning out. Leaning so far back that I’m lying down. In bed. In the middle of the afternoon. So I’ve spent a lot of time this summer not wearing make-up, not mopping, not vacuuming, not emailing, not writing. Just sitting around and staring at the world. From my porch, from a river, from my minivan. Being here now.
It’s harder than it sounds. It’s uncomfortable to do nothing, because it goes against all the hustle culture capitalist conditioning we’ve metabolized.
Try it. Really sit with yourself and your emotions without scrolling or cleaning or moving on to the next thing. You’ll likely experience anxiety and guilt that you’re not getting to this thing or that thing. Power through!
Keep doing nothing! Can I get that on a bumper sticker, please?
What if instead of judging, we started admiring each other’s dirty floors and makeup-less faces as signs of an empowered woman breaking out of her conditioning to reframe her brief existence on this planet?
There isn’t a single experience depicted in the photos posted here that I would trade for any amount of work prestige or money. When I’m on my deathbed, I will be immeasurably grateful for these moments, and undoubtedly wish I’d spent more time in the river, or on the porch with my people.
As musician Warren Zevon famously told Dave Letterman after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer that would kill him nine months after the interview, “You put more value on every minute… you’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich…”
We are all terminal. Enjoy your sandwiches.
“Where to Start” by Bully.
Welcome to Wrexham. A real-life Ted Lasso-style scenario wherein Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney buy a football team in Wales. If you love a good underdog story, or just like watching Reynolds and McElhenney (who doesn’t?!), check it out on Hulu. I couldn’t stop watching.