Issue #20: A shift in attention
Comfort for the Apocalypse, May 2021
“Work is love made visible.”
Khalil Gibran, Lebanese-American poet and spiritualist wrote that in one of the poems that make up his most well-known work, The Prophet.
I have carried this phrase with me since the first time I read it on a postcard thanking volunteers for their community service. The card featured a picture of jars full of honey sitting in a sunny windowsill and I kept it tacked up in my East Van sewing room until I moved a few years ago. Now I print the phrase onto sheets of muslin fabric which I cut and sew into labels and then hand stitch into my clothing and woven pieces. It’s a reminder of why I make things by hand for my own use or to give away. Each stitch is a way of paying homage to the kind of world I want to live in and the life I seek to create.
The work I do to earn my income is the least valuable kind of work to me. I find it difficult to apply Gibran’s aphorism when I am drawing up a research plan or developing workflow process templates. The things I do voluntarily are where all the worth of my life lies. In that I count my trade union service, weaving, hosting of dinners and keeping an open home, curating the Birdsong house concerts, sewing, canning and all the other household work. There is no remuneration for any of this; my primary motivation is to express love and solidarity, along with a desire to live the full breadth of my existence in all its joy and mundanity.
Several months ago I started sewing a pair of blue jeans for my husband, Brian. I have sewn him button-up shirts before, never pants which are more of a challenge to fit and sew. There have been hesitations along the way on this project, but I am finally in the finishing stage and just need to attach the belt loops. Denim is an easy enough fabric to sew, but can be hard to work with in the multiple layers which build up when adding pockets or folding fabric over seams. My sewing machine mostly handles it, but there are still times when I need to make a fix using a small pair of pliers to draw the sewing needle through. During times like this I reach for Gibran’s words, in part to remind myself of why I bother, in part to stop myself from swearing outloud each time the needle gets stuck in the folds.
On any given day, half the people in the world are wearing blue jeans. They are so ever-present we barely give them a second thought. But besides your outdoor jacket, jeans may be the most complex piece of clothing in your wardrobe with their rivets, enclosed seams, zippers, buttons and top stitching. Because garment labour is only partially mechanized, by the time your jeans make it out of the factory, they have been handled by about two hundred different people. From the weaving of fabric, to the wash and distress techniques applied at the end, the input of resources and human labour is significant, and all of this work is done in places where labour rights and environmental standards are non-existent. You couldn’t afford your jeans otherwise.
If you sew or weave, or work with fibre at all, you know it is dirty work. No matter how often I sweep near my looms or clean out my sewing machine, there is always dust, fluff and bits of thread. In a factory setting, that is magnified by a thousand and is breathed in by workers who can develop a fatal condition called white lung (byssinosis). This disease is primarily associated with cotton fabric, but the increasing use of plastics (acrylic, polyester, elastic) is connected to breathing problems as well.
Textile workers are also exposed to the myriad of chemicals that fabric is subject to in its lifecycle. Sizing agents, insecticides and other potentially cancer-causing treatments are all present in finished commercial garments. And yet news stories about chemicals in clothing manufacture are almost always about the danger to consumers, rather than the people who spend most of their waking hours in toxic environments. These workers and their conditions are invisible to us, even as the products of their days are pumped into our homes at ever-increasing speed.
When Khalil Gibran wrote On Work he was encouraging a shift in our orientation so that instead of resentment at having to work for wages, we would see our connection to all of life through our participation. He tells us:
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream assigned to you when that dream was born.
And in keeping with yourself with labour you are in truth loving life.
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.
But this seems naive, for even in Gibran’s time much was known about the horrors of textile factories (not to mention slaughterhouses, mines, and other working conditions which were written about extensively by Dickens, Zola, Sinclair and others). Nowhere in his poem do these types of workplaces make an appearance. Instead he focuses on cottage industry labour in an agrarian landscape: weaving by hand, crushing grapes, baking bread, ploughing a field. A physically demanding life, but one in which humans were connected to their output in ways more significant than the modern factory worker could ever be. It is one thing to work in a small bakery, farm produce for your community, or build a house someone connected to you will live in, and quite another to labour in a deadly sweatshop where wages are so low they are akin to slavery.
It’s difficult to recast work as love when the products themselves create plastic islands in the ocean, dump toxic dyes and chemicals into watersheds, and are created with the cheapest materials in order to grow profits for a few. Work cannot be transformed to love when it destroys the planet, when there is such lack of care for the worker.
And yet. I’m not ready to give up this aspiration to work with love, and to mobilize for a world in which the work and offerings of all beings are met with respect and even reverence. A world in which we learn about the materials required to make fabric, the processes that go into dyeing and sewing garments; bringing food out of the ground to feed those in our lives; grinding grain and tending sourdough; carving a spoon out of waste wood using a small axe. Though the market wishes to commodify these, like all acts of production, I believe they hold the key to an existence in which we don’t waste the lives and efforts of others.
Fewer things and less alienation are difficult to envision at this economic moment. Because of my privilege and geography, I am entangled in an existence that obscures the origin and byproducts of each thing that enters my life. Many of us are, and it will take a lot of effort (or a catastrophe) to undo this web, and follow it back to the center. When I spend time connected to the creation of things, working to sustain life and home at an elemental level, I engage a different relationship to the world. One that is quieter and more integrated, one that understands the beginning and end of at least some of what we consume. The world Gibran conjured in his poetry is one of interconnection and attention to life as it is, which includes the work of changing labour conditions, consumer demand, and the way we treat our fragile home. These are surely acts of love, but first the work must become visible.
The first bloom on the hydrangea reminds me that we are on the edge of summer’s arrival even as spring storms squall through.
May Recipe: Halibut with Fennel and Roast Potatoes
I was a bit stumped on a recipe this month, until Brian reminded me that we’ve been eating a lot of this dish lately and it would make a good share. Many versions of it abound, it’s not at all original to us, but it is one of our go-to dinners in the spring and summer.
Time in the oven: 45 minutes
1 large leek
1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes
1 medium bulb fennel
Salt and ground black pepper
4 piece skinless halibut fillet
2 tbsp. sambuca or other anise-flavoured liqeur
1 tsp. fennel seeds
Preheat oven to 425 F. Prepare a 13 x 9 inch baking dish with a bit of olive oil.
Discard roots and dark green top from leek, slice white part thinly. Cut potatoes into quarters or eights depending on the size.
To baking dish, add leek, potatoes, fennel, 1 tablespoon oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; toss to coat, then spread evenly.
Roast vegetables 35 minutes. Stir once halfway through roasting time.
Remove baking dish from oven. Place halibut on top of veggies, and drizzle with sambuca and a bit of olive oil. Sprinkle fennel seeds, and salt/pepper to taste, and top with lemon slices.
Return dish to oven and roast another 12-15 minutes or just until halibut turns opaque in center.
In the workshop
Fabric for tea towels on the Julia loom. Design from WEBS (yarn.com). I picked this pattern for love of its Finnish-inspired colourway and because twills make sturdy dish towels. I am half-way between five towels, and which are part of the giveaway I’ve been promising for months (scroll to the end for winners!)
Naive to modern conditions it may be, I do love the entirety of Khalil Gibran’s poem On Work.
I referenced the hundreds of people involved in making a pair of blue jeans and here is a 4-minute video documenting that: The Birth of a Jean - which is fascinating and depressing in equal measure.
There is an important forest blockade happening on Vancouver Island in British Columbia where some of the world’s last temperate old growth forest is being logged. I encourage you to donate to or attend the Fairy Creek blockade which you can find more about at https://laststandforforests.com/.
Giveaway time! As you might recall, I am celebrating the 20th issue of CfA with a giveaway of a handmade tea towel and a copy of Paul Kingsnorth’s book Savage Gods. Strangely enough I ended up with two copies of the book, and so I decided to do two draws.
So without further adieu, the winners are: Darryl Clark and Neil Abramson! Congrats!
The thing I hate about doing giveaways is that I don’t have unlimited things to give away - but I promise another one at my next subscriber milestone because I do love to send things out in the world.
You can leave a comment or like this post by clicking on the button below. Liking my post helps get it wider distribution in the Substack network, so if any of this resonated with you, please click the button and then click the heart on this post.