I went on my first portage camping trip in Algonquin Park a few weeks ago. Before that, I didn’t even know what portage meant, but while carrying a 60lb backpack and two paddles for 2km between ‘two bodies of water,’ the definition became more clear. Though my demure femininity spared me from hoisting the slender canoe over my head, the physical labour still nearly broke me. As we waded through a forest run by mosquitoes, my steps synchronized with my breath, pleasantly hollowing my mind, even as sweat clotted in every crevice of my body. Ever so often, my mind itched to give up, but our shared desire to manufacture survival shut it right up, and I was thankful to be in a forced meditation through labour.
During the second stretch of canoeing to our site, the waters became choppy from the temperamental wind. Canoeing can be like gliding on butter, but when the tides change, it becomes an exercise in blind ‘leading and following’ - the stern guiding the direction, and the bowperson, bringing the power of momentum. Aside from trying to find synchronicity with the lake’s mounting waves, we also had to look out for each other. One canoe, being led by a single adult and a very motivated but young child, kept getting pulled into banks by the wind that stirred an irrational but primal panic of leaving someone behind. There is a version of survival where you only look out for yourself and your children as a primal response. And then there is another version, where survival is only achieved if everyone makes, physically intact and spiritually nourished. We’re less familiar with the latter, but it is what we need.
Within 12 hours into the trip, my phone died. It didn’t matter much because the camp was buzzing with tasks: chopping wood, setting up tarps, keeping the fire stoked, filtering jugs of water from the lake, preparing meals and doing the dishes in our makeshift kitchen on the back of the canoe. Even before we arrived, there was ample preparation and problem-solving (led by my stewards) on how to eat well without access to ice or a cooler, and how to minimize the weight of our luggage. Outdoor sports is a major industry now with every miniature product you can imagine, but as a novice, I was still tickled when Ciaran bought us pillows that folded up into the size of my palm.
To my surprise, a ‘thunderbox’ had been set up at various sites in the park, meaning there was a wooden box over a really deep hole facing a pleasing landscape and soundscape to release the rice and curry from the night before. The children refused the thunderbox, but the adults could not get enough of the outdoor luxury. In the evenings, all the food was packed into the ‘bear bin’ or placed in ‘dry bags’ and hoisted up a tree by the men on site. On this land, bears held the power, shapeshifting humans into all kinds of adaptations to prevent an awkward and hazardous meeting. I meekly participated where I could, often feeling alienated from my own sense of physical capacity and strength. After two days of having my blood sucked dry and dirty, I itched and cried through the night, whimpering, I’m not made for this, though I wished I was.
One evening as dusk dropped, we took the canoe into the middle of the lake. There were no motorboats, no cottages, and no people in sight, only loons sending ripples of yodels up and down the lake, like listening to a conversation between a couple yelling from different floors of the house. As the sky revealed itself, the quality of the stillness worked through me, cleansing my spirit for days after, even as I struggled to move. Here, the city and its structural failures were just myths told around a searing fire that cut the night.
The portage was a level up from the car camping trips I had finally attuned to after three years of practice that proved I was not going to die from sleeping in a tent. Classically, I resisted the trip, backing out weekly as we approached the date. I was so anxious for the first 24 hours, I barely spoke, clenching my butt-cheeks and oversleeping to cope with the discomfort in my body. My internal alarms calling for physical safety sounded off until my ears split and I grieved the state of my nervous system. When the crew went into the lake for a dip, I watched from the beach in pants and a full-sleeve sweatshirt. The distress at the prospect of being cold trumped the potential of feeling refreshed. But after a day and a half, when the coat of dirt set securely into my pores, I trepidly walked into the water, quivering like it was winter in summer until most of my body was submerged. Like the trip, it felt religious.
There is a popular voiceover on TikTok narrated by an old English man, who says ‘I have no dream job, I do not dream of labour.’ It has been repeated over 37,000 times, and often by those subscribed to an ‘anti-work’ movement, inspired by Marxist and socialist political theory, being led on the platform and overlaps with an anti-work Reddit thread that has amassed 415,000 members, doubling since March 2020.
In the GenZ mind that is entering the workforce after a revealing pandemic, in late-stage capitalism, as climate risks rise, there is no form of labour protected from exploitation. Not 9-5, not freelance, not entrepreneurial, not artistry. Why must I work to survive? is a question being asked in some legitimate seriousness. In reaction to a hopeless ‘market’, purpose is being re-interpreted from job satisfaction and social advancement to leisure - to be spent rolling hills and joints, inside vans on roads to nowhere in particular while living off the land (and crypto riches? IDK). Older generations are also being hit with waves of anti-work sentiments, but are more likely to quit the corporate gig to start a small business, like coaching or making candles, both of which reconnect labour to the heart and hands. Many employees who are being asked to return to the office are quitting, unwilling to give up their work from home setup.
Though the last year has accelerated an anti-work sentiment, back in 2018, Andy Beckett wrote about a ‘post-work’ world as a radical proposition in the Guardian, stating that work is not working. In the article, Beckett references a book from the 70s, called ‘Breaktime: Living Without Work in a Nine to Five World’ that interviewed 100 people who gave up their jobs; an ex-architect who tinkered with boats, an ex-reporter who canned tomatoes and so on, all of which repeatedly reported feelings of ‘openness’ and ‘wholeness’ in their newfound lifestyle. Apparently, an anti-work movement took flight in the US and Europe in the 60s and 70s, where the end of a ‘work supremacy’ culture felt imminent, but it was eventually overturned in the 80s from pro-business governments led by Thatcher and Reagan.
The disillusionment towards work is illustrative of not only how fraught labour relations have become, but how aware of it we are. Workers are increasingly disconnected from the product and rewards of their labour; destined to be stuck in the middle of an assembly or administrative line. And between mothers, healthcare and Amazon workers, migrant farmers and hotel maids, the conditions to which we are subjecting human labour to are wholly inhumane. They are often unsafe, chronically underpaid and demand a level of service to meet unsustainable growth targets, rather than sustainable lives. When workers try to band together to form protective unions and gain collective power, they are increasingly intercepted by a threatened management who can not conceive of shared power. And with the cost of living rising in cities, and real estate becoming increasingly out of reach, working is not equating to thriving.
I don’t disagree with Gen Z’s approach in principle, but an anti-work movement feels reactionary in nature. It is swinging the pendulum from one extreme to another, when we are actually seeking a ‘grey solution’ that is indicative of being human. Because to be human is to labour. We are born from labour, and we labour as an active form of love, expression and meaning-making. When GenZ calls for anti-work, what they might be asking for is a way to work not rooted in the chronic stress of survival and productivity and a way to participate in labour that is embodied, connected, measured and integrated into a flow of life rather than at the centre of life. It is a work that honours all labour as art because it is the process and expression of how the body has learned to survive, thrive and co-exist. And it is a work held by sharing the resources which belong to all of us so that we can create from a measured place of rest versus a flight pumping cortisol into our veins.
I bring this up because I can’t stop thinking about how oddly satisfying the labour of the portage was. Even though I heavily struggled through it, the reward on return from winning a battle between my body, mind and spirit, was worth it. This might be a premature statement, but I think I would do it again.
Before we spent half of our lives in front of screens, I suspect meditation was less a practice and more embedded in the way of life and labour. Between harvesting vegetables, carrying water from the well, drying wheat for bread, and hunting for dinner, physical labour stilled the mind and worked life out through the body. The way we work now demands that we compartmentalize our labour; working the body through fitness, the mind through intellectual work, and the spirit through meditation.
Portaging brought a wholeness to labour that made me feel alive in a way that I don’t experience as often as I would like. It made me confront the impact of being disconnected from physical labour as part of living in a human body, and a desire for work that merges all the parts of me. It made me continue to appreciate the capacity of my body, its inherent leadership, and its desire to be equally known and felt.
Glad to be back -
Reading: Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters that a friend mentioned that received as a birthday gift, so I was inspired to pick it up, and what is hilarious about the right book finding you at the right time is that it is a story all about non-traditional parenting models, which is something I have been thinking about a lot. In the performance, Akanzyla, that I did earlier this year, I introduced the concept of a ‘nurture pod,’ where 4-6 adults conceived a child through a ‘randomized, hybridized, surrogacy,’ and co-parented it, and I’ve been wondering in what ways that could be a possible reality for me.
Listening: The last episode of our season of Desire Paths, which explores Futures of Play with Liza Paul, a theatre artist and the Associate Artistic Director of Theatre Centre and Adil Dhalla, the co-founder and Director of Community of Reset. Back in 2019, I saw Liza perform her show ‘Mash-Up Ting,’ with her co-creator, Bahia Watson, and I kid you not, I still giggle when I think about it. Liza’s embodiment of play, and finding the opportunity to play anywhere and everyone (even at a funeral), as well as her commitment to telling stories of the Black experience through joy, has really stayed with me. It was so nice to bring Adil into the conversation, who has been one of my play mates and teachers for many years, and probably, many lives(!) and is so committed to turning the city into a playground (which is happening right now btw).
Attending: My sister just bought my family tickets to WhyNotTheatre’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet (called R & J) that is playing at the Stratford Festival through September, and is designed specifically for the blind community, meaning it is rich in music and dialogue, versus visuals. I can’t even tell you how much I miss the theatre and it makes me kind of sad that a) theatre is dying and b) theatre is always full of white folks cause it’s pricey. I grew up going to the theatre and live shows on Christmas (my parents were into experience gifts) so I have a soft spot for being in a hall and transported into someone else’s world.
Taking: Vitamin D everyday cause if you do not live near the equator you are also so low on Vitamin D, and I am so spiritually fatigued, I literally will do anything you tell me to, to feel some life in my body. If you need a sign to take Vitamin D, this is it!
Follow: @shaistalatifmakes to stay abreast of what is happening in Afghanistan. Their analysis is unparalleled, drawn from their own lived experience and a deep understanding of class politics and the intertwined global network of capitalism and imperialism that is unravelling from one country to the next. I have learned so much from Shaista, and I am grateful for their writings and teachings.
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