Bread Labor

This weekend we will be celebrating Labor Day across this nation. The battle for worker’s rights in this country has been of epic proportions, fought in picket lines and folk songs lyrics. While great improvements have been made in the quality of worker’s conditions and rights, the struggle for labor rights is not over. The battles for human conditions are still ongoing in many trenches. There are still welfare dependent masses who are working part-time, labeled seasonal labor with no benefits. Corporations are still dropping employee hours to skate under the healthcare mandate limbo bar, clearly treating their worker’s bodies as disposable. 

Worker’s rights in the United States have come forward dramatic paces in our country’s short life. Labor Day as a national holiday was designed to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” to the public. The initial goal was to exhibit the strength of labor. It was a time to march, fill the streets. Labor Day was created as a direct response to the blood and sweat martyred in the name of the movement. This weekend was designed as a way to honor those sacrifices, and remind the public (corporations are people, too!) that we have the strength to do it again.

Labor Day has changed over the years. In the 1950s nearly 35% of workers were in unions, while that number is approximately 10% now. Labor Day, once primarily a day for marches and parades, has also changed. Look around this weekend and you will see a lot of people with their feet up, grilling burgers. It has also, as your thick News Leader will attest, become one of the most important sale holidays of the year. Many retailers report sales dwarfed only by Black Friday stampedes.

In short, the day that was designed to exhibit the “strength” of the labor movement has become a national day of leisure to many. (There is still a parade on Monday, and a huge picnic. I strongly encourage you all to attend!) Most of us, with a few exceptions, work fortyish hour weeks. We get 168 hours a week to play with, so even after figuring in time for sleep and stuffing our faces, we end up with almost an entire bonus 40 hour week worth of time. What we do with this time is up to us. This is our leisure, what is left over when you subtract the bread labor, the time you spend to sustain yourself.

What once was work put into a garden and a woodshed has now become what we feed into a paycheck to trade away at Mama Jeans and City Utilities. The work that sustains our body? This is bread labor. 

Bread labor is a term espoused by Helen and Scott Nearing. Helen and Scott Nearing, for the record, were the most adorable nerdy awesome badass self-sufficient back to the land couple ever to grace this earth. They were working in academia until they left New York City in 1932 in an attempt to find a more balanced life living on a farm in rural vermont. They split their waking hours between bread labor and leisure. Bread labor was the work associated with keeping themselves alive. Working the garden, chopping wood, building their homes and additional sheds, and sugaring the maples that were a small financial income for themselves. Bread labor accounted for about half their time. The rest of their waking hours they considered to be leisure time. The leisure time our country is currently devoting an entire weekend to.  

We know that Americans have a ton of leisure time at their disposal. Lets take a moment to consider what most Americans do with their leisure time. We are on the cusp of a three day weekend devoted to leisure. To Barbeque, to three final days of summer spent in plastic lawn chairs. To scouring through the Labor Day sales at Old Navy, with reckless disregard to the impact that our bulging bags have on Vietnamese laborers.

If you watched America on this weekend, you would think our leisure was consumed with the act of feasting and shopping. And we do love to eat, and to shop. But we have almost forty hours a week of leisure time to fill. Eating and shopping can only fill so much. What else are we doing with this “spare time”? 

Sometimes we do things with our leisure time to build ourselves and others up. About forty percent of Americans report they use some of their leisure time to attend church services of some sort each week! To feed their spiritual needs. Although when you drop self-report and look at attendence that is more like 20%. Either way… some some of us go to church for an hour or two each week. But what else do we spend our wealth of leisure time on? 

Mainly, it seems, we… watch….. TV. Thirty-four hours of TV a week, in fact. We gorge ourselves on television. Our confused primate brains feel emotional connections with our favorite fictional characters, emotions that should be binding us to the person in the next easy chair.

We have our favorite dramas, and when the dramas get too heavy we can always switch to sitcoms. And if the sitcoms get too fake we can always move to reality TV, with reality scripted to fit in product placements for our favorite corn syrup soft drink. And we fill our brains with this for 34 hours a week. Which, if you do the math, is about how much leisure time you have now that the labor movement has given you forty hour bread labor weeks.

We have this leisure time in the palm of our hand. I know that most of you have a concept of intentional living, are thinking about living a life based on value consistent decisions. But on this weekend, a celebration of leisure that came at the cost of backbreaking work by the labor movement, I want to reiterate that leisure can take many different paths. Leisure might mean Fox News and HBO to most of America, but it doesn’t have to. Part of what has been given to us, part of what we are celebrating on Labor Day, is the choice of how to manifest our leisure time. 

Leisure could manifest itself as a quiet afternoon spent reading Stienbeck. It may be watching a *carefully selected* television show curled on the couch with your family. Leisure could be a stroll through the farmer’s market rows of perfect peppers. 

Leisure could be taking a minute out of your day to sign a petition on a local issue, or spending two hours waving a poster board emblazoned with a peace sign.

Leisure could be getting to church half an hour early to volunteer as a greeter, staying an hour after to put up tables.

Leisure could be dedicating yourself to catching up on local events *before* you walk into the voting booth.

Leisure could be walking into the voting booth.

Leisure could be spending a day picking up litter at a local stream or it could be bagging up potatoes for two hours at Crosslines.

    Leisure could be checking in on a neighbor you know is going to want to talk for half an hour or inviting someone you know is struggling out for a cup of coffee.

    These are moments of leisure, with as much authority as Game of Thrones or The Bachelor or hours spent playing Fortnite. 

Helen and Scott Nearing were hardcore, taking this to an extreme. They wrote that they were choosing to use their leisure time to work as educators to “help their fellow citizens understand the complex and rapidly maturing situation in the United States”. Their goal was to use their leisure time to “assist in building up a psychological and political resistance to the plutocratic military oligarch that was sweeping into power in North America”, and they used the time they had left over from bread labor for this goal. They used their leisure time.

I am not recommending that we all cut our personal leisure time out entirely. Not all of us can go as hard as Helen and Scott Nearing. Human brains need down time, away from the chaos of an industrialized world. Let’s be clear… sometimes that means enjoying a good movie or playing videogames. And sometimes an hour in front of a television is simply a good end to a long day.

But we can choose to live intentionally, using each moment of our leisure time in a way that fits our values. Considering what great sacrifices have been made for this leisure time to be a promised mandated right? 

We can use it in a way that speaks to self-edification, and perhaps we can use it to grow our world. We can give back, in part in the name of the protesters and picketers who have given us this precious time. It seems like the next logical progression in this communal discussion of labor and workforce and leisure in the United States.  It seems the reasonable way to celebrate Labor Day.

This homily was presented in September of 2019 at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield. It was adapted from a sermon written by AJ Fox in September of 2013.

Things I learned while standing in line for three hours to see Donald Trump:

This was originally posted on Facebook on September 22nd, 2018, the day after Trump visited Springfield, Missouri.

Things I learned while standing in line for three hours to see Donald Trump:

Three shirts gets hot, even on a cloudy day in September. My plan was to wear a protest shirt in, under a flannel, and reveal my shirt inside. My shirt read “ASHAMED OF THIS AMERICA” and on the back “TRUMP MUST GO”. If they played the anthem while I was inside, I intended to kneel. This plan made standing in line (three shirts – tank top, t-shirt, flannel buttoned up) quite hot.

Tickets mean nothing. I reserved two tickets a week in advance, as soon as the link went up. I ended up going with my dad, who agreed to kneel during the anthem with me if we got inside. (He was also one of the only folks I know from experience can keep non-violent in the thick of it, nose to nose with actual nazis.) The tickets said that doors would open at 4:00. I got there at 4:10, the earliest I could arrive with the childcare handoff. We waited until 7:10, when they stopped letting folks in.

People in Missouri really love President Trump. When we arrived the line was about twelve blocks long, winding around campus. We walked past the front of the line, where people were riled and enthusiastic. A group was chanting “Lock Her Up”. A man with a Hawley sign on a long piece of Bamboo was yelling about how Clinton sold 20% of the enriched uranium that belonged to the United States to Russia.

The protesters were invisible to most of the line. In the entire time I was waiting in line I saw only a handful of protesters. The anarchist kids who broke off from the protest zone and went through the line, and a fella with a bullhorn singing “You Eat Ass” to those in line. A couple dorm rooms that put “FUCK TRUMP” and “TRUMP SUX” up in their windows. But mostly, in line, there was a cocoon of white enthusiastic patriotism. I kept wondering if maybe anyone near us was also trying to get in to disrupt, but in every conversation it became apparent quickly that these folks all were excited to see their President.

Trump supporters are boring middle class white people. Most of the conversation I overheard in line was mundane bullshit. What college courses folks were taking, or what their kids were taking. Who’s daughter had dropped out of middle school basketball because of a spat with a friend. What buildings on campus folks remembered. It was an affluent crowd. More affluent than Springfield averages. The women had on nice shoes and nice purses. The men were all clean cut. They were average and uninteresting. We could have been in line for a Drury game or a Black Friday sale at Macys.

Their numbers are real. The capacity of the arena was 11,000. When they closed the doors there were still minimum a dense five blocks of folks waiting to get in. In front of us, a family with four young children walked away from the line. Each child wore an oversized red shirt with white lettering on the front. “Make”, “America”, “Great”, “Again”. The youngest child was sobbing, and the older three looked so disappointed that they were not going to get to see their President. Most people were not even angry, tho. What a great turn out. They didn’t like being excluded, but how could they be mad. They had filled the largest venue in town.

Enthusiasm is contagious and folks are genuinely happy this world is unfolding. There were a few like Pops and I, who stood silent in the occasional USA chants, who were not wearing MAGA hats, who didn’t clap when the kid with a speaker played the anthem out the dorm room window as we passed. I choose to believe those other folks were also there to disrupt or even just watch in horror. But there were smiles, red hats, and Trump shirts everywhere.

There are monsters among us. I have never felt how real this growing fascism is until standing in this line. I have had interactions with literal nazis. I have had plenty of interactions with homophobic and racist and misogynistic shitbags. But there were THOUSANDS of folks who were enthusiastically supporting a President who is blatantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic. He has upheld and normalized sexual assault. He has normalized violence towards protesters. He has repeatedly amplified racist views. And I don’t think that everyone in that line actually holds all of those views. But I think every enthusiastic supporter in that line is willing to throw people of color, lgbtq folks, and women aside in order to feel the reassurance of an authoritarian leader.

If something doesn’t change, Trump will be a two term President. I have already been considering this, but watching this crowd yesterday, I am more sure than ever. This is going to be a hard movement to overcome. Not because they have the actual majority, but because they are enthusiastic, willing to show up, and are organized. They are willing to put aside concerns to elect a candidate. They are willing to put aside their own best interest to elect a candidate that feeds their fear, whatever that is. The islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny. Whatever they need to know is being upheld, they will shed all other values. We are in real trouble folks.

Valentines Day

This sermon was first written and presented as the Valentines Day sermon for First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield in 2016.
Every culture has rituals, visual metaphors and physical prayers that speak to the core of what it is to be human. Valentine’s Day has a visual vocabulary that holds meaning to humans, even if it has to speak through the language of commercialism and consumption. The dominant imagery of Valentine’s Day tells of human sexuality and spring.
The hearts, the romance, the lingerie, in a consumeristic and disposable way, speak to courtship and relationships, of new beginnings or continued affairs. The flowers – even if they are mostly imported from Columbia this time of year – are clearly a sign of the coming spring. Images our culture uses to symbolize the archetypes of human relationships and seasonal shifts.
Today’s incarnation of Valentine’s Day stands in the echo of a much more flamboyant spring festival. February may seem early for spring. It is a bit chilly out, still, if you haven’t noticed. But spring festivals are not about the first harvest or the first planting, even. They are about celebrating that the winter is waning and preparing – emotionally, spiritually, and physically, for the coming year.
Even from this winter, as unseasonably warm as it has been spring sounds… welcome. But we aren’t there yet, no matter how much we will it to be. We must wait.
This isn’t a new wait. For as long as humans have been wintering anywhere away from the equator, humans have spent January and February trying to will Spring back around. This goes back before the Romans stole from the Greeks who stole from their own predecessors. . Spring coming, the new growing year commencing, was worthy of grand celebration. And right about now in the earth’s revolution, all over the northern hemisphere, folks have been preparing for spring for thousands of years.
Chinese New Year, which started on the 8th, last Monday, is a spring festival. Although the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1912 with the founding of the Republic of China, the New Year had traditionally be celebrated at the start of the growing season. The, perhaps most reasonable, start to the new year.
Even the Christians, as much as certain sects of Christianity have tried to wash their hands of the earthly and the physical, feel the urge. Any gardener can tell you that this is the time of year when thoughts go to cleaning up and planning out the next year. Some of these festivals and rituals hold much of their original form. During the traditional rural Italian celebration of Lent there are agricultural rituals that demand respect alongside the spiritual ones. The fields of Italy go through a process. First the trees are cut back, along with the brush and brambles. Then the previous year’s stalks are burnt down. Then the fields are tilled and planted again. Lenten, after all, comes from Lencten, meaning spring. Lent began on the 10th, last Wednesday.
And Valentine’s Day? Valentine’s day rests, either by coincidence or by plot, right on the foundation of one of an extraordinary spring festival, one of the lewd and sexually steeped celebrations in European history.
Let’s jump back a couple thousand years. Faunus, the Roman god of the fields and the animals (sometimes called Innus, when he gave the cattle fertility) is a goat-like God famous for his propensity for having sex with animals. He did not love them in a platonic sense. And as he went around and made the animals fertile in the early spring the Romans celebrated a festival called Faunalia on 13th of February.
For those of you familiar with the Greek Gods – Faunus has always been correlated with Pan. Pan, you know… The goat man who was (according to Cicero and Duris of the Samerian) the son of Penelope. Duris went so far as to claim that Penelope had slept with all 108 of her suitors while Odysseus was away and Pan was the spawn of all those men. The Romans saw Faunus as a parallel creature to Pan. Tells you what sort of God Faunus was.)
But back to Rome. Februa was the first of the documented spring festivals of Roman origin. It lasted from the 13th until the 15th, but it was not named after the month. Quite the opposite. February, when a new month was being devised, was named after the festival. There were previously 10 months, but in 713 BC they decided to add two more months. It turns out that they hadn’t even bothered to put months in winter – it was such a cold desolate time it didn’t deserve months, it seems. And the new year started with Martius or March – about the same time the Chinese calendar starts.
Februa was a tribute to cleansing. Fever comes from the same root – sweat it out. Get ready for the new growth. When Februa is celebrated you can be sure that calving and foaling is not far off, that seeds are nearly ready to tuck into earth.
Februa morphed into Lupercalia. Exactly when is hard to tell from the records, but the 15th of February was already celebrated as Lupercalia by 44 B.C. It morphed into a celebration of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, with a great celebration and animal sacrifice (two male goats, one dog) at the cave. Then the men would (naked, of course) run through the streets together. They carried with them strips of the hides of the male animals that had been sacrificed… fringed pieces of hide they would smack people with as they ran past.
The ladies would line up along the race site and hold out their wrists. It was believed that the hit of one of these fringed pieces of leather by a naked man would help a woman become pregnant, or would aid the pregnancy if she was already so.
There was also a ritual each man drew the name of a woman out of a jar and through that lottery determined who he would keep company with for – at the very least for the festival, and by some reports the year.
The pieces of leather were called Februa. Because it is difficult for the new way to completely erase the old.
The link between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day is similarly a bit erased, unclear. The early Catholic Church declared that there should be a Valentine’s Day on February 14th in 496 AD. Surely the meaning of that date did not escape them at that time in Rome, as they were still celebrating Lupercalia, with their leather strips and naked runs. But Valentine’s Day was not immediately a story of romantic love, but an attempt to purify and clean the record as only the church seemed able to.
The change from Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day was a clear leap – but if it was a morphing of the pagan fertility/sex/spring festival into a Christian holiday or if one replaced the other without influence is debate. In the late seventeen fifties the theologian Alban Butler proposed that there was a clear link.
“To abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honor of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets given on this day.”
What is most interesting to me is that, in our own crude way, we seem to be returning to the roots of the festival. The holiday was Saints and Martyrs, Christian buttoned down affections, for the last thirteen hundred years. And yet – in an expensive and fabricated way, something human in us seems to search at this time of year for those common themes of the original pagan festivals. Sex and fertility, although instead of a promise of healthy birth we prefer red lace. (And now that Fifty Shades is popular, perhaps the leather fringed goat hide for smacking wrists will come back, as well?)
The agricultural rituals have given way to the immediate satisfaction of a Columbian rose. The rituals lack the real connection that likely sparked the original pagan festivals – connection with the cycles of the earth and the cycles of life – but what we see today, in some ways, much more closely resembles the Lupercalia festivals than any saintly liturgy.

January 3rd

January 3rd, 1961. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Six months earlier, on July 25th, 1960, Ernest Hemingway had suddenly left Cuba. He had lived in a stucco mansion, called Finca Vigia or “”Lookout Farm””, ten miles from Havana for the last twenty years. He left clothing, trophies, manuscripts.

Six months later, on July 2nd, 1961, Hemingway committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.

I don’t know exactly what that means.

Hemmingway had always struggled, as some do.

He had recently begun showing signs of Hemochromatosis, a disease easily treatable at early stages but by the time he had the diagnosis the damage was likely irreversible.

His family tree is littered with the amputated branches, splintered with suicide.

But, damn. A sense of place is important. A home is important.

Hemmingway, with his cats and his books, looks so at home in old photos of Finca Vigia.

It must have killed him, leaving his home and heart so far away.

*Composed January 3rd, 2015

December 31st

Every family has their idiosyncratic ways of doing things.

Drinking glasses go lip down in the cabinet.
Apples get cored first and then peeled.
Shoes get taken off outside the front door.

A pattern. A method.

In our family, you buy Baltic first. Mediterranean comes next.

Once you have them, you cling to them.

The small rectangular cards, their deep purple shallow meaning.
A set of two, so opposite of the bright bourgeoisie blue.

No discernible mortgage value.
No help in the end game.

Fingers cannot count the pale white ones we stack,
when curled so tightly around the barely there cards.

In our family we scramble for them, frantic to grasp at them.

Our hesitation mark scars are Baltic purple.

We don’t trade up, we cling.

It is our family idiosyncrasy.

– Monopoly was patented on December 31st, 1935. –

*Composed December 31st, 2015