I worked in a factory farm. I was 19 and it was adventure. It happened to be the most money I could make in the shortest time, enough to cover 9 months of living expenses at school.
We signed our summer contracts at the Seattle Labor Temple. Four English speaking college kids, and a whole extended family who lived around eastern Washington and western El Salvador, reuiniting every summer on Bristol Bay to harvest King Salmon and Sockeye. Then the company flew us to Anchorage and on to Dillingham. I had stopped eating animals the year before, not for any reason I knew of. Animal suffering was not something I thought about. Something was there, threatening to be felt, but it remained pinned down firmly in the subconscious.
I got what I wanted at the time. Western Alaska was remote and epic, a slate blue watercolor canvas layered in the forms of ocean and sky and mountains and glaciers. Shimmering blue skin of the salmon. Sleep was no object under so much sun. We worked 16-20 hour days, 40 of us in a warehouse on the docks, between lulls when the boatmen were out harvesting. The taupe containers of fish, still jumping, still fighting for life, would roll across the threshhold and a hook from the ceiling would dump them into a conveyor belt. The belt rolled them first through a guillotine. On breaks I’d wander to that part of the warehouse and imagine a cloud of fish souls.
Tienen almas los pescados? Si Angelica, si creo que tienen almas.
In the 2-day lulls between work sprints, I’d trundle through the weird landscape, mushy tundra and high blonde grasses, every step a potential sinkhole. The weathered docks looked ancient, pounded and frayed to white splinters and collapsing back into the ocean marsh. The soft, low seacliffs were where the previous colonists buried their dead. Marble tombstones marked in Cyrillic, facing the Aleutians, facing Russia.
On the solstice, the fishermen were out making a killing. Back on land, the dock foreman took some of us swimming in the mountains at the edge of a glacier. Earth had never overwhelmed me quite like that. In the remaining down time, the other three English speakers tore through my copy of The Brothers Karamasov, soaking up old Russia, steeping in epic guilt and an ache for salvation. I kicked back with the Salvadoran clan, adoring them and amusing them, learning good Spanish slang, understanding what little I could about thier recent civil war and what it was like to have half your family relocate to Ellensburg. Then, a string of 18 hour days. In the next lull, the foreman came along for a walk across the tundra-mush to the ocean, me in workboots and thrift store jeans. He was a swarthy auto-didact from Great Salt Lake. My age, but somehow it was his 6th summer working the docks.
I told him it felt insane that our life there was so beautiful. We were living an actually cool, actually gorgeuos version of a Calvin Klein ad. (The look of that summer was already a shade more obscene than what A&F would soon become, our whole sleepless- ecstatic- illegal labor scene so secretly hot and hidden and out-of-bounds.) He walked me in to the surf and kissed me and said (factually) “Good thing you’re wearing your Calvins.”
I said somehow it felt that we would pay for this later. This freedom was not free. This work was not good work.
After that, he gave me the keys to the forklift. Out there on the docks, I didn’t think about the contents of the taupe containers, just the problem-solving game of of the work. As absorbing as Tetris, but with the added bonus of heavy machinery. I didn’t think about the guillotine either. The whole summer was epic, for our small-self serving purposes.
The audodidact foreman’s self-actualizing path was continental philosophy + math + mushrooms. He’d tell me about the after-effects of the drugs, the cosmic connectivity and ecstasy and joy. Even in my freedom and weird adventures then, I was at all times extremely gentle with myself, conservative with food and substances and relationship. I was eager to etch on my self with travel and books and conversation, but shy with connection. So the experiences went in, but I merged cosmically with nothing and through no one; and like most humans my nervous system remained disconnected. Alone. That part of the learning process– the yoga process, to be exact– that moves from the inside out would not come online yet for several years.
For a year after we took the last prop plane off the Bay together, the foreman would send letters in modal logic. Heavy graphite shapes smudged on cottony paper, by highly intelligent and heavy-handed sweat. I’d read them next to the original Lebniz, translating the symbols as love code. I sent him a boatman’s compass from an antique store in Saigon. He asked me to move to Utah. I came to my senses.
Farm kids where I grew up were never not laborers, but I started selling my labor outside the home at age 16. At that point, being also an auto-didact, I formulated a dogma of work. This ideology was designed to protect me against the demeaning feelings associated with being used by the rich, or being too poor to buy food. I refused to feel exlpoited or hungry, because I could not afford the hit these feelings took off my resilience. My prophylactic belief system combined the worst of the Protestant Ethic, with the best of Nietche’s critique of the master-slave relationship. In short, the ethos was to work extremely hard, creatively, wherever I could, and yet to never work for money or mere survival, and never under conditions I hated. Rather, work served the purpose of my own higest learning. No matter the task, it was teaching me something universal and making me more knowledgeable at the end of every shift. I would not have my energy and soul drained out for the benfit of my employers, ever. Rather, I would take advantage of every work situation. They weren’t using me. No, I was showing up fully and doing my best work in order to educate myself on their shop floors.
There is a lot about this theory that served me as an individual. It made me a great team player and quick study, even though my ends were purely self-serving. I was always operating on the level of being a conscious cog in every machine that employed me. Cogs are by nature bounded, and in the end I think my philosophy of work was profoundly egotistical. It kept me from getting my spirit crush, but it also kept me stuck in the consciousness of a cog.
Alaska nearly sunk that ship ten years before I was ready. Something there was so disturbing that my paradigm wavered. To sustain my dogma on the docks, I had to push down the knowledge of our racist, colonialist machine. I had to stay forcefully unconscious of the extreme, mechanized violence to another earth species. I had to remain a cog. Suffering outside of my skin was somehow not mine. Faced with the possibility of really feeling another species in a moment of horror and the role of my work in that suffering, I dodged. I spent more years doing everything in my power to prevent experiences of union.
The ecstatic interconnection my friends were experiencing at that time was drug induced. It was a state of consicousness that left residue, but did not permanently alter their stage of consciousenss. This is the convenient thing about states of consciousness. They come and go. If we want the joys of oneness without the pain of interconnection, it’s best take oneness as a drug. Take it as a hit. Do NOT shift into union as a default setting.
Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind? God this confusing, insofar as it keeps me in my head. How about yoga is the dropping away of that deep subconscious agitation that makes us fixate on a small self. How about… yoga is the flat-lining of that vritti whose constant function is disconnection.
I have no idea, but I wonder if people go there just at parties so they don’t have to stay there. Long time interconnection with this present world is not just pure joy, but also pure suffering. You get pain. Factory farms are in that picture. Domestic abuse. Polar bears. The prison industry. Amazon prime. Samsara is hard.
From this perspective, work is a whole different thing. Harm in one quarter is harm to the self. It’s felt. Competion is logically absurd beacuse it is quite literally the path to mutually assured destruction. Especially if you get pain from stuff outside your skin and outside your species, the paradgim tilts toward cooperation no matter how hard you try to resist.
I’m re-experiencing my relationship with work at age 19 beacuse of the many so-called Millenials showing up in my life. At their age I was working every way I knew how, while also mainlining modern philosophy and novels the size of bricks. I was not having to cope with social media, or what Frithjof Bergmann calls the job apocalypse. Certain things were easier for me then than they are for people first coming of age now. I feel as though I’m comig of age again, with them.
What I see are very young, and young-at-heart, people seeking Jedi mind training, initiation into a community, and an astonishingly unique – collective – version of the hero’s journey. Their voices are changing – sometimes literally- and their sense of responsibility is deepening.
No matter our age, for better and for worse, in western culture we are are all silently charged in to find some gift inside of ourselves. If we are listening at all, we are called to make meaning and a living and sense out of our “sensuous human activity.”
So this cohort is tripping into a paradigm shift, driven by the chaos and the evil of our times. They (we) were spoiled and distracted and narcissistic until a cluster of them (us) were not. Now they are forging concentrated minds from a place of never having read books or turned off their phones. They’re coming of age in a world full of splintered sense-making and a collective nerous system constantly triggered.
We have got to stop competing – morally and culturally – with each other across so-called generations. The only thing we can do is give ourselves to each other.
So this Frithjof Bergmann. He was a philosopher at the University here, an old student of Hegel and Nietsche and the like, until he left academia to get things done. When the factories starting closing in Michigan, he went to Flint to work with people laid off, and to Detroit to people starving in the food deserts, and there he shared radical cooperative approaches to work based in the Continental notion of self-ownership. Self ownership, that is, surprisingly combined with intimate community connection.
Frithjof looks like the Old Man from the Sea, full Hemingway in hat and beard, but with a feeling of pure radiant kindness. His old mind is supple and gorgeous, open, audacious, more alive than almost all of us. He loves expansive conversation and challenges, he integrates his wonderful strong emotions into intellectual exchange, and he does everything he can not to be treated like some respectable old fellow who needs to be addressed as special.
Frithjof doesn’t say get free of corporate power. Just to do something different. Something you actually want. Don’t console yourself with passive, vapid leisure. There’s no eros in that. Our poverty is one of incomplet desire. So find what you passionately desire and take action in that domain. This is hard. Frithjof talks a lot about and the frailty of the human condition – how hard it is for us to be strong. We need ideas and communities that give us courage and strength. We humans, he says: it is our nature to be easily discouraged.
So, his work as a philosopher on the ground is to encourage. Freedom is not free in his view. It’s an accomplishment. Knowing yourself well enough to take the action you really desire is a form of strength.
Frithjof agrees with my 19-year-old self that instead of being used by our work to produce things for some corporation, our work should serve us in deep ways. But the difference in this vision from that of my 19-year-old self is this: work that excites and fulfills my self is work that very often requires giving that self away. This is literally what is exciting at this phase in my own changing consciousness: being an encouraging presence beyond my physical skin. Owning my work well enough and fully enough to just give it away.