Toward an Applicable Theory of Just Not

The year after I get divorced, I am more tired than I’ve ever been. I want it to be something more than that — I am recovering, I am in a period of contemplation, I am processing — but really, I’m just tired. You would think I would be tired during the divorce: traveling back and forth from Minnesota to Wisconsin because you have to be physically in the same courtroom for so many things, going to Office Depot to print out the paperwork, fielding the late night calls and emails and texts and and and, carrying two bursting bags of groceries the four blocks from the bus stop to my apartment, trying to figure out the dollar amount of the pots and pans I took (because let’s be honest he didn’t cook) for the Wisconsin court system, carrying my laundry three flights of stairs. But no; some kind of grim momentum carried me through all that, through the weird sad meeting at the coffeeshop where we compared our financial statements and through the lunch after the courthouse at the gentrified taco place we both secretly liked. As I was leaving the courtroom — the one that had a sign saying DIVORCE COURT over the door — a man in the courthouse hallway catcalled me, crooned Hey beautiful. My friend was furious upon hearing this — I’ll kill him, she said — but I wasn’t. I was just so tired, delirious really, that it was hilarious; it tinged my whole day with hallucinatory sweetness.

I’m exhausted but unable to rest, exactly — in either the literal and figurative sense. I take a sleeping pill and wake up at 4 am anyway, humming with grief or rage or just aimless anxiety. When I’m awake, I’m more, and more chaotically, connected to my friends and the sticky, flickering network of queer community than I’ve ever been. I’m getting texts late at night about girl problems, I’m sending outfit selfies before I go out, I’m telling the group chat the address of the apartment I’m headed to at 11 pm (why? What will they do, exactly, if I don’t come home?). I feel on edge, vibrating like I’m on day three awake no matter how much I sleep — which isn’t much, if I’m being honest. I try, but I just keep vibrating awake in the dark, a blender whose motor won’t turn off. My friends and I are constantly exchanging screenshots, texts, copy/pastes and DMs — crushes, exes, ex-crushes, friends, ex-friends, B-list celebrities who are out of line, oversharing, doing too much, exposing something cringeworthy. Do they know you can just not, I text. It becomes something of a catchphrase — when my ex-husband calls at 1 am on a weeknight, when someone gets too familiar with the unsolicited advice, when someone follows me off the bus, when someone asks how I’m really doing. You know you can just not?

I’m reading a lot of Anne Boyer. We had a fight about her, my ex-husband and I, before he was my ex-husband. I tried reading something from Garments Against Women to him, and he told me it was bourgeois; an objectively bizarre statement considering the heavy emphasis on a labor lens and anticapitalist critique in Boyer’s work. Maybe I just did a bad job contextualizing it; maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if I had or not. In the year after the divorce I’m reading Boyer on the bus, in my little bed in my little safe apartment in the basement of this gentrified building, in the waiting area of the barbershop. She makes me feel dumb in a way I savor, rattling the sentences around in my empty little bird skull without pushing myself to understand it all. I love her aphorisms, the grace and authority of making a declarative statement with no context, no buttressing facts, no defense. I am drawn to a poem/essay found not in a book, but at the Poetry Foundation, “No”:

“History is full of people who just didn’t. They said no thank you, turned away, ran away to the desert, stood on the streets in rags, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, walked barefoot through town, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light. Even babies refuse, and the elderly, too. All types of animals refuse: at the zoo they gaze dead-eyed through plexiglass, fling feces at the human faces, stop having babies. Classes refuse. The poor throw their lives onto barricades. Workers slow the line. Enslaved people have always refused, poisoning the feasts, aborting the embryos. And the diligent, flamboyant jaywalkers assert themselves against traffic as the first and foremost visible, daily lesson in just not.”

I read Boyer on love and work, the mechanics and the cruelty of them; the possibilities beyond capitalistic foundations for both and whether we are being realistic with ourselves about those possibilities. “One of the things that happens in a world in which we are so alienated and atomized is that romantic love can seem like it might be a little communism of two,” she says in an interview with Mythos. “But this thing that feels so good also becomes the thing that causes women to spend thirty years doing the dishes after work instead of writing a great symphony, and this thing that feels so good can also lead to the deaths of women at the hands of their partners, or a deadening of life in general.” I did all the dishes when I lived with my ex-husband; he would leave them in the sink for four, five days at a time, until the kitchen stank, if I didn’t just do it myself. Now that I’m alone, I still do all the dishes. I do the dishes after work, and during work, and before I start the workday; I often take “breaks” from my job to do housework, relaxing into a different kind of labor that lets my brain and heart unspool a bit. I cannot speak to whether I have experienced a deadening of life in general; everything about life after you have upturned yours completely becomes a new challenge to interpret. There’s the quiet indescribable joy of washing only your own coffee cup, cleaning only your own dirt off the floor; there’s also everything else. I work all the time, and also feel like I never actually produce anything. I do not write a great symphony; this, what you’re reading, is the first essay I’ve published in two years. I work; I edit and take calls; I dog- and housesit for extra money, take the bus to Powderhorn and sleep in the bed of a clinically depressed grad student on a cruise with her mom while her pug snuffles underneath the bed; I write copy for shampoo and weightless hydrating conditioner. I lie awake at night and worry the borders of my barely-contained heartbreak like my tongue around a loose tooth.

Miles away from where I lay awake, in Shakopee MN, workers at an Amazon fulfillment center coordinate a rare, for the company, work stoppage. Employees at the Shakopee location walk out of their shifts during the Prime Day sale to protest unsafe high-pressure work conditions; some wear shirts that read “We’re humans, not robots.” In Germany, Amazon workers strike. Local coverage of the Shakopee stoppage is patronizing at best: “A handful of Amazon workers in Shakopee, far fewer than the 100-plus organizers had expected, walked off the job in the middle of their shifts to protest work conditions at the sprawling fulfillment center on Monday;” it includes a quote from an Amazon spokeswoman saying “Amazon already provides a lot of things the protesters are asking for… There are certain outside organizations that are taking the opportunity today to try to elevate the awareness of their cause to try to potentially gain membership and to get people to pay union dues.” I think about the strange thrill I get from reading the single stark observation from Boyer: Workers slow the line.

There are a lot of answers to the question about why I got divorced. I got divorced because I got married at 24, because of alcoholism, because he wouldn’t go to therapy, because I wasn’t being honest in therapy, because I wanted something else, because even if I wanted this it wasn’t working, because because because. I also got divorced because I did every single household chore, had to be on call to announce the location of every single item in the fridge or else he couldn’t make himself a sandwich, and was responsible for figuring out every administrative task in our shared life, from talking to our landlord to negotiating our health insurance package. The night things began to really fall apart, at least in one possible telling, I was on a work retreat when he called, probably drunk, from home. I miss you so much, he said. You know I hate it when you aren’t here. I can’t function. This is awful. In my memory, I say nothing; I can’t. I just close my eyes and breathe. Are you hearing me? I said I miss you. Don’t you miss me?

You haven’t even asked how the trip is going, I said finally. I’m working here. I think at the end of things, I was just so tired.

A work stoppage is one of the most well-known redresses for workers when a labor dispute has come to an impasse; in the US, at least, they are often also controversial. Stigma and scaremongering around unions after generations of concentrated campaigning against them by business interests means that any labor organizing feels suspect to many; just straight up refusing to work can feel offensively un-American, even though its aim is to secure prosperity and rights for American laborers. Most upsetting to many are when care workers, like teachers or nurses, go on strike. These workers aren’t always women, but often are; their work is presumed more than maybe any other kind of labor to be motivated by passion and sentiment more than the need to earn a living. To strike seems to betray this edict, both because pay is often at issue and because it reveals a willingness to stop doing caring work if the tradeoff of doing so is too high for the care-r. 2019 saw a number of highly publicized teacher’s walkouts and strikes, from West Virginia to Chicago; while higher salaries were often a demand, so were increased school resources to benefit students: more nurses, more librarians, more funding. The public attitude toward striking care workers is often linked to how well the workers make the case that their bargaining will benefit the recipients of their care as well as themselves — nurses picketing the University of Chicago held up signs that read “On strike for my patients.” “Teachers are not in it for the money,” [Leslie Russell, an English teacher at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School] said. “We are the catalyst for great things kids can do when in optimized conditions.”

By the time my marriage ended, we talked a lot about emotional labor. I compiled a list of resources about it for him, because of course I did. It didn’t make a difference, and couldn’t have; the phrase gets at a surface-level problem that sprouts from the roots of something much deeper. Something about work and love, but not just who does more of it and who does less; that there are some kinds of work that should never have to be done at all, by anyone, and for which there is no fair compensation or possible reciprocity. There is an American saying about work: I wouldn’t do that for love or money.

One way of telling the story of why I got divorced goes like this: One day, my husband stopped speaking to me. Things had been tense already, for weeks, for months; we were in a holding pattern and it wasn’t clear what would get us out of it, for better or for worse. We slept in separate rooms. I was still surprised when I came home and he didn’t acknowledge me; nothing beyond a nod when I said hello. After the first day I asked if he wanted to talk, said it seemed like he might be upset about something; he said he wanted to give me space, polite and cold.

This was, as my father would say, disingenuous; I had not asked for space, certainly not like this. It was a power play; his own little work stoppage, maybe, to say you don’t want me anymore, fine, see how you like it.

I could have done something, then. I could have chosen to respond to this as what it was, an expression of hurt and fear, albeit a childish one. I could have gone into the room to sit next to him on the twin mattress, rest a hand on the sheet next to his; I could have waited quietly for him to turn to face me, asked gently if we could talk. I think if I had, I could still be married. I don’t want to be. But I do think still about the person I could have been in that moment, and maybe am in another timeline — what endless fortitude she has, her saintlike patience for working it out.

Instead, I walked away to the other end of the apartment, and let him sit there in silence for three days. I could have done a lot of things in that moment and in those months, but after years of doing a lot of things the only thing I hadn’t tried was to just not at all. And when I just didn’t, it was over.

Another popular American saying is that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Our definitions of work and love are in complex and inexorable orbits around each other: our career (if we have the privilege of a ‘career’ rather than a ‘job’) should be something we love; our personal relationships are work; we ask ourselves gravely whether we’re ‘doing the work’ or whether she’s ready to ‘work on herself’; the necessity of laboring to survive under capitalism means that we often best serve the material needs of the people we love by working away from them so they can eat. The power of love — love of our families, love for our professional interests — should make work outside the home a joy; the power of work — making the daily effort of actively maintaining a relationship, of committing to one’s own personal growth to be the best partner or family member possible — should ensure that love flourishes. Attempts to clarify or structure these relationships get complicated. The explosion of Emotional Labor Discourse spoke powerfully to something that was clearly already under the skin of many people, especially women, about how much work was involved in trying to experience love; the more recent backlash to Emotional Labor Discourse speaks to something else, a deep frustration and resentment with the way that the most human and intimate parts of us, our ability to care, have become something we understand best as commodities. It’s not that those dichotomies are impossible to reconcile; it’s that it’s so difficult as to maybe be impossible to conceptualize an American sense of self outside of work, and to have a sense of what contentment or relationships or building a life and a self might look like that isn’t defined by embracing work joyfully, as loving working so much that you wake up grateful for it every day.

The logistics and concrete realities of work stoppages and related demonstrations of refusal under capitalism are widely misunderstood. On top of the common stigmatized assumptions that workers strike because they’re greedy for higher wages, or just lazy, there is a temptation to see refusal as an isolated and individual act, one rooted in sentiment rather than strategy. Most of us are no longer aware of the enormous communal organizing and effort that enabled historical labor milestones like the grape boycott, or the efforts of contemporary organizers to provide resources or childcare so that boycotts or strikes can be sustainable enough to be effective. Perhaps the most famous example is the myth many American schoolchildren learn, that Rosa Parks sat down in the whites only section of her city bus because she was “tired,” and that a movement rose out of her decision instantaneously. In reality, Rosa Parks’ act of resistance was carefully strategized for maximum impact, and supported by the tireless work of others — the bus boycott that followed in Montgomery was undergirded by an intensely committed network of rides and transportation alternatives so that the community could pull off a bus boycott long enough to impact those in power without losing their jobs or completely giving up their day-to-day life. Erasing this organization helps ensure that most people will see refusal as a personal quirk at best and a personal failing at worst, and certainly not a concerted and viable challenge to consolidated power. It minimizes both how hard it is and how powerful. To refuse to participate often takes much more dedicated effort than continuing as usual; it’s a risky endeavor, to just not.

The last three years has seen a greater awareness of a politics of refusal in the general American public than we’ve seen perhaps since the ’60s. Generations of especially white Americans raised on a narrative of civic engagement are being urged to call their senators and to vote, but also learning the power in just not: not attending the rally, not turning on the TV to give the speech its ratings; not buying from the store that donates to the candidate you don’t like. Stop going home for the holidays to parents who would see your loved ones incarcerated or deported, we (the children of white middle-class families) are advised; lose your kin. I find an illustrated essay on the internet about a passenger plane flight being used to transport migrant children separated from their families for detention. What would it take, the piece asks, for the flight attendant to refuse to seat them? For the pilot to refuse to take off? How do we get to a place, it asks, where our natural response to being asked to work for something sick is refusal? A new organization has begun a campaign to convince ICE employees to quit their jobs, promising to help make the process manageable. History is full of people who just didn’t. How many does it take for something that needs badly to fall apart to do so?

What’s difficult to see from the outside looking in is how hard it is to just not. We do, many of us, love what we do. Many of us love to work — I reminisce with my friend about how much I loved food service, the deep satisfaction of preparing everything just right and watching hungry people get full; if only it weren’t for the punishing hours and abusive customers and desperately hoping for tips so I could make rent. After the revolution, I joke, I hope I get to make coffee and sandwiches for free. We love what we do, at least sometimes; we love the people our work provides for — the teachers and nurses who strike are worried about their students and patients as well, moreso than the critics who feel like they’re abandoning them. We love the idea of stability we feel working hard and well might afford; in a culture obsessed with the bootstraps fantasy, it can be hard even for those who know better to totally abandon it. There’s something beyond those logistical attachments, though; a way in which work makes a kind of home for us, a birds’ nest painstakingly pieced together out of scraps and found matter. You could call it a sunk cost fallacy, or Stockholm syndrome, or you could see something more human in it: that the American religion of work is a disease and that at the same time work is a kind of devotion, and devotion is the backbone of love.

The year after my divorce I am tired in a way I could never have imagined before, but I can’t stop working. I spend my time between tasks thinking about how I can find more work; I’m deeply over frivolous problems and unnecessary interpersonal backbending and yet can’t stop seeking them out, desperate for more to solve, to fix. I ask for homework in therapy, frustrated when I’m not assigned books to read or dysfunctional coping mechanisms to research and am instead told to sit with my feelings. I should be relieved at finally completing a seemingly endless interstate separation and finally living independently, part of a network of people who love me; I am, and I also feel a kind of grief that’s bigger than my marriage or the end of it. Like many people who grew up the way I did — eldest daughter, child of an unstable parent, overachieving millennial, pick your poison — I had always believed that if I worked hard enough, did everything right, I could keep everything going, make everything work. I had spent so long being so committed to that edict I had never wanted to consider its inverse: If I stopped working, everything could fall apart. I have proven it true, in this instance; when I stopped doing the heavy lifting in my marriage, it collapsed. If I could lose that, what else can I lose? What else in my life is being held together only by my round-the-clock effort, gone the moment I relax my grip?

Lately there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Amazon strike last year in Shakopee; WIRED’s profile on it and the East African immigrants who led it then and still do now came out last month.

“I’ve had many jobs,” [Rep. Ilhan Omar] told the crowd. “I cleaned offices, I worked on assembly lines, I was even a security guard once. I’ve had jobs where we did not have enough breaks, where we used to try to go to the bathroom just so that we could pray.” The East African community, she said, demanded better. “Amazon doesn’t work if you don’t work,” she said. “It’s about time we make Amazon understand that.”

Since their initial walkout in 2018, the Somali-led workers’ group has “staged walkouts, brought management to the negotiating table twice, demanded concessions to accommodate Muslim religious practice, and commanded national attention;” the Awood Center, named from the Somali word for power, was also just covered in the New York Times. The workers who have organized with the Awood Center have also seen retaliatory firings, suffered threats from managers and alienation from fellow workers. They’ve made it clear they will continue their campaign.

There’s a saying that anything that could be destroyed by the truth should be; it suggests a cousin proverb, that what could be destroyed by your declining to break your back over it should be. There is so much held together at the seams only by the worst kind of work — not the labor of production, creation, or caretaking, but of smoothing over, choking back, reaching past any limits to be that which will sustain something unsustainable. The scope of it is so vast as to be truly challenging to even process. The power that so many of us have to change the deeply fucked systems we’re part of by abstaining from them — a more active and dangerous prospect than the language makes it sound — is immense, and it is terrifying. It is harder to do than is possible to explicate here; it is the most honest work there is. ⚡

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1099 articles for us.

39 Comments

  1. Rachel this essay is astonishing.

    The start-stop choices of our hearts, our brains, our hands.

    The way we build to give ourselves a space in which to be, to feel, but then find out we’re building on quicksand that greedily gobbles all our endeavors, and gulping chunks of time as well.

    I’m busy filing divorce papers – the capitalist interpretation of what we built. That feels less real than the memory of my body saying no, enough. No more, I have been pushed too far.
    And yet, that interpretation determines where my body goes. The personal, the political, our bodies of being are intertwined.

    Rachel, my words pale, but your love and your labor are so evident, so powerful, in your ability to say, and also to say NO.

  2. Thank you, Rachel, for this reminded of the power of nonparticipation. As a teenager and young adult I often opted out- of dating, of driving, of consuming. Now as a middle-aged adult with a partner and kids, sometimes I take the easier route of just doing the thing. But sometimes, I’ll take this as a reminded, that it is okay to just not.

  3. It’s only 11am and I’ve already read this three times, and I’m sure that — like all of your other essays — I will revisit it endlessly over the next many years. I feel so lucky to know you and so forever grateful to get to engage with your mind and heart and work.

  4. I feel that after the great “No” lies a great silence, a darkness, a void, if you will. Many of us find yesses to avoid the emptiness. It takes great courage for that kind of weightlessness, something you have in spades.
    Wonderful and thought inspiring piece, Rachel.
    <3

    • As a fellow try-hard, I’ve started to let things go and say no more, as difficult as that is. Let people be mad, let them miss you, let go of that dream I inhereted from someone else. I’m burnt out and I was so afraid everything would fall apart if I made decisions based on what I actually need in my life and it hasn’t happened. There’s an element of ego that covers up the void there– if I can be useful, I can be valuable. And when I started letting go of that stuff, it turned out I wasn’t that important. There’s where the fear of refusing comes from sometimes. It’s actually pretty great not to be needed though.

  5. Rachel I so appreciate this. I did not get divorced this year but I did get fired from a job I had poured myself into for 5 years, a non-profit I gave my heart and soul to build believing that the white, wealthy folks who ran it actually gave a damn. I discovered that the industry itself is full of white, wealthy people creating jobs for other white, slightly less wealthy people on the condition that they not actually try to change too much about the systems that they claim to want to break down. It has felt like a terrible breakup and a loss of innocence all at once. And so your meditation on “just not” is very powerfully and deeply received. I wish for so many queer, Black & brown, and other marginalized young people who are seeking purpose and try to find it in non-profits…that we could just not prop up this system that treats us like so many tokens and diverts money from actually solving the world’s problems.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your heart with us.

  6. this was so good, fuck. i’ve been going through a lot of changes recently, including a long and painful breakup and huge career decisions, and this line just got me:
    “To refuse to participate often takes much more dedicated effort than continuing as usual; it’s a risky endeavor, to just not.” as i choose to not engage in the things that are preventing me to move forward, i feel myself second-guessing the decisions and wanting to reverse them, like, every day. i’m probably going to come back to this piece many times over the next few months, thank you for sharing.

  7. WHEW this is so GOOD. I literally just stood up from my desk and applauded after reading this.

    Reminds me of the title of another piece I read recently: “This changes everything, if we let it.” There is soooooo much power waiting to be unleashed here, if we all start experimenting with Just Not.

    WHEW. Thank you, Rachel!!!!!!

  8. rachel, i have no words. thank you for forever for your essays – i am fucking honored to know you and grateful every day for your genius brain and your endlessly generous heart. we don’t deserve you. <3

  9. Wow, I’m going to be mulling over all of this, but particularly the line “There is so much held together at the seams only by the worst kind of work — not the labor of production, creation, or caretaking, but of smoothing over, choking back, reaching past any limits to be that which will sustain something unsustainable.” Wow wow wow. That’s going in the “things to talk about with therapist” note in my phone, I can tell you that much. Thank you for writing and sharing all of this.

  10. My husband was once loving and caring but to a point he stopped and totally forsake me, he wasn’t having time for me because he was having an affair, all he was, i was so devastated that i didn’t know what to do. I did love him so much, even when he was still not caring and was cheating i couldn’t leave cause i still loved him, i sorted for help from every where i could to have my husband back, i luckily found Robinson Buckler who was helping people out on relationship and marriage issues. I went on and contacted him, i explained what i was going through in my marriage, then he assured me that he would help me, i did all that he instructed me to do and then he told me that my husband would return to me after some days, i waited patiently and after some days passed my husband came home one evening and started apologizing to me to forgive him for how he had been treating me, i was so surprised beyond words that i can’t thank this you enough. Write this name Robinsonbuckler {@} yahoo. com

  11. I saw the word “divorced” and my heart froze and said let’s put this aside to read later. Well, later is now, it seems. So much of your journey is like mine, the endless ever-increasing caretaking just for starters.

    When I got to this part I thought Yes! Reading this is so affirming, because this will be in my near future and I can’t wait :

    “There’s the quiet indescribable joy of washing only your own coffee cup, cleaning only your own dirt off the floor”

    However, that was just the tip of the iceberg. I’m tired to the point of losing my mind, losing my memory, losing my metabolism. The shitty life I led until I said no. My passive resistance saved me, I guess, I hope. Maybe it wasn’t so passive, to look at the umpteenth episode of silent treatment and finally see that it was actually wonderful, why should I try to fix it ? And that led me to finally let go of it all, to abdicate from my role as superhero-martyr, and just let everything break.

    I’m just now accepting that this was not a failure on my part, I need not feel humiliated (though I do, still). I’m not lazy or careless or a bad worker for letting this particular machine break down.

    I do worry that I may have triggered a countdown in my body by being so sad for so long.

  12. Thank for your sharing. It’s hard to articulate how great this is, but truly, it is astonishing. Fingers crossed to read more original content from you in the near future, should you feel able to.

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