Last weekend, as I was in the middle of dumping a wheelbarrow full of seaweed back into the ocean, I had a flashback to my first-year literature course. Specifically, I thought about Sisyphus.
Sisyphus, as you may well recall, was a royal fellow who was punished by the gods for being too self-aggrandizing. His punishment was to roll a massive boulder up a hill and, when he had nearly completed his task, the boulder would roll down to the bottom of the hill and he would have to begin all over again. Labour to roll that heavy thing up a hill, watch that heavy thing succumb to gravity and the whim of things more powerful that you. That was Sisyphus’s lot.
I learned about Sisyphus in my introduction to literature course, and it was not the classical version, but Camus’s rendition, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus’s spin on the story figures Sisyphus as an absurdist hero of sorts. There goes Sisyphus! Doing it! Even though it is going to need doing again!
I remember being fascinating with both the story and the fact that a writer could come along and make a familiar story their own. Surely, I had encountered some version of this before–through memory, or family history, or any other oral story telling–but for whatever reason Sisyphus stuck in my mind.
And there was the story again last week, with me as I raked and gathered wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of seaweed, rocks, and sticks that had been washed up from the ocean during the most recent hurricane. Rake, gather, lift, wheel, dump, repeat.
There is something strange about raking seaweed off a lawn and dumping it back into the ocean. Perhaps it is the uncanny knowledge that almost certainly you’ll be doing it again soon. Maybe it is the total respect for things stronger than yourself–ocean, wind, storms. Rake, gather, lift, wheel, dump, repeat.
My work went on for several hours. As my arms grew tired and then eventually started to shake, as my heart rate elevated and I sweat and sweat and sweat some more, as I had to take more breaks for water and to fix the blisters on my hands, a strange thing happened. I leaned into the work. I enjoyed it, even. While I know that it is work that will just be done again, there was a sense of accomplishment as hauled more and more seaweed back to the ocean. With this sense of accomplishment, and with my memories of Sisyphus on the edge of my mind, I thought about how I tend to launch into each new semester with the energy of a person being chased–and how that energy is unsustainable.
The structure of academia–its possibilities, its tacit knowledges, its restrictions and limitations–means that there are times (many times) that the work feels repetitive and endless. But, as I raked, gathered, lifted, and dumped over and over again, I remembered that there are more narratives of repetition and perseverance than Sisyphus alone. Many more. Most, at least in my memory archive, are feminist stories of perseverance.
Feminist work is perseverance work. It, like other kinds of justice work, requires certain kinds of repetition. It is, I think, endless labour.
And when I stopped to think about feminist work in the space of the academy–the place where I will perhaps labour for the entirety of my adult life–I remembered a key difference between Sisyphus and the seaweed I was hauling. That seaweed feeds the garden. It is nutritive and organize. What I rake up next time won’t be the same. The labour might feel the same, but it won’t be identical. And the work? Its necessary and nutritive too. I just need to remember to stop more often, to rest, to drink water, and to reflect.
If you need that too, here is a wonderful reminder from poet Kaitlyn Boulding called “Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up.”