So, it’s an educators’ conference. You can imagine, we are caught in our business casual pastel prints and scarves, pencil skirts and ballet flats. All but two of us are women, all educators, ages 23 to 60. This is the Jewish Women’s Archive’s summer Institute for Educators, and we’re here to learn more about the role of Jews in the Labor Movement. Now we’re in a breakout group. Scattered across the floor are 8 X 11 sheets with big, bold print, one word each. And the instructor says:
“This lesson is designed to have you explore what early labor activists meant when they said they wanted ‘bread and roses.’”
Washable Crayola markers make the rounds. We put down our laptops and smart phones. “On each sheet of paper is a word. Write down whatever comes to your mind for each new word, or draw a picture. Ready? Go!”
We take leapfrog steps over one another, moving word to word. We scurry across the carpet on our hands and knees, adjusting our skirts to stay modest.
I see “Strike” and draw a picture of a hand raised in a fist. I crawl to “Drudgery” and write “Endless,” then to “Education” and write “Opportunity.”
Work, Leisure, Need, Want
Culture, Play, Living, Choice
On “Money,” I write “never enough;” at “Respect,” I’m humming Aretha Franklin – R E S P E C T. For “Oppression,” I draw heavy chains; for “Dignity,” a proud face gazing straight forward, meeting my eyes. Beauty, Fresh Air, Choice, Free time, Union, Rights and…. I pause at “Sustenance.”
What to write for “Sustenance”?
I am caught in a picture: dancing with my daughters, the smallest one in my arms, the five-year old holding my hand as we spin and spin.
I start to draw, but the thick, blue marker can’t convey the simple joy of that moment.
“Let’s finish up,” calls the instructor. “Find a word that speaks to you right now, for whatever reason, and carry it back to your seat.”
I pick up “Sustenance” and cradle it. I walk back to my chair on the edge of the room as we resume our places, sitting and listening for the next direction.
“Turn your papers over. Write about whatever comes to mind about the idea you chose. You will be reading these out loud and sharing them with the group.”
I pick up the pen.
Maybe I should use the marker. The woman next to me has a yellow one. Is “Sustenance” yellow or blue?
I begin to write. I don’t describe that image: my daughters’ hearts and trust in flight on the wooden floor of the dining room, evening sun reflecting on the Sabbath candlesticks. The sound of the water running in the kitchen as my husband does the dishes. I see small feet with painted pink nails leaping into the air, and I feel the fingers from my younger daughter’s hand twined within my hair. A song catches in my throat and we laugh.
I am so far away from them. The scent of that dancing rose pricks at my heart, and I cannot believe it has a place in this windowless conference room. Yet this learning also sustains me. And it brings bread to our table.
Instead, I write about the meta concept and share the big picture. It is well received by pastel print and pencil skirt alike, but I’ve skipped over the truth.
The women who stood in the snow calling for a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work knew that “Hearts starve as well as bodies/Give us bread, but give us roses, too!” When we seek sustenance, we must feed not only the hunger of our bodies, but the hunger of our hearts as well. While learning and working staves some of the hunger of my heart, the core of me belongs to my daughters.
Despite what the media may shout about the “Mommy Wars,” we women, Working and Stay-at-Home, understand that each makes her own choices for her own family. Embracing each other’s choices means we cannot define sustenance for any other woman. It means knowing that each woman satisfies her hunger in her own way. For me, that means I come home from learning, reach into the evening light, catch the small bird bodies of my daughters and gather them up into my heart. Rocking them to sleep, I murmur, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”
This piece was first posted on Noshing Confessions and will be broadcast on "51%" out of WAMC Northeast Public Radio on NPR Sirius, Armed Forces Radio and some ABC affiliates.