Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Scholar, writer, editor

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Not everyone can afford “mindfulness”: Freelancing and the things the self-care industry takes for granted

A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.

By all accounts, my life is stressful. I’m balancing both finishing a PhD and getting married via a highly international, cross-cultural wedding in the next year, with applying for jobs, and setting up what the next academic project will be. My current moment life is in some ways the most stable, least hectic and least stressful, and most supported period of my life thus far. For the first time in a very long time, I’m not working multiple jobs, or commuting hours per week and watching the cost of doing work eat into the earnings of said work. I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to live, or if I need a week of relying on public transportation or even taxis if I don’t have the energy to walk around the city dragging twenty books with me everywhere. I’m supported by both my fiancé and my college in such a way that my basic needs – and beyond – are taken care of. Because of this, I can afford to have weekly therapy appointments and take yoga classes on average four times a week, and visit a physical therapist as needed to deal with the mental, emotional, and physical ramifications of a stressful life while also being a productive scholar, writing when I want to, and doing volunteer work I care about. I am incredibly privileged to be able to put my mental, physical, and emotional health first, in a holistic way, the way in which the current attitude towards “wellness” or “mindfulness” peddles as the secret to happiness in an ever-more precarious world.

From college campuses to corporate strategy to what feels like every fifth Instagram hashtag, “wellness” and “mindfulness” sometimes seem to have replaced the chi bracelets and essential oils of several years ago (never mind yoga-as-cure-for-all-ills) as the “health” movements du jour. It’s a wonderful fantasy – if only we could all just tap into a sense of inner peace, live our lives more deliberately, well, we’d all be so much healthier. We’d all just be able to put aside our stress and insecurity and precarity and be happy with what we have. Again, it is a wonderful, wishful fantasy, that the right mindset is all one needs to overcome all odds.

However, it is also an attitude towards health, and what it means to be healthy in society, that is highly problematic in the face of structural inequities that consistently undermine the security of society’s most vulnerable, on top of being incredibly classist, racist, and ableist, as well as often Orientalizing or co-opting specific cultural practices to fit Western narratives of “wellness.” Like most “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” arguments, such thinking puts the onus on the people struggling to “just do better”: as such it is a form of victim-blaming that ignores that it is only possible to buy into these movements if you are not struggling just to cover your basic needs.  One very concrete example of this as explored by Christine Byrne for HuffPost US is the swell of “simple” or “budget-friendly” cooking tips, to keep children and families healthy. However, as Byrne explores, most of these tips and cookbooks actually ignore that such practices as bulk-buying and relying on instant pot recipes require a certain amount of time and money that the proponents of such measures take for granted while essentially pointing a finger and crying “why don’t they just…” in the direction of people struggling. A budget crockpot or slow-cooker on Amazon is about $40 – the most inexpensive instant pot I could find was about $68. The fact of the matter is that if you already work multiple jobs and are still not sure about being able to feed yourself, you are not going to be dropping that kind of money on an appliance. Essentially, the attitude to “wellness” and “mindfulness” are the same – you need to have your basic needs secure (think the base of the pyramid from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) before you can start to think about self-actualization.

When we direct people to wellness and mindfulness, under the guise of just practicing self-care, we are making a lot of assumptions about both their health and their resources while putting the onus on them to deal with adversity better, rather than addressing the causes of adversity in the first place. Telling someone to meditate or practice mindfulness as a way to “cure” their anxiety regarding their financial precarity is a bit like telling someone to light some incense to “cure” a broken arm because they cannot afford the hospital bill. It doesn’t work. While practices like meditation have greatly improved my own life, I am very aware that it is in part because I’m not in a precarious position, and I have an actual doctor that I work with on my mental health as well. My self-care is expensive – maybe it shouldn’t be, but it doesn’t change the fact that ignoring the expense related to such care will not fix the systemic problems that contribute to poor mental health among freelancers and other precarious workers. The only way to fix those problems is to stop focusing on ‘life-hacks’ and shortcuts, and start demanding change in terms of how freelancers are undervalued and even then still do not get paid on time. In other words, it’s not about making self-care ‘affordable’ or ‘accessible’ or something that can ‘be done quickly on your own time,’ if the wellness industry actually cares about the mental health and wellbeing for people facing precarity it needs to start using its considerable voice to advocate for systemic change.

The Juggle: when downtime is work time

A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.

I remember the first day I got back into a newsroom – it was like being back at my college newspaper, truly one of my happy places. Newsprint has a very distinct smell, the ink specifically, and when it is piled and stacked everywhere it can have the same effect as walking into one’s favorite coffeeshop. It hits your nose, and you just perk up a little, and the buzz around you of many people all working on different parts of one specific goal gets under your skin a little bit. As enlivening and wonderful as this feels, however, being in that newsroom was not just about a higher calling to serve the fourth estate in my little corner of the world. I was, at the end of the day, in it for the paycheck. Between graduate programs and bored with my shop-job, I was so happy when the opportunity to do something I loved appeared, but precarity is a real problem. Labors of love and duty and purpose can take a long time to show dividends – if they ever do. And so, even working two jobs I needed to supplement my income, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to add yet another set-but-variable-weekly-schedule.

Adding some freelancing seemed the obvious choice. In theory, I would have control over my time, my assignments, my rates – I could decide what my time and knowledge were worth. And after all, so many people constantly seemed ready to ask questions about writing or editing or social media, or ask for favors, or a quick look at something, well, of course there was a market waiting to be tapped, right? Well, let’s just say that early-enquirers reactions to the lower end of the Freelancers’ Union’s suggested rates were as good as cold water to the face to break me out of any illusion that adding this on to the rest of my life was going to be easy. But like with anything, you have to decide what you want, and how much it matters to you – so you learn to face those moments and make the negatives, positives. You pivot; instead of trying to argue your worth, you learn to answer the “why should I pay you for something that I can do myself” with, “okay, then do it yourself.” Instead of chasing private clients, you learn how to network online and look for calls for pitches. You stop being scared of rejection, of being wrong. And for me, the biggest thing, was learning that actually, I did have things to say – things that I needed to pull out of myself after two other jobs, after long days and being devalued by others, and that writing and engaging with the world and being able to work on my own terms was a certain kind of self-care. One of the hardest things about freelancing is that it is not necessarily a cure for precarity – in some ways, the fine line between supplemental income and the gig economy, and the even finer one between the gig economy and exploitation, make you even more precarious. People don’t pay – individuals or companies, so it can become a drain on both your time and your own money chasing what is owed. You become mentally drained and exhausted because downtime from the work you do for other people starts to feel like time you should be spending working for yourself, in order to build something that gets you out of the precarity and somewhere more financially stable. While sometimes you find that moment or project that makes everything worth it, more often than not, the grind of both the 9 to 5 and the freelance hustle would just wear me down.

And yet, I would not trade it – even now, even having moved on from that life, of being torn between a shop and a newsroom and other gigs and still trying to find the time for myself. There’s something about doing a job well, doing it quickly, and cleanly, and seeing it put into the world, that is absolutely satisfying – a small way to break up the routine, a way to find a piece of satisfaction (however fleeting) in the routine of survival, a way to always, always know my own worth and that, actually, I can say know to things that don’t honor that. As the economy continues to shift to nonpermanent labor, it is really easy to be convinced that freelancers are somehow expendable because there are so many of us, that there will always be someone with a lower rate and you don’t want to lose the money. But I think that is what makes ‘making it’ whatever that means to any freelancer even better. Because when you hit your own personal metric, it has nothing to do with anyone’s standards but yours.

Who has an Entitlement to In-Person Family

This piece was originally published on Medium on 25 May 2020.

Can you really be family if you need to spend time apart? I know that, at least from the reactions from the general public in the UK, and the exact points of indignation regarding the Cummings fiasco* in terms of rule breaking versus public endangerment and government-allowed mass death, the sticking point seems to be the idea of “the rule.” The idea of “not being allowed’’ to see family that has become ill or being able to mourn those who have passed, while he “got to” seems to be more of an issue than the fact that so many have needlessly become ill or died as a point of government neglect. In essence, the biggest impediment to feeling “normal” here seems to be being told to not see family, in a society that seems to have put a particular emphasis on physically seeing family, even if it is the best course of action to keep everyone – especially at risk family members safe. There is an entitlement to seeing who you want when you want at play here, something I think that is very much reflective of how insular some sections of society can be, not only here, with no true scale of what life is like for so many people in the world as a matter of normalcy.

I remember when I knew that we were different growing up. It wasn’t because some other child said something about the way I looked or asked if I was really an American (though those things, of course, both happened more than once). It was when every year around major holidays and school breaks, kids would come back from school, and they would talk about not just vacations, but vacations with aunts and uncles, seeing their cousins, and spending time with grandparents – and how much that access to face-to-face time with extended family was taken for granted. Learning to counter questions like “is your grandma dead” because that was the only rational some people could settle on for why we weren’t off to the grandparents’ house at Christmas or Easter was an early lesson. But like many other students whose parents might have chosen to live in the US from somewhere else, seeing grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles every year simply was not a given. But that never meant we weren’t close to them.

Every birthday, every holiday, meant calls from relatives around the globe – they would be very quick, especially before Reliance and other global services were a thing – but nevertheless, it is how I met and developed relationships with aunts and uncles and cousins, with my grandparents and their generation of siblings. I met my grandfather once in my life, but I nevertheless felt incredibly close to him. That in-person meeting was reinforced by conversations, the interest he took in me from afar. When I was able to see my grandmother in person again a couple winters ago, well, it had been 23 years apart. And yet, the familial closeness remains. My family is far from unique; we’re simply global, like many other families who find themselves in that position by either choice or circumstances. We span continents; we have learned that there is no distance that cannot be bridged. We know that sometimes when you leave, you end up being gone far longer than you meant to; it doesn’t change the fact that the family bonds are still there. And also, as much as wants might play into anything – wanting to go home, wanting to see and hug the people who mean most to you – well, want has nothing to do with what is right for all.

My biggest fear is that, in pursuing a degree in another country and getting married there too, I’ll have left my home for longer than I intended simply because it is not so simple to just fly back and forth between the US and the UK right now. Forgetting the logistics of it – the ethics of it are far too much to bear. There has been no question since January, as our wedding RSVPs started arriving, that our wants and our plans would be completely secondary to the global situation. Our lives and our families are global. It was no longer a balancing act of easiest places for the most people to fly into taking into account various levels of xenophobia versus approval to enter the country. It was a deadly calculus; do we wait and risk old age and circumstance meaning that some of our most dear cannot be part of the celebration, or do we risk holding a global super-spreader event that would likely cost our loved ones their health, if not their lives. Framed that way, there was not even a question, or even multiple courses of actions. Personal wants, whatever we think our ‘freedoms’ might be or what we feel entitled to as a ‘normal’ course of action, need to be put aside when such wants and entitlements put other people at risk, no matter how odd the times or how disruptive they might feel. To do anything to try to rush past this fact, for the sake of personal wants, is nothing short of selfish, nothing short of lacking awareness of what kind of hells so many others have gone through and what they have sacrificed.

Unprecedented is a word that gets thrown around a lot right now. And it is not really accurate – its not accurate at all actually. It simply is the easy way of sidestepping the phrase “things like this aren’t meant to happen to people like ‘us.’” Despite SARS, MERS, H1N1, and Ebola all happening in recent memory, despite refugee crisis upon crisis, natural disasters, worsening impacts from climate change, and so many other ills, on top of the ‘normal’ postcolonial phenomenon of people risking everything and moving across countries with no idea of when they might see their families again in search of a better chance, some people have no concept of separation, of the difference between a ‘want’ and an entitlement. It gets wrapped up in what multiple experts in recent weeks have referred to as a ‘childish’ conceptualization of freedom, to be sure, but also, in a very odd cultural construction where rule following is about the image of following the rules, while also internalizing a feeling that this is done out of one’s good graces, but really, they don’t have to do what they are doing.

Entitlements are all about exceptions – all the reasons why draconian rules should not apply to an individual. It’s not about what someone is allowed to do but rather, the ways in which they have the the ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ to be above the rules, because of who they are inherently. When something that seems like an intrinsic part of life is suddenly limited, of course it is difficult to bear. But in those moments there is a choice: we can either dig our heels in and challenge the forces that we see as impeding our ‘rights’, or we can embrace the opportunity to consider what other peoples’ lives might be like. The bitter truth is that in this modern world, more people have to leave their loved ones behind – live, love, die and mourn without being ever able to be near them – than get to hold both their futures and their pasts. This is a chance to reflect on the fact that what is normal for some, is not really, the ‘normal’ for all. This is not to say that isolation is easy, or that the new world of pandemics that probably could have been prepared for is something that doesn’t require significant adjustment. It is to say, however, that the obsession with rule following versus a personal understanding of a duty to communities in difficult time is something, quite frankly, that a lot of people need to grapple a little harder with before bemoaning the length of current lockdowns in envy of those who are openly breaking them.

Isolation is hard; I merely struggle with the situation I have known my entire life, worrying if I have accidentally left another branch of my family in a way that I will not be with them for many more years than planned. But I’m a third-culture kid who grew up in a global family before internet-tech made these relationships easier to bear: I have the tools to survive that. It is downright painful for so many friends and acquaintances who are in epicenters, who are without other humans in their households, who are without their friends and found-families and have been without them for months. And I watch as these friends and acquaintances screech their anguish into various voids, and then in the same breath reiterate their same commitment to bearing the loneliness for the good of their societies. I have the tools to handle prolonged isolation from family, like every immigrant does, like every child of immigrants does. And this is not specific to immigrants; this is a skill that can be developed with acceptance that the world you live in is different from the way you might think it should have been. Entitlement, however, is insisting that you don’t have to learn to use the skill, because you’re not like those people who do have to, who have to build different networks, and get by with different, made and found families – and then without them too – every day. Entitlement is focusing on the rules, and who broke them, and who gets to do so with impunity, who gets to lie about it, and how unfair that is, without looking at the bigger picture. One day I’ll hug my family again. One day I’ll go home, and friends will no longer be completely alone in their spaces and we’ll feel a little better about breathing fresh air together. But until then, there will be phone calls and video chats, texts and snail mail, and I will also keep thinking about the next country I might just be calling myself an immigrant in, and continuing the pattern of distant closeness without the entitlement to being family-in-person, but being a family nonetheless.

* the breaking lockdown multiple times fiasco, not any of the other ones — I know, it is hard to keep track

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