Ways of Seeing: Pondering bread, smelling the roses

Ah, the simple pleasures of summer: a cup of coffee, salt air, a sunny deck and the best vegan oatmeal raspberry bar I have ever tasted. Why sun and coffee? That needs no explanation. Why the salt air? Because while summer in Vermont is indeed a gift from the gods, it is imperfect — Neptune knows — without a weekend visit to the ocean.

Why a vegan oatmeal raspberry bar? Well, that’s another column, but suffice it to say that if you care an iota about climate change and have not yet pondered the relationship between agriculture, the food we eat and the rapid warming of the planet, it is worth doing a little summer research and reflection. Even deciding to eat less meat than you already do is a step in the right direction. Once you take the first step, the rest is as easy as an oat bar.

Now back to the pure deliciousness of that oat bar . . . sweet brown sugar crispy on the outside, a moist infusion of fresh raspberries on the inside and just a hint of salt on the surface to match the soft-salt morning air. Pure bliss. Alas, the bakery in question is not underwriting this column, but it is worth a mention should you happen to find yourself in Southern Maine:

Bread and Roses Bakery. You can tell them I sent you.

Does the phrase “Bread and Roses” ring a bell? I asked the same question to some family members last weekend as we played that popular summer evening party game of “the curse of an academic relative” (I was sensible enough to bring some bakery samples along).

Some great theories were launched, from “bread and circuses” to “let them eat cake” to “is it related to Joan Baez?” To the extent that oppression, liberation and music all emerged as themes, the collective contributions proved to be on the right track. Now I’ll let you in on the rest.

“Bread and Roses,” is the title of a poem written by James Oppenheim, a poet and novelist who was blacklisted for his pacifist opposition to fighting in World War I. Oppenheim’s poem was first published in “The American Magazine” in 1911, made its way into other magazines of the day and was ultimately anthologized in Upton Sinclair’s 1915 collection, “The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.” Only later were these lyrics set to music, first by Caroline Kohlsaat in 1917 and later, in 1974, by Mimi Fariña, the younger sister of Joan Baez.

The call for “bread, but roses too” is widely associated with the Lawrence, Mass., women’s textile workers strike of 1912, with many continuing to refer to the Lawrence campaign as the “bread and roses strike.” Historians, however, take pains to point out that the “bread and roses strike” is a misnomer. The strike did not inspire Oppenheim’s poem (which was published before the strike began), nor has any documentary evidence surfaced of “bread and roses” messages on display in the streets of Lawrence. Nevertheless, both earlier versions of the phrase and the underlying sentiments expressed by this demand were already circulating among working women in Chicago, New York, Boston and beyond.

What were these sentiments? The Lawrence millworkers (largely young Irish and Italian immigrants) took to the streets calling for better pay and safer working conditions, demands grounded in the grueling reality that roughly 36 percent of the millworkers in Lawrence died before they reached the age of 25. Safety and a living wage constituted the “bread” they sought for their survival.

But these courageous women also fought for the right to be treated with dignity and respect (a genteel phrasing often referring to the sexual harassment that was common practice on the factory floor). Included in the quest for dignity, was the fight for more time to enjoy the simple tasks of reading, making music, being in nature and enjoying the company of friends. These are the “roses” that we all need along alongside of our bread.

In a 1912 essay for “Life and Labor,” the official journal of the Women’s Trade Union League, longtime workers-rights activist Rose Schneiderman called on wealthier (mostly white, Protestant) women to join in the fight for the women’s right to vote in order to help the conditions of poor, working women. She, too, articulated the “bread and roses” theme: “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

Schneiderman’s words ring true for so many of us today, as we contemplate who has basic rights and liberties in our world and who does not. And when I ponder the state of our nation in 2019, I am helped by taking the longer historical view that Schneiderman’s essay calls to mind: my grandmother (a suffragette) was born into a world where she did not have the right to vote. I may angst about who to vote for, but the exercise of my fundamental right to vote is not, so far, in question.

As I reflect on the troubled, yet inspiring, history that is mixed into my seemingly innocent raspberry oat bar, I find myself thinking about the kind of “bread and roses” summer it has been, for me, and perhaps for many of us. Concerns about bread in the form of fundamental human rights and liberties have shaped the emotional contours of many a summer day.

The social and environmental justice news has not been good: children in detention camps, unprecedented heat waves in Europe disproportionally afflicting — as always — those who do not have the means to mitigate or escape the heat. Even as I write this, I fight off the incoming news (and the incoming tears) of yet another mass murder inflicted in the name of white supremacy. It is hard to know what to do or even what to think.  I ask myself: “How do I take in these harsh realities? How do I discern my own best course in fighting these injustices?”

And then, the roses part: “Is it still O.K. to set aside the news and pause to watch the play of the sun and the wind on the cattails in my back yard? Is it, in fact, perhaps essential to do just that?” When I think of the highlights of my summer, I think of the turtle eggs that I uncovered — and then re-covered — in my outdoor compost pile and the tiny chipping sparrow’s nest I found tucked into a nook in our blue spruce tree (that began as a one dollar seedling mailed from the Arbor Foundation). I think about the mid-July morning when our sheep, Colene, put her head in my lap thereby making it blissfully impossible to even think about checking my email.

Yes, let us bake our bread (and vegan oat bars), whether actual, metaphorical or both. And let us absolutely fight — each in our own way, as best we can — for the basic bread (food, rights and justice) that is so often kept from our neighbors. But let us not forget the roses, the ones we want to plant for others and the ones blooming right in front of us on these beautiful August days in Vermont.

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep. This essay is dedicated to the memory of friend, classmate and fellow religion scholar, Anne E. Monius, Professor of South Asian Religions, Harvard Divinity School (February 17, 1964 – August 3, 2019).

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