One of the first paid jobs I had was collecting eggs at a chicken farm. I was thrilled to be offered this job, and at 50 pence an hour it was, at the time, pretty good money. I think I lasted a summer. The chicken sheds filled with rust-coloured birds that viciously guarded their eggs were intimidating. When you stepped inside the vast hangar, dust swirling like sleet in the light, you had to clap your hands to move the hens away from their precious hordes. More often than not, they stayed put, when this happened, and I recall this being vividly demonstrated, you had to go in and fling them off the nest boxes.
The technique required for dethroning a chicken required you to grab one of its wings at the joint and hurl the bird into the centre of the shed with one hand while you reached into the box with the other for the egg treasure. I watched farm workers, young and old, retrieve dozens of eggs with effortless ease. They had sorted their trophies into trays of different sizes while I was still scuttling my way down one side of the shed with my scarf across my mouth and my eyes half-closed against what I was certain would be a full-blooded chicken face fight.
The hens sensed my ineptitude and each time I reached gingerly into one of their boxes, with my teeth gritted, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t get attacked, they went for me. Every time. I wore two jumpers and a coat, but always my arm was pecked and by the time I got home the marks had become horrible red welts.
Terrifying as the sheds were, they were nothing compared to the battery cages where three or four miserable white birds were crammed into wire spaces no bigger than a hamster cage. Nearly all these birds were raw bald and instead of the eager brightness belonging to the shed birds their eyes had a desperate kind of shine. They smelled of sick. Come to think of it, the whole place smelled of sick, like a hospital ward during an epidemic. That combined with the memory of the soft feel of the eggs that had developed a pouch instead of a shell still makes my stomach turn.
I tried to remain stoic and practical – at thirteen I needed the pocket money – but the sheer grimness of this job gave me bad dreams and made me panic at the thought of the throat-closing stuffiness of the sheds. Once I realised that I actually hated this job, I never went back.
I’ve had other jobs since that have infected my dreams and made me ill. I left a well-paid job that made me feel I was being sucked down and under a lukewarm pond never to be seen again. I rejected full-time permanent work at an office that had employed me part-time as a freelance. I walked out of another office and well-paid position that I might have kept had I enlisted support, but I was sick of living the job that was making me sick.
Recently, the idea of healthy work has been cropping up in conversations with people I care about. It has become a bit of a theme and led me to read again David Whyte’s wonderful study of work and identity: Crossing the Unknown Sea.
Whyte, who left the corporate world to pursue poetry full-time, is eloquent on why going against oneself in one’s choice of work is the worst kind of self-sabotage. We come awake, he says, when we find work that is our own; we come alive when we find the thing to which we can give our full potential. Whyte recalls a late-night conversation over a bottle of wine with his friend, a monk he calls Brother David. The monk listens patiently to Whyte’s own story of unwholesome, soul-sapping, weary work and advises him: ‘You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’
Whyte rather ‘woodenly’ asks his friend what the answer is and receives this reply: ‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’
That evening is the beginning of a sea change for Whyte who ends up redesigning his job and then following his dream of becoming a poet. He is now in demand as a poet and speaker all over the world.
His message is really quite simple, but so difficult to put into practice because it requires a leap of faith. To work with all of your heart is to work with courage, and to work with courage is to come alive. Anything less is going to make us sicken for what we truly need.
In many ways my entire working life has been a quest to avoid exhaustion and to find work that is quite literally good for my heart. I’m still making mistakes and still getting into a panic sometimes when I’m faced with too many fierce chickens guarding their little boxes, but I’m learning to let them get on with it and find my own way out.