May 1 is cool
Writers' Reflection on May 1
May 1 is cool
- written by Elísabet Jökulsdóttir
"It is not society, it is politics that separates itself from society, the politics maintain injustice, and injustice is a crime ..."
I became disabled some years ago. I do not remember when it was, my psychiatrist had just signed me up for rehabilitation benefits, which is the preamble to disability benefits. I received bus tickets for the disability bus. Disability money to buy disability food, to pay the disability electricity and disability heating bills, disability Christmas presents, disability sports shoes, disability payments for disability football. Except, this life is no disability life, and this society is no disability society. It was just me, living with a disability, and feeling disability shame, feeling like this was my fault.
You see, I was born with a disease that I am not able to control, except sometimes. I was born with this disease, and the disease is not at all disabled. It took over everything and put me in serious danger for months at a time, and it took me months to recover. It is not society, it is politics that separates itself from society, the politics maintain injustice, and injustice is a crime. People have an innate inclination towards solidarity and helping those in need. Yes, this was life with disability, and I was forced to bake disability pancakes and make disability popcorn for dinner. A splendid life with disability.
"There are six thousand children in Iceland that live in poverty, and although I dislike saying this word – poverty – it is the reality."
I remember May 1, I would always go to the parade, and it was festive and fun and cool, May 1 was cool, and it still is, I was an important person, me and my girlfriends opposed injustice. One year, the parades stopped, it was probably long after I stopped going to them. I especially remember one parade, I was a teenager, I carried my little brother on my shoulders all the way down Laugavegur, and me and my girlfriends had decided to make a revolutionary leader out of him.
Then I had a grandchild who started working in a preschool in 2019, he was 22 at the time. He lived with me at the time. The pay was 250 thousand, this was before Sólveig Anna managed to increase the pay. He was so passionate for the job, he often came home with stories of the little children, he was dazzled over their clever remarks and energy. But often he would come home so tired that he did not even manage to eat anything, he just went directly into bed and slept for 12 hours. Oh, the injustice, I thought, and I gave a speech in Lækjartorg. So little has changed, back in 1988 I wrote a four column article in Morgunblaðið newspaper to raise attention to the poor pay and conditions of the preschool teachers who took care of my children. My friend, who is disabled, took on a little job to be able to make ends meet, and she was immediately punished for it, with reductions to her benefit payments. Every day, we see interviews with disabled people, who have chronically ill children, or are dealing with severe diseases, or the results of accidents, and the benefits are so far from being enough. We could call the situation farce, and so on, but it would not help, it is a crime, the government is committing crime and fraud. Crime that leads to injustice and everyone becomes ill. The rich become ethically ill. Despite our fine professors in ethics, it seems that the dialogue about ethics never reaches through, and there is certain fatigue. Why do the authorities get away with not fulfilling the promise they made to increase the disability benefits? There is separation between politics and ethics, and that leads to corruption. I am hardly able to even mention the Samherji children, just writing the word feels like a blow to my head, such is the injustice.
There are six thousand children in Iceland that live in poverty, and although I dislike saying this word – poverty – it is the reality. I used to call it being broke, or not having money. It is OK to talk about poverty. It helps to say the word, it makes it real. And we can fight with reality.
"In the first tour, he lay vomiting out the window, and I was the only one not seasick, only because I was determined to show my worth."
"... we had salt cod six times a week, and on Sundays I would boil salted lamb from a barrel. There was also a barrel with sour slaughter, which we sometimes ate, everything was washed by hand, and when I bathed, I would bathe from a washbasin in the kitchen."
I have never done hard labour.
And I have never fought for labour rights.
I was never taught how to work.
I worked in a fish-freezing plant for a whole winter to be close to my son, who was living with his grandparents in Bolungarvík because of my alcoholism. We were never taught how to debone fish, at least I did not notice. It was cold and wet during this period, and the mysterious upper floor office was where those sat who paid our salaries.
I worked on a fishing boat once, only to follow my boyfriend, because I was afraid to lose him at sea, and I was also curious to try. I was a fisherwoman and a cook. The captain hesitated to hire me because I woman, but eventually I convinced him. In the first tour, he lay vomiting out the window, and I was the only one not seasick, only because I was determined to show my worth. In the kitchen, I would catch the slaughter in mid-air and prepared awful meals. I also took buoy shifts, I would stand alone in the bridge, responsible for the ship, it was a longliner. What fascinated me the most were the glaciers that rose up like ice castles during the night. I only went on six tours. Then I continued to drink. The drinking is perhaps the closest I came to hard labour, the drinking was slavery.
I worked in a bakery and the baker would come pick me up when I did not show up for work, I had never known such kindness, I thought all bosses were controlling dictators. I also worked in a fishing gear shop, and I became interested in fly tying, but I only worked in the bakery for four or six weeks. This was my work life in those days, before I changed course and became a full-time writer.
But I have also worked as a delivery girl, and in a kiosk, and in the BSÍ drive-in, where drunk people would come by on the way from the Nauthóll stream to buy hotdogs. And I also worked at Kleppur hospital, where I got to know people with mental diseases, and a year later I had become a Kleppur patient myself. Sick from sadness, heartbreak, and drug use. I stopped working in Kleppur because I was busy with partying. Nonetheless, I loved the job, I loved working so closely with individuals I so deeply wanted to cure. It is how I got to know one part of the nation, and it is the nation that I have to thank for most of my writing, people I have come across, people who have inspired me. Even though I did not work these jobs for a long time, they still gave me insight into the jobs, into the lives of people who did only these jobs.
I might have learned a bit about labour in Strandir, I learned about sealery, eider-duck nesting, and sea-drift. Looking for sea drift was an adventure, the same kind of meditation you get from walking the shore. When I was sixteen, I stayed over one winter in Strandir, in Seljanes, Ingólfsfjörður, to be more specific. There was no electricity except for one hour at a time, from a motor that we had to crank up by hand, or we would use candles or oil lamps, there was no phone except a country phone where everyone would listen to each other's phone calls, it was the Facebook of that time. The only water came from a river, and sometimes the river froze. The milk was stored in the river, there was no central heating, only the oil cooker which was used during the day, but during the night, it was freezing. We had to heat all water on the stove, the food was stored in a pantry, which was sometimes empty, and then we would go get food on sleds and a jeep called Gulbrandur, if the weather allowed (a mouse lived in the pantry). I was not alone, we were two, me and Kristinn, a farmer and a hunter, who would read the Icelandic Sagas to me, as well as Starkaður’s monologues. The whistling from the oil cooker was the soul of the house, my boyfriend sometimes came to visit on a sled over the mountains. We had to bake all cakes, all bread, flatbread, we had salt cod six times a week, and on Sundays I would boil salted lamb from a barrel. There was also a barrel with sour slaughter, which we sometimes ate, everything was washed by hand, and when I bathed, I would bathe from a washbasin in the kitchen. It snowed most days, it was cold, sometimes it was incredibly still and the ocean flowed to Drangaskörð, we saw the lights from Munaðarnes on the other side of the fjord, that was the only communication to the outside world, there was often a polar bear at the front door, and the four hounds that slept in the hallway would go berserk and bark loudly when it got close. These were some of my happiest days.
Happiness has followed me in my writing and that is where I have gotten to know hard labour. I have learned to work. From other books, I have learned to write, I have learned from proof readers, my mother taught me, I learned from the work itself, an odd course here and there, I also went to rehab, but the main point is: People who I came across, strangers who showed interest in what I was doing. I think this is the only job which I have grown into, learned to do, I could have learned to work in a fish-freezing plant or at sea, in the bakery, in the drive-in, but I never stopped there for long enough. My wage struggle, as a writer, is that now, when I am asked to perform, read, or share what I have to offer, I ask if I will be paid for it.