Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Gratified Desire

From my living room, from the time I was 5 until I left home at 16, I could see the outline of the Rocky Mountains puncturing the sky behind the provincial city called Calgary.

In my Grade 10 classroom, the enterprising teacher had printed a few lines of a poem by Wordsworth and stuck it up all around the room, above our heads:

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours"

The rest of the poem describes the Romantic's dilemma: that we have removed ourselves from nature, and that removal has cost us dearly. Wordsworth was writing 200 years ago; how much more we are getting and spending now!

The young romantic in me escaped the banal ugliness of a soon-to-boom oil town and ran to the mountains. I spent days in the Rockies, observing the slowness of so-called "Mother" Nature as the seasons ground from one to the next. I met animals, marvelled at wildflowers, grieved for my young friend who died from hypothermia during an ill-timed May camping trip.

City life intervened, as it does, and I spent years in cities doing city-like things like work, study and city play. But in 1985 I moved to rural Italy and there I learned about living in and with nature.

Farming is hard work, especially when you don't know what you're doing. We had a big stone farmhouse, 7 acres of land, a wheat field, a vineyard, a huge vegetable garden, a muddy pond, many poultry, a dog, a cat, and four small boys. There was a spring down a muddy green path where I would go every day and collect my 18 litre jerry-can of water for the day. There was a big grass snake who lived under the wall. There were wild boar who trampled the vineyard until we put a radio down there and played opera at night. There were badgers, porcupines, foxes, weasels, nightjars, cuckoos, and peasants who surrounded us and wanted to teach us their trade.

Nature isn't unforgiving, or gentle, or kind, or threatened, or dominated, or forgiving, or logical, or chaotic, or female. Nature is beautiful. Nature couldn't give a rat's ass about you. Nature doesn't care. Nature does what it does. It is unknowable, and mighty, and extraordinary. Nature wastes: things die all the time, unnecessarily. Nature attacks: weird bacteria, viruses, and prions love to inhabit their hosts. Nature kills.

But, of course, we are part of nature, and nature has taught us over the years that it is a good idea to respect the immutable laws that nature dictates. If you're going to say 'aw this is airy-fairy leftie bullshit', might I remind you that even the most powerful human has a maximum 10 degree centigrade window in which to survive. And that most powerful human, even if he did survive birth, fever, hypothermia, infections, accidents and so on... will still be completely absorbed by nature in the end.

That teacher also introduced us to Shelley's Ozymandias: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!" The will to power, domination, kingship, command... it's all horrible if you're one of the dominated, or thrilling if you're the king, I guess, but you'll die like the rest of us and be buried in the sand. As will your great achievements. So, then, what's a thinking teenager to do? Nihilism was an option, but I had a handicap there, and I shared that with William Blake.

In The Tyger, Blake suggests that something so beautiful, ferocious, complicated and confusing had to be created by a higher power. Well, even though I was brought up by a communist artist and a scientist, neither of whom shared my deep-founded belief in The Divine, I was pretty sure Blake was right. How else could you explain that I had miraculously survived all of the shenanigans that I took part in as a young teenager in the 1970's? How to explain why that big mama moose and her baby walked beside me for a few kilometres and didn't attack me? How did I stare down that pack of dogs in the middle of a snowy night on a field in Calgary? Why wasn't I one of the young people who went missing or died during those ridiculous years? Not because of nature, or luck. Not due to atoms, molecules, or any number of metaphors. But because my path wasn't that one. The tapestry that was made before any of us was born included me living at least for 62 years.

I was making our bed a few weeks ago and was brought to tears because I felt the enormity of the failure of our task. I thought to myself that I might as well just go shopping.

My life has been a life lived in the physical world. I farmed, I carried water, cement, and wood. I birthed babies and breastfed them, and held them, and fed them. When it was time for me to work, I worked as a farm labourer, picking peppers and tobacco, and as a domestic, cleaning peoples' houses and washing dishes in a cafe. Then I learned to attend births, and I rubbed feet and backs, held women as they birthed, cleaned messy pads and bedding and clothing, ... and then caught babies as they slipped from their mothers' bodies.

When that work stopped, I started to prepare and serve food. It's physical. Life is physical.... except. Except that so many people don't know so much about the physical world. There are fridges for sale for thousands of dollars, and people no longer cook and eat at home. People can't fix something, they buy a new one. Do you mend holes in your clothes? Can you light a fire? Can you distinguish dandelion flowers from coltsfoot? How does a duck look when it flies? What is the difference between Water Hemlock and Queen Anne's Lace? How do you mix cement? What berries can you eat? What do you do with a tree once it is felled?

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. The final poem that I only just figured out is this one:

What is it men in women do require? 
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. 
What is it women do in men require? 
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

When I was in high school my teacher, my classmates, and every literary critic of the time thought this was all about sex. It's not. 
It is about being gratified. It's about living your life fully, as a life. As a life not dependent upon things, upon getting and spending. It's about loving someone who is happy, and having a hard time loving someone who is miserable and unfulfilled. 

We have been misled. Women especially. We've been led to believe that it indeed is a life-threatening and dangerous event (not to say an expensive one) to bring a child into the world. We've been led to believe that our children need to be socialized by someone other than ourselves. That our shitty job is somehow more fulfilling than caring for our offspring (I'm not talking about that fine mother who needs to work three jobs to support her family, nor the professional who loves her work as much as her children). That in the name of equality and because we are so damn exhausted it is fine to bully one's partner into folding baby clothes at 10 pm (who folds baby clothes anyhow? But I have seen it with my own eyes). That nature is something that needs protecting, and that weirdly we need to protect ourselves from it. That our bodies cannot be trusted. 

So I say to you: Take a hike. Say something controversial. Get off Facebook. Don't get the epidural. Stop folding laundry. Don't have a baby, if you don't want to. Think twice before buying a new thing. Be kind. Be sassy, or not. Be yourself. 

What am I gonna do? I'll keep on making food and serving it; I'll teach women about maternity care and childbirth; I'll think my thoughts and mostly keep them to myself.

I don't have a rootedness in a physical place. My mountain hideaway is mine for a while. My bungalow in the 'burbs as well. My rootedness is a long and straggly root that winds past minds, poetry, essays, manifestos, novels, long conversations, thoughts. The place of the thinking person. A place I've yearned for my whole life, and visited once in a while. But I always know its there, and it's home.

Yesterday I went for a 15 mile run. It was tough. My body was ploughing through some bad emotions. But when I got to Mont Royal, our lovely mountain at the centre of our city, I went to the trails, away from people, and ran. It eased my heart. Let us reconsider our relationship with nature, with each other and with ourselves.