Her Kind

Sometimes I get such a monumental headache from being lectured and obeying all the rules which I have heard all my life while now trying to build a different one. At 62 I realize I do not have a lot of time to build it.

The other day I went to a documentary about New York City. I liked looking at the movie, but I found it very labored. Part of it seemed to want to shock, but shock has become banal.  I read somewhere that the emphasis on violence and pornography in western culture is because of the disconnection with the visceral.

In the discussion period after the film (movie was part of a film festival) an academic type said we have so many freedoms people in other parts of the world do not have. These are cultural beliefs, that we possess what is lacking for others and unlimited freedom is a social good. In some senses these are true but other cultures encompass histories, cultural richness, community and a sense of spiritual meaning that we increasingly lack.

In American culture, it is thought we are free, and yet I wonder. We are privileged, we are wealthy, but we are conformist. We are lonely, we worship the psychological, we study our ills, we medicate ourselves. We know little of history, of the world we live in. We hold the banner of the latest psychological diagnoses while ignoring the real pain of of many around the world. We do not know their value. We are increasingly aggressive and we are taught that busyness, consumerism and obeying the rules of work make a life. And now we are addicted to machines in a sheep-like fashion, though of course I count myself as one of the flock. Although, after reading about AI the other day, I may resign from technology. I’m increasingly uninterested in the utilitarian; I am interested in beauty and the spirit. I also have little interest in the designs of 25 year old geeks who have not lived in a  real life. I note their prognostications about robots, for example, taking care of old people.

Old people need love, the touch of the real, and we have abandoned them.  There is a tremendous sentimentality in thinking machines will solve out problems, or protect us from our despair. We need truth and the human.

If there is one thing I am grateful for, it is growing up with older people who had a nineteenth century sensibility about the world. They were not sentimental. They worked too hard and had little time for distraction even had it existed. Their world was infused with harshness as well as a profound sense of the sacred and all that was imparted to me. They had profound dignity–another quality that seems to have gone by the boards.

To rebel, you must have an object against which to rebel, not the sea of banality we have created for ourselves.

For rebellion I turn to the past, Anne Sexton, a magnificent poet and incredibly brave person.

By Anne Sexton, 1928 – 1974

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

Tuesday–before early winter

Reading Anne Sexton and Erich Fromm on fairy tales. I am writing an essay for submission, and when it comes to my family of origin, fairy tales and mythology are useful.

Also, Mavis Gallant, her volumes “Paris Stories” and “Varieties of Exile”; the latter is very instructive about Canada and the French. I had no idea that Gallant writes so extensively about this subject. Her work echoes the hidden glimpses of the French side in my family.  My great uncle Jean Charlemagne was a noted historian of French Canada.  Something to investigate.   Dignity, parochialism, “Parisian French”, winters, style, fine sewing.

The sick crabbed pursuit of what I would not want is gone. The awful old life, closed depthless small town people–gone.  A fine airiness and joy in my heart.  I will walk this morning through the park—bones of the land evident now–Forbes to Shady Avenue, 2 miles each way, then back.

I love the slight sense of urban decay, old monuments, broad boulevards here. Rattling oaks, silver birch.  Admittedly It is strange not to have the sharp air of New England. That clarity, and the unpopulated sense of risk. It was true what I told dear B, who was here this past weekend—in northern New England one gets used to limitation of movement from December-March.  You do not dare a drive.

Not so here, although people complain about overhanging grey skies.  “Will you be able to endure it?” Please. Thinking of my old nightmare commutes, 180 degree spins on ice, driving down 295 without being able to see, 20-30 cars off the road– I laughed.

From the Preface to “Paris Stories” of Mavis Gallant – Michael Ondaatje

“I had a great, great fear that I was bent on doing something for which I have no ability, and that took years and years to get rid of…that I was dedicating my life to something I was not fir for,” Gallant once told an interviewer…” I am uncertain about every line I write and I am uncertain until I get readers.”  With the arrival of that reader, the uncertainty about and unsafe life becomes a shared witnessing.   This, for a very few writers, becomes the purpose and meaning of a writer’s life.  “Like every other form of art,” Mavis Gallant has written, “literature is no and nothing less than a matter of life and death.”