One of Richard Rohr’s spiritual dicta is that how you do one thing is how you do everything: that there tends to be an organic unity to people, and even to cultures. The same problem tends to resurface everywhere.
Another of his dicta is that you don’t think your way to a new way of living, you live your way to a new way of thinking. Action really is what is transformative: a change in lifestyle, an alteration of habits. That changes your thinking, in the end.
And so one of the observations I would like to make is that if the United States merely solved its agricultural problems, it would in the process probably have to solve all its other problems. The problems of agriculture today are: 1) consolidation of the entire food supply into the hands of few corporations 2) elimination of middle-class farmers and failure of small farms 3) government regulations which vastly favor megacorporate farms over small farms; the ownership of government by large corporations 4) exploitation of immigrant laborers without any legal rights 5) expansion of machinery and displacement of workers 6) extensive reliance of that machinery on finite petrochemicals 7) use of additional petrochemicals as fertilizers in place of natural replenishment of the soil 8) use of chemicals in place of interspecific and intraspecific diversity as a means of preserving the health of food plants and animals 9) massive amounts of pollution caused by the production and application of all those chemicals 10) destruction of surrounding ecology due to those chemicals – including, as we now know, the pollinators on which the entire system is based.
I could go on, but that will suffice. All these problems are present merely in the meals that you and I eat every day, just as the problem of slavery was present every morning in the 19th century when Americans got up to put on their clothes, or gave a piece of candy to a child, or put sugar in their tea or coffee.
And here is another way that agriculture is symptomatic of all the ills of our contemporary society: 80% of our agricultural land is taken up by annuals. In other words, four-fifths of our efforts are put into the short-term, and the immediate, with tremendous input requirements of chemical fertilizers, and the like: sacrificing the future for the present. Annuals by nature do not cover the soil for almost half the year, causing tremendous wastage of topsoil. In nature, annuals appear in disturbed, damaged land as a mere band-aid, and are quickly replaced by other vegetation. But we are a culture of band-aids and short-term investment. Wendell Berry (in this fine interview) says that we really need to change our agriculture to have four-fifths of our agriculture provided by perennial plants, and only one-fifth in annuals. There should be more pasture grasses, more fruit orchards, more nut orchards, more crops that require long-term investment and stabilize the soils and require fewer inputs. But that would require us to focus four-fifths of our being on the long-term, which would be a complete cultural revolution. As Berry says, “for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke.”
[This was originally begun January 10th, but it took ten days of editing and tinkering for me to finally cut the whole essay in half and post this first half. The other will follow shortly.]
I’m disregarding, as I write this, the good advice all new parents disregard. Like most wise counsel it is wonderfully rational, but just doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that we human beings have emotions. It’s late in the evening; snow is falling on the fields outside, and I’m sitting in front of the fire. My newborns are asleep upstairs, and I should be sleeping too. That’s the advice every new parent hears: “Sleep when they sleep.” But I just can’t do it. I’m exhausted, of course, but also charged with energy. I can feel the tension in my shoulder and neck muscles, which no amount of hot showers or muscle rubs seems to ease. When I lay down, I end up tossing and turning, or looking at my children sleep. And I think of how much things are changing already, after just a week – the kind of thing that makes a writer want to stay awake and write it all down.
Catherine and I came to Ohio for the birth of our first child, just under a month ago. Eight days ago she gave birth – not to just one, but twins, with all healthy, here in this Ohio farmhouse. I am aware that I have now seen something that not many people today have seen: the natural birth of twins in a home. Home births are rare enough as it is: I know several women who have done natural births in birthing centers, but I don’t think I know any woman of my generation who has had a birth at home; it was not common forty years ago, when my mother had me, and it’s still not common now. One friend mixed her worries in with her congratulations when we announced the safe delivery, confessing that she had three friends who had tried home births, but all three “had to be whisked to the hospital at the last minute, with the baby’s heartbeat slowing to a whisper,” and now that we had made it past the crisis she could confess her fears.
This was what we had come to Ohio for, and in fact there’s probably very little chance we could have had a home birth of twins anywhere else: very few other midwives would have been likely to attempt to deliver a first-time mother’s twins at home. Here is the short version of how this all came about.
We had wanted to do a home birth from the beginning; a hospital being almost precisely the opposite of the kind of human landscape we want to spend time in. It might be necessary at times, but to us it was worth avoiding if we could avoid it. I had been born at home and four of Catherine’s siblings had as well. We both agreed that a winter birth at the cabin was too much: even beyond the questions of risk it simply not did offer sufficient comforts for something so physically difficult. There were then two obvious options: in New York City with my family, or in Ohio with Catherine’s. Since I was born in the same house my mother lives in now, and I desired to pass on to my children the privilege of being born New Yorkers, I voted for New York; Catherine thought this was great. She went down to the city to meet with potential midwives: which ended up being not very easy. The cost was very high – sometimes as high as ten thousand dollars, and insurance was complicated. None seemed to take our insurance; some said we could switch our insurance to one they accepted; one normally didn’t take medicaid but maybe was willing to wade through paperwork because she didn’t want to just serve the wealthy; but nothing was really easy. “Talk to my biller,” said one. The midwives talked about payment a lot and wanted to be paid at each visit, because they warned her that as a first-time mother their services were probably redundant – she would almost certainly have to deliver at a hospital anyway. So they wanted their money up front: if it was in their pocket already there would be no billing disputes afterwards when she felt that she had just thrown away several grand on a home delivery that took place in a hospital anyway. She despaired of ever having anything better than a bureaucratic relationship with people who gave her 80 pages of paperwork to fill out and said, “That’s to get you started, we’ll do the rest next time.” And the general impression from them all was: this is the new New York City. A home birth is a luxury product. Not everyone gets one, and you too may not be worthy of it. So don’t count on it. Success in this town is for the few.
I could tell by her complaints about the process that she was not happy. “Why don’t you go to Ohio, and meet the midwives there,” I told her. “If they’re no better, then fine, we’ll stay here and see how it goes.”
So Catherine made an appointment with the midwife group that her mother had used, and in September she drove out to Ohio and spent a few days there. From the very first meeting there was no question. I could tell on the phone that Catherine had the right midwife for her: someone comforting, simple, and confident but not because of an ideology: confident merely because she had never thought not to be confident. The midwife seemed to have no doubt that Catherine could deliver the babies at home: she was Mennonite, and part of a community where most babies are born at home. The paperwork was minimal, and the cost was less than one-tenth of the cost in New York.
When Catherine got back, I got a chance to review the packet the midwife, named Jena, had supplied. I hadn’t met her, but the packet was very promising. “I can’t believe,” I told Catherine, “how much of this I agree with!” Agreeing with things other people say is not a luxury I get to indulge in very often, so I noticed it. Catherine was happy about this, because birth is one of those things which could potentially divide a couple. You don’t really know beforehand if you really agree when you get down to details. But we apparently did. The packet contained all kinds of information about diet and taking care of your own body, stretches, massages, etc. Its knowledge of herbal remedies was beyond anything I had seen (“white oak capsules”?) and yet it did not strike me as fruity or far-out in its thinking – there was no “wheat juice will cure your cancer” stuff. Witch hazel to help with hemorrhoids – well, yes, that made sense, now that I thought of it: I’d seen witch hazel presses almost magically reduce the swelling in my fingers. And hemorrhoids were basically just swelling. Never heard of it before, but it made sense. And the principle of the whole packet – all the information on diet, exercise, and remedies – was quite explicitly spelled out in the beginning:
Homebirth is for responsible people who take care of their bodies. Pregnancy is not a sickness, but it is extra work for your body, therefore you need more food, water, and rest.
Homebirth is for mothers who believe God created all things well. From the beginning, women have been giving birth. It is a natural event, and trying to make it a medical one is doing more harm than good.
I like to see the women I will be helping through birth periodically to ensure that all is going well. Your urine, blood pressure, pulse, weight, and general well-being are checked each month, as well as position, size, and heartbeat of the baby. Your hemoglobin levels are checked at least once. Visits are closer together as you enter the last two months.
Homebirth is for couples who wish to be free to experience totally natural childbirth. Birthing a baby is hard work, but it is also a time of great excitement and joy. Having the mother (and baby) drugged decreases from the experience.
When you are admitted into a hospital, you are pretty much turning over to them the responsibility for your health and the baby’s. At home, YOU remain responsible and free to make the choices you feel are right.
She was offering just enough medical expertise to allow us to be free and do this in our homes, and no more. Ultimately, we were taking responsibility for the event, instead of paying someone else to be responsible. And that was something we believed in.
The food recommendations – mostly meat and vegetables – not only seemed correct, but they made me glad. For almost the whole of Catherine’s pregnancy she had been eating out of our garden, and from our neighbors’ bounty – several servings every day of our own fresh-grown arugula, lettuce, ramps, peas, radishes, spinach, parsley, basil, cilantro, rosemary, garlic, potatoes, carrots, currants, kale, raspberries, blueberries, ground cherries, pears, apples, pumpkins, and tomatoes. And from neighbors we had gotten rhubarb, corn, squash, persimmons, eggs, cabbage, plums, grapes, pawpaws, and all kinds of other treats. And the Hudson Valley provided fresh, local meat and dairy. This was precisely the kind of eating the midwife was recommending – and indeed, Catherine seemed healthy and glowing all this time.
We arrived in Ohio after my work at the nursery was done, in December. Catherine immediately began her regular visits to the midwife. It was my first time meeting her. The midwife was what a New Yorker would call an Amish woman – she wore one of those caps – but technically she was a Mennonite, which could basically be described as the least strict of German non-conformist/pacifist (=Amish) communities in America. She was an interesting mix of old and new – which I liked, perhaps, because I was a mix like that too. She wore the cap but had a car and cellphone; she was young and pretty and sent texts like a teenager (“c u in 10”), but was demure in a way that I have really only read about: she typically would not look me in the eye unless I really insisted on it by staring at her. She was gentle and patient, and her speech (and indeed her whole style) was accurate but very simple. She would not come in bubbling with news or questions. She certainly never asked us a personal question. There are plenty of words for her, but they’re not the stuff of modern Hollywood heroines: patience, simplicity, tranquillity, modesty. She could have been a farmgirl in any 19th century novel: and yet she was younger than the two of us.
So it was surprising to us that after examining Catherine in our first visit she suggested that we probably wanted to get an ultrasound. She had not recommended one before, but in this instance she thought it would be useful. She suspected Catherine was carrying twins. “In fact,” she said, “I’d be surprised if it wasn’t twins.” She had not been able to locate a second heartbeat (neither had the obstetrician back in New York, despite looking), but just looking at Catherine she thought there were two in there. And she measured her “fundal height” (the term of art for those who deal with pregnancy) at 43 cm. at 37 weeks. Typically this measurement indicates the number of weeks of pregnancy: a woman will get to 40 cm. at 40 weeks. To be a good 6 cm off in such a linear measurement was quite unusual.
We had been through eight months of pregnancy, from the Catskills to Johannesburg to Dakar and New York City, but this measurement caused the first real substantiated worry of the pregnancy. Of course when your wife is pregnant you are worried generally; but earlier we worried without particular cause. Now we knew that Catherine’s condition was the most feared of all conditions: an abnormal one. She was too big. Now we were going to make the rounds of the experts to get an explanation for the abnormality.
This led to the next worry. Getting an ultrasound of course meant a dip into the medical system, and there was no way that was going to be easy. Obamacare works via “state exchanges”; it apparently does not cover out-of-state medical visits; we would have to pay out of pocket (or pay even more to go back to New York). Figuring that out took a little time. Then we had to deal with the fact that the medical establishment was not terribly helpful; it was not obvious anyone wanted anything to do with a woman eight months pregnant already (presumably this means some exposure to liability); only one hospital anywhere near us had an obstetrics unit at all (most have abandoned obstetrics due to liability concerns), and they claimed that it would not be possible to get an ultrasound for several weeks, which would be after the baby’s due date; we got a prescription for an ultrasound from a doctor, but he said he did not know where we could take it to get the procedure done. We could wait for the hospital, but he was quite sure Catherine would deliver before we got the ultrasound. It was impressively frustrating: no one wanted to help and we were on our own. In the end we had to drive more than two hours away, to Ohio’s capital, Columbus, and go to a vanity ultrasound place (“Ultrasona”) which did high-quality images and videos of babies in utero. No prescription was required and appointments were available.
The day we headed for the appointment Catherine had an egg on toast, and did a double-take as she dropped the egg into the frying-pan: it had a double-yoke. “A lot of jumbo eggs have double yolks,” she pointed out, but it was noticeable nevertheless. And when we got off at the exit in North Columbus for the ultrasound place and found that the exit was called “Gemini Parkway,” Catherine was quite convinced that these coincidences were a sign. Whatever the acausal connecting principle in the universe is – and wouldn’t we all like to know – in the end the coincidences were indeed prophetic. “Oh yeah,” said the ultrasound technician, “that’s another head there.” We were having twins.
We were overjoyed, for several reasons. First of all, in fact it came as a relief. We didn’t have an explanation, before, for why Catherine was so big; now we did. And in fact people had been telling us this for months already. In Africa, when Catherine was four months pregnant, she met a woman who was eight months pregnant with about the same size belly; the woman did not believe Catherine when she said she was only four months. People in the supermarket would come up to Catherine and say, “Twins!” My niece said, “I think it’s twins!” My employer’s wife commented, “Are you sure it’s not twins?” When we asked my nephew whether he thought it was a boy or a girl, he said, “Both!” Now we had an explanation for all this.
But more than anything it was good news because it was news of life: first of all, the abundance and fertility of it, that two whole new human beings were going to come into the world at a single stroke. And it was not only quantity but vitality: twins are different and cool and interesting and odd. We all know the stories about how they can be a thousand miles away and both order the same thing at a restaurant or know what the other is thinking, and in general have some unfathomable special connection. My mother liked the idea of children being spaced and being given their own experience; and I approved of that, but of course it also made me curious about the other side of things, where children are close together and share experiences and build a bond. Twins are the utmost example of that.
Both of us like surprises, and both are willing to have to adjust plans. And that was the next process: figuring out how we were going to have to adjust. The most immediate question was how it would affect our plans for a home birth.
We had gotten information about the babies’ positioning while getting the ultrasound: they were both head-down, in perfect position. We found out they were in two separate amniotic sacks in the womb – a crucial point. If the babies are in the same sack, their cords frequently get tangled, causing problems during birth. As long as they were in separate sacks, and both in the proper position, a twin birth should not be much more difficult than a single birth. The reasons for the home birth had not changed, our commitment to the midwife had not changed, and we still believed Catherine was capable of delivering them safely at home. I re-read all the emergency procedures I needed to know, and kept the card in my pocket at all times; I paid especial attention to the “plan B” for where we were going in case of difficulty; but all in all, we felt good. Catherine’s pregnancy had offered all the normal discomforts but no special complications, even into the ninth month. The ultrasound technician had estimated their weights at around seven pounds each: two healthy, full-sized babies.
In fact, Catherine said she was glad that she didn’t know it was twins until near the end. She might never have believed she could carry them to term, were it not for the fact that she already had. We could have marched into a hospital right there, and delivered two healthy babies. All they lacked now were some of the womb’s finishing touches. And not only had Catherine carried them to term, but she had brought them to Africa, climbed mountains in the Catskills, tended a garden, done the cooking and cleaning and washing and managed our little homestead, while bringing them to term. In fact, all that physical activity had probably helped them, but if she had been anxious the whole time about her double pregnancy, she might never have done it. Cicero writes in his De Divinatione about how useful to human beings is our ignorance of the future; and that might have been the case here. We felt that we found out only when we really needed to know. Similarly we did not ask the sexes of the babies, not finding that information necessary at present.
So we went back home, told our news to our friends and family, did some basic additional preparation (we needed a second birthing kit, more clothes, more diapers, etc.), and got back to the active waiting that is the end of pregnancy. It was Christmastime and we were around her family; there were all kinds of events to attend and people to see. We tended to be home early, but I went to work (helping a carpenter) and she kept the house and saw people just like normal.
It is unusual for twins to go to full term, but ours did. Catherine went into labor in the fortieth week, just five days before her due date. We went for an unusually long walk the day before she went into labor. I awoke at three in the morning to find her on the phone with the midwife, talking about contractions. She had been discussing her “Braxton-Hicks contractions,” which are preparatory uterine contractions and not part of labor proper, with the midwife for weeks now. I disliked the use of the term “contractions” for these muscle spasms, because it made it seem like labor had begun, and I presumed she was still discussing them with the midwife. I thought this was a bit much, waking the midwife up at three in the morning to talk about what was a routine physical preparation for labor. I looked at her dimly in the darkness and said, “You’re not in labor,” and rolled over to return to my sleeping. I don’t remember what convinced me otherwise – I think it was just her telling me so. All I can remember is that all of a sudden I was out of bed, got dressed, and things were serious. Labor had begun.
[Continued in part 2].
I’ve become aware in the past few days that this period of my life – the time when my wife is pregnant with our first child – is about to end. I’ve already started to get a bit sentimental, wondering if I’ve taken enough pictures, or enjoyed it enough. Soon it will be over, and something new will begin.
And that’s the way it’s been with every stage of the pregnancy – the changes within pregnancy itself are a kind of indicator of just how quickly human beings develop. Of course we all note how long it takes for humans to mature – not many other animals need so long as two years to reach sexual maturity, much less our twelve or thirteen years, not to speak of emotional maturity, which seems to postulate a purgatory, this life not being long enough – but human development is so complicated that over the entire maturation process there is almost continual change. Experienced parents tell us again and again that the problems of being childrearing don’t really get solved: they just turn into other problems, quickly. Whatever seems unbearable is made bearable by the knowledge that it will not last.
The division of pregnancy into three grand divisions, the trimesters, generally seems accurate. For Catherine there have been all kinds of physical sensations, both pleasures and discomforts, which have appeared and then gone away; but emotionally there have been just three main acts. In the first trimester, it all seemed too fragile and uncertain to make much of. There could be a miscarriage; who knew what would happen. We didn’t want to base too much on something that might not work out. And the physical discomforts – the nausea that affects the whole body and is hard to avoid or control – highlight the fragility of the whole thing.
The second trimester, for us, really was a golden period. The physical discomforts for Catherine seemed to vanish: in fact she had more energy than normal. We went off to Africa, and then came back and enjoyed a beautiful summer in the Catskills. The general feeling was one of overflowing vitality: the new life inside her was growing, and healthy, and she wanted to hike and work and do things. We were still careful, and she did in fact move more slowly than normal, but we both had the feeling that we could do this: that is was beautiful, and natural, and even easy.
That changed in the third trimester, however. Anxiety began to be a larger part of the equation. Catherine’s belly continued to grow, and looking at her, all I could see was vulnerability: I suppose this is some kind of instinct. I certainly became more protective and risk-averse. The meaning of pregnancy began to be clear: she wasn’t just pregnant. She was going to bring a new human being into the world: one that would have needs. One that would have opinions about things: at first just “hot” or “cold” or “hungry” or “uncomfortable,” but later things like “My dad is a ________” (loser? Hero? Failure? Hypocrite?) or “My life has been such a _______” (blessing? Disaster? Disappointment?). The feelings that I, as a father, wouldn’t measure up, that I wasn’t ready, that failure was a real possibility, that there was something I hadn’t done, that we didn’t have enough money, that we could make a mistake that would harm our child, that we would make the wrong choices, that the future would be a terrible place for children – all of these concerns became daily possibilities. I haven’t spent all of the last three months thinking like this, but those thoughts definitely have arrived, and for me they really arrived in the third trimester.
Now we have a blessed period where we have the time to await the birth in a beautiful, well-stocked country home, surrounded by Catherine’s family and friends. I’ve taken up some part-time work here, but it’s only three days a week with a flexible schedule, and all we’ve had to do is stockpile some more baby clothes, build a compost bin for the house, put in a bird-feeder, and visit people. As I write this I’m sitting on a nice couch staring at our wood-burning stove and little Christmas tree, with a little pile of books by my side. It feels like we’re cosmically lucky, and yet each night when I put my hands on Catherine’s shoulders, or she puts hers on mine, the tension and tightness is evident.
That’s part of the responsibility of being a parent, and I don’t think we’ll ever be entirely free from it, the rest of our lives. We know that in becoming parents we are taking up not only great joys but also new and terrifying vulnerabilities: we know that any parent would willingly take on any suffering, or any death, rather than watch his child suffer or die. But sometimes that power is not given us.
The third trimester of a pregnancy is also very public. It is visible, and everyone can comment on it; and it changes not only the couple’s behavior but the behavior of everyone in proximity. Some of the attention can be mortifying (having total strangers exclaim at you (“Oh my god you look like you’re about to pop!”) whenever you go into public is not what modest people want when they are going about their business (though I think I might enjoy it, myself). But most of it is really amazing. It calls forth so much love from other people: so many kind deeds, so much excitement, and so much happiness. Pregnancy is not just a private affair, and I don’t believe it’s supposed to be. Its very visibility suggests that it is supposed to be something known and shared. “Your children,” says Khalil Gibran, “are not your children.” You are bringing another human being to the world, and the world takes note.
And it seems that we all instinctually understand the happiness that children bring to parents. My mother always used to say was “Your friends are the people who share your joys.” When you are about to have a child it seems like the whole world is your friend: so many people congratulate you, and so many people seem so genuinely happy to hear your news. And you are, indeed, the generator of the news, not the consumer of it: nothing happening anywhere else seems as important.
The latter half of Christmas morning I spent at a funeral. One of the Amish families had just lost their two-week-old baby. The family lived nearby – I had already met the child’s great-uncle – and I knew another family we knew here would be there. But there was another reason I wanted to go. Cicero, in his meditations on death, reports that the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras met the news of his son’s death calmly: “I knew, when I fathered him,” he said, “that he was mortal.” My life has seen an almost uninterrupted run of good fortune, and a great abundance of life, this year. But I feel the presence of that other thing, that mortality that bounds all we know and feel. I know that it is all fragile, and all destined to return to the earth. I just recently read a generally intelligent woman writing about what she felt was the absurdist cruelty of the Incarnation: that a child be born for the express purpose of having his life sacrificed. What wilful blindness in her, I thought – we are all brought into the world on these conditions. I felt a desire to draw closer to this truth, and look it in the face for awhile.
I did not know precisely where the burying-ground was, so I came down the dirt road carefully, looking in all directions, and at last I saw, up ahead, two large black masses by the side of the road: at first I could not tell what they were. As I got closer I realized that the further one was the row of black hearses, and black horses, parked at the edge of the field; and the nearer one the mass of black-clad mourners, gathered in a solid mass at the edge of the field. I had to drive past the mourners to reach the parking area, which made me feel terribly self-conscious, but there was no hope for it. As I drove by the ashen faces of the mourners turned to watch me. I continued to the parking area, and walked back toward the gravesite. The gravel of the road crunched beneath my feet, and embarrassed by the noise of my approach I climbed up into the field to walk on the silent grass.
I do not think I have seen any scene so purely mournful as this: the dark light of deep winter, the distant views of winter fields and gray skies, and the mourners closely gathered round, the women on one side, all clad in black cloaks and black bonnets, the men opposite them, in suits and brimmed hats of dark blue or black, their dark carriages and dark horses waiting for them in rows at a quarter-mile’s distance. As I approached I could see that my appearance made some disturbance in the assembly: I could see one woman lean in to her neighbor, looking at me, to ask who I was; I could see the other woman reply that she did not know. There were only two other men not in Amish mourning garb besides myself, both of them known to the others present. I was a stranger.
An older man with full beard and shaven lip and cheeks spoke the prayers, without book, all in German; I could tell only that it was about “the Prophet David,” and his “junge kinder” – I presume referring to the passage from Samuel, when David’s first child with Bathsheba dies:
After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.
On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.”
David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked.
“Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.”
Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.
His attendants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
In between the words of the officiant, a chorus of men sang a simple, repeated chant. Two young men worked the shovels, filling in the small hole made in the earth for the body of this child. It was the very smallness of the grave which made me tear up, when I caught a glimpse of it through the bodies standing around it. And even so it took an awful amount of time to fill the deep grave, one shovel-full at a time. The prayers continued, and the chants, for a time; and then the shovels worked in silence, and the people talked. Several of the men introduced themselves to me, and thanked me for coming out; they asked me about my situation, and I offered my condolences. One of the young men, the uncle of the child, told me the child had died from a chromosomal defect (the Amish are supposedly more susceptible to genetic problems, because of their small gene pool); but, he added, this was the first of the family’s sixty grandchildren to die. “First death in the family,” he said. The men’s effort to welcome me was truly noticeable and, I thought, laudable.
The women stood on the other side, gathering the children into their cloaks; some of the women were crying, but in general a stoic silence prevailed. There were no Mediterranean histrionics: these people suffered in silence. The black cloaks and bonnets of the women made their ashen complexions leap out of the darkness; I had never seen anything like them except in Northern-Renaissance paintings. When the shovels had stopped again, the officiant offered a final blessing, and the crowd slowly dispersed. People talked, but in a subdued way; the children (who were all silent and well-behaved until now) began running through the fields. Their black forms coursing up and down the hills were beautiful to watch. The horses began to snort as their masters returned to them and untied them; and the clop of hooves and rattle of wheels began. The grave was left as a mound of earth, marked by two iron bars (which I believe were only to lower the casket and would be removed later); there were no flowers or other offerings. There were no other graves: it was a new burying-ground, and this had been the first body laid in this earth. Many of the women took small stones from the gravesite and carried them away; I presume it is custom; some carried several in their hands as they walked away.
There was a reception afterward, at the family home, with food; but I had played the part of stranger enough, and I returned home.
I must say it is very striking to be living in a place where bearded men seated on buggies drive horses by at all hours of the day and night. We are now situated in one of the Amish districts of Ohio, the state which, in fact, has more Amish people than any other state. The area is by no means uniformly Amish: the Amish own many of the local farms and houses, but not so many as half, and the rest of the population probably resembles the population of any other rural district of the Midwest. I use the term “Amish” inexactly, as it would be used in New York City, to refer to the farming peoples of America, of Germanic ancestry, who speak German, practice a pacifist Christianity, and strictly limit their use of modern technologies. But the broader term is probably “Mennonites”: the Amish are a breakaway group of Mennonites, and are stricter in certain ways. From the outside the resemblances are more striking; I am told, however, that greater familiarity exposes the diversity of beliefs, lifestyles, and dress.
As a whole, they do not appear to have principled objections to all technological innovation per se: but neither do they believe, as we generally practice, that all technological innovations are good and to be adopted. And so they drive horses and buggies, but the buggies have electric taillights and headlights. There are certainly excellent reasons to reject the use of automobiles, not only for communitarian reasons but also for ecological ones. But those reasons apply less forcefully to the plastic taillights, and so the taillights are permitted. I presume that this is because it is legally required to have them in order to use the roads — and probably safer when you are in a slow vehicle sharing the road with cars. The Amish houses show a similar difficult-to-predict patchwork of technologies. Most do not have electricity, but many have vinyl siding.
I have been told that the predominant factor in their decision-making is the effect the new technology would have on their community. They are willing to put headlights on their buggies, but not rubber tires. Using rubber tires would put their own wheel-makers out of business, while they never had any tail-light makers; they can come up with no compelling reason to adopt rubber tires; and they are apparently happy with their wheels as they are.
All kinds of prudential exceptions are made for people in special circumstances: midwives, for instance, are permitted the use of cars, and also cellphones, because their line of work requires speedy travel and fast communication.
I might have thought that the Amish would be “early to bed” types, but buggies go by our house at all hours of the night. The hooves of the well-shod horses clatter on the roadway, and the metal-rimmed wheels make quite a roar coming up the hill. It’s a sound I know primarily from movies: and sometimes, sitting in the house, looking at the fire, hearing the clatter of hooves on the road, I think I could by force of will move time backwards a dozen decades: but then I turn to watch the buggy go past, and see the red taillights in the darkness, and at the edge of the horizon, the orange glow of a fracking platform. It’s 2015 all right. But there is something strangely beautiful about the existence of these people, who in their communities have really gone their own way, and tried to stay out of everyone else’s business. They all practice pacifism and reject military service: during World War II their men were drafted nevertheless, and put to non-military domestic tasks, but their pacifism was respected. They farm, make food for market, and log and build for money: but otherwise they wish mostly to be left alone, and in this country they mostly have been. In Europe they were long persecuted; but here they have long been mostly let alone. They now number in the hundreds of thousands, mostly in the Midwest.
Catherine and I set off yesterday for Ohio, in preparation for the birth of our first child. Catherine wants to do a home birth, but for that a home a bit more spacious and commodious than our cabin seems desirable, and in the end we decided on Ohio, where her family is. And specifically, we settled on Amish country in Ohio, where home births are a way of life and where there are several highly respected and experienced midwives. Our experiences in New York City – another place we considered for the birth – is that home births in the city are, like many things in New York City now, not a way of life but a “luxury product,” an experience to be had for top dollar. I could tell she wasn’t happy with her options in New York City, and I asked her if she wanted to check out Ohio instead. She took a trip to Amish country in Ohio, where she immediately found a suitable midwife, and now here we are.
So yesterday, a month before the due date, we put an unusually large number of things into the back of my truck (I got a cap for the truck for this purpose) and set off to spend two months in the nation’s heartland.
Many of the traits of rural America are found in the Catskills – pickup trucks, country music, a strong Republican majority – but mostly the Catskills is vacation wilderness for East Coasters. On the road driving across Pennsylvania it didn’t take long for things to feel different. The Catskills used to be known as “the Jewish Alps,” and there were summer camps for all kinds of different Christian groups; several Catholic religious orders still have their monasteries there, and every time I hear someone talking about a Buddhist monastery, it seems to be a new one I’ve never heard of before. And there are a number of Utopian groups and religious sects I’ve never heard of anywhere else too. But along I-80 I could see the signs on the road: “ONE WAY: JESUS.” For one stretch of the road there were four different Christian evangelical radio stations, two country stations, and an NPR outlet.
Elsewhere, there was still a lot of ZZ Top on the radio – after all these years, still ZZ Top. Talk about arrested development. Some of the songs on the country radio stations were different too – how had I never heard the “Shut Up & Fish” song? I listen to a lot of country radio in the Catskills, and I’d never heard it before.
We stopped for lunch in Dubois, Pennsylvania. So many terms for woods – bois, sylvania. It’s still accurate: I-80 passes through hundreds of miles of forest, so much of it still thinly inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be any lack of space, for Syrian refugees, or Palestinians, or people from India or China or Africa. But it’s not clear, if they came here, they would want to live in the woods of Pennsylvania either. Poor soil, not much going on. They’d probably want to be in New York or Boston or Atlanta or Jacksonville like everyone else.
The interstate system really should be called the intercity system, because it really links the big cities; 80 links New York City to San Francisco via Cleveland, Chicago, and Salt Lake City; almost anything smaller it is entirely willing to bypass. In Pennsylvania it seems to bypass everything, eschewing State College for Milesburg, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for true wilderness (the intersection of 80 and 81, two hugely important interstates, does not even have a gas station or motel, so wild and uninhabited is the spot), in order to remain true to the 41st parallel linking New York and Chicago. The principle that reduces this part of the earth to Flyoverlandia is implied in the interstates as well.
As a result there is almost nothing interesting along I-80, and finding a worthwhile stop along the route is an actual challenge. I have done Bellefonte a few times, which is a few miles from the highway but it has some great antique shops and makes a good stop. This time we picked Dubois, which again required a substantial detour off the highway, but I am always glad when I detour into an old downtown. Dubois was a decent little place, with the kind of old brick unbeauty you might find in an English mill town; a few nice churches, some pretty houses on the high ground, and a few walkable blocks at the center of town. There were a pair of Mexican restaurants, and a bakery, but we opted to eat at the fancy place, Luigi’s, where we got the kind of humongous portions you would expect from a sit-down Italian restaurant. The inside of the place was covered in framed pictures; mostly they were pictures of locals and friends, mostly at the restaurant, but also pictures of Little League teams, cheerleading squads, Boy Scout troops, Bowling Clubs, just about anything. This was interspersed with iconic images we associate with Italian restaurants: Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, The Godfather, and Ebbets Field next to Michelangelo’s Sibyls, Da Vinci’s St. Mary and St. Anne, etc. The more you think about it, the crazier it seems, but there is a general cultural agreement that it is completely normal and fine for an Italian to put a poster of Frank Sinatra’s lockup photo (“crime: seduction”) in between framed shots of Padre Pio and the Pieta.
Back on the road, I heard an advertisement for “patriotic and military Christmas ornaments” available at a local shop – again, odd if you think about it too much (what says Christmas better than a Battleship USS Missouri tree ornament!), while my eyes were diverted by the truck I happened to be passing at the time. There are a lot of trucks on I-80 at all times, but there were a hell of a lot of trucks on the road yesterday. Early December is the time that goods move in the U.S., for Christmas sales. This truck bore the logo BIG HOUSE PRODUCTS. Beneath it it read, “Teach Inmates To Work In Pennsylvania.” Apparently this is a $60 million per year business in Pennsylvania. You can go online and browse the prison products they offer. I am not entirely opposed to this idea, but I am impressed by how little I knew of its existence: there is a whole “National Correctional Industries Association.” I suspect a business model like this is rather ripe for abuse (Pennsylvania has already had trouble with judges getting bribed by private prison executives to give longer sentences). If we had a truly redemptive prison system, the proceeds from this prison labor would go to the victims of their crimes, to repair the holes they had cut in the fabric of their society.
How strange this country is – what an odd mixture of good and evil. I heard Bill Bennett on the radio – he apparently has a show, “Morning in America” – and the Williams graduate, architect of the War on Drugs, and author of The Book of Virtues and The True St. Nicholas was publicly hoping for a Donald Trump presidency. The presidential election this year, for its bizarrerie and the hope I have that some kind of moral contrapasso will overtake all of these oligarchs, reminds me of nothing so much as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I thought it would be interesting to be in Ohio, the purplest of the purple states, just at this time.
And I would be in a strange part of Ohio too. We would be on an eighty-acre farm in Amish country – idyllic. And yet since the nullification of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, which exempted fracking from the groundwater contamination standards which apply to all other businesses, eastern Ohio was now frackland. The countryside we would be living in would be half-Amish, half-fracking rigs.
We’ll see how it goes.
Three years ago, for Valentine’s Day, the Fox Theater in Tucson was showing Annie Hall, which gave me the privilege of seeing it in a theater. It had been twenty years since I had seen it last, and it amazed me: its inventiveness, its consistently good humor, the truly impressive way that it brings you into a relationship so intimately that you feel sentimental about it when it comes to an end – even though it wasn’t that great a relationship, really. I was teaching at the time, which probably explains why I didn’t produce an essay about the movie, though I wish I had. But it proved something to me: two decades had been enough: it was a good time to revisit the great Woody Allen movies. I could bring relatively fresh eyes to them, even though they are relatively familiar movies.
Of these, the one that I had felt was best was Hannah and Her Sisters, and I was curious to return to it. As the title indicates, the film is about family, and its narrative structure is framed by three Thanksgivings. We had some idle days after Thanksgiving; it was the perfect time for it.
The film is characterized by impressive economy, which I find is the proper, respectful mode for an artist to take with his audience. Most work says too little, and that little too slowly. Hannah and Her Sisters, on the other hand, contains compelling, and indeed deep, portraits of five people (the three sisters and two of their husbands), while at least three more people are given brief but suggestive treatments (Hannah’s parents and the artist played by Max Von Sydow). For all of them the movie shows, with masterfully brief strokes, both their desire to be loved and the fatal flaws which will thwart their desire. It is deeply tragic, in the fullest sense: and for those with the eyes to see it, it is a sobering reminder of how little control we truly have over our lives. Privileged people such as Americans are often told they can do anything they want; and some go far too long believing it. After three or four decades of life, you realize that you can hardly even make yourself do what you want for a single day, even the things inside of you want something other than what you prescribe for them. Your nature requires something of you that you cannot, no matter how irrational or self-destructive it may be, will away to insignificance.
The first words of the movie thrust us right into one of these problems: the passion which Hannah’s husband, played by Michael Caine, feels for Hannah’s sister Lee. It is completely unacceptable, but he feels it, and so powerfully that he is incapable of remorse for it – until, of course, he has gained his object. As soon as that happens, his ardor begins to cool in the mire of the situation he has created. Allen relies on voiceovers, a technique he had used in Annie Hall, to show the gap between inner experience and outer show; and this becomes part of an intelligent portrayal of the lies adultery requires. Caine looks respectable enough on the outside, but adultery brings out his pathetic need, his uncontrolled impetuosity, his deceitfulness, and his use of anger to bully his way out of conversations he doesn’t want. Most impressive to me is how Caine portrays all these qualities while also giving an impression of his character being completely unaware of himself. This is generally true of all the actors in the film, in fact – they manage to dwell brilliantly inside a highly self-aware script without ever betraying any self-awareness. They get themselves into horrible situations and still manage to feel victimized by them. This is, of course, remarkably lifelike.
The most complicated and interesting example of this is Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, the central figure of the movie, though probably her two husbands (Caine and her ex-husband, played by Woody Allen) and Lee get more screentime. Hannah seems on the one hand to be the island of goodness in the midst of the moral muck around her: she is generous and caring, her acting career is successful, she has a huge New York apartment, has several children of her own and has adopted several more, she is the main comfort and confidante of her parents, and financial support of her less-successful sisters. But Allen manages to show – with truly admirably subtle strokes – how all this goodness is itself a problem, and also helps to create some of the problems around her. Her sisters are forced to compete with her, making her husband a tempting target; they feel humiliated by her ability to help them; her goodness creates an air of self-sufficiency, which turns her husband away from her; and it is in the end deceptive, and thus unsatisfying for her. But she can’t see this, and so she suffers alone, trying to be good.
I remember how this completely blew my mind when I first saw it as a teenager. It was impossible to my thinking mind – but I also intuited that it was correct. There is something factitious about our “goodness,” and it is the work of pride and it generally produces no more general benefit than pride does. My mother used to tell a story about this, of when she did “community service” by wheeling around a young disabled woman, who felt, at the end of the day, that my mother felt sorry for her, and told her off, saying that from her wheelchair she brought out the best in people, while my mother, who was smart and pretty, was really greeted by hatred and envy. When I was a teenager I thought of that as being the other people’s problem: they were small-minded and insecure. But now I see how much more complicated it is. And Allen shows it pretty well: Hannah is a successful actress, and is generous and beautiful and has beautiful children and beautiful things. But she is also divorced and her second husband is sleeping with her sister. The people closest to her respect her least. On earth light always casts shadow.
This is brought out especially by Hannah’s relationship with her youngest sister, Holly, played by Dianne Wiest. The art deployed here, both in the screenwriting and the acting, is truly extraordinary. Holly typically comes to Hannah hopeful and submissive, and then by gradations the conversation typically turns into an argument. The subtle transitions through disappointment, defensiveness, accusation, and anger are so effective that it is easy to feel, as Hannah does, that Holly is being unreasonable; but if you look at Hannah’s seemingly innocent suggestions and manner, it’s clear that implied in all is the sense that Hannah knows better and is superior, and Holly’s resentment becomes understandable. But in the meantime Hannah feels the conversations are out of control and unintelligible.
With Lee – the more distant, introverted sister – the conflicts are all internalized, and play out mostly in the form of guilt, which often comes in the form of defending Hannah. The tour-de-force of the sisterly dynamics is a roundtable scene which turns into an argument between Hannah and Holly, while Lee begins to cry – all a single shot going round and round the table. Roger Ebert has said of the acting in this scene that it is so good the volume is not required to understand all the dynamics between the sisters. And the roundtable shooting, showing each sister one at a time, each locked into their own experience and unable to truly access the experience of the others, is a perfect example of technique matching meaning.
And tucked into all this is Woody Allen’s own optimistic statement about the goodness of human life – despite how horrible it is. The Woody Allen character, now divorced from Hannah, after some health problems has to go through cancer testing. He is utterly terrified and sick, and is utterly overwhelmed by how terrible life is – and how after all the misery, we just die. He goes on a quest for metaphysical consolation, looking to become a Catholic, then a Hare Krishna. He ends up hitting rock bottom – literally putting a gun to his head – and finding his way back up by sitting in a movie theater and watching the absurdity of the movie Duck Soup. His is not the most resounding affirmation of life ever heard – “It’s not all a drag” – but despite the comic touches throughout, it is a convincing portrait of an earnest conversion experience. Its limited affirmation feels all the more real and appropriate. And it is a superb foil to the messiness of Hannah’s family, which is shown, as the movie progresses, to have deep roots (the parents were both flirts and philanderers in show business) and can more or less be taken as the real, fallen human condition. We will have to deal with husbands cheating on wives and sisters betraying sisters and lies and unhappiness. It can be terribly dark, and as Allen also portrays, so horribly, horribly lonely – and yet. It’s not all a drag.
It’s a superb movie. I didn’t, in the end, enjoy it as much as Annie Hall, which depicts much more closely the aspects of life which are not a drag. There are scenes in Hannah and Her Sisters which are awkward and difficult to watch, for all the obvious reasons. Annie Hall is also much funnier, and writing jokes that are funny thirty years later is quite an achievement. Even in Hannah we see Allen acting in a funny way without actually being funny (a staple of the later, worse films). The titles given to all the scenes are probably an unnecessary, intrusive technique. But all in all it’s a superb film, worthy of the acclaim it has received.
Many people in the Catskills dread the winter, but I do not. I get to work outdoors at the nursery from spring until the arrival of winter, and even when I am not working there I am often gardening at my cabin or hiking in the mountains. The result is eight good months of constant outdoor activity. When winter arrives, I am ready for it – ready to sit inside by the fire and read books.
The first tome I have picked up so far was one my mother brought home from the Queens Public Library, Deep South, by Paul Theroux. I’m sure I never would have read it were it not that it was on my mom’s coffee table when I visited her; but once I began the book, I wanted to finish it.
I don’t know quite what to make of Paul Theroux. I think his resume is very interesting – a Peace Corps volunteer who taught in Malawi (falling afoul of the mad Classicist-Dictator Hastings Banda and getting kicked out of the country), teaching for a few more years before getting a book published and then winning himself some acclaim as a travel writer. His travel exploits are quite enviable: he rode trains from the Boston T down to Patagonia for The Old Patagonian Express; he walked nearly the whole coast of England for The Kingdom by the Sea; he explored Eurasia, and then China, by rail in The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster; he encircled much of the Mediterranean in The Pillars of Hercules – still a surprisingly dangerous task even today – and toured the Pacific islands – doing the shorter runs in a kayak – in The Happy Isles of Oceania. And this is not nearly all of his books.
I have read The Old Patagonian Express, The Pillars of Hercules, The Kingdom By the Sea, and now Deep South, and each time, I have finished his books without any particular certainty that what I had just read was real literature. The closest I have seen him come to literature is the passage in The Old Patagonian Express where he meets the blind Borges, who makes him read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym to him. But of course one is left with the impression that it was Borges that made that encounter literature. It was Borges who wanted Theroux to read, rather than merely exchange pleasantries; it was Borges who picked such a fabulous and unusual book; it was Borges’s passion to hear Poe in an American accent, a touch which is simultaneously tender and purposeful – not at all the kind of modernist absurdity that clutters our minds today.
It may be the case that Theroux’s travel writing is done merely for fun and money, and I should look to his fiction for something deeper – after all, Mosquito Coast did make a fine and thoughtful movie. That proposition may end up being true – that his best work is his fiction – but somehow I don’t have any instinctive confidence in it.
I will return to that idea, but first let’s take a look at Deep South, Theroux’s latest book. It is a badly edited, somewhat lazy book; right at the beginning he wishes to offer by way of prologue a meditation on the difficulty of American travel writing – because there really are no difficulties, travel in America being so easy – but he just blunders about the topic, repeating himself several times, as if he just decided to throw in all his false starts – hell, I wrote ‘em, why not use ‘em. The same thing happens elsewhere, where he makes the point about the South reminded him of Africa about fifteen times, in much the same words, and where he repeats himself about Southern hospitality, Southern churches, etc. The impression you get is that Theroux launched himself into his observation about the importance of Southern churches multiple times, but no one read the book closely enough to catch it, and so it ended up in multiple places.
It has been noted before, that telling us that Southern churches are important in their communities is hardly a new or profound observation. It sounds like a trite truism even before you look at Theroux’s terrible – indeed amateurish – handling:
A church in the South is the beating heart of the community, the social center, the anchor of faith, the beacon of light, the arena of music, the gathering place, offering hope, counsel, welfare, warmth, fellowship, melody, harmony, and snacks. (3)
Indeed, there is almost nothing new or unusual in Theroux’s entire book: the South he goes out to find consists of shotgun shacks, rusted-out trailers, rotting farmhouses, Indian-run motels, baptist churches; discussions about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, segregation, and Faulkner; gun shows, college football, soul food diners; and not much else. He confines his visits to rural poor South Carolina, rural poor Alabama, rural poor Mississippi, and rural poor Arkansas. There is not even an attempt to get to the complexity of the region now: the gay culture of Charleston, the expensive eco-alt chic of Asheville, the corporate elite of Atlanta, the exurbs of Birmingham and Charlotte, and a million other topics that could be covered.
But I don’t blame Theroux for this; he wanted small, beat-up towns – places where the church is still the only thing in town besides the post office – and he’s entitled to it. He’s definitely not making it up: the South has a lot of places like that. And since I take an interest in places like that, I enjoyed reading about them. Theroux is a good observer, and he captures some interesting dialogue, though none of it struck me as particularly amazing. His was an experience which was enjoyable enough and which anyone could have today – just hop into your car and go there. And if you can’t go there today – if you’re enjoying a spell on the couch – Theroux is a nice companion. He’s smart, usually acerbic, occasionally funny, and very well-traveled. He made me look up some words – which very few authors can do (“fossicking”?) and made me smile at his coinage of others (Bill Clinton turning the Arkansas governor’s mansion into a “fornicarium”).
But ultimately, literature is great human beings on paper, and for all the rooting Theroux does in the book for the good guys working for community development in these beaten-down towns, I never get much of a sense that Theroux is a deeply impressive human being. There is the egotism – many (maybe even most) of his analogies draw attention to his own travels rather than illuminating the thing being described; when he speaks of “the great travel writing of our day,” he has to include “nearly everything in travel that I have written.” The vague odor of pusillanimity never quite gets off his page. In his other books he always has the best of every conversation, which itself seems unlikely; but in this book it feels like the egotism has run so amok it even damages his ability to present himself well. At one point he starts speaking to a black preacher in Chaucerian English, because the preacher had the name Palmer; all very well, but he could have explained what Palmer meant in old English without reverting to Middle English. It feels like he is quoting it just to show that he knows it. Most smart people do this as adolescents; but Theroux looks a bit long in the tooth for this kind of behavior.
Then there is the negativity. It seems that all Theroux’s truly passionate energy resides in opposition. He is weakly benign towards all the good causes he comes across, and I laud him for it. But all the comparisons he makes with Africa lead him to the thing which truly galvanizes him, which is U.S. foreign aid to Africa, and how it should be spent here instead. Theroux may well be right, by the way – but at the very least, there is something to be said for the belief that more money should go to the poorest of the poor, who actually do reside in other countries. But in Theroux it appears as a constant harping: the kind of recurrent emotive obsession that powerless and misguided people have in lieu of meaningful work.
One of the themes of the harping is that it is the responsibility of the Clinton Foundation – or maybe the Gates Foundation, but no, really the Clinton Foundation – to do something about Southern poverty. He brings it up to almost every person he meets down South (if he had been clever, he would have reported that everyone else was bringing it up to him). Again, he may be right, but even if so, a single, well-argued paragraph making this case will do his cause more justice than repeated snipes. After the sniping, he visits Hot Springs, noting its seediness, and then goes into a seven-page biographical insinuation (it’s not really anything more than this) about Bill Clinton:
When Clinton was a teenager (and from his account he roamed freely in Hot Springs), gambling was rife, murders were common, gangsters were part of the scene, Maxine Jones’s brothel and many others were thriving, and the town, run by a crooked political machine, was alight with roisterers, whores, and high rollers. You’re bound to wonder what effect that ingrained culture of vice might have had on an impressionable schoolboy. (347)
It goes on for seven pages like this, but it never really amounts to anything. It’s just negativity, the kind of sniping you might find on Fox News. I’d love for Theroux to be able to paint a Tacitean portrait of Clinton through the gangster-spa of Hot Springs; such a thing could be a tour-de-force. But there is no weight behind anything Theroux says (with one exception: he claims that Clinton never mentions the black community of Hot Springs in his autobiography, which I do, in fact, find to be an interesting omission, if it’s true). It concludes by claiming, “The bird-dogger of chicks is also, inevitably, the most fervent sermonizer at the prayer breakfast.” This is the climax of seven pages of biographical tarring. Montes pariuntur, nascitur ridiculus mus.
Most of the book is not like this – mostly it is vaguely entertaining, generally benignant, and readable. But consistently, in Theroux’s books, it is the snippets of Theroux the man which peak through the narrative that seem most unappealing. There appears to be some kind of emptiness in him, which a lifetime of profitable writing has not filled. He wanders around the South, but his brain seems to be the large sort, and large brains are wounded by too much purposeless wandering. And while he has written much and sometimes written well, I cannot get past the sense that something is missing.
With a baby on the way in just a few weeks, I have all kinds of thoughts about parenting, but they are difficult to put in words – in part because this is one of the most deeply personal things we do, and also one of the things we have the most inflexible opinions about: in other words, it may not be a productive topic for public discussion. What one person believes is necessary for their children, another person believes is actually immoral (for me this comes up most clearly with economic questions – many people believe that the greatest gift they can give their children is privilege. Needless to say, I do not believe this). And conversations of this sort very quickly and easily, with issues so deeply personal, cause offense.
But one thing I think I can say is that I believe we are in the midst of a revolution in values and mores, one which I am, myself, going to try to resist. The revolution is this: my generation, I am certain, will spend less time involved in the raising of children than any other generation in human history. And the time we spend doing it will probably also mean less to us than it has meant to other generations. This latter part I fear even more than the former. I can force myself to spend time with my kids – but I have seen many parents who are frankly bored by their children, and don’t find it as meaningful as they would have thought. They are happy that there exists an education industry, and a daycare industry, and a vast child entertainment industry.
I hope to resist all these things, and in general I think the greatest satisfactions in life come from taking back the activities that the economic world of specialization is continually trying to take from us. Because in this way we get in touch with archetypal energies inside ourselves, the release of which is a deep source of satisfaction. We can be more than just Man the Worker: we can be Man the Builder, Man the Lover, Man the Priest, Man the Poet, Man the Toolmaker, Man the Finder, Man the Dreamer, Man the Animal, and so much more, if we give those portions of our lives a little sun and space and water.
And just as Man the Son is an archetype that is not just a personal relationship, but an entire stance toward the past, so Man the Father is a stance toward the future. I remember hearing Richard Rohr asking, “What have you really fathered?” and thinking it one of the ways of measuring a life. What life have you really created outside of yourself in the world?
As I say, I am full of these questions right now. But one piece of this resistance to economic specialization, and an attempt to vindicate the importance of parenthood, I see in the work of my friend Amber Scorah. This past summer her family suffered a terrible tragedy, and she has been transforming the grief from that event into an attempt to give parenthood in America at least the kind of protections it has in other wealthy countries, by seeking more robust parental-leave laws. It will be an uphill battle in a place which considers its main business to be business, but we will see what happens. I think the more likely option is that high-end companies will continue to improve their parental leave policies, but a single law will be difficult to enforce across the country. For Amber’s story, see her beautiful piece in yesterday’s New York Times’ blog.
I consider legislation of this sort one small part of a broader cultural effort to reclaim the dignity of parenthood. For people who work in the kind of companies which really can have better parental leave policies, I think this is a fight worth fighting.