Friday, June 26, 2009

work, the body, the soul (June 25)

I am sitting here loving a respite from the humid heat that’s been hanging like a milk soaked sponge over our heads for the last day and a half. A late afternoon thunderstorm emerged out of the humidity and pressure; dousing the 93 degree 97% humidity day with nickel size raindrops and ripping cracks of thunder that boomed lead heavy into my ribcage as I pedaled with all my might up the hill that emerges from the Huron river valley.

The rain was hot on my shoulders, but the wind chilled the wetness and sent the gladness of cool over my sweaty skin. The temperature reminded me of how present I am in the always recognizing the physicality of my own body.

Lately, I’ve really been contemplating work. The action of moving our bodies as human beings and gaining something in return—that which must be done to stay alive—work is in essence all about our survival. I am not talking about paid work. I am not talking about our jobs as the tool for survival. I think paid work (and this is stating it simply—but the idea that we make money in order to buy the things we need to survive is what the root really is) is one of the roots to all of our current woes—violence, addiction, “economic hardship”, starvation, lack of community, homelessness, individualism, the existence of the nuclear family sand the extended family, to name a few.

I’m a big Wendell Berry fan. I like his frankness and willingness to call things as he sees them even if sometimes some of his ideas might be twinged with a dose of didactic, white heterosexual man syndrome that makes me cough. I think overall he is a reasonable and very important thinker.

So, I was reading The Body and the Earth from the Unsettling of America a while back and I wept over a couple of paragraphs. I mean really cried. Of course, I had just had my wisdom teeth out. But I was numbed in the mouth, and so my tears came because of the substance behind the text. There is this whole section of the chapter where Berry is arguing that working with the earth has been conceptually turned into drudgery through the disconnection of body and soul imposed upon us by modern urban-industrial society (of course this is my simplistic weaving together of many of his much more complicated points).

The paragraphs talk about the evolution of the “hatred of bodily labor.” Berry states, “ Perhaps the trouble began when we started using animals disrespectfully: as ‘beasts’—that is, as if they had no more feeling than a machine. Perhaps the destructiveness of our use of machines was prepared in our willingness to abuse animals. That it was never necessary to abuse animals in order to use them is suggested by a passage in The Horse and the Furrow, by George Ewart Evans. He is speaking of how the medieval ox teams were worked by the plow: ‘…the ploughman at the handles, the team of oxen—yoked in pairs or four abreast—and the driver who walked alongside with his goad.” And then he says, ‘It is also worth noting that in the Welsh organization…the counterpart of the driver was termed y geilwad or the caller. He walked backwards in front of the oxen singing to them as they worked. Songs were especially composed to suit the rhythm of the oxen’s work…’”

And then I cried. Because this kind of respect and connection and interdependence in the ways we live on this planet, in the U.S. in particular, is so missing. Some of my finest days are the days full of what some might call drudgery. When K and I work in our yard and grow things together and create and build a life and cook and eat and smile into one another’s eyes and sweat deep puddles of salt, these are the days that sink into my heart and fix themselves like nails of golden memory to my brains.

While I am fortunate enough to have meaningful paid work, it still is not the work of creating a household or a community that I will come home to and build my days with. I think in this striving for constructed leisure that now rules the waking hours of so many people’s existences, we have blemished the goodness that can come from hard, physical labor that is interwoven with our very survival and our seeking of that which is beautiful, creative, and beyond our own understanding.

There is a great documentary out there called Ancient Futures: Learning from the Ladakh that is based on a book “by Helena Norberg-Hodge, has become an international grassroots best seller. Part anthropology, part uncompromising critique, it raises fundamental questions about the whole notion of progress, and serves as a source of inspiration for our own future.”

The documentary gives insight into the traditional Ladakhi people and the ways in which body and soul are still connected in their everyday lives--in their work which is their living and survival. It also demonstrates how the body/ soul dichotomy ideology of the west and the ever growing push, that comes with western ideology, toward automation, individualism, monetary wealth and “leisure” has begun to infiltrate and destroy their culture. Anyhow, I suggest checking it out.

So, what I want is to work with my hands and legs and arms and continue to help build this household and community that I am a part of and to do this well and to have the love and beauty that is grown from the people and the other creatures of this region carried on to the next generation and the next.

As Berry succinctly wraps it up, “It is possible then to believe that there is a kind of work that does not require abuse or misuse, that does not use anything for a substitute for anything else. We are working well when we use ourselves as the fellow creatures of the plants, animals and materials, and other people we are working with. Such work is unifying, healing. It brings us home from pride and despair, and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.”


birdy.j said...

i love the vision that comes to me when i think of farmers singing to their oxen... how lovely and right!
i like the ideas you are presenting of work as life (and i agree) but you musn't demean the powerful, activist, hopeful, change-filled, work you DO do now.... thank you for all you do!
ps- yes, what is in the garden?!

Kate said...

hi nat - you have been awarded. check out my blog :)

Anonymous said...

I come by every once in a while and dont have anyhing better to say than that I really like reading your writing.