Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sabbaticals, Hit Men, Titanic Will

Tele wrote last week about the radical sabbatical she's embarked upon. She's quit her job, and is taking six months to figure out how to live a daily life less implicated and enmeshed in "the countless pathologies" of modern life (and committing -- this is an oddly prevalent theme in my corner of the blogosphere -- acts of subversive knitting). I printed out this post and have carried it around with me. In fact I began writing this as a comment on her post, but it's grown alarmingly. The post resonated with me in many different ways. In a way I too feel that I'm on a radical sabbatical. And I feel similarly that it's a radical act to care properly for my body -- without buying anything -- or to meditate -- without buying anything. "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers," said Wordsworth. He was right even then, I'm sure. But he had no idea of how advanced capitalism would manage to turn every conceivable need, wish or yen into getting and spending.

There is nothing easy or trivial about housewifery or househusbandry. The idea that technology has turned it into something that can be done properly in a few hours a week -- which radical feminists, alas, had some hand in propagating -- is absurd. Just becoming educated enough to resist the proliferation of household poisons -- to resist the convenience of toxic food -- to resist an endless spiral of drug dependence under the rubric of medicine -- to understand the economic and environmental ramifications of "inexpensive" goods -- is a life's work. The only household tasks that have really gotten easier in the last hundred years are washing clothes, washing dishes, and keeping floors clean. The complexities of managing a household have not diminished. They've multiplied.

But I have some uneasiness about taking it too individually. These aren't really problems that can be solved by "being the change" -- because most people don't have the resources (financial, psychological, spiritual) for a sabbatical. "Being the change" is more a spiritual practice than a solution.

As such, it's as important -- more important, I think, though I know that's a minority view -- than finding a solution. But there's the danger, as always with spiritual practices, of evaluating it in terms of worldly results. And the obverse danger of scanting the political (using that word in a very broad sense), because it's already being addressed on a personal level.

But saying that makes me uneasy too. Because there's only so much anyone can do, and -- frankly -- a lot of these activities, personal and political, are unrewarding in the extreme. A life spent in resistance is no life at all.

And I'm further uneasy in that I've failed abjectly in so many of these resistances, which I started out so hopefully in. What business do I have even talking about it? The life I'd hoped to have, the household I'd hoped for, has never materialized. For me, I think you'd probably have say that the forces of evil are ahead, on points. I draw my chief consolation from being able occasionally to get off the ropes. I remember with some rueful amusement that Martha and I seriously considered, before Tori's birth, purging the house of all advertisements. Having all our medicines and foodstuffs in plain jars and bins, getting rid of all labels, so as to raise a child who actually thought in terms of oatmeal and aspirin and soup rather than in terms of Quaker Oats and Bayer's and Campbell's. It was a charming idea, and so obviously the idea of a childless couple that I grin every time I remember it. We had no idea how strong the current was, before we stepped into that river. No idea that for the next two decades we'd be living on fast food, frozen food, & canned food, and ingesting really terrifying amounts of over-the-counter drugs, psychotropics, statins, & blood-pressure medicine.

The only line we really held was resisting television, and making our chief entertainment reading aloud. And computer games and internet have made something of an end run around that. My kids spend hours on World of Warcraft, slaughtering wicked monsters, and strategizing and chatting with their online comrades. I console myself that at least it's more active and social, at least as they play it, than just sitting watching a television screen. (And the trolls dance, at their virtual parties, really entrancingly.)

It is not, remotely, life as I ever envisioned it. When I walked out the door of IBM last fall, I imagined changing it all. Not much has changed, in the household. We've acquired two extra housemates, in the form of our kids' significant others, so now we have six people in the house, no two of whom like to eat the same things. Food continues to arrive in the house and be consumed in expensive and toxic individual packages. Processed sugars flow into the house from all sides. The gods of the hearth are the computers clustered together on the dining room table.

Keeping the kitchen clean and the clothes washed is often more than we manage. There's always something that needs taking care of more than the daily tasks: Christmas's bedding needs to be changed or an elderly parent needs help dealing with arcane drug insurance or the leaking shingles on the roof need to be fixed or the ice in Martha's cryopack for her arthroscoped knee needs to be changed or Jonquil needs to be taken to her GED program or Alan needs to be chivvied into doing his homework. And when time does open up, I'm desperate for time to write, or exercise, or meditate, or -- above all -- time to vegetate, clicking away myself at Civ 3 or computer Go. So this is life as we know it.

It seems to me that only a titanic effort of will could really change all this, or even much of it. And if there's one commodity I am not rich in, it's titanic will. In graduate school we used to speculate about pooling our money to hire a hit man who would come around to each of us and force us to write our term papers at gunpoint. Maybe we could hire someone like that to force us to shop and cook and clean. Come up with a menu for the week in half an hour, or it's the left kneecap. March the kids two by two into the kitchen to wash dishes, or lose a finger. Someone with titanic will, I suppose (and armed), would simply have taken Christmas out back and shot her two months ago.

This, and not just early morning cafe-writing, massage trades, & working at the Foundation, is my life. I have not often allowed myself to look that in the face. It is, I suppose, the Next Big Thing. Does one ever run out, I wonder, of Next Big Things?

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