Wednesday, August 29, 2012

WHAT WE WERE BORN FOR



DESERTS

I was born for love –
to give it and to receive it.
Yet my life has passed
almost without loving.
So I’ve learned forgiving:

even the deserts
I have crossed
I feel no scorn for.
I just ask them
with astonished eyes:

What gardens were you born for?

~ Blaga Dimitrova, Because the Sea is Black, tr. Niko Boris and Heather McHugh

**

Imagine the Sahara irrigated, producing enough food to feed all of Africa. Imagine parts of it covered with solar panels, providing electricity for the world. Instead, a deadly desert. South of it, warfare, famine, and disease.

But talking about the Sahara evades the pain of confronting “what the poem is really about.” In a capsule, it’s practically every woman’s woman’s lament: I was born for love, but my love life has been a desert. I too used to be filled with the same lamentation: I was born for love, and look at the desert that life has given me instead.

I’m not sure if I ever met a woman who’d not agree that this is a summary of her life. Women have an insatiable hunger for for emotional connectedness and deep friendship. It’s practically the definition of femininity.

There, I’ve said it, the word that changes the equation: no, not femininity, but friendship. I mean it in a more European sense: friendship as a special kind of love, a deep communion of the minds and mutual affection. Aristotle put friendship ahead of erotic love. My mother said, “Friends are more important than lovers.”

This is the wisdom of maturity. An eighteen-year-old would probably be shocked at the idea that friends are more important than lovers. An artist can grasp it more easily, since the enormous importance of peers is hard to overlook. But I don’t mean to dismiss Eros. In youth, that’s simply impossible. Later in life, if one is lucky enough to fall in love, it can be the greatest feast imaginable.

Nevertheless . . .

My perception began changing as soon as I shifted away from “love” and toward “affection.” 

Recently I came across this amazing little story by Marnia Robinson
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/200909/the-lazy-way-stay-in-love

Waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, my husband and I checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator resting calmly on his lap. As we stroked the gator, I asked the trainer why it was so tame. "I pet it daily. If I didn't, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn't allow this," he explained.

I was surprised. Only months earlier I had begun to grasp the power of bonding behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking and so forth) to evoke the desire to bond without our having to do anything more. I didn't realize reptiles ever responded similarly.

I didn’t realize it either. After all, reptiles allegedly don’t have the kind of brain that’s capable of bonding with others. But apparently even they can experience the pleasure of gentle touch, and apparently that’s enough. Strange as that sounds, pet an alligator daily and it becomes sweet-tempered. 



“I pet it daily.” I hope I never forget this story. It’s potentially life-changing for those women who happen to be married to alligators -- they know what I mean.

So we are not powerless over our relationships and the waning of both eros and affection? We may be largely powerless over Eros, in the sense of infatuation and romantic love. Eros is notoriously resistant to any struggle to keep it alive (which is probably for the best, if we ponder the finding that the brain in love looks in scans like the brain on cocaine). True, there are rare exceptions: Dostoyevski’s second marriage retained the glow of passion for fourteen years, to the end of Dostoyevski’s life. And that couple did it entirely without reading Reader’s Digest articles on “Ten Ways to Keep Romance in Your Marriage.”
For most of us, marriage is the opposite of romance, so let us leave it at that. But we are not powerless over affection. If we “pet [X] daily,” affection can grow and grow.Gentle touch, attentive listening, looking into each other’s eyes -- but I don’t mean to repeat the advice found in thousands of self-help books. Not that we need to read those books. We may not be as good at giving affection as dogs are, but generally we need no special training in how to give affection. The problem is not skill, but motivation.
That motivation may be born of in a moment of insight when suddenly we understand that marriage can be either heaven or hell . . . Well, not exactly heaven, but pleasant and supportive -- or it can be absolute hell, marriage as warfare. If your husband is an alligator, you have to figure out how to pet an alligator.
Here I am reminded of what I learned about Barack Obama that filled me with boundless admiration: in his youth, he made the decision not to be angry. That’s a terrific reminder: we are not powerless over anger. We are not powerless over affection. True heroes are neither men with guns nor self-sacrificing martyr-type mothers, but those who discover they are not powerless over something important. Realizing this is a lot more important than pondering “what we were born for” and lamenting that life has not lived up to our expectations.
“The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk,” Hegel observed. Wisdom often comes only late in life, after we have suffered enough and are finally motivated to make the best of what remains. I had to be cornered by mortality before I decided not to live in bitterness and regrets. I had to read Louise Hay, who showed me that we are not powerless even over having been an abused child and having internalized the abuse, perpetuating it by “beating up on yourself.” (I hasten to point out that by comparison with Louise’s childhood wounds, mine were mere woundettes.) Not powerless over the wounds of childhood? What else might we turn out not to powerless over?
Sartre asked, “What do you do with what was done to you?” More broadly, what do you do with what life and circumstances have done to you? Do you declare yourself a victim? Confession: that’s exactly what I used to do. Chronically. I’d rather not confess for how long.
For instance, I felt I was “born for” living in an exciting city with a vibrant cultural scene. I mention this in one of my poems, “If Dreams Are Returns”:
. . . boys with narrow glances
watching me. I march past them,
head high, knowing the train station

is not far, avenues lit with lilacs,
bridges with white towers, embassies –
what I was born for: the bright city.

**

“What I was born for: the bright city.” Really? Then how come I had such a tepid reaction to New York, once I finally got to see Manhattan and had what seemed strange perceptions, e.g. “so old and mildewed.” The skyscrapers I thought I’d adore struck me as ill-proportioned. The crowds that I missed so much (I thought) struck as as downright dangerous as they stampeded to the nearest subway entrance, disappearing underground in a vaguely sinister way, the business district empty and abandoned-looking after office hours. I had to admit I loved California. I’ve even grown fond of the provincial place where I live, with its distinctly non-vibrant cultural scene (but there are worse places, worse fates).
You may ask, “What about returning to Warsaw?” Train stations, lilacs, a bridge with white towers, embassies -- need I say that many of my poems are in some ways about Warsaw? True, in my last year in Warsaw I totally fell in love with the city. But I don’t like the capitalist and increasingly Manhattanized version of it. You really can’t go home again. Some statements become clichés because they are profoundly true.

To assume that we were “born for” something special -- an elegant lifestyle, fame and/or fortune, the very best that life can offer (or, maybe, the worst that life can offer), or a particular vocation -- is to insert another layer of deluded belief between ourselves and reality. It’s hypermentalizing from the point of view of the teleological (goal-centered) illusion, a predestinarian view. I could say, “I was born to be a writer,” but it’s more modest and correct to say, “I have some literary talent, just like my three paternal aunts,” or even, “I love to write” -- let’s take the claim of “talent” out of it.

We were not “born for” anything particular. We were simply born. And here we are -- how are we going to use this one amazing life?

This may be particularly true of poets, who have to put up with poetry’s marginal position in the culture, but in my social set I sometimes meet people who feel that they are somehow “in the wrong life.” They were born for a different life, a much more pleasant one. The “born for” idea can easily lead to bitterness.

The logical solution seems simple: we should see whether or not we can change the conditions that make us feel “stuck as if by mistake in the wrong life.” If we can’t change the outside, then we need to change the inside, i.e. our attitude. “Bloom where you are planted.” Enroll in that acting class you’ve always dreamed of taking. Renounce the charms of being a victim. (I am, of course, preaching to myself. It still bothers me somewhat that being miserable takes no effort, while good things usually require work, and/or the stress of a long commute.)

But who operates by logic? The change in attitude happens or doesn’t happen. Once I said goodbye to depression, I discovered that I actually love my quiet life, and don’t crave an “exciting life,” as I once thought. This discovery and “attitude adjustment” wasn’t due to conscious cogitation. My brain did it without bothering me about the details. All I know is that a shift happened.

**

And yet, and yet  . . .  there is a certain power in the beautiful, doomed question, “What gardens were you born for?” No human beings should have to live in crushing poverty, without clean water, enough food, an access to education. Who knows what genius perishes when basic needs are not provided for.

And I dare say we were born to get and give affection. “Love” is a contaminated word, concealing a huge demand. But we can manage affection. I’m all for declaring affection a basic human right.

Yes, in an ideal world we’d all get plenty of nurturing and affection. And now and then, we get lucky. No matter how long we’ve lived an alligator existence, someone comes along and -- begins to pet us. Or, to mix metaphors, unexpected rain makes the desert bloom.

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT, SPRINGTIME
       

Every stick bursts into blossom.
Flame-beaked ocotillos
wave in the warm wind.
In the scar of an arroyo
silvers a live stream.

This is the most precious garden:
not hothouse orchids
but the desert lavish with gold
brittlebush, our-lady’s-slippers,
bells ringing indigo and mauve.

Just one season of unstinting rain,
and this place of thirst
blooms the richest Eden.
Prickly pear opens its purple veils.
Lilac-plumed grass tames to my hand.

So after years without love,
tenderness makes us flower.
So our face
becomes the face of all,
unfolding petal by petal.

~ Oriana © 2012


Hyacinth:

Great blog. My favorite line: "cornered by mortality." Brilliant.

Recently a young woman I know has fallen in love after a disastrous marriage. She said her new love is very romantic. I asked, But is he affectionate? Yes she replied. And does he show it? Yes. Good, I said.

In a relationship of my own what I found I liked was that my lover allowed me to love him, odd as that may sound. I recall a line from the movie "As Good As It Gets": Nicholson asks in a fury, "Did you have sex with him?" and she answers, "Better than that. We held each other."

Oriana:

The longer I live, the more I treasure affection. As Adrienne Rich said, “Without tenderness, we are in hell.” 

Lucrezia:

Re:  What you say reminds me in part of the Roman saying, “To live is not necessary; to sail is necessary.”

Well, what if you were a Roman slave?  And what defines living?  The luxury of sailing?  There is an entire psychology of the "haves" that is irrelevant to the majority of the world.

If it came right down to bread or roses (or circuses) we'd all choose bread.

Perhaps the above was somewhat molded by my Berkeley experience but my personal philosophy is far from Marxist!

Love the photos and the alligator story.  There is a similar story called The Lady and the Tiger. A woman came to a wise man and asked for help with her troubled marriage. The wise man told her he would help her but first she had to bring back a whisker from a tiger. After many months of getting closer and closer to a tiger that lived nearby, she finally got close enough to clip a whisker, for which she thanked him. When she brought the whisker to the wise man, he tossed it on the fire. He explained to the bewildered woman that a man is no more fierce than a tiger, and that if she had enough patience to tame the tiger, she could do the same with her husband.

What is annoying about this story and similar ones is it's never the man who seeks advice regarding how to help their marriage/wife/GF. Men never buy or read books or attend seminars on how to maintain their relationships. The entire industry is supported by women. One relationship counselor said that the quality of the relationship is usually 100 percent women's responsibility, because if one is looking for one's partner to contribute in that area, it just won't happen. But then, men take on certain responsibilities like maintaining the family's cars or finances . . . so there may be a balance of responsibilities in many cases.

I don't think anyone's life is a desert who gives love, even if the quality/quantity of that which is received seems not enough.  If one can give love, then one has love in one's life.  As for being in love, am reminded of a relative who left his wife and two children for a younger woman who was in the same field.  His wife had put him through years of university study and he had a PhD.  My dad used to say "Maybe they're in love," and roll his eyes.  What is the higher deed:  keeping one's commitments or indulging in emotions that as you mentioned, often quickly fade?


Oriana:

Thank you, Lucrezia, for excellent comments. You bring up many valid points. Just to defend the Roman saying a bit, the admiral/commander did not mean sailing for enjoyment, but in service to the country. In addition, sailing was then rather dangerous, so it was also an act of courage, an expression of the human spirit of daring and accomplishing (with luck). Nevertheless, your point about the slaves is well-taken. The perspective of the privileged classes -- what you perceptively call the “psychology of the haves” -- has indeed tended to prevail, and only in the recent decades has there been a correction (now and then excessive, but that’s normal when a new balance is being sought).

I am outraged that a counselor (male, I suppose) said that the woman is 100% responsible for the relationship. The male partner has to be motivated to have a good relationship. That’s where some men's eyes are opened only when they retire. Now they realize that life can be either sheer  hell, marriage as warfare (you’ve probably met couples like that) -- or it can be happier than ever.

When the man understands the importance of his marriage or “marriage equivalent” -- the importance of the woman in his life -- he’ll get nicer, start bringing her flowers and little gifts. And she in turn will reward him ten times over, which no woman resents, as long as she gets her strokes and is not being put down and mistreated. I’ve seen some very good relationships where the woman could still be said to be giving more, but then the man is also giving in other ways. A wise couple establishes a division of labor: as you pointed out, and as is frequently the case, he is responsible for maintaining both their cars, for instance. But it need not be along traditional lines. Maybe she makes more money and he’s a great cook.

If a woman puts her husband through school, these days she can sue for breach of contract if he then leaves her -- which used to be a common story until one of those deserted wives sued and won. He (an M.D.) had to pay her back, just as if he’d taken out a loan. So there’s been progress.

I agree that giving affection -- and we can decide to be affectionate; we are not “swept away” by affection -- makes life infinitely better. You are absolutely right: if there is affection in your life, then your life is not a desert: it is a garden. Articles on Ten Ways to Keep Romance in Your Marriage drive me nuts; let’s concentrate on the doable, which is affection, a treasure vastly beyond the storms of passion.

Charles:

This you your best blog yet.

Love the image of the dark and cold city. Opposite of your dreams.

So much wisdom here.

My favorite line is, "shift happens."

Oriana:

“Shift happens” has become one of my mantras. The phenomenon of perception shift is my deepest source of optimism. It can’t be forced, but it can be facilitated, I think, through a bit of conscious cogitation, reading, and experimentation. I tend to agree that we don’t solve problems so much as we transcend them. We outgrow them. Suddenly the whole matter isn’t even relevant as we move to a different stage of life. 

Scott:

I enjoyed this post very much, timely as usual. There's a great movie, 'A Knight's Tale'; a B movie perhaps but there is a fantastic line I just remembered this week. The lead was told by his father 'Change your stars and live a better life than I.'  Is it not funny how stars are used so metaphorically in our lives from astrology to poetry? I really like Louis MacNiece's 'Thallassa' which ends;

'By a high star our course is set.
Our end is life. Put out to sea.'

My three great passions in life have been the sea, history and reading. Poetry has come to me rather late in life (I love the 'Minerva's owl' line) and I think I shall pursue the writing, reading and collection of verse the rest of my life. A harmless and 'impractical' pursuit, Auden called poetry 'small beer' but I think he in his heart knew different.

Love, affection, friendship, a good book, great coffee, birds at the feeder...simple pleasures all but as I near the half century mark I am truly embracing my age, I like this time in my life very much. No longer bound by the follies of youth and not yet hobbled by old age and it's frailties, I'm free to embark on my voyages of discovery, no matter how Quioxtic they seem. One goal is to have at least one volume of poetry in my collection by poets who are on record as being an admirer of 'Moby Dick' ( and many poets love that book!) The more impractical a thing is, the more I like it at this stage of my life. Worry, fear, guilt and regret I try to put in my wake; as W R Rodges said in 'Life's Circumnavigators'

'Oh, when shall we, all spent,
Row into some far strand
And find, to our content,
The original land,
From which our boat once went,
Though not the one we planned.

Us on that happy day
This fierce sea will release.
On our rough face of clay
The final glaze of peace
Our oars we will all lay
Down, and desire will cease.'

**

Oriana:

What you say reminds me in part of the Roman saying, “To live is not necessary; to sail is necessary.” I take it to mean that humans need to have a meaningful goal, meaningful work. That’s why the ideas of heaven, whether Christian or Muslim, just don’t appeal to me -- what meaningful task would there be to accomplish?

At the same time, I’m against anything that smacks of predestination. Sure, we don’t just decide what to do, how to act, out of nowhere, but are influenced by our genes and circumstances in ways too complex to completely understand. Nevertheless, we as individuals do make some choices and decisions -- e.g. Obama’s decision not to be angry. That’s almost like “changing your stars”!! Someone could object that if there is plenty to be angry about, how can you not be angry? As human beings, we can in fact decide not to be angry. We have that freedom. We don’t have to be on automatic, reacting to whatever happens in a predictable way.

As for collecting books by poets who admire Moby Dick, you know of course that my book is now available on Amazon . . .










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