Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
We have slipped over into the second half of our Woolly Pilgrimage year. This will be a short week for the diary because we take off on Wednesday for Jonís wedding in Denver.
Tom and Roxann leave Tuesday for England. Journeys.
From: "William Schmidt"
To: "Charles Ellis"
Subject: RE: The end of the first half of the year...
Date: Friday, July 23, 2004 11:00 PM
Am just reading your latest. I too, am challenged at times with the what if's. What if I never left the Jesuits? What if I still worked for GE? I generally get to the place where I know that I would then be really unhappy, because I was back then. I would not, for example, be one of the Mammoths right now. I am struck by the following:
"Well, no matter what he feels, the only thing that can be done about his needs now are what I can do. And the work I do will be what I can do. Sounds tautological, and it is, sort of. Itís not, however, in a crucial sense. Had I not done a right turn out of the ministry long ago, I would not have the opportunity to do this work now.
Thus, if I can devote myself to this work in the same way I devoted myself to my first novels and to the garden this year, and learning to draw, then I could do work to make this guy typing right now happy and work to make the collegian happy."
To extend the tautological. And to bring in another what if that looks to right now and the future instead of looking back. What if the guy typing right now is happy and he is just typing? Do we have to "work" to make anyone, especially ourselves, happy? Is this an imaginary outcome we have created as if it were outside of ourselves? Perhaps then, we can never get there. I am reading into your tautological beginning that our life is about being and being "happy", sad, self, or whatever. "Fuck" the collegian, live for the 57 year old. Let the heart come through. Maybe this is our journey. Maybe we do art for art's sake. Maybe we live life for life's sake.
This 67 year old likes having the 57 year old around and near by as a companion on the journey.
Love and blessings,
Bill raises an important question here. A manís issue which has become a human issue thanks to the gender revolution.
Letís look at it: work.
1 : activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something:
a : sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result
b : the labor, task, or duty that is one's accustomed means of livelihood
7 a : something produced or accomplished by effort, exertion, or exercise of skill <this book is the work of many hands>
b : something produced by the exercise of creative talent or expenditure of creative effort : artistic production
These from Merriam, your favorite non-English dictionary.
Somehow I keep wanting to push all the way back, so letís look at two very early theories about work.
The first, from my long ago days in anthropology. Once upon a time, varying times as it turns out, humans hunted game and gathered nuts, berries, and tubers. The time span is so varying that some hunter/gatherers still exist (Amazon, Borneo, New Guinea for example). Many native americans were nomadic, in essence hunter/gatherers.
One can quibble about application of the word work here. I would say these folks had a lifestyle not too far different from other primates, who are also hunter/gatherers. Thus, food gathering in and of itself was not work, that is, it did not tend to result from a division of labor, rather, it was simply what human animals did in order to survive.
Before you send those cards and letters, yes, these humans have language, customs, history of a sort in oral tradition. So, they are animals with culture who get their sustenance much as other animals most like them do.
What happened? The neolithic revolution. Domestication of grain and certain animals.
(Weíll get back to thisóthen move east of Eden and on through to today.)
Just got back from my second round on the South/South East Asian art cart. An art cart is a small cart with objects, not of museum quality, but of decent quality that relate to one or the other of the museums collections.
A poignant moment happened there today and I think it relates to the question of work, and its relative value in our lives.
My co-worker, Yungching, convinced a middle-aged man and his wife to come to look at our Rajasthani and Moghul miniatures, copies done by a contemporary artist in the style of these 18th century traditions.
He said his uncle, still in the Islamic gallery, was an art historian, a specialist in Rajasthani and Moghul miniatures, but that he had a stroke and lost most of his memory.
ďHe has a masters in Fine Arts and a masters in Oriental Art History.Ē
About fifteen minutes a man in a white shirt, using a cane, came up to our cart. He looked carefully at the copies we have on the cart.
ďWho did these?Ē he asked.
ďA contemporary painter, in the miniature style.Ē I said.
ďAh. Yes. These...were painted in the 1700ís.Ē he paused, his gaze turned inward for a moment, ďI used to know... About these paintings. I wrote a book. Had three books underway and six paintings.Ē
Yungching asked him about his book.
ďIntellectual history...of cross-cultural influences on Moghul Painting,Ē he replied after some obvious difficulty.
ďMaybe...I could be like you,Ē he said. ďA volunteer.Ē
He wrote his name with his left hand, Khalid Ahmed. ďI had to learn to write and spell and read...Ē
We assured him Amanda Thompson was always on the lookout for guides with a direct knowledge of the culture and, with his art history experience. Perfect.
This incident touched me in a number of ways. First, as you know, my mother died of a stroke, and as Khalid shakily indicated the area in his brain affected, I could see there was no visible change to his skull or face. His right hand withered and fingers criss-crossed, but the head, the source of this ďbrain explosionĒ as he called it, remained smooth, chestnut brown, and accented by white hair.
My Dad also had a stroke which left him incapacitated, so I looked at Khalid, all those years of training and learning, lost, just like Dad; and, I wondered, is this me? In the future. In my current melancholic state, I can begin to feel sadness for an event which may never happen. I put myself in his situation and felt sad for him, and for me.
Also, the interaction with Yungching, this aged Pakistani scholar, Khalid, and me felt so human, so much about our common vector as persons, yet it happened in an arena emphasizing our cultural differences. What is more culturally particular than art and language? I had a frisson of hope, I saw the world as a place where people of common interest would support each other, assist each other in spite of and because of our shared fragility.
Finally, and to the point of the work on work. Here is a man whose life work got ripped away from him by a brain explosion. He knows it, but finds functioning at the capacity he can remember he had, difficult, if not impossible.
Does his inability to engage his work make him less human? No. Less worthy? Not in my eyes.
On the other hand, has it changed how Khalid views himself? Iím sure it has, though our interaction was so brief that I canít say how. Does this sudden inability to do the work you feel chosen to do (Iím imagining now he felt this way about his workóbecause I sensed he did.) invalidate your life? I would guess that for many people it does.
Khalid seems to have made an accommodation; if he canít write books and paint, perhaps he can still teach. His person remains connected to the world of Pakistani, Indian, Chinese art. Immersion in that world, at least for part of the day, is crucial to who he is.
Now, my point here. Yes, the collegian is a young man whose claim on me and my resources lies far in the past. Yes, the collegian has dreams unmet, but they are, after all, his dreams. The question is, are they the real dreams of the 57 year old who writes this? Are they the dreams which define both the collegian and the 57 year old?
And, even more pointed, what about Billís question? Does the work make the man, or is it incidental, something we do, from an existential perspective, to while away the time until death?
These are not questions with answers, of course, or, rather, they are questions with multiple answers, as many as there are human lives, and within those lives, as many as each life elicits through change and accident, like Khalidís stroke.
As I see it today, right now as I write this, the collegian in me has a claim, a claim I need to honor because I have affirmed it over and over and over again. I do not need a degree, nor do I need academic recognition, nor do I need publications, but, I do need work which challenges me at the level of my capacity.
Maybe, in a sense, itís like aerobic exercise and resistance training. Our bodies are made to move, to work, without labor our physical bodies weaken and begin to collect disease.
The mind and the soul are the same. They are for engagement with the world, and they need meditation, knowledge, creativity, solitude, work at the level of their capacity.
So, as they used to say in the 60ís: Write On!
Hmmm. The soul and the Self are for engagement with the world, but they are also for engagement with the collective, and, depending on your hopes, with other entities like them in a place where they can live sui generis, not mediated through the physical world.
So, with the neolithic revolution in place, labor began to move toward specialization. You grow grain; I weave baskets; my cousin raises pigs; somebody else chicken equivalents; perhaps a priest or shaman gains permanent status. You get the drift. Now, weíre no longer just hunting and gathering, but weíre dividing up our labor according to specific tasks, or daily work.
A more poetic version from the Book of Genesis, suggests work appears at the very beginning, or close to the very beginning. Eve convinces Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (yes, a very interesting side trail, but weíre not going that way today.), Adam eats. God finds out. Theyíre expelled and two things happen.
One, they are now mortal and will no longer live forever as per the original instructions.
Second, man has to earn his living by the sweat of his brow. Work.
I donít know whether either early explanation satisfies us very much though I believe they are both true in their way. Settlement does lead to division of labor which results in persons dedicated to certain tasks and not others, or, work. Our limitedness, both in knowledge and life-span, both pressure us toward those activities key to our survival. In the old hunting and gathering days, we all did at least some of them. Since the neolithic revolution, our individual and family survival has become increasingly dependent on a complex web of economic activities and the kinds of work have multiplied almost beyond imagining.
I donít know when in this process the question, Do we have to work? occurred to someone, probably pretty early, but certainly until the agrarian economies began to produce a surplus for trade, there were probably no practical alternatives to the workaday life. (Except, maybe, going back to hunting & gathering, not the same as the sixties back to the land movement, but perhaps with a similar motivation)
So, how does this help us, if at all, in considering how to address the collegian in our life, and his claim on our time? Maybe not at all, but look at it this way. Work has been part of our mutual expectation of each other for a very long time, so long that mythical explanations for its origins have arisen. Any social construction which has lasted so long has a claim on us, on all of us, whether we like it or not.
Now, I just got into a big argument today with my fellow Jungian scholars over my contention that the purpose of lust is always reproduction. Whoa. Talk about throwing a grenade in the room (all the while unsuspecting), I sense my position here may be similar.
My point was that lust, involving instinct and reproduction of the species, is prior to relationship, so that all the elaborate mental scaffolding we build in our psychologies and sociologies are post the original impulse that brings us together. Well, geez. This seems in realm of the obvious to me, but not to some of these folks. They think the urge to union is just as primal. Hmmm. Not likely in my mind since the idea of union is a pretty high order of abstraction, whereas gettiní down and gettiní on with survival of humanity is, well, not.
Iím saying a similar, though not same thing, about work. I do not believe work is instinctual, though I certainly believe the food gathering impulse is. Maybe lust is to relationships as hunting and gathering is to work.
If so, both work and relationship are deep, old constructs, shaping our understanding of who we are across cultures and across time.
Thus, and here we arrive at a modest point, to set aside the need for work is equivalent to setting aside the need to be in relationship, that is, they both are so early, so primal that to be human means to work and to be in relationship.
Freud said work and love were the two keys to life. I guess, in my own muddled way, Iím saying I agree with Freud, at least as I understand him.
OK. Letís move along historically in the Western tradition to the Reformation. Iíve mentioned before that even though Iím no longer Christian many of my underlying assumptions have their roots in distinctive Judaeo-Christian ideas. I believe Iíve also mentioned the ReformationóCalvinist idea of vocation.
John Calvin challenged the prevailing Roman Catholic notion of vocation as limited to priests. No, Calvin said, God does not limit the idea of vocation to priests, but includes weavers, leatherworkers, shoemakers, coopers, scholars, peddlers, farmers, all who work in other words.
This Reform notion of vocation had the effect of blessing what had heretofore been considered secular work with an understanding of stewardship of gifts and talents previously applied only to the clergy.
Stewardship of gifts and talents has rooted firmly in my psyche. I know whence it came, from Mom and Dad through John Wesley who got it straight from John Calvin. Thus, I have always believed that the serious work in which I engage (not jobs just to feed the body and house it) has the character of devotion to God.
So, when Mom and Dad would say, you have a special responsibility; we expect you to live up to your potential; this fairly routine middle-class striving formula got wedded, at least in my mind, and I imagine many others, too, to the Reformed doctrine of vocation. Then, Mom and Dad wanted it, God demanded it, so... Who was I to interfere...?
Through analysis and theological deconstruction I believe I understand the psycho-dynamics here. Even so, I find the notion of work as a sacred duty still there, perhaps changed in its rationale, but the affective dimension of work as a semi-divine expression of the unique combination of experience and gifts I am, retains its luster.
To end this for today: When the collegian in my life demands of me, work, and not only that but work which calls on my highest and best use (land use planning jargon here, but it does seem to apply.), his 57 year old descendant salutes his ancestor from the long ago days of revolution and confusion and says, ďAll right. Iíll pick up this particular task and run with it for awhile now.Ē
Maybe Iím hopelessly mired in the expectations of a past broken with long ago; maybe Iím afraid the existential honesty of Billís ďart for artís sake,Ē ďlife for lifeís sake,Ē drains too much meaning from my struggle. Maybe Iíve just not got the wisdom yet, or the courage to step away from work, but for now I want to apply my intellect in a scholarly and creative manner, as well as I can, for as long as I can.
Wanted to recount here an interesting bit of research I did way earlier from which I got distracted. I looked up work in the OED. First, while Merriam-Websterís III allots about half a column to it, the OED has two and a half pages (in a print which requires a magnifying glass to use.) and it takes well into the first full page before we get to the definition of work as ďsomething we do to earn a living.Ē My hunch is this is significant.
Part of what it says is that we Americans find remunerative work a linchpin of our common life. Thatís not terribly surprising in a free-market, liberal capitalist economy, but it does underscore the very tough to break link between work, that is real work, and income.
It also speaks, I think, and I donít want to go through the intellectual gyrations to prove this just now, to the strong link between work, remunerative work, and menís lives. That is, men have to earn money. Therefore, men must work. Or, as Socrates might say. If man must earn money, and this man does not earn money, is he still a man?
Of course, the screw turns a bit tighter when the further Calvinist twist of predestination gets laid on the culture, as it was for sure among the Scotch-Irish, Calvinist to the core, and among the wealthiest ethnic groups in American life. What this basically says (this is Weber) is that the more you earn, the more confident you can be that you are saved.
This, too, links with men and the expectation that worth will correlate with wealth.
You might imagine this is a source of great consternation for meóI work, but donít earn; I work and am on the lowest rung of the totem pole wealth wise; but, for some reason, it isnít. (I credit Kate with much of my comfort. And, I suppose, Dad, too, come to think of it. For him, like me, work counted, money didnít.)
What is my concern is what I have talked about above: in essence, does my work count? Of course, I canít answer this question. No one can, except in hindsight, but for most of us hindsight of sufficient temporality can occur only after weíve long passed from the scene.
Now you know why Iím so interested in transmigration of souls. (Joke.)
Anyway, thought you might be interested in a brief blessing I performed for Tom and Roxann since it pertains to the matter of pilgrimage. I recount it in the Lughnasa Great Wheel e-mail I sent out today (Tuesday, July 27, 2004).
Tomorrow morning off to Denver and the wedding. Amazing how time telescopes before a trip and life becomes efficient, less cluttered, priorities fall into place. An interesting reality if this is your experience, too. Death suggests weíre all headed in the same direction and that time is the one thing none of us have too much of.
Makes me think of Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver. Iím going to read this at Jon and Jenís wedding in lieu of a speech or toast. Remember the last lines?
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Iím still down, but sufficiently distracted by all the various chunks of things weíre finishing up that itís easy to forget. I imagine when we hit the flat plateau of Nebraska and the miles whir away underneath more like a treadmill than a car trip, the demon of melancholy will come for a visit.
It is no accident that spiritual diaries often recount the journey into the empty vastnessódesert, mountain top, deep in the forestóas the journey into the heart of darkness. Then, the devil comes. Iblis. The demons came for St. Anthony.
Now, donít get me wrong. Iím not comparing Nebraska to the Sinai, or the desert of the Essenes, or the empty quarter in Saudi Arabia...still, it shares certain qualities with them: a huge bowl of sky, often homogenous landscapes as far as the eye can see, maybe a bit too much space, even for space hungry individualistic Americans.
This is as far as I can go today...and for this week, the first in the second half our pilgrim year.
Blessings and Peace be upon you, and in your heart. Still on the ancient trail.