Last night I sat up reading Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James. James was something of a hypochondriac and suffered from various ‘mysterious illnesses’. He came from a family that complained incessantly to one another about their ailments although most of them were healthy and lived long and active lives. As the church bell up the road chimed midnight, I realised that one of these mysterious illnesses that caused James such ‘spiritual angst’ was constipation. The biographer Edel was too polite in 1962 or so to mention such an undignified illness. Poor Henry James at 28 years old, hanging about in draughty cathedrals in Rome waiting for something to happen. Misreading, I thought he was cruising beautiful Italian men and hoping for an amorous moment. (Edel is also very coy about James being homosexual, more coy than James himself.)
A fierce wind blowing today, crisp and bracing. The sky a deep hot blue. In scrunched-up brown paper packets on the kitchen table there are shitake mushrooms picked in woods high on the mountains and a dozen fresh brown eggs with brilliant orange yolks. News that the price of black peppercorns is about to increase by 300 percent, ominous. The politics of food, the economics of availability. I remember something Bill Bryson wrote in At Home and how it surprised me:
Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven – corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats – account for 93 percent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors. Exactly the same is true of husbandry. The animals we raise for food today are eaten not because they are notably delectable or nutritious or a pleasure to be around, but because they were the ones first domesticated in the Stone Age.
Are we that unimaginative? Speaking of which, I have to facilitate a literacy workshop this afternoon and the community hall was burned down in riots last week. We may have to chase cows away from under shady thorn trees and sit there instead. If the flies are not too unbearable. Or the smell of fresh cow pats not too smelly.
Life. It’s what it is. What are we allowed to say about it? How do we unlearn shamemaking discourses?
So that we can write directly, honestly and uncoyly about constipation or eating disorders or being gay or admitting we can’t drink any longer? One thing that always moves me about meetings is the willingness of some to go out on a limb and share what caused them so much anguish and shame, how hard it was to fix the wreckage piled up when they finally got sober, who forgave and who didn’t, what went on going wrong even in sobriety when they were doing all the right things. Stories without a built-in moral or happy ending, stories that talk about finding oneself in the awkward stuck places in life. And I love those too who hear such stories to the end and don’t rush in to try and fix things, don’t shout out, ‘but they lived happily ever after!’ like a battle cry. A friend who read a post I wrote about family therapy sent me this quotation from the therapist Michael White:
”And what of solidarity? I am thinking of a solidarity that is constructed by therapists who refuse to draw a sharp distinction between their lives and the lives of others, who refuse to marginalize those persons who seek help, by therapists who are constantly confronting the fact that if faced with the circumstances such that provide the context of troubles of others, they just might not be doing nearly as well themselves.”