…”in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much the the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowningly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions…”
George Eliot, from Middlemarch
I haven’t finished Middlemarch yet, but that passage stopped me cold. Eliot wrote it 130 years ago, and how true it remains! We all know those people “fit to be packed by the gross”, and I for one fear daily becoming one.
But the path lays so simply and easily in front of me, of us. The path from the bed to the closet full of work clothes, the path from the door to cubicle, then back to the prepackaged, demographically designed entertainment and commercial marketing
What disturbs me so much about the demographically designed entertainment is how ACCURATE they are! yes, I AM entertained by the same things that so many others of my age/sex/ethnicity/economic strata are!
And what better proof that I am fit to be packed by the gross?!?
I have, in the past, combat this by being scornful and suspicious of anything popular. If too many people liked something, I should not. Very simple. I can’t be like everyone else then.
Levi’s, Disneyland, popular film, music, television, all these things were to be dismissed, or if not, became guilty pleasures. Perhaps I could intellectualize a movie, if I liked it too much. “You see, Mulan is struggling with her gender identity and trying to come to terms with her own conception of herself!”
The major problem with this approach to life is it’s essential FALSENESS. It is reactionary rather than reasoned or real. It did not take into account the merit of the thing.
If I refused to like things that were popular, and tried to embrace things that were alternative, edgy, or avant garde for no better reason than because they were DIFFERENT, I am not seeking a higher path.
I realized that I must look closely at the thing in question. Be engaged in my life; and to evaluate and try to understand what I engage it. This is responsibility at work. THIS is greater individuality.
And yet, the earlier way was better defined. It is frightening to leave behind easy labels.
I was QUITE nervous to visit Disneyland. My boyfriend would not accept my dismissal of it being evil. He said, “you have not been there since you were five. How do you know it’s evil?”
So. I have been to Disneyland, and I guess it is not evil. It is a tool, and it can be USED for evil in the wrong hands. That’s all I will say about it for now.
Naturally, I do not have to live my life in Disneyland. I live my life between the lines from the bed to the closet and the door to the cubicle. In between the lines, and on the margins, I look for ways to creatively express my individuality. There are flashes of poetry on the meeting notes I have on the table, and I can find time to read Eliot on the bus.
But I strive to remain engaged. Does it have to be this way? In between and on the margins might be a little shabby for my individuality.
Is there another path? Surely, there are other ways to live. Millions of people have lived their lives in millions of other ways.
I have heard a story about a man who put into his margins what I have made the lines.
Sam Hamill, who I only know about because books from his publishing house have been nominated for an award, drew his own lines. He decided a life dedicated to poetry would be his. I am awestruck. He created a publishing house for poetry.
Poetry, that difficult and indescribably beautiful artform that humankind has been turning and returning to since words were formed:difficult, because we must let go of pre-established equational connections and form our minds to new synaptic leaps.
Hamill chose poetry over a pension. He decided that renewing his mind was more important than stability.
I am amazed, astounded and envious.
I heard on the radio (I have searched, but I can’t find it again…suffice it to say, it was an NPR station) the story of how he started Copper Canyon Press. He found an old 1907 printing press! He set the type by hand!
Later, he moved from Colorado to Washington, because he could get free rent there.
It is not like I haven’t heard of people moving around, and doing “irresponsible” things like that. I grew up with people who did not want to be packed by the gross.
Alaska. There are barely enough people to MAKE a gross there.
So, I understood the “free rent” allure. I knew family after family that moved there, bought a plot of virgin land for practically nothing, and meant to build their dream home, their special individual place for THEM and THEIR FAMILY to be unique.
So, in the three months of summer, they threw up an A-frame structure, and did their best to insulate it against the quickly approaching winter.
And for years afterwards, the pink fiberglass and bedsheets for walls became stained with use, and the path to the outhouse grew bare and hardened.
This sort of individuality was common and not admirable, in my mind. Sure, it could be called “the path less traveled.” I’m sure the (non-Alaskan) parents and extended families of the people who chose this life thought their children were the only ones in the world to live this way.
Well, I was FROM Alaska and not so easily impressed. These were the people who could be packed by the gross for me.
What purpose did this lifestyle serve? “Anti-materialism” or “anti-establishment” is only a negation. What is the positive contribution?
Hamill lived in his Washington home without the “basics”, in the same way as those crazy Alaskans. However, HE made a lasting contribution to the world.
I feel challenged.