13 July

Review: “The Cost Of Living,” By Deborah Levy (And Maria)

by Jon Katz
Farm Fashion

There is a lot of literature about the emotional toll of being a mother and wife in our culture, and in most of the world.

The Cost Of Living” is a  brilliant addition to the genre, it is about how the British author Levy (Hot Milk, Swimming Home) escaped a suffocating marriage at the age of 50 and set out to begin to take herself seriously as an artist and a free person.

The critics are calling this a “post-feminist” memoir in that it moves to re-define feminism in a different and very personal way.

“It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end,” she writes. “Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early 21st century.”

In this context, she sets out alone to expand her life and vision. She had two daughters, but they do not appear often or distinctly in this book, and that is sort of the point. She is not writing as a mother, but as a person.

After her divorce, Levy becomes a poor writer working and freezing in a friend’s shed to support her two daughters. She reject’s society’s conventional ideas about what a woman is expected to do with her life.

The memoir is, in many ways, the story of every woman throughout all of history who exhausted herself and her love and labor making a home or growing up in an oppressive family, living a life that turns out to serve the needs of everyone except herself.

Right away,  the book struck a deep chord for me because this was for much of her life also the story of Maria, my wife, lover and great friend and partner. The memoir became personal for me because at ever turn, I began substituting Maria for Levy and almost every time, it fit perfectly.

Reading the book, I felt I was on two parallel journeys, not one.

The story of the suppressed woman seems sometimes to be almost universally true to me, even in the homes of good fathers and decent husbands and caring brothers.

Suppressing women seems to be an almost biological function of being a man, even if it is sometimes unintentional, and we know it is often quite intentional. There are just too many women telling the same story. Sometimes, I think that is what all of the “populist” turmoil in our country is about.

“The pain of the contemporary middle-aged male who, having failed to entirely suppress women, perceives himself as disempowered is a delicate matter,” writes Levy. So it is.

Like Levy, Maria has spent a lifetime fighting for her identity and figuring out what it is.

She was suppressed not only by one husband, but also by her family, who simply could not celebrate her identity and individuality or accept it. When there is trouble, Maria doesn’t really know how to get angry, an important defense mechanism for individuals and oddballs. She asks herself “what is wrong with me?”

Mr. Rogers, our fantasy teacher and friend, told children that they were all special, each in her own way. But society at large never quite got the message.

Schools and parents often push gifted and creative children away from their bliss and make them feel stupid, ashamed and worthless. What is so wonderful about Maria is not that she is like everyone else, but that she is not like anyone else.

But no one ever told her that, so she didn’t know

The people around her could never see it that way or convey to her the wonder and beauty of it.

For decades, she felt shamed into going to Sunday dinner every Sunday of her life, the idea of saying no was a trauma.

Levy, confronted with similar emotional suppression, made the same decision Maria did, and just as late in life. At all costs, she had to break away and learn how to be  herself and love herself.

Eventually, Maria broke out and stopped going to Sunday dinner. Without it, her family had no way of communicating with her. They stopped calling her or seeing her or knowing much about her.

Free of these invisible chains, she began to live her own life.

The farther she got from those dinners, the happier and more fulfilled she was. The further Levy got from her marriage, the more she found the freedom and independence she  wanted.

Without saying so, or perhaps even knowing it, Maria’s family essentially disowned her, shunning her without ever quite saying so. We love you, she was told, please come back to our dinners.  That was all she was told.

That’s what parents are taught to say to children caught in cults.

That was as far as any conversation ever got, and now, there are very few conversations.

Every morning, Maria goes out into the pasture – sometimes in her wedding dress – to shovel out the manure and put it in our pile. Every morning, she affirms her own identity, looking very much her own ever evolving self, and looking nothing like any other farm person, male or female, who shovels manure every morning.

Someone wrote me recently to compliment Maria on her “fashion” sense and suggest she was a very different kind of “farm wife.” I guess that is so. Whenever I hear the term, I think of change.

I don’t think of Maria as a farm wife, the term seems outdated to me. I have met many women on many farms who still call themselves farm wives, and who refer to their husbands as “my farmer.”

My friend Carol Gulley and I have had several conversations about this, she sees her husband Ed as the dominant figure on their farm, and calls him “my farmer,” she writes about him in that way and openly sees  herself working and living in support of him and her family.

Yet she is just as much a farmer as he is, works just as hard, milks as many cows, shovels as much manure, drives in a tractor just as long, and I cannot imagine describing her in any other way than as a dairy farmer, just like Ed.

Ed would be the first to say she is just as much of a farmer as he is.

There is an individual choice here, but more and more women are rejecting a system of work and life in which men – and families –  find different ways of suppressing and dominating women, even if it is not their intension

You don’t have to just beat someone to abuse them, you can just as brutally damage their sense of self.

Joseph Campbell often wrote about a phenomenon he witnessed in his teaching career (so have I) in which men and families so often suppressed the creative desires of women by encouraging them to stay away from art and creative, by shaming them to get “safe” jobs or “day” jobs, have children,  push aside their bliss and ambition and do what is expected of them.

What else was there to do?,” asks Levy in her memoir. “To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom – it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.”

These women, Campbell said, invariably ended up living “substitute” lives.

The lucky ones came to their senses later in life, he sayd, like Levy, and pursued their passions and callings. The men in their relationships often had to be shed,  so were their families.

What is beautiful about the Levy book is how wonderfully she captures the interior process of this new kind of apolitical and solitary liberation, a new way for women to look at their lives.

Maria’s revolution is quite internal, quite personal: she brings her own style and fashion sense to her art, dress, friendships, to everything she does, it is her mark of identity and individuality. It is the opposite of a group.

In the first years of our marriage, I went to a number of family functions with her, and I saw what she means, and I saw that she was right. I couldn’t be myself either at those dinners either, and no one seemed to care who I was or what I was about.

We were just expected to be there because that was what everyone did on Sunday afternoons.

Eventually, and with great pain and anxiety, Maria stopped going to family functions. It did feel like leaving a cult, it took months before she could find the strength to do it.

She still talks to her mother often and visits her frequently.

Her family will only say they love her and wish for her to come back to the family dinners. When she hears this, she feels once again like a sick ward in a mental hospital or cult, they assume she must be broken or sick if she insists on being herself.

Like Levy, Maria always felt that her family and her first husband did not know who she is, and did not want to know who she is. It’s especially ironic, because that’s all she really wants from them, it costs nothing and is a basic human right, and she will never find it because they will never offer it.

They cannot help but suppress her, she is simply too different, and it is what they know.

Levy and Maria both reached the same conclusion, they each had to set out alone to find a new way of living. It is  a long,  hard and wrenching process which Levy captures in this short but powerful memoir.

There is no doubt her that Levy is looking at the world in a different, post-feminist way.

She found contemporary feminism a sort of tired masquerade, an elaborate costume she no longer has any interest in wearing. In “The Cost Of Living,” Levy begins to notice the ways in which women instinctively defer to men, or accept being dominated and suppressed or ignored by men.

Her memoir plunges deeply and skillfully into the artist and the philosopher’s personal struggle to reconcile sexual love and conventional marriage with intellectual and personal liberty.

The long and entrenched idea of family and marriage is breaking down all over the world, women are looking beyond these ideas for fulfillment and love and work. They don’t care to be suppressed any longer.

In a way, Levy’s book, like Maria’s life, is a poignant manifesto for a new way for women to live in the post-Rockwell world, where we will all have to paint a different picture of their lives.

 

 

13 May

Change In Plans: HQ, Wayside General Store, Vt.

by Jon Katz
Wayside General Store: Nancy at her desk.

We got up early to drive to Vermont to one of our favorite breakfast places, and forgot that it was Mother’s Day, the restaurant parking lot was jammed, so we turned back to New York State and on the way past the Wayside General  Store, one of the great surviving country stores in Vermont (They kept Wal-Mart out of most of the state, but couldn’t stop the onslaught of Dollar Generals.)

We heard about the famous Round Table there, a wide round table where locals could sip their coffee and read the paper when there were papers. The store was empty, everybody was out taking their mothers to breakfast and brunch. We had a great talk with Nancy, ordered two of their delicious and  super-caloric breakfast sandwiches, and some fruit and coffee.

Nancy told us about her family, the history of the beautiful old desk where she kept track of the store, and where her husband did his business before he die. The store has been in Arlington for half a century and was a portrait subject of Normal Rockwell.

it was an unexpected change of plans, but a sweet one, we loved talking to Nancy and exploring the winding and much loved store, which sold deli  sandwiches, groceries, fresh baked muffins, and even ammo. This is the real deal, the authentic and storied Vermont general  store, a place of community and history.

We set out to do one thing discovered another. We’ve driven past the Wayside a hundred times but never quite realized what we were missing. We will be back at the roundtable.

I love the twists and turns of life, it is never possible to know where they might take me.

29 October

A Gift For The Vet

by Jon Katz
Gift For The Vet

I posted a different version of this photo last week, I have this one as well, it is Rockwellian image of a moment between an dog and a loving vet. Fate has just had several needles stuck in her and is out on the scale getting  weighed. Dr. Fariello came out to apologize to her for poking her and Fate was a bit wary.

Some treats were offered and everybody kissed and made up. I’ve decided to get a print of this photo and give it to Dr. Fariello, who has seen me and Maria through so many dog adventures – Izzy, Rose, Frieda, Lenore, Red’s illness, and now Gus and Fate.

She has always been honest and caring and helpful, in the best of times and the worst. I can speak openly with her about everything from grieving to the cost of animal health care. She doesn’t read the blog so I can get away with posting this here, it will be a surprise to her (Nicole and Cassandra and Lisa, if you see this, don’t tell her) I love the feeling it captures.

27 October

Fate And The Vet: Kiss And Make-Up

by Jon Katz
Kiss And Make Up

Fate used to love going to the vet, but she’s too smart a dog to love it for too long. She got a bunch of needles and blood drawn – a new Lyme disease shot and some heart worm tests.

She offered Fate a treat as a make-up and they were friends again.

Heart worm used to be rare up here, but it is more common since so many rescue dogs began coming up from the South. I’ve had one dog with heartworm,and I don’t wish to repeat the experience.

I always squawk about the tests and the pills, but Dr. Fariello tells me I need to do it, and we have been through many dramas together, I trust her completely. I can talk to her openly and easily.

Gus is being neutered on November 2, and her clinic charges $400 plus for the procedure, it is more than many clinics charge. I asked her why and she explained that her surgeries take more time than usual, involve at least two people the entire time – her and a tech – and they don’t leave the dogs alone until it is done.

She doesn’t want to do back to back surgeries, as some clinics do. She wants to do it her way, carefully and cautiously, with the dog getting their full attention. I guess I like the sound of that, even though the lesser bill is tempting.

She has some other good explanations, but they are technical and I don’t remember them. She has my complete trust and confidence – and friendship as well. We had a long talk about the emotionalizing of dogs and the role veterinarians play in dealing with the emotions of people.

She pointed out that Fate has changed and matured, and I can see this is so. Sometimes, when you live with a dog every day, it’s easy to miss these signs and symptoms. She sleeps downstairs at night these days, mostly by herself, she is calmer and more focused.

She is no longer puppy-like, really, although she is quite beautiful and alert. She listens to every conversation as if all of them are directed at her, and she loves playing with Gus, who loves playing with her.

I loved the photo, it was kind of Norman Rockwell-ish to me. Monday, Red goes into see Dr. Fariello to check on his arthritis and general health. He is looking very good.

12 December

The New And Curious Holiday Motel Plan

by Jon Katz
The Strange Holiday Motel Plan

When Maria and I first got together, I was living in a different reality, financial and otherwise. Our first trip together was to a first-class hotel in Boston, men in red uniforms bowing and scraping, a gorgeous room with a giant bed and a hotel with wonderful and expensive room service.

Maria, who had never had hotel room service, was a bit stunned. It was fun, but also rang a bit hollow, I recall.

Today we are living in a different reality, and a happier and healthier one. Our ideas of fun have evolved. A month ago we toyed with the idea of staying in a lovely and expensive Vermont inn for a couple of nights, it would have cost about $600 for food and room and fees for two nights. We scrapped the idea.

It just didn’t seem like us.

We are always looking for ways to survive the holidays, to make them fun and meaningful rather than depressing and intense. More and more, we have drifted away from ritual and obligation. Family is many things, but it has always been a struggle for both of us. I know it is a wonderful thing for many other people.

Then, we were driving by a funky old 50’s kind of hotel, it looked simple and clean, like something Norman Rockwell could have painted. (And might have, for a while he lived just a few miles away.) I loved the old neon sign which read “vacancy.” It looked like a peaceful little haven, unpretentious and welcoming.

So I had this very strange idea that we should spend a night there, it was a kind of throw-away fantasy, I thought of it as a joke. The motel is just over the border in Vermont, about 20 minutes from the farm. We’ve passed it a thousand times.

I joked to Maria, let’s go stay here in this motel one night during the holidays. We’ll bring good books, we’ll go out and eat something simple, sleep and read and come home the next morning. I’ll bring some earphones and listen to some Norah Jones and Leonard Cohen albums. We’ll sit up and talk.

That would be a neat holiday. It can’t be expensive, I said.

Maria, who gets things and love signs that I am mad,  thought it was a wonderful idea, different and interesting.

I told her I thought it was really a dumb idea, and then I dismissed it. What kind of person stays at a motel 20 minutes from home? But it kept coming back. I kept thinking of it, I kept mentioning it. We love traveling together, we love reading, we love getting away for short trips. We could do all of those things and be home the next morning in time to work.

Let’s do it, she kept saying.

We both woke up early this morning thinking about it. I went online and saw there was a special on for this motel, after New Year’s I could get a room with a King-sized bed for a little more than $70. The room had nice reviews, but also made clear this was not a first-class suite in a Boston hotel.

It was near some good family restaurants that were inexpensive. It was near a diner that served good breakfasts. The room looked fine, we saw it online. There was not much more than a big bed and a dresser with a big screen TV (which we never turn on.) The booking service said the room offer at that price – it is a quiet week for motels and hotels – would expire tonight. We can cancel anytime until the day before the reservation.

I booked it. We are going in a couple of weeks.

I guess the bottom line is that we are not only re-inventing our lives, we are re-inventing our holidays. Neither of us could care less that this is not a first-class hotel or an expensive and lovely old inn. We will be as happy to have a hamburger or a salad as a gourmet meal that costs $150 dollars.

I think we both need simple holidays, we need to be with just us. We need to be safe and feel safe and pause to be grateful to the many wonderful things in our lives. The next few years will challenge us, in a number of ways. I have to take care of my heart, Maria is building a wonderful artistic business, we will have to work hard to stay grounded and positive and do good in a country where ever single day seems to breed turbulence, anger and controversy. And so many people love it.

To some extent, we both will interact with the world and work for our values, we must also built our own world and take comfort and nourishment from it. Somehow, in ways I don’t fully understand, the motel is the beginning of this phase of the journey. Think of all the small trips we can take, the places we can see.

What we love is being together, being free to be ourselves, and celebrating love and connection rather than the heavy traditions and obligations of others. We know so many people who slog through the holidays because they always have, and always must. We don’t wish to be those people.

I still think this whole trip is a bizarre idea, Maria think it’s a wonderful idea. I am excited about going. If it all works out, this could open up a whole new idea for holidays and getaways. Our estimate of the cost is $125, tops, unless we order a lot of drinks at the restaurant.

Bedlam Farm