Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Response to Mary Rechner

Yesterday I posted a link to Mary Rechner's article "Why I Hate Food: A Polemic," and today I give you my response.

First of all, I want to affirm that I am the last person to stand up for holier-than-thou, my-suburban-child-can't-touch-any-water-that-hasn't-been-triple-filtered, elitist food behaviors. To me, those attitudes are first cousins to "I can't eat that broccoli; it has a bug on it" and "I prefer to eat at McDonald's because the food looks so safe and predictable." Food anxieties take many illogical forms, and at least the McDonald's gull isn't a snob.

Nonetheless, Rechner's polemic does harm, though she has good intentions and does make points that should resonate with all of us who live in the comfortable purviews of take-it-for-granted America. For instance, "It is of the utmost importance to me," she writes, "to resist the earthy lure of urban homesteading. Why shouldn’t I, a writer, mother, and arts administrator living in 2012 who also does most of the shopping and cooking in my family, take advantage of the relative ease of obtaining healthy food at the supermarket? I refuse to accept the moral imperative of growing my own vegetables, butchering the animals I eat, and making my own jam." I agree: there's no reason why she should feel pressured to do these things, living as she does in Portland, Oregon; managing, as are all of you readers, as am I, our First World dilemmas, which have nothing to do with survival. I am not being ironic. Those of us with electricity and running water, who live in forests that are not overrun with guerrillas ready to casually rape and maim us, who live in cities without open sewers and frequent outbreaks of cholera--we can make these choices. That, perhaps, is one simple, if ugly, definition of civilization.

But Rechner goes on to write, "When I see women with their kids (they usually also have a dog or two) weeding their vegetable gardens and tending their flocks of chickens, I fear they have bought the idea that these many labors are the markers of what it means to be a good mother-wife-woman," and here she steps onto rocky ground. What is she saying? That tending a garden alongside one's children and dogs means that a woman has buckled under to the patriarchy? That agricultural labor is a lesser form of human engagement with the world? 

After reading Rechner's article, my friend Marie told me, "Women writers should stop defining which activities limit us, what we should or should not be doing. What personally limits me, for example, has roots much earlier, and more profound, than how I spend my days (which, frankly, I choose because it saves me from what limits me)." I think Marie is exactly right. Moreover, I think that if Rechner had been watching Robert Frost tend his chickens or Wendell Berry train his draft horses, she would not have jumped to the conclusion that they were using these labors to avoid real self-expression. For both these men, agricultural labor was and is their subject matter. Their artistic work is bound to their physical work.

Rechner writes, "If women are spending all of their time planting gardens, tending chickens, and canning (i.e. living our lives in the most laborious ways possible), how are we ever to catch up as writers, visual artists, composers, and directors?" The fact is that hard physical labor, whether rural or urban, has a long history in the making of art. The issue, as I see it, is not that women are wasting their time by canning tomatoes and scrubbing the tub but that the literature of canning tomatoes and scrubbing the tub does not garner the same respect as, say, Hayden Carruth's literature of the hay field. I daresay that farmer-poet Maxine Kumin might have something to say on this matter--and perhaps she, too, would note that, while I quickly listed the names of three very famous male rural writers, I listed the name of a single woman . . . and that's not because she's the only one in existence. The rest of us don't get much press from anyone, including organizations whose central purpose is to promote women writers.

I think it's also an error to conclude that every single thing an aspiring artist undertakes ought to be in direct service to her art. Says Rechner, "A jar of pickles, however beautiful it appears on the windowsill with the sun shining through it, however thoughtfully and sustainably it was made, however good the pickles taste, is still a jar of pickles." But that jar of pickles is also a link to the history of women's work, and why isn't that a good enough reason to treasure it, to replicate it, to teach the skill to our sons and daughters?

For a decade, I managed the exhibition hall at my town's annual Labor Day fair. Our primary exhibitors were women and children (including boys, I should point out), who had spent the summer together making jam, growing vegetables, and knitting sweaters and then excitedly brought them to the fair, where their goods were arranged on tables as items of beauty and importance. Over the course of the weekend I would have myriad conversations with women of all ages about biscuit recipes and quilting techniques. For many of them, it was the only moment in the year when the work they did privately in their homes was brought into public and venerated. So no, those biscuits weren't art. But yes, those biscuits did matter to our human story.

I could talk about economic reasons for gardening and raising chickens: about how committing herself to these tasks might allow a writer to stay home and write rather than spend all day in an office or a classroom and not write. I could talk about the gardeners I know who are artists: who have the ability to create a landscape that has the visual power of a painting yet also shifts with the seasons, the weather, the time of day. But even in its blunt utilitarian tedium, labor has great value. In my memoir Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, I wrote:
Like a string of beads or a game of cards, a chore has a history. One task follows the next, follows the next. There's pattern and tedium and necessity and skill. You learn exactly how to balance six split logs on your left arm, how to shift your load and flatten your step when you cross a patch of ice, how to tip your armload smoothly into the woodbox. You learn how to talk yourself in and out of laziness. You learn there are some chores you'll never be much good at. You learn you have to do them anyway.
My point, in the memoir, was that writing and labor tap into the same source, require parallel skills and sacrifices and painful self-discoveries, lead us down difficult and unexpected paths. Rechner does me no service by arguing that I should free myself from the shackles of the chores that lie at the root of my vocation. 

And by the way, here's a jar of pickles that is also art. Thank goodness my mom decided to can these beets.

[Photograph by Thomas Birtwistle. For more of Tom's photographs of food, fairs, and rural life, visit]


Carlene said...

Thank you.

I feel that if, in fact, women are meant to nourish ourselves and those we love and treasure, and by extension, the world around us, we are tasked with both physical and spiritual nourishment. Both should be honored, both are necessary. If anything, Rechner has dissociated herself from that which would nourish and promote her art. This willful disconnection is, in her hands, a form of self-aggrandizement, and will do her no good. Thank you for responding to her narrow definition of what is worthy.

Ruth said...

IF, everything an artist does "ought to be in direct service to her art.", than that artist has perhaps a very limited pallette from which to paint.

Angela DeRosa said...

As a woman who has made her family's living as a social worker and counselor the physical work I do is my deepest solace. There is the cake, there are the vegetables cooked into a wonderful meal, there are the neat rows of relish and peppers...Yes, all for my family & friends too, but for me, for my enduring pleasure. When I walk up the little hill from my garden a bucket in each hand, sweat making me sticky from bug dope and dirt, I know that ahead is a cooling shower and a cold beer. Joy!!!!! I do physical work for the incomparable relaxation that follows.

Richard Foerster said...

I am a male in a male household, who cooks and gardens, who helps his partner at Christmastime make the potent cognac-infused fruitcakes that we distribute to friends. Two role models for me, two true heroes, are Emily Dickinson and Julia Child, both supreme artists. In my last book I have a poem called "Umami" about dealing with grief and using cooking to "make of solitary tedium a spiritual practice" and from that practice to create art. The ingredients are everything an artist has at hand. There is nothing demeaning in honest labor. Thanks, Dawn, for your elegant rebuttal.

Cynthia said...

For me, the bottom line is that we make art out of what inspires us (the good, the bad, the exciting, the tedious, the laborious). We should celebrate that uniqueness in all of us. I don't take a bike ride or clean my car to "serve my art," but both may inspire a poem (or not) as they work in my subconscious. Thanks for this sensible response, Dawn.

Arielle Bywater said...

Hear hear. I love Shannon Hayes' notion of the "radical homemaker" (in her book of the same name), who can be any gender--and whose home, which is a unit of production rather than a unit of consumption; and whose life-- which is based on slow, mindful living rather than capitalist gain--is a political stand against the corporate, big box, generic mediocrity, the class oppression, and the thoughtless "winner takes all" mentality that runs rampant in this country. Questioning all that we are programmed to believe, or what the mainstream makes easy, seems to be to always be a good idea.

Ann Conway said...

Thanks for this wonderful piece. It's unfortunate that our culture is so bent on endlessly critiquing what we perceive as the Other, as is evidenced in the original piece, which I have not read. I agree that writing and labor come from the same place. I also think we're lucky to live in Maine, where so much of this sort of the labor she critiques still exists and is part of daily life. I write for a living as well as creatively, but (for me) I find that the labor I do, partly cerebral, partly gardening, cooking, crafts, house upkeep, wood stacking, service etc. is far more satisfying than when I sat in meetings all day. Whatever, I just think we need to bless one another

Amber Reed said...

Yes! I like this essay, because I see that of all the different work I have done over the years, that the hard tedious work in agriculture has been a lens of self-discovery and loathing and pride. Working with animals particularly makes me question my motives, my patience, my character, my courage... Thank you Dawn for answering the challenge.

Dawn Potter said...

Thank you, everyone. It's good to feel we're not alone, isn't it?