I have always been struck by the phrase “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they have seen Paree?”. It was a phrase I think I have always known. It has lived in my unconscious and it may be proof of Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious, as I don’t ever remember learning it—it was just always there. It would come to mind whenever someone had a life event that was so big and paradigm blowing that it would leave me wondering how they could possibly return to their ordinary life.
I didn’t know until I Googled the phrase that it was actually a song from 1919. I listened to the song on Youtube and as I listened to the tune I found it altogether too sprightly and spirited for the subject matter. This is a song that Billy Holiday or Morrissey really could have done justice to. It is a song about men who had lived a very small life on the farm—maybe they had never left their town. Maybe they never made it to the county fair. They had never seen another landscape, heard another language or eaten a food that wasn’t grown on their farm—and then they want off to war. They were 1900′s Idaho Odysseuses, reluctant heroes who left their farm-girl Penelopes behind to quilt and can things and care for their children and work on the farms while the uniformed Odysseus went away.
These men left their coastless communities and got on boats and fought battles that they might not have fully understood and faced death and survived it and then they heard the siren song of “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they have seen Paris?”. I mean, they really faced death, there were no long range weapons ( at least that is what I think I remember hearing in history class or when He-weasel was watching the History channel). WWI was up close and personal and death was highly likely. So, as Freud and all good movie makers know, eros and thanatos go hand in hand. These guys who had lived, up until truly facing death, a very small life. By facing death they got a taste for life, for wine, women, song and all of it was heightened by the awareness of death. How on earth did they go back to the farm? Really, how?
Something about imagining a man who fought a war and almost died and then who spent a week or two in Paris and who tasted the good life and then went back to the farm, it makes me want to taste the food he grew in his fields when he returned home—and it makes me want to cry. I imagine that there were metaphorical tears that watered his crops even if he stoically denied any grief and sublimated his longing for a bigger life into creating a life for his family. I want to taste this man’s potatoes or corn. I don’t imagine that the food tasted any better for his longing or loss or sacrifice. But I feel sure that if I was to chew slowly and mindfully I could taste the difference. Maybe not, maybe I just want to believe that I could.
Having spent five fantastic days in NYC the phrase “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they have seen Paree?” came to mind. It was a phrase that whispered at first and as the days passed it grew louder and louder, like a tea kettle that demands to be heard. It first came to mind when I walked down Lexington Avenue and I found myself delightfully overwhelmed by a sea of stimulus. As I sat back in a yellow cab in which the driver had an alternative understanding of the meaning of red lights. He saw them as a kind of suggestion that could be ignored if he blew his horn with enough frequency and intensity—as we jerkily moved through the rules of the road I felt a kind of quickening that I’ve never felt when I sit behind the wheel in L.A.’s silent and unmoving traffic.
I maneuvered my way around a manic stream of energy with nameless others—each of them going somewhere-each of them wanting something. Each of them unstopped by traffic and chaos and horns and hollers—-each of them seeming more noble than any King Salmon attempting to go upstream to spawn. Their faces and legs and swinging arms and determined stride all seemed to say, “I will not be stopped”. Each step forward made me want to take another. As I walked among them I too said to myself, “I will not be stopped”.
I wish I had some pictures to show you of my Virginia Wolf room, aka my office, back when I was working on my thesis—it was an absolute mess. Stacks and stacks of books that looked like that they had been carefully arranged by a hurricane. There were papers and notebooks and more piles and a wall that looked like a post modern art instillation: “Post it notes: a Hegemony of Self in Space and Time Existing in a Capitalistic/ Consumeristic Culture”. It was the kind of mess that might qualify me for a reality show in which some highly organized person with a minivan full of files, boxes and other assorted paraphernalia intended to turn me into a person who always had a loaded labeling gun in her holster. The host and her handy team would transform my unruly mess into a room that could be featured in Real Simple magazine.
One day He-weasel came into my office and I became aware of myself in his gaze and how the room was a representation of my self. I had the experience that Jean Paul Sartre was forever writing about, “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other” (Sartre 1956). I didn’t just see him. I saw him seeing me and through his gaze I saw myself—and I didn’t like what I saw. I began to apologize. I started to make excuses and sharing plans on how I was just going to start cleaning up. Then He-weasel, who is a big fan of order, said one of the most liberating things someone has ever said to me, “You need chaos to create. Don’t clean up. You need this. There is an order in this for you. Without this mess you can’t create.” I think I sat there for a moment stunned. I no longer saw myself as an object. His gaze was of the “I-Thou” variety and from that moment on I saw myself differently. There was a permission, an invitation and an appreciation for the chaotic. I no longer needed to be anything other than I what I was.
In Carolyn See’s wonderful book Making a Literary Life she has a chapter about the importance of writers going to NYC. It is the center of the literary world and Ms. See believes that this trip to Publishing Mecca is important for every writer. She wants you to make appointments and make plans before you go. She believes that by going and meeting and greeting and seeing behind the curtain of the literary world that it will no longer feel so elusive and that, perhaps, when you go back to the farm you will forever feel a sense of connection with the literary world—as you have been there and done that and it is no longer a myth but now a real place that you have participated in. I think all of Carolyn’s advice is good. If I had thought ahead or reread her book in the last couple of months I would have likely gone with an agenda. I instead went to see a friend and I had little in the way of plans. Still, even without following her advice, I feel changed by the experience. I brought back with me not just memories or an “I LOVE NYC” coffee cup but also a greater appreciation for chaos. In the chaos of the city, I discovered that same feeling of freedom I felt when He-weasel named chaos as the source of my creation. That is not the kind of insight one can plan for.
Coming back to Valencia I feel some sense of how the hero felt when he returned to his ordinary life. I am struck by the quiet and the empty streets and how there are no horns or taxis or any sense of urgency. No one is walking the streets. Everything is orderly and clean and master planned. When I walk Lily I am alone on the streets. I feel like a lone aberrat
ion. As all the cars zoom pass me I imagine they notice and remark to themselves, “Look, there is a woman walking.” In Valencia I stand out. In NYC I disappear.
Valencia is as is it was before I left, but in leaving it I feel as if I see it differently—and strangely I feel a greater understanding of what this place has given me. Now that I am back on the “farm” after being in the “Bright lights, Big City” of NYC, I see how choosing to live in a place in which I don’t feel alive has been purposeful. I will admit that I feel that being in Valencia has been important both personally and creatively in ways that I can’t fully articulate. This city of little boxes on the hillside and malls and master-planned communities has taught me that I can create in quiet and that I can create when I am in despair, and I am glad to know that. Valencia has taught me that I can write even when in a box, in order and without much mess. Chaos is not the only place that inspires creativity, after all there is a reason that University of Iowa has the number one writing program in the country—people are also inspired by the openness and endless potential of the plains.
This series, Writing in Valencia, is about making a literary life no matter where you live. I feel grateful that being here in Valencia, and out of my element, has taught me that I am not dependent on a certain environment to write. That said, I do believe that each of us have an octave we resonate to more than others. My octave is in the key of chaos.
So, do you need calm and quiet and mountain cabins to create in? Or do you create out of chaos? I would love to hear about what it is that inspires creation for you and if you are okay with it? Or do you tend to fight the way that works for you?
If you have missed any of the Writing in Valencia series you can find all of the series