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Fuck Politeness

This is a revolution, not a public relations movement

Years ago a counselor of mine read me a poem that he said made him ‘think of’ me:

Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go,
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
And over harvest piles let the winds blow.

Command the last fruits to be ripe;
Grant them some other southern hour,
Urge them to completion, and with power
Drive final sweetness to the heavy grape.

Who’s homeless now, will for long stay alone.
No home will build his weary hands,
He’ll wake, read, write letters long to friends
And will the alleys up and down
Walk restlessly, when falling leaves dance.

When he first read it to me something inside me froze. I have a bad habit of that. If I suspect someone is in the process of saying something that will hurt me I’ll freeze like a cartoon squirrel with a nut in the fact of a gun barrel (where the hell did that image come from) and then I’ll squish it down inside, make it ‘disappear’ and pretend nothing happened so I don’t disrupt things or ‘provoke’ any unpleasant discussion.

So you know, I didn’t just say ‘Could you tell me what on earth you mean?’, but nodded like I knew what was up when really I had no idea. I thought it was some kind of proclomation that I was destined to wander lonely forever. And I was upset. I didn’t find it very counselor-supportive and cursed myself for going to the bearded old hippy instead of a proper counselor who only read upbeat poems, perhaps something from the Dr Seuss oeuvre.

Anyway…I walked away from that and I kept trying to track down that poem to hear it again and have another think about it and I could never find it.

Then a few months ago I was watching Synecdoche, the new Kaufman flick…and what on earth should it open with, but lines from that poem. Suddenly I remembered the miraculous invention called the internet, googled away and there it was, as above.

It’s a strange poem – it seems bleak on first reading, reeking of loss and dessication. But it isn’t all ‘impending death’ – in thinking about what the counselor actually meant for me, I’d had no ‘great summer’. I was young, fucked up, totally confused by a life of dealing with addicts and the never ending dance of codependency relatives and partners of addicts are drawn into.

When he read this poem to me, I firmly believe he was not trying to condemn me to a bleak life of loneliness and desolation, but was trying to get at the seasonality of life: that it appeared a bleak period, but it was change – that I needed to let go, give up, sit back and feel the change in the length of the shadows – let the wind blow through the feeble piles I’d raked together in trying to carve out a new life for myself. I think the focus was on the promise of future richness “Urge them to completion, and with power, Drive final sweetness to the heavy grape”, and on allowing myself the time to go through this season, the time ahead of me where I was homeless, restless, wandering – that it was a time of growth, a time to reflect, to be alone, to conserve energy, to process – to allow myself to simply be in that space even if it was cold and lonely.

And the thing I didn’t hear at the time was the promise of change. While the focus of the poem in the movie (and perhaps even in the poem itself) was aging, stages of life stuff  – I guess poignancy about aging and the shift towards a closure of a life, I think he was pointing at the seasonality – that spring and summer would return again but right now I was stuck in autumn and had a long winter ahead and there was value in allowing myself to feel the time it would take stretching out in front of me.

And that would have been a lovely message had I bothered clarifying – and in the end I would use it as a bit of a mantra so I would not be in a rush to ‘build my home’ – that I would be content with my own company, with taking some space and getting what I could from solitude and reflection. Which I did…I did it so comprehensively that I spent roughly a decade outside of romantic relationships because I was determined not to ‘build a home’/’anchor myself’ to someone until I had a bit more of a handle on who I was, what I wanted, what was important to me and a sense of my own self worth. I was not going to spend my considerable love, energies and determination in another fucked up, codependent, all-taking-no-giving, dead end of a relationship with another self absorbed wanker. (See this is why I don’t write poetry, I can start out pretty enough and then it’s all blunt and obscenity-based!)

Anyway…I could go off on a dozen tangents with this. But what triggered this was that I just read Germaine Greer’s retort to Louis Nowra. Louis Nowra recently proclaimed that Greer had ‘no idea what makes women tick’, and indicated that her book The Female Eunuch was a load of bollocks and Greer was wrong/must be disappointed since women haven’t all charged as One down a path of patriarchy-rejection. Okay I’m paraphrasing badly here. But I can’t be bothered. More wanker old men declaring these feminists to be a waste of space cos hey, the revolution hasn’t happened and Teh Chicks, they still wear BRAS! Egg on YOUR face Greer! (That sort of thing).

Anyway, I thought parts of her response were lovely:

If anyone reading this believes that I am disappointed in today’s women, let me hasten to disabuse him. I have been talking to predominantly female audiences from one end of Britain to the other every week or so for the past 20 years, and they never, ever disappoint me. They are articulate, affectionate, independent, feisty, funny and brave. They are the best evidence that something fundamental has changed, but don’t imagine for one moment that I believe that I’m the one who changed it.

If women had not been changing in 1970, my book The Female Eunuch would have sunk without trace.

Something of her description of the path that lay ahead for the woman who walked away from her marriage though sparked the memory of the poem, and of the counselor reading it to me:

The woman who opts to end her marriage after an average of seven or eight years, with divorce following three and four years after, is making a conscious decision to go it alone. She will almost certainly be earning less than her ex-husband; if she has children she faces 15 or 20 years of poverty and unremitting hard work, both inside and outside the home.She will have no leisure, no spare cash, no money for luxuries such as nice clothes or a decent haircut or a safe car or holidays. Her chances of finding a new partner are much lower than her ex-husband’s. Women who face this fate with equanimity have my unstinting admiration.

While I can see my privilege within this description – I earn more than him (but only because he chooses to remain unemployed in order to avoid child support) and I certainly will when I graduate, and I take myself on holidays (on the credit card and then battle to pay it off)…I can also see the truth in it. Women still get the the short fucking straw in paid employment, in parenting and in divorce and their treatment in society: when there is equal pay and there is adequate support for parents who go back to work, when the stats show that women don’t sink hard after divorce while men go on to ‘bigger and better’, when the law actually recognises women’s contribution to a relationship and a home even when there aren’t children involved then I’ll ‘stop my whinging’ about this.

But it’s true. I walked away and the only way I can ‘afford’ luxuries like new clothes/haircuts (while society demands them of me) is to put them on the credit card, freak out over the debt, and draw out my poverty in paying them back. In fact I haven’t had my hair cut for almost a year and when I do I get it done at the barbers. And yet my life is far richer for it – even in the middle of the lack of cash, the hard work, the lack of thanks/recognition, the loneliness, it was always a better choice for me, always felt more like freedom, even while I thought I would die of the worry/the insomnia/the loneliness.

But I like the echoes of the poem: walking away leads to long stretches of desolation or loneliness – and it can also lead to chances of renewal and strength, chances to ‘go it alone’ even knowing the costs – knowing that some benefits can be worth ‘more’.

Sadly I’d like to draw a distinction here. It can lead to positives for some women, in some contexts. Not all women have the option or sufficient support.

Further, the next line seems to contrast and compare women who leave to women who stay. Perhaps I’m reading uncharitably but it looks as though Greer is casting the lives of women who ‘stay’ as ‘dishonourable’. I think she would mean more that the life is one that grinds those women down, but I’m extremely uncomfortable with the language and understand that there are dozens of reasons why many women stay in relationships that are unhappy or even violent – and that those reasons are not silly, or regressive, or because they are not ‘as strong’ as those who walk away.

I’m not trying to use this to set myself against other women/compare myself favourably. I guess I just liked the acknowledgment that single parenting led to long stretches of poverty, hard work and low recognition – it reminded me of the poem and of the promise of change – and (for those lucky enough to be able to take the risk/to have support) of the value of the autumn/winter period in and of itself.

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