Two women of note died this past week, singer Aretha Franklin at 76 and artist Mary Pratt at 83, both a tremendous inspiration, but I’m thinking of Pratt in particular today and the paintings highlighted in stories about her. Those jellies, oh those jellies, how they glow from within! Perfect jellies, clear and luminous, reflected also on the table. Many commentators noted how Pratt’s work honoured matters of domestic life. She made us look at the glint of foil, the cream and golden tones of egg shells in a carton, fish on a plate. (Google “Mary Pratt Artwork” Images for many examples of her work.) In turn, I wish to honour her for paying such magnificent attention.
One reason is that many of us, like Pratt, tried to balance domestic and “other” work, and if we remember, that wasn’t an easy task, was it? Who, in fact, ever achieves balance? But Pratt brought — or kept — often competing worlds together, when the temptation for her generation and mine was to wrench them apart or feel our domestic concerns disparaged by others. In Pratt’s work there’s no apology for jelly or a casserole dish in the microwave or the remnants of a meal. She acknowledges both their beauty and the labour they represent.
The other reason I wish to honour her is that aging has a way of setting us back into smaller, and domestic, settings. This isn’t to say we no longer get out or view grand vistas or participate in the storied drama of life. But those my age or older will know what I mean. And I also mean I want to really notice what’s around me now and how light still plays with broken eggs, foil, and jelly.
Jelly Shelf, Mary Pratt, 1999
I think I can safely say I will never walk the Camino de Santiago. Too, too crowded, for one thing; like a bandwagon by now. Too, too long and physically complicated at my stage, for another.
So why did I just read two books* about Camino pilgrimage? Well, some women I know are considering the trek and one had a book that I later spotted in the thrift store, with the other book beside it, each like new and only a dollar, and you know how it is, you read a few pages and it’s interesting and you keep going and before you know it you’re caught up in the author’s quest, and two books later you feel you’ve twice walked the whole long thing yourself, minus blisters. It’s almost as good as been there, done that.
So, no, I won’t cross Spain in real time on real feet, but I am compelled by the notion of pilgrimage. One of the earliest books I recall as read to me by my mother was a child’s version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The stages of little Pilgrim’s journey through the Slough of Despond to the Wicket Gate to the Cross and places along the way such as the Palace Beautiful, Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Delectable Mountains and so on, to reach the Celestial City at last, are still burned in my mind. Whether allegory like that or a physical practice, pilgrimage describes a truth about any pursuit — it’s a journey with a start and a finish and a road between. Since I’ve been doing memoir-type writing lately, I find pilgrimage a useful way to think about life.
* Jane Christmas’ What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim and Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off Then.
The cover of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer startles: Grim Reaper in cowl and robe, track shoes and wrist weights, face set in the grinning grimace of skulls and fitness obsessives, going at it on a treadmill.
Ehrenreich was startled too, some years ago, by a report that “the immune system actually abets the growth and spread of tumors, which is like saying that the fire department is indeed staffed by arsonists.” The body carries conflict within it, and try as we might to manage and alter this, we can’t ultimately control the outcome or forestall death. I couldn’t follow all the technicalities of Ehrenreich’s argument, nor do I share all her views about life and death, but the question she raises is spot on: how much of our lives should be given to living longer when we have “other, often more consequential things to do.” She takes on the medical complex, anti-aging nostrums, and fitness and wellness industries which tempt us with essentially futile illusions of control. (Ehrenreich’s not called “a veteran muckraker” for nothing.)
I admire the nearly 77-year-old Ehrenreich’s recent revolt against screenings, exams, smears etc. urged upon her for “prevention” and her feisty resistance to faddish longevity diets and self-denial practiced by her demographic, where “health is indistinguishable from virtue.” She eats well, she says, exercises because it feels good when she does, and will seek medical help for an urgent problem but is no longer interested in looking for problems undetectable to her. “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die,” she writes, old enough “not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life.”
Before we moved to Tsawwassen, B.C., I visualized myself researching and reading and exploring the place, going deep and wide in putting down new roots. After all, I’d done it before, both in Paraguay where we lived a couple of years in the 1980s and over the decades in Winnipeg. I wrote novels set in both places, so that was part of it, but the writing meshed with my own desire to know and belong.
We’ve been here two years now and we love it, but I confess I haven’t done much about the roots. I’ve been living like a cut flower in a beautiful vase.
Is my inaction a factor of aging? A sense there’s too much material in “new” for the available energy? Do I even need more roots? I recall reading of a pastor’s disappointment that people weren’t enthusiastic about an exciting new discipleship program on offer; he saw it as resistance to growth. I didn’t know the situation but my first thought was, I bet he has a lot of olders in his church. For olders, enthusiasm often resides in what they already possess, rather than in quest for the new.
Nevertheless (there’s always a nevertheless), I can’t let myself off too quickly. Pondering my resistance, picking at reasons for it, I find my curiosity waking to the history of where I live, especially in awareness of being on traditional territory of the Tsawwassen and Musqueam First Nations. I went on a bit of a local tour the other day and learned there’s evidence here of human life going back some 9000 years. Wow! That’s overwhelming; it’s humbling. Paradoxically, it makes me feel I belong here too, for all flesh is like grass…its glory like the flower…the grass withers…the flower falls.