There is a poem by Edgar Lee Masters that reads in part,
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you–
It takes life to love Life.
"Life is too strong for you–" For fifteen years I didn't know where I'd read it. I searched all my old college poetry anthologies combed the internet, trying to remember enough of it to google an accurate phrase.
In the meanwhile, every time I stood over an overflowing sink or a crib in the night, exhausted, weary of loving and life, it was an accusation from ancestors who bent over icy streams to rub their dishes clean and struggled through endless miles of prairie with children on their backs and when they bent over the cradle it was not because a cry had summoned them but a terrible silence. Life is too strong for you, degenerate daughter. Grow up. Stand up, muster up enough life in those bones we gave you to really love Life.
What does Lucinda, the woman speaking in the poem, mean, "It takes life to love Life"? What meaning of the word life are we talking here?
I was something like twelve years old. Maybe ten. I don't know. We were at the doctor's office for another consultation after a long battery of tests failed to determine the cause of my chronic nausea and upper abdominal pain.
Doc started asking me questions. About school, friends, etc. I could tell my one word answers were not what he was after, but I didn't really see where he was going with them. Then he asked, "What are you looking forward to?"
My mother and this doctor were looking at me, and I started to panic. Kimber, of the straight-A's and ever ready answers couldn't think of anything to say.
He, of course, suspected some kind of psychosomatic disorder. I had four children before I shook that stigma and somebody noticed I had dozens of gallstones jammed throughout my biliary duct sytem. I was never overweight and no where near forty, so apparently even with textbook symptoms, this diagnosis didn't occur to anyone.
When I didn't respond right away, he rephrased the question, put it to me again. "Is there anything happening soon that you're excited about?" I kind of shrugged and let my mother make up an answer I could smile and nod in agreement with.
But you know it bothered me? For a long time. Not that I bought into the whole childhood depression manifesting itself as abdominal pain thing–I knew my pain was real. I knew it attacked without warning, without connection to how happy I was or was not feeling. But for years I puzzled over that question. What am I looking forward to? Why does that matter? Why that question?
I have six children now. I have been married for something like 46% of my mortal life. It's taken me this long to figure it out. I watch my children's attitude transform when they are looking forward to something–the Ipod in the mail, for example–or even just planning for something like the first day back at school. We are creatures of discontent, we humans, straining constantly at the stasis of our lives.
This is life, Mr. Masters and stalwart Lucinda. The straining, yearning discontent and even drooping hopes. We want change, we want better and more. Not out of greed or gross ingratitude mostly, I think, but from an abhorrence of stalled evolution.
"Life is too strong for you"–I beg to differ, today. I don't think that life is too strong for us–though sometimes that phrase seems to be so exactly right. I think that we are at a point in history where advances are coming so fast, looming so large that we can't help but want to see what's next–we can feel it in our very ancestral bones that we were born for this day; that there is greatness lying dormant in these bones, just waiting for a chance to test its strength– and when something gets in the way, we strain and yes, sometimes we whine, and we try to climb over one another to see what's up ahead.
And when nothing is there, when the road starts resembling Highway 82 with nothing but sagebrush and brittle grass around the bend, bend after bend; maybe for a day or an hour we forget about the sweet little faces in the back of the car, the destination, and the reason for the journey in the first place. We weary of our own, self-serving, daily lives. But we keep driving.
We love Life–the journey–with our anger and our discontent in place, spurring us on to more meaningful places in history and time. We sorrow and we are weary, and we feel in every fibre of our hearts the hand of God wrenching at the strings, and we are alive in the surest sense of the word.
As a child, sitting in that doctor's office, I don't think I had the words for that yearning. For the understanding that the things I looked forward to had nothing to do with today, tomorrow or a weekend at Grandma's. That they were expectations of being–and so I nodded, content to let my mother make up the answers.
I'm just now recognizing that those answers were not wrong. They were not mine, but they were reasonable–and maybe should have been mine. I reach too far, yearn too much, and miss–if not the sometimes dull scenery–at very least the life roiling all around me, so intent am I on destinations.
I may not love Lucinda-like. But I am not degenerate. Or depressed. I am different than you, and my answers are my own.