Books, Documentaries, Reviews: December 2, 2013
Joan Dye Gussow
Kathleen Nixon recommended Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life shortly after we moved to Maine.
I read and loved it.
Of course I did. Here was a woman who held and lived my values.
Gussow is a “food hero,” as she has spent much of her life addressing our flawed food system. In addition, she helped pioneer urban gardening and attempts still to grow most of her food. She is a Professor of Nutrition Education and was still teaching one course a year at Columbia University while writing Growing Older, which was published in 2010. As of 2013, she is 85 years old.
For me, Gussow has been a huge inspiration. She, too, lost her husband of 40 years to cancer when she was 68. But she continued living her rich and thoughtful life. Like me, she is passionate about food and health issues–and feels in many ways, as I do, like a Cassandra. She can see the trouble brewing, but beyond trying to shine a light on the problems with her writing and by the daily choices she makes, is powerless to do much more than that. She is feisty and will stick up for what she knows–and she does know what she knows after a lifetime of study. She has, for instance, testified about industry advertising of bad foods targeted to children.
One of the issues Gussow grapples with in this book is her forty-year relationship with her husband. Alan, an artist, was proud of Gussow’s work, but never really embraced it in a way that allowed intimacy between them. And just about six weeks after Alan died, Gussow found herself skipping down a side-walk and was horrified that she felt such a lightness of being. She promptly went to a counselor who helped her put her emotions into a perspective that enlarged her understanding of them.
She had an “aha” moment when the universe spewed up an article by Richard K. Moore called “escaping the Matrix”–which draws on the sci-fi film The Matrix, which posits that we are living in a ” `fabricated collective illusion’ ” about “who and what really runs the world” (31-32). In the film “Morpheus invites Neo [love those names] to choose between a red and a blue pill. The blue pill will allow him to continue living in any way he wants. The red pill will allow him to see the truth.” Joan’s “aha” moment comes when a friend notes that she has taken the red pill and Alan took the blue pill.
Of course. That explained so much. I was always scrambling around trying to get to the bottom of things–figuring out what seemed to be “really” going on, and anguishing about the ills of the planet. Alan, on the other hand, had a profound need to believe (or seem to believe) that the world–human and otherwise–was just as it appeared to be, with everyone liking him, everyone having honorable motives, and so on. He left all suspicion, all bouts with reality, to me. Since he managed his public world so smilingly, and so deftly controlled the situations in which he interacted, there were only a few occasions when life brutally asserted that his self-created picture was not the real world. On those occasions, he was always deeply shaken and depressed.
Except when he wasn’t; except for the occasions when his capacity for denial astounded even me.
And she sums up in this way:
So the red pill/blue pill metaphor helped me understand, at last, what had on the deepest level isolated me from Alan. To a truly remarkable extent, we were interested in the same global problems, and our areas of expertise overlapped rewardingly as many people noted: He was trying to keep the natural world intact with art; I was trying to save it with food. We once took a sociological test to assess our values and came out eerily similar; it’s just that we looked at the world from wholly different emotional perspectives. I took our planet’s environmental distress really seriously; he couldn’t. He could verbalize his anxieties about what was happening to the world, but he couldn’t really let them affect his emotions. He could admire my passions, but he could not share or even really understand them. My belated recognition of that solved a hundred puzzles that had littered our marriage (33-35).
It takes real guts to share such a story as this one.
But it’s an important sharing because one can expand the metaphor far beyond this husband and wife. And, Gussow means it to be expanded, clearly. Alan’s psychic burden of anxiety is not allowed to reach his emotions. Or, maybe it’s that the anxiety is paralyzing his emotions. In any case, the result is the production of a kind of non-action in terms of trying to make changes about lifestyle patterns, for instance.
I believe Alan’s “blue pill” stance is what is affecting most people today. They don’t even know where to begin with changing the structural problems we face. And those structural issues have become so enormous that maybe they can’t be turned around without, first, a catastrophe of some sort. So we all just go on fiddling while Rome burns–if we want another metaphor we might understand better than the one in The Matrix.
It was such a relief for me to read Growing Older–on so many levels. Long-term marriages (47 years for John and me) always contain phases, and the people within them change from time to time. Some change utterly. I did when I went back to school. Like Stephen Douglas, who once said something like “when you’ve learned to read you can’t unlearn it,” I learned…to read. And that made me different. More like John in terms of education, which changed our power structure. And more unlike John because my Cultural Studies degree called into question systems of cultural power of all sorts, like class, race, patriarchy, religion, etc. John had done well under many of these systems. And I am a grateful beneficiary of John’s success. Our differences and my passions did produce the kind of intimate rift Gussow describes. And, like her, I did feel a lightness of being when the struggle was over.
So, Thanksgiving and this quiet dark season produces reflection. And last year at this time, John had only five weeks left of his life. I have found myself over the past fall months, thinking about this count down to the first year anniversary. And I am humbled by the reality that we never know what life will bring our way from one moment to the next.
Thanks you, Joan Gussow, for all of your wisdom and for all of your efforts to make a difference.