Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Mother of all Questions

Rebecca Solnit has published the most wonderful essay in Harper's Magazine this morning. She, or her editor, have also managed to give it the best title – 'The Mother of all Questions'. On the face of it her essay is a response to all the pigs who've ever hounded her for not having a baby, but it is so much more than that.

In it she comes up with an excellent term for the best way to respond to a closed, negative, spiteful question: to be rabbinical. I'm not sure that I could borrow that word, being so completely unJewish as I am. But I, too, long for a word for that way of being which allows you to respond to spite by gently reflecting it back, opening up its painful, mean little folds, and helping your hound to see a bigger picture.

I'm currently reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a yearning love letter from a dying father to his future adult son. There is that same quality of mercy, and perpetual wonder, that in anyone else's hands would sound naive or sentimental. Reading Robinson is like sinking into a bath of relief – her depiction of humility makes up for the infinitely many times in which one has been humiliated.

Rebecca Solnit has bigger quarry than her hounds, however. She is interrogating the question of happiness. For Solnit, eudaemonics is perhaps misplaced – or rather its reduction to one kind of thing, one kind of life is the true enemy. As she points out, even if one diligently follows the cookie cutter version of the happy modern life, it is perfectly possible to be a mess of unhappiness; lots of people are. Conversely it is astonishingly possible to find happiness by following – truly, not half-heartedly – one's dreams. Perhaps one's dreams more than one's desires. Dreams are always vanishing, whereas we can give all too concrete a form to our desires, only to find them disappointing in their very materiality.

She reminds us that eudaemonics is, or used to be, all about the search for the good life, and the good life used to be about what we could do to give back to the society within which we had grown up, or what we might usefully leave behind.

In writing Motherload, I have been looking at the question of happiness through the looking glass, so to speak. I have been wondering how best to be happy as a mother, and my answer sounds like the opposite of Solnit's – that mothers must fight for their happiness. It sounds as if I'm demanding free spa days, doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm with Solnit.

I am talking about the full spectrum of what 'happiness' means: pleasure, delight, fulfilment, contentment, together with the freedom, time and place to seek them, and the community within which to do so.

I'm also talking about developing the courage to ask, calmly, surely, gravely for these things, in the face of social expectations that you immolate yourself in the service of your children once you become a mother.

Thank you, thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for being rabbinical.

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