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Alexis Lathem’s Pushcart Nominated Non-Fiction- Penelope’s Resistance: Finding Roots in the Age of Loneliness

The following piece was originally published in and nominated by Hopper Magazine.

Penelope’s Resistance:
Finding Roots in the Age of Loneliness

by ALEXIS L/ATHEM

In those days I spent much of my time alone. I was one of four children and lived with my mother and siblings in a house that was often full of guests. Across the street was a parking lot, on the corner was another parking lot that wrapped around the block, which was also what we saw from the back of the house. The lots must have been full of parked cars but mostly I remember them as empty asphalted places. I remember a hot dog vendor stationed at the entrance to the lot across the street, who was there every day, year after year. I had great empathy for him, who seemed to me the loneliest man in the world.

It explains why I might have been drawn, later, to Plato, for whom the world was geometry. For whom the world was only shadows.

I was drawn to the hermetic poets and the mystics.

Does the first wild goose stop to explain
to the others? No – he is off;
they follow or not,
that is their affair

In my twenties, when I was readying myself for flight, I read H.D.’s lines over and over, and I carried them in my pocket, copied by hand on a sheet of loose leaf, when I left the city, at last, for good.

After I quit the city, with H.D.’s poem in my pocket, I lived for a time, in a sugar shack, a houseboat, a garage (no—two), a tent, a shepherd’s hut, a granary, a chambre de bonne.

I did not require of words their meanings in those days, only that they cast their spell.

Still the walls do not fall
I do not know why

The longest stopover in my wild goose days—four years in a rented cottage I shared with two housemates beside Bitawbagok (Lake Champlain is its colonial name), at the end of a point of land in the shape of a wingtip. In summer the woods between the house and the lake filtered the liquid light, and in winter we had a clear view of the water through the leafless trees, the season when every day I found a new enchantment: the stunted cedars and their gnarled roots sheathed in ice to resemble sea plants. The ever-changing geometries of ice floes. The poetry of absence I found in an abandoned boathouse, an upturned canoe half submerged in snow. The signatures of porcupine, deer, rabbit, and grouse, who left their prints but never showed themselves to me.

Though I didn’t have a word for it yet, I had come to identify that loneliness that I felt as a child in my top floor room looking out over a parking lot. I had found its cure and I drank as much of it as I could. My journals from that time on the lake are filled with ecstatic passages of the life I discovered:

The past few days I have watched pageants of light . . .

I recorded the heron still as a bottle of ink at the water’s edge, the courtship of red-winged blackbirds in the cattails, the tree stumps pencil-sharpened by beaver, the swooping call of the pileated woodpecker. The delicate columbine suspended in their inversions so improbably from crevices in the rock. Even more improbably, entire cedars, wildly twisted over the ages into calligraphic forms, finding their rootholds in the limestone bluffs. I had come to know when to expect a rainbow and one afternoon, standing in my kitchen, I wrote, I saw the rain slant through a patch of sunlight and went out to search the sky and found three: diving in perfect arcs one by one into the lilac hedge, the way years later I would watch a family of dolphins dive in their sequential arcs into the sea. I found meaning, I wrote, not in the kernel but in what envelops it. Though what life did take seed in me bled away one night in an acorn of purple-dark tissue, papery as a chrysalis. Is it over? he said and I said Yes. I wrote those words in my book, the only trace in this world of one who never took root, and whose absence would leave me adrift as well.

At the time, I was reading about the European explorers, who stumbled upon the lands they would call the Americas, and those descriptions of what they found are confused in my imagination with my own discovery of the world. I could look out towards the cedar-covered islands and shorelines across the water and imagine what they had seen, the fragrance of the forests reaching the ships before the sight of them. How Verrazano sailed the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Nova Scotia, finding beautiful forested hills and lands “highly peopled,” their fires visible from the sea. Curious, friendly people. And Jacques Cartier who wrote about the Isle de Brion: “We found it full of beautiful trees, meadows, fields of wild wheat, and peas and flowers as fair and abundant as ever I saw in Brittany, and appearing to have been sown by farmers. There are plenty of gooseberries, strawberries, and rose of Provins, parsley and other good sweet smelling herbs. And around this island, several big beasts, big as oxen, with two teeth in their mouth like the elephant, and which live in the sea.”

There are no more sea elephants along the coast Cartier explored, though they once blanketed the rocky shores from the Arctic as far as Cape Cod. The great congregations of codfish that stayed the ships, the flightless auks, entire constellations of sea stars—all are at the vanishing point or beyond, as with the vaquita and axolotl, glass frog and golden frog, the Palos Verdes blue and Callippe silverspot butterflies, among the names—one hundred and fifty species every day—in the voluminous lexicons that have been tossed into the flames. To attune myself to the natural world was at the same time to become aware of the violence against it, what began with those early arrivals from across the sea, who assaulted the forests, hunted the whales, slaughtered the sea birds and set out to exterminate and enslave those curious friendly people. It was to open myself to what Aldo Leopold called a world of wounds.

One of those “curious friendly” people Verrazano blasted with a musket, for he was carrying a “stick of fire” (probably a tobacco pipe) he mistook for a weapon.

Upon reaching the Antilles, Verrazano rowed to shore toward a group of strangers who promptly killed him and dismembered his “still quivering body” while his brother stood helplessly by.

The world was not, after all, made of shadows.

When we moved into our house on State Street in 1968, the parking lot across the street wasn’t yet a parking lot, but rather a brick building that occupied the entire city block, painted in green and white, and it was still in use in that year. Trucks hauled in and out great bales of fabric, and workers came and went, mostly women, who I could see at work over their sewing machines through the dusty windows. Not long after we arrived the building was demolished. I came home one day and it was gone, simply gone. And soon it vanished from my memory as well. Later the memory would come back to me, and I tried to imagine how the walls did fall, how under the heave of a wrecking ball, it shimmered in the air for a moment before collapsing into rubble and dust. Perhaps I did witness it, as my memory of it now is so clear—its green and white bands quivering in their peppermint swirls as the walls shook loose from this world. I had been witness to a piece of the New York garment industry in its twilight hour, and this, I learned, was how all that is solid melts into air. Not a melting, but a wrecking ball. All those women, simply vanished from our attentions and our lives into the amnesiac air.

            Dust and powder fill our lungs . . .

When I did at last quit the city to cure my loneliness, it was some years after I left home for college, where I might have acquired the maps useful for making my way in the world, but instead chose a course of study that took me further into a world of shadows. None of the maps I was given could help to explain the Vietnam War, or Biafra, or Bull Conner’s firehoses, or the slaughter of the blue whales for pet food, or the nuclear dot chart, which illustrated just how many times over the US could destroy the world. Or the parking lots.

I had known the words ontological and numinous, before watershed or moraine. One day I would come to have a use for telling a lily from a trillium. A cedar from an oak.

I have long ago come to demand of words their earthly meanings. And a new word—eremocine, the age of our species loneliness—would go a long way to explain the grief I felt as a human living without the creatures with whom we had always shared this world.

I had to leave the cottage by the lake because the landlord had other plans for it. The end of my four-year stint in that house marks also the end of a failed relationship, and because I had no steady income it would be a long time before I would have a place to call my own. Simone Weil observed, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community, which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. . . . Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well-nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual, and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”

I might have taken a keener interest in the story about a wandering man—a story for the descendants of colonizers, as I am—one of the first texts we were assigned as first-year students at the elite liberal arts college I attended. If the Iliad is about war, then the Odyssey is about the consequences of war, but that it is a war story is not what made this the foundational text for a culture of empire. Simone Weil, in her 1942 book, The Need for Roots, had made this connection between military conquest and uprootedness—the most pernicious of social ills in her view because it persists in the lives of the descendants of conquerors and is self-perpetuating, though she never did write this analysis of the Odyssey to follow her essay on the Iliad. What has torn our hero from home is war, and long after the war has ended the war hero is still an outcast, is still far from home, and is in great danger of never finding his way home at all. He is still living its consequences; he is still sacking cities and killing, because the consequences of war are never-ending.

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be?” Flannery O’Connor wrote this about modern life, but she could just as well have been writing about the Odyssey. In a post-war world, every young person will be called to leave his home and move to the city and will become estranged from his Ithaca. Most will find that they can’t go home again. As Wendell Berry wrote, “It is the expectation that we do not work where we live and if we are to hold up our heads in the presence of our teacher and classmates, we must not live where we come from.” In the end, we can safely assume Odysseus has not settled down in Ithaca, but looks ahead to more wandering until he will reach—as the oracles say he must—the farthest place from the imagination of a sea-faring Greek, a place where people do not even know of the sea and who will confuse his oar with a winnowing fan. This is to say his wandering days are not over, as they never can be for one who has traveled, for one who has known Calyspso’s charms and the Siren’s songs, for one who has known war. This tension we find in the Odyssey, between push and pull, between the need for roots and the craving for adventure and exploration, still resonates with us because it is intrinsic to settler colonialism, though the frame we use to reflect on our colonization narrative changes with every generation’s reading of it.

In the introduction to her 2018 translation, Emily Wilson writes, “Odysseus is a migrant, but he is also a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past . . .” To consider how these can co-exist in one person may help us to reconsider both “the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex world.” To this twenty-first-century reader, “the tension between strangeness and familiarity is in fact the poem’s central subject.”

But to Robert Fitzgerald (whose 1962 translation I read as a college student), these were not its central themes. He praises the adventurism of the colonist, the explorer, the masters of the earth: “If the world was given to us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago . . . the faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace—these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be.” In a footnote to the 1969 edition of his translation, Fitzgerald would celebrate the moon landing as a great enlargement of this spirit.

Faithfulness is a quality for women but not men, as bravery is for men and not women: this is as it always was and always will be. Hegemony is the parent of such sweeping provincialisms. Where I see a serial killer, another reader sees “inspiration and grace.” There is no suggestion of self-consciousness in his use of the collective pronoun, the imperial “we,” but for we who read him in my college class in the fall of 1976, we knew that it was meant to include us.

And now, it is Penelope, and her metaphor for the domestic life, who interests me, who unweaves at night what she weaves in the day—the sowing and reaping, weeding, and more weeding, cooking and eating, and cleaning unending. Penelope is Ongoingness to Odysseus’s quest for permanence; where Odysseus builds wooden horses, she weaves what will only be undone, something never to be completed. While he is marching on Troy, she is the one who stays home, sowing and reaping, tending her garden. She is the mythic center that cannot hold as history disrupts the natural cycles in the making of monuments, in the conquests that will become the hero’s story. The suitors have made a wreckage of continuity; they are consumers but not farmers, who will slaughter the lamb but not rear its replacement. They will leave the table after the meal with the bones and spilled wine and unwashed plates. They have spilled all the seeds and held none for the planting. They have broken the circle. How did I not see that it was Penelope, all along, who was the one open to inspiration and grace, whose weaving and unweaving might hold off the end of our story, in which all the lambs have all been slaughtered and we are left with only the waste, and our species loneliness.

Penelope holds off the predators for three long years until her ruse is discovered, and she must invent another, promising to marry the one who can shoot an arrow through twelve axes, as her husband had done, knowing of course that all will fail. In another reading, she does not know this, and has given in to them; we might call her a collaborator. She does not resist until the very end, as we expect of our heroes. But who among us can resist the relentless pressure, the system in which we are entrapped, the predators we cannot kill.

Spring is here and the weeds are returning. The sap runs at end of winter, lilacs and dandelions come in early spring, and water flows from tap and hose. We are eating asparagus and dandelion greens. We are planting onions, potatoes, radishes, peas. I no longer have a wandering life and have picked up Penelope’s weaving, though without her expert skill, her muscular hand. I wish to postpone the inevitable; I wish to delay the ravages of climate derangement, the consumption without renewal; but I know that the forces of history-making are against me. I also know I am a collaborator.

Our land is wrapped around by row crops that in turn are ringed by meadow giving way to woods and then mountains. I have lived here longer than I have lived anywhere, long enough to observe that the world has changed—the growth of the willows we planted, the death of a 200-year-old elm, the encroaching invasives, the houses cropping up on subdivided land down the road, a weedy reclamation of the flower beds I long ago gave up on. I have seen the climate change; those clear breezy summer days with their brief thunderstorms are the stuff of nostalgia now. I am almost always home and mostly go only as far as I can go on a bicycle. Mostly. If there were a train to the trailhead I would find my way more often into the still wild uplands; instead I roam the second- or third-growth forest behind my home, and on a bicycle I can admire the pastoral beauty of a farmed landscape, finding discovery in a deepening familiarity with place. I feel compelled to give up on travel, if I cannot do so by means of public transit, though I have not succeeded in this, as the need to travel is still too great; I still count myself, in some years, among the 11 percent of the world’s population who travel by air. That the miles I have traveled in my life count as “love miles” makes the energy I used no less potent as a climate disrupter. Twelve thousand miles of car travel equals 4.7 tons of carbon dioxide equals 14 square meters of melted Arctic sea ice. The push and the pull—to go or to stay—define me no less than the story of the wandering man, even now. My inner compass still tilts toward paradise.

Simone Weil writes, “Uprootedness is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed for it is a self propagating one . . . Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted in himself doesn’t uproot others.” Climate disruption will be the most pervasive form of deracination, affecting everyone, all species, everywhere, the ongoing consequence of long ago genocidal wars and economic displacements. I am still drafting and redrafting a life, still unsettled, because what is the life that will not uproot anyone? Not the milkweed needed by the monarch, not the Indigenous communities who need their rivers to remain wild, not the children of the faraway nearby who, if it is not already written, will be displaced by fires and floods. I have chosen this life, my weaving and unweaving, sowing and reaping, as my best form of resistance.

When I lived by the lake I lived in the flyway of the snow goose migration. They passed overhead every spring and fall in ribbons of silvery wings, pointed in their arrowhead formations. With any luck I might see them traveling in groups not of hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands but the mother lode of them, their congregation in unfathomable abundance. The kind of abundance that once was the fabric of life, that was everywhere, in the migrations of bison, caribou, curlew, passenger pigeon, salmon, shad, plover. In the season I would visit their stopover at Dead Creek where entire nations of them gathered in a cornfield, their plump awkward bodies waddling through the stubble, honking in their loud cacophony. I might witness the moment, when, of a sudden, a group of them decides to take flight, like the wind section in a symphony, or the strings, coming in exactly on cue.

Nostalgia can be a sentimental longing, a longing for an imagined past, but to regret what has been lost, what has become of this earth, the places and species annihilated, the oceans full of trash, is no romantic sentiment. Things were better before, from the earth’s perspective, for the lions and whales and sea turtles. For the white bear on shrinking ice, the starving orcas, the albatross dying with a stomach full of bottle caps.

I look out my window, expecting ruin. I know that I will see much ruin yet in my lifetime; more chaos, more displacement, more extinction. I don’t know why it is not already too much to bear, but hope is resilient; it survives like the most persistent weed, with little nourishment, and despite all the contempt the world will throw at it.

For even the air is independable,
Thick where it should be fine . . .

Does the wild goose care . . . H.D. was wrong about the goose, who surely does care if others follow or not. Once when I was home at our lake cottage, I heard the geese honking and went out to look, and I found them in a nearby field—it was the entire congregation of them, and they had landed in a place where they didn’t usually stop, not all of them, not there. I waited, watching from a hilltop, until they at last took off, the entire nation of wings lifting off, folding the earth under its skirts, tilting the sky and the earth in its axis as I felt the ground under me shift with them. The snow goose has since changed its route, and doesn’t follow the Lake Champlain flyway anymore, or stop over at Dead Creek in great numbers. Only a few stragglers, in wispy strings of wings. At least their disappearance from our lives is only because they have gone elsewhere, because they are adapting, because they know something that we don’t.

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