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Pickle Me This

October 23, 2019

We are stardust, we are golden 

One single quotation that bugs me in its vacuity even more than Madeleine Albright and her special place in hell for women who don’t help other women is that excerpt from a poem by Rumi that goes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

A line that maybe isn’t so offensive on its own, and I think that Rumi was talking about the spiritual realm, but I’m not sure it really applies here on Earth in the meantime, where people who insist on hanging out in that proverbial field are likely to come home at the end of the day with black eyes and bruises (because they’ve been cavorting with neo-Nazis), and possibly they’ll also have measles.

So, yes, Rumi, I will meet you there, but in the meantime, there’s the land right here before the field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, where we’re all trying to puzzle out this thing called existence and how to get along with each other, to do better than emblematic opposition, us and them, love is a battlefield. Where we need better metaphors, which is the central thesis of Eula Biss’s On Immunity, in which she uses the issue of vaccination to explore ideas of societal (dis)trust and polarization (and also the history of public health, and motherhood, and everything).

It’s not quite as simple as shrugging off right and wrong, heading out to the field. Different strokes for different strokes. Because of course, in innumerable ways, our lives and our choices all intersect. There is indeed such thing as society, and a public of which each of us are a part. Eula Biss calls on the work of Rachel Carson, who writes, “For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.” 

Biss writes, “We are…continuous with everything here on Earth. Including, and especially, each other.” 

My favourite part of On Immunity is in the endnotes, when Biss credits the women in her personal circles “who complicated the subject of immunization for me.” (Emphasis mine.) This same idea is repeated in the book’s acknowledgements: “I am grateful to the community…who complicated my thinking, argued generously, and pointed me in new directions.” 

(In the endnotes, she goes on to explain her use of “mothers” when she might have used “parents” throughout the text. “This does not mean that I believe immunization is exclusively of concern to women, but only that I want to address other mothers directly. In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument…that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and that does not resemble war.”) 

I first read On Immunity in 2015, which seemed like a polarized period at the time, but appears somewhat utopian when one looks back from our post-November 2016 world. And in the years since I read the book, I’ve continually returned to that idea of complication as a kind of service, a gift, something to be grateful for. Not always succeeding in my understanding, of course, failing more often than not, because it’s no small thing, to be grateful to the people who complicate your vision, your understanding. An astounding and rare feat of generosity, in fact, to be grateful to the people who keep the world from being simple…but this is the kind of achievement that I’m aspiring to, a way one might make it here in this place entrenched by ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. This is how one might get beyond this place and manage to still have a soul. 

“…it isn’t the clinging to answers but the embracing of ignorance that drives science,” Biss writes, but not just science—it drives everything. And to embrace ignorance is another way of asking to make it complicated. Tell me how the medical establishment has a centuries-old habit of undermining women’s knowledge, and that some of the first public health initiatives had people vaccinated at gunpoint. Tell me (as Biss does) how “a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism,” but then complicate that. She writes, “But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt—a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.” 

Or tell me how Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the world to the dangers of DDT, but also inspired a line of thinking that is not disconnected from the fact that one African child in twenty now dies from malaria as DDT is now discouraged for use against mosquitos. “For each of us,” as Carson herself said, “this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.” 

It’s complicated. As they say

Biss rejects the possibility of a middle-ground on vaccinations as facile, a middle-ground simply reinforcing the binary or this or that, and a divide instead of a connection, when the reality of most things is not so neat and simple. Bad guys and good guys? “[M]ost people are both,” writes Biss, and then quotes Naomi King, who knows something about monsters, because her father is an author called Stephen. She says, “If we demonize other people and create monsters out of each other and act monstrous—and we all have that capacity—then how do we not become monsters ourselves?” 

On Immunity is preoccupied with the metaphor of vampires, and Dracula, but this passage had me thinking of Frankenstein, or rather Dr. Frankenstein, who, in creating a monster, has himself been transformed in into a monster, at least in the public consciousness. 

However, now we’re back here with Rumi and the field beyond, basically, imagining that monstrosity is relative, but here’s the thing: I do think some monsters are real. And there is a distinction between the people who complicate things, and the people who set those things on fire. There is arguing generously, and there is arguing disingenuously, dangerously. Dog whistles. (That point where you start asking: am I being paranoid? Akin to someone who regards the polio vaccine as an global conspiracy?) 

Possibly one benefit to restricting the bounds of your argument to apply to mothers, when certainly lessens the likelihood that you’re having your ideas complicated by someone who keeps body parts in the freezer, though no doubt (it’s complicated) there are even exceptions to that rule. 

But now I’m back to Dr. Frankenstein again, and I don’t know what to do, but maybe complicatedness is the point. Complicatedness is reality. And the point is not untwining, but the twine, like ivy, and now I’m thinking of Biss’s final metaphor—for the body, for society. A better one than war, instead, the garden.

“The garden is unbounded and unkempt, bearing both fruit and thorns. Perhaps we should call it a wilderness. Or perhapscommunity is sufficient.” 

A wild tangle. An exasperating mind-fuck. Sustaining, and but exhausting. Maybe that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. 

I reread On Immunity because it’s a Book Club Pick for the Mom Rage Podcast, a podcast which I’m embarrassingly enthusiastic about. I think they’re going to be talking about it on next week’s episode, but if you haven’t yet, you might as well just listen to all of them.

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