Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sheer Plod Makes Plough Down Sillion Shine

I've been sending out announcements about the publication of my book "Bieganski," hearing from, and catching up on, old friends I haven't heard from in years.

It's been a bit of Carmina Burana. Friends whom I thought would never know misfortune have faced some tough times. A surprising number of women, beautiful, lucky women, have split from their spouses.

One sent me a note that moved me deeply. She said that in all the pain, she never failed to get up in the morning, to take care of those who depended on her, to eat something wholesome, to get to work.

I can't say how much I admire that kind of stamina and dedication to the quotidian demands of real life, the kind of details that one might be tempted to write off as trivial when confronted with upheaval.

My friend moved me even more when she revealed that, in doing her daily duty, she was mindful of something I'd said to her years ago, in the wake of the terror attacks of 9-11. Some had called the terrorists "brave." My friend reminded me that I had said, "No – they were not brave. Murder is not brave. Suicide is not brave. Brave is facing one's world day in and day out, and doing the very best in it one can."

Now that she reminded me, I do remember saying that. At the time, and now, I felt it to be a Polish insight, a peasant insight.

In Poland, during Solidarity, before the wall came down in 1989, I had heard Poles say, "Many are willing to die for Poland. But how many are willing to live for Poland?"

Brilliant. Real, lasting contributions are made, often, not through the grandiloquent gesture, the undisciplined, momentary explosion of rage. Real, lasting contributions are often made just by every day heroes who get up in the morning and feed the dogs, and go to work, and don't blow anything up, literally or metaphorically.

"Bieganski" quotes a couple of tributes to such determination, one by Isaac Bashevis Singer, one by Annette Esty. The Singer tribute is a depiction of an elderly Polish washerwoman. The Esty piece depicts Polish onion farmers confronting a flood that ruined their crops. Both literary tributes move me to tears, every time I read them.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet, Catholic, homosexual, priest, suicidal depressive, encapsulated, in a few words, peasant labor and its capacity to result in transcendence: "sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine."

Recently, I was experiencing a moment, one of a hundred similar moments, where I just wanted to move to Mars if and when this book got published. I wrote a squeamish, whimpering e-mail to a supporter. I asked him to send me courageous vibes. He declined. Rather, he said, "Just plod. Strongly and firmly. Courage is for aristocrats. Peasants plod, through everything and anything. That's how peasants win."

The "die for a cause/live for a cause" motif is not limited to Poland. According to wiki answers, "In The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger, Mr. Antolini, a teacher from his old school tries to tell him that he is going down the wrong path in life and tries to set him on the right path. In attempts to do this he writes down a quotation from a psychologist, hoping that it will give meaning and guidance to Holden. The quotation states, 'The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause while the mark of the mature man is that wants to live humbly for one' (Salinger 188)."


  1. Marvelous. I young man I knew who committed suicide talked a lot about his longing to die for a noble cause. Ultimately he wasted his death. He didn't have a cause to die for -- or to live for.

    When I'm back from camping, I need to post my poem, The Ox and the Rose. I feel that one thing that saved me from suicide was the "inner ox," that strange ability to revise a piece a hundred times or more -- without asking if the effort makes sense.

    A friend objected once, "Nobody sees you as plodding." Plodding goes unnoticed; only winning is supposed to count. Who remembers the one hundred failed efforts before the discovery? The twenty years of preparation it takes to be an "overnight success"? A large part of talent is simply persistence. It is a genetic trait, possibly not separate from being compulsive, but also a mystery . . .

    Thank you for the wonderful post. Oriana

  2. Oriana, thank you for invoking oxen. They are my patron saints.

    I used to be a Peace Corps teacher in Nepal, a land of very high mountains. I always felt I could not get up that day's particular trail.

    I took inspiration from yaks. They are large and slow moving. I would watch them, and say to myself, "They aren't sprinting. They aren't doing anything fancy. They are just putting one hoof in front of another. I can do that."

    And I did.

    Also, I agree with you about a possible saving grace in being a bit obsessive compulsive. I am a (slightly) compulsive house cleaner. I used that tendency in my research. I really needed to do that because I am dyslexic and library research is a thorny trail, for me.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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