So this is actually an abandoned essay I wrote many years ago. I ran across it recently in my beastly computer folder called "documents" -- the graveyard of many thoughts and essays. I opened this file and read it to remember it and decided I liked it ... not because of my own involvement as a character -- these days I rather prefer not to disclose anything about my emotional trials and history -- but because I like the old woman and the ruminations about her. So throwing it up here ...

 

WAYS OF LIFE

There is an old woman, a mother and grandmother, who lives in the middle of the Sahara in a town called Araouane.  She has never been outside of Araouane in all her life.  The town lies between Timbuktu and the Taoudenni salt mines.  She lives in a mud brick house.  From the time her eyes were open, she’s seen the sand and the wind.  She gets up every morning and spends every day shoveling sand from the door of her house.  Her mother and her grandmother shoveled the sand from this same house.  If you ask her, this shoveling, it’s all she can remember ever having done.

I wonder if her mother ever told her, “There will be no end.”  If one day she said to her daughter, “This is what you will do, my child,” and handed her the shovel and the broom.  I wonder if she’s ever laid them down, gotten down on her hands and knees and blown the sand with her small breath?  She might think that if she were the wind she could blow the sand into a great dune such that her house sat in the lee, and she would have some relief.

What do her hands look like, this woman’s?  Have they been molded into the shape of a shovel handle?  Can her fingers open up, can she lay her hand flat?  And what is the shovel made from, this object of optimism in a land with no handles, no concave metal heads except the transient reminiscences of them in the sand?  Do they think, the woman and the shovel, that today, each day, today is the day they finally oust the sand, that tomorrow they will then awake with nothing to do?  I’ll sit and drink tea all day, thinks the woman, perhaps, and count the lines that furrow the back of my hand.  Do they continue shoveling in hopes that one day they will be separate from the Sahara, that the sand will be there and they will be here?

This woman that shovels sand each day, does she feel like she’s losing her mind? Does she panic that the sand will overtake her?  That one day she’ll somehow forget to shovel and she’ll wake up the next morning with sand in her nose and ears and lining her gums? Does it suddenly strike her that she must be crazy, bargaining for a life in the desert with a shovel?

When I come to sum up my life, I’ll have no one grand statement.  I’ll have a meek and run-on sentence with the recurrent phrase, “a little bit of” this, “a little bit of” that.  But this woman can definitively and boldly say, “I shoveled sand.”  She didn’t just sweep, mind you, she shoveled.  But did she sweep away the meaning of her life?  Am I to pity the futility of the overriding structure of her life?

Sand is surely the bane of her existence.  I’d like to meet this woman and tell her that depression has generally been mine, that we’re sisters trying to sweep away the grains of sand and sadness.  I live in a desert where dunes of sadness and devastation exist, built of the atoms that build the other world.  Their grains blow into my house and I must continually sweep them out, shoo them back out into the openness.  Yet if I sweep the sand that’s in my house back out into the desert, won’t it just blow into somebody else’s?  Aren’t we all bound by the bleakness that there is a fixed amount of matter in the world and we all must deal with it—push it back and forth between us?  Isn’t this perhaps the very principle from which futility emerged as a word with meaning?

When you just look at your life from the middle of it, things don’t usually seem absurd.  But if you extract yourself from it and look down on it, you’d likely think, “What am I doing, shoveling away the Sahara?” One day I perceived with a jolting acuteness the cycle of my life.  I looked down upon the little circles I traced out, circles with ever smaller radii so that I visited the deep holes with increasing rapidity—until the edge of one hole onto which I held to haul myself up and out, was really the lip of the next hole.  All I ever did was try to climb up.  Holy, holy shit, I thought.  There’s got to be more to life than this. But I didn’t have the strength to find out what.  I’d never had the strength.  I yielded to the pits of devastation over and over, to the path of least resistance, sliding down its smooth slopes, chasing my tail like a dog because it’s always there to chase.  Why live on earth as an insect, I thought this one day, as a spider trying to climb out of a bathtub, ignorant and  senseless to the rays of life that continue past the perimeter of a circle and point to a destination? I sat in the bathroom with my back against the wall.  I sat there because it was a small room, and a room where a closed door was not suspicious.  And I dug in with the razor blade.  Not really because I wanted to die, but because I wanted to break the cycle of futility, as if a sharp enough blade could cut a hole in it through which I could see another way.

Has this woman ever crumbled beneath the weight of her incessant repetition, a repetition that seems to have no conclusion and therefore risks having no meaning?  Or is futility, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?  I think if she shovels that sand until the day she dies, shoveling in the morning, dying in the evening, she has not beheld futility.  If, however, on her last day, she opens the door and reclines on the step, letting the grains cover her one by one, she has come to understand that resistance is futile, that there are things that prevail and she is not one nor her shovel.

Perhaps there doesn’t have to be deep meaning in everything we do.  Sand is perhaps merely a nuisance, like mosquitoes, and perhaps the generations of Araouane women consider their shoveling as the same sort of inconvenience as having to fix a meal every day.  But notice, the old woman being interviewed on Radio Expeditions didn’t say cooking meals is all she can remember doing.  Laundry is not all she can remember doing.  Watching the sun rise and set is not all she can remember doing.  It’s the shoveling.  This activity has provided a framework for her life.  Something so prevalent should surely at least be given a chance to define itself as symbolic, to be understood as something more than hollow repetition.

I can sympathize only a little with the old woman of Araouane because I live between two dirt roads amidst shedding pine trees in an arid climate, and once every few months or so I sweep out the driveway.  If I never did this, it would eventually become difficult to come and go through the front door.  Shoveling the Sahara is not futile in the sense of worthlessness, for being able to get in and out of the door is worth something.  I’ve looked up “futile” in the dictionary; it has several meanings.  The shoveling is, rather, merely ineffectual but for a few hours.  This woman seems incredulous to me in her incessant removal of sand.  But I can draw a direct analogy to the fact that I, for years and years, tried to push away the grains of depression, only to have them build up over and over.  Whatever means I used to recover, they were ineffectual but for a few weeks or days or hours.  And yet I remained inside this framework.

Perhaps my first judgment of these ineffectual ways of life is too harsh.  An outside author writing our tales would see thematic elements in our lives through which he could express all sorts of cryptic details that readers would banter over, whether it means this or that.  They would perceive meaning in our actions and our lives that neither she nor I would see ourselves.  Maybe there is, in fact, substance if not sensibility in futility.

By any sensible esthetic reasoning, Araouane is “an oasis of desolation,” says Wade Davis, who is studying ancient cultures in danger of dying out.  The camel caravans that pass through there on the15-day journey to and from Timbuktu and the Taoudenni salt mines are becoming scarce.  Men are buying trucks.  Despite the fact, one camel driver explains, that they do not know how to fix a truck.  When a camel is sick, he says, a camel driver knows what to do.  But you can’t use the same remedy on a truck.   I have to think that the villagers remain in Araouane shoveling sand because that is what they know how to do.  And maybe they think, I’ll move away.  But then they think, will there be sand to shovel there?  Just like I thought, what will I do with all my tears if my sadness is taken away?

What would this woman do if suddenly at this age she moved away from the sand?  For the poetry of it, I’m tempted to think she’d feel lost, she’d feel incomplete, and she’d have absolutely no idea what to do.  But I know that’s not true.  Once I purchased an industrial sized broom with little psychiatric pills and swept the depression away, I found other things by which to shape my life.  Now I try to shovel time back into my life so I can finish writing my book, finish before I’m dead.  I think maybe I already died in the motorcycle crash I had a few years ago, and these are the last waning seconds of my life, stretched out like a dream to seem as if it’s been years.  I try to sweep words onto blank sheets of paper.  Every day I get up and sweep more and my hand begins to look like a pen, slender, translucent, with ink in my veins and teeth marks near my wrist.  I wonder if the old woman would pity the futility of trying to transcribe thoughts into ink.  After all, she’ll never read them.  What’s the use?

I’m smug about the fact that I’ve overcome, even if pharmaceutically, depression, that I’ve ejected myself from the repetition into a world I can’t predict as if there is proportional value in the blankness of one’s tomorrows, as if there is inherent meaning in variety.  Am I stronger for exiting the loop that seemed to sap away higher purposes from my grasp which might lead to higher meanings for my life?  Is there a hierarchy for such things as purpose and meaning?  Or am I weaker for not accepting my natural way of life?

From a Star Trek episode:  “Every moment has a purpose, every purpose has a plan.  The higher the fewer.”  If we work backwards from this, if the plan for this woman is to be plucked from the sparse straws that support the foundation a single, overarching plan, every purpose which is the symptom of a plan would be a correspondingly high purpose, and its constituent moments likewise lofty in their role.  So here we are level, she and I.  Both walking beneath the same yoke, whipped by the same lash, our hides marred by the futility of living when we’re both going to die.

The caravan men have no trail to follow.  They read the sand, the desert.  Some men feel it with their bare feet.  The Sahara is an ancient sea bed.  I wonder why there are no lighthouses in the desert, some beacon to the imminent arrival upon the shores of civilization; I wonder why men are not found limp and broken each morning in the sand outside the doorsteps, having been dashed upon the rocks of the mud-brick houses jutting out into the desert.

I wonder if this woman who has never been outside of Araouane knows about the oceans of water that separate continents.  Does she know I exist?  Does she know there’s a girl that lives on a mountain side among evergreen trees and wildflowers, who looks out each day on a gurgling creek and a pond full of water, trying to shovel away depression?  That this girl drives a little maroon car to a psychiatrist’s office so he can tell her why she does the things she does?  Does she even know the world is round?  That she could throw a word into the air and it would fall ever so gently along the curve of desert, jungle, ocean, and eventually into this strange girl’s ear?  That I could repeat the word and it would come to fall, pale from its journey, into her ear with such delicacy that she might mistake it for the breath of the desert, a slight sigh from the sand, distressed at the constant expulsion from her domain?  Does she know that if she throws a trillion grains of sand over her shoulder, one of them might travel around the globe and come at her from the other side, make it into her house, hop into the stew and feel snug inside her belly?  And if she knew these things to be true, would she change the cadence of her shoveling at all?

I’ve tried to picture this woman, schooled by the sand, solving problems of arithmetic and laws of thermodynamics with a grave-digger’s tool, to picture her hairline and the length of her earlobes.  I’m thinking she has few teeth, that there’s been grit between her molars from the first day top and bottom met.  She’s been slowly chewing the desert as well; what she can’t shovel, she digests.  And her companion, her only musical instrument besides her voice and the soles of her feet, this blunt percussion, unrusted and scuffed, eats the sand like an orchestra eats out the air in an auditorium so that you’re breathing B-flats and F’s.

I’ve thought about tracking down this woman’s address and sending her one of those leaf blower things.  She could just stand still, or sit even, holding this weapon of mass removal. Have time to drink tea when the grains have been exiled back outdoors.  She’d still do it every day, but somehow an old woman holding a hose seems less exclamatory than an old woman with a shovel.  I guess that’s why I’ll never actually track her down.  I need that latter woman.

The general public tend to admire people of complexity, people who achieved “great” things by manipulating numerous facets of a situation.  But I must confess an admiration for this old African woman, this simple grandmother from Araouane.  Most anyone who looks at the heart of the desert or even thinks of it, is overcome with bleak, helpless, hopelessness, and there’s this woman just shoveling the desert away.  She hums to her shovel like I hum when I’m baking apple pie.  This is her way of life.

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