The Italian Peasant Experiment

Once you grow up, you are expected only to make believe when you are cast in a play…and then you call it acting, and it is serious. I never quite stopped playing pretend games, however.  Probably my love for theatre has a lot to do with my love for make-believe, but I also think the reason theatre exists is the same reason why make-believe exists: mimetic desire, the longing to become in order better to know, the thrill of liminality.

Fortunately for me I met my friend Kate when I was 25, and technically a good 15 years past the time when make-believe is socially acceptable.  Eventually, I suppose, I will be old enough so that it will constitute a symptom of inevitable dotage; in the meantime, I am hopeless.

Among other commonalities, we found that both of us had, at some point in our teenage years, gone wafting about mist-covered hills in cloaks, pretending to be…something or other.  Eowyn, I think, in my case.  I still fear a cage above all other things.  I still also like to dress up in ridiculous outfits and waft – so does Kate – although we now do so with babes in arms.

Kate and I worked together on a landscape crew between Ann Arbor and Detroit, in the summer of 2000.  We were the worst landscape crew ever, not because we weren’t good with the soil, precisely, but because everyone on the crew was going through some variety of angst or turmoil. After burning the midnight oil, we would head to work in the morning jaded and weary, half the crew in my old silver cop car, smoking cigarettes bitterly and bickering over whether to listen to NPR or the classical station.  Once we blasted Aerosmith and all stuck our heads out the windows and sang, “sing with me, sing for the years…” feeling alive and elegiac.  The fact that this was one of our brighter moments is instructive.
We also sucked because Kate and I kept succumbing to the inexplicable urge to turn every planting or weeding or pruning job into a musical.  We used rakes and shovels as props, and belted out impromptu choruses, modeled vaguely on “Glory and Praise” songs (infantile melodies: easy to mimic, even for a non-musician like myself) with some sort of general romantic theme of desire or treachery.  Eventually it dawned on us that our boss was always sending the two of us off to work on totally unnecessary projects, on our own, far from the rest of the crew, ANYTHING to get us and our horrific musical theatre away from the porches of their ears.                                                                                                          
One of these unnecessary projects involved dead-heading lavender – huge, springy, fragrant beds of lavender, that didn’t in the least need to be dead-headed, but it was something for us to do.  It was glorious – we sank briefly into a world that was dominated entirely by lavender, lavender everywhere, its air around us, its color dotting our vision.  We collected all the faded sprigs of sweetness on a giant canvas tarp, which I believe we were suppose to load up and then dump somewhere. I ended up keeping it in the trunk of the Crown Vic, since it smelled so lovely (which made for interesting encounters with border guards when we’d drive over to visit our favorite pub in Canada:  “have you got anything in your trunk?”  “only some dried herbs.”  Honesty is a good policy).

It was all so picturesque, the sweet far-away aroma of the lavender rising all about us, the languor of a July day…we decided on our lunch break to get a loaf of bread, a brick of cheese, and a bottle of wine, to carry on with the general Arcadian theme.  I think we both had the famous Brideshead picnic lurking in our minds somewhere: we were living out a beautiful storybook rebellion.

My reasoning on the wine was as follows: Italian peasants would eat just such a lunch, and then go right back to work the fields.  But that sort of reasoning involves the willful ignorance of certain glaring historical discrepancies.  It also involves one NOT drinking the entire bottle of wine, on an 85 degree day…especially cheap screw-cap wine (we had no corkscrews, so that was our only option).  The amazing Brideshead wine that was “heaven with strawberries”… this was surely not it.  The cheese sat and saddened in the sun; it sweated; we sweated; the lavender was sort of absorbed into a general odor of warm cheese, Michigan suburbs, and body odor.  A siesta would have been welcome but back we went to work, digging holes for shrubberies around a depressing suburban development. We lagged and our heads swam, all the houses began to look the same – well, actually, they always looked the same, but now the sameness became more notably dreary.

I did not learn however. We tried the same Italian Peasant experiment again that same summer, and it failed, again (imagine!).  For the past ten years I have continued in my pigheaded determination that I WILL drink wine or beer along with some heavy bready and cheesy substances, on my lunch break, and then successfully carry on manual labor, or directing a play, or running after maniacal children.  I subjected Brendan to the experiment on our honeymoon: we drove to the top of a mountain, then hiked way, way down into the river valley to gaze at a waterfall and eat cheese and apples, and drink Chianti. Then we had to climb back up. Happy times.

I have recently discovered two things:

1) If you leave out the wine, you can pretend to be a peasant and still go back to work.  Pregnancy taught me this.  It’s not quite as much fun while you’re pretending, but it makes for better gardening afterwards.

2) We can’t be Charles and Sebastian because we’re not upper class Oxonians in the twenties, and we’re not in love with each other (I mean, Kate and I aren’t.  When we played Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night that was rather painfully obvious, that we were NOT in love with each other).  And that is one of the magickal things about stories: they are in many cases our only entry to a rich, rife atmosphere that otherwise we would never breathe, because each story has its special uniqueness, its singularity to a time and place like no other.  This reveals to us the terrible preciousness of the moment that burns once and then slips away: it is not just a symbol, not just a pointer, it is real and tangible and meaningful in itself, the single tree or the golden afternoon or the slant of a face in shadow.

“I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”

You can’t, though.  If you really think you can, you end up like Sebastian.  It’s lost in time, the pot of gold.  But it was gold, for all that.   Playing pretend games keeps it shiny in our recollection.

(That’s my excuse, at any rate).


About Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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One Response to The Italian Peasant Experiment

  1. Boldi Koenig says:

    I remembered two expressions while reading this entry:
    – Fast Pray Love
    – Peasant Wellness

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