143: “Only One Kind Of Life” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

                “Our lives in the north and the south are so different that they seem, to you others, incoherent, incomplete. And we cannot connect them rationally. We cannot explain or justify our Madan to those who live only one kind of life.”
                -Ursula Le Guin, “Seasons of the Ansarac,”
Changing Planes

                My first six months in India, I kept my water heater off and shivered while I washed. My first winter in Oklahoma City, I kept my thermostat at 36 degrees Fahrenheit. After dinner I lay on my couch in sweatpants, sweatshirt, and a coat. In the mornings I scurried to the shower, and tried to dry off before the steam had drifted away. (It didn’t really work). I think I was fumbling, in my own dramatic way, toward something Emersonian, or maybe (to make him Russian) Thoreau-ski. At the time, it just felt–not right, but potent. Fitting. I didn’t like how much I insulated myself from the seasons. I wanted to notice them. I wanted to feel them. My way of going about that was immature and silly, but every now and then I think back to it. I think there’s something there.
                We use our technology to stay dry in the rain and to find our way, with a compass, through the woods. In those instances, our intelligence lets us move through the world. I’m glad of that. Even when I was shivering, I was beneath a nice strong roof that kept the snow outside. You can tell because I’m still alive. But sometimes we use our technology to do even more: we try to make the world amenable to our whims, whenever they come and wherever they lead. We make hot rooms cold, and cold rooms hot. We shine lights, and hang blackout blinds so the lights outside don’t interfere with our sleep. We have drugs to wake us up, drugs to help us sleep, drugs to give us energy without sleeping, and drugs to make a 60 year old’s body more like a 20 year old’s in all sorts of ways. At that point, we’re not learning to walk through the snow. We’re insisting that the snow (and the biology of our bodies) shouldn’t restrict our choices. We’re assuming that anything we choose to do we we should be able to choose at any time. In Changing Planes, Le Guin asks, “Why?”
                The Ansarac live on a planet with seasons that are much, much longer than ours–in his whole life, an old man will have only seen four years. A child, born in a little cabin high up in the mountains, will live there for a summer–it would seem like ten years, to us–before migrating down to the winter city on the plains. The Ansarac live differently in their two homes. In the summer homestead, they live in little family groups beneath big spreading trees. They make new families. In the winter city, they live close together, they exchange ideas. They don’t have sex or bear children. When young people first move from the mountains to the city, it seems noisy, chaotic, crowded. When they first go back to the mountains, it can seem quiet, boring, lonely. But the Ansarac live both ways, and get used to both ways. Their “Madan” is their path, their way–spiritual, physical, practical–of living. Their Madan gives time for (and demands) two very different kinds of walking.
                I wonder why we work so hard against the cycles that change us. I’m not as young as I once was; I’m not as old as, I hope, I’ll live to be. How would life be if, like the Ansarac, I embraced a pattern that gave up (or didn’t pretend to take) some control and so gave me different times for different dances? Already, I think, I might live in a winter city sometimes, and sometimes in a cabin beneath the trees. When I do, I often tell myself that something’s wrong. I tell myself I should be able to go back and forth whenever I choose, however I choose. But why should I? Why shouldn’t my Madan have its seasons?

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