This post will give away the ending to O, Pioneers!. It was originally published in 1913, so let’s be honest, you weren’t planning on reading it anyway.
I would never generally read a book with the word “pioneer” in the title. Pioneer just isn’t a sexy word to me. In any case, I took a Willa Cather class as an undergrad and read O Pioneers!. Which I dreaded. Because it was old and because of the word pioneers. I am here to tell you that I was wrong, that books with pioneer in the title may sometimes but not always be solely about wagon wheel spokes and fox fur trading, that I loved the book, and I’ve thought of it often over the years.
Alexandra, the main character, is strong and independent. I identified with her initially. When things fall apart, when the people she loves are destroyed, she forges forward, ever more capable and strong. The price she pays for this is high: her business, her land, flourishes, but she is alone at the end of the book, and lonely. She has a vivid, recurring dream “of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong. He was with her a long while this time, and carried her very far, and in his arms she felt free from pain…[he was] the mightiest of all lovers.”
We talked a lot in my class about what this dream meant, of course. At first the class was like, wait, Alexandra’s not a lesbian? Is she bisexual? Is Willa Cather a lesbian? (Answers, respectively: No; probably not; pretty sure.) And then we were like what the fuck, Alexandra. You’re a strong, capable woman. Now you want some man to carry you across the fucking wheat field and, like, go down on you? Come on, Alexandra. Get it together. Be a Feminist.
Alexandra writes Carl, then waits a long time for him to show up, and when he does, he says, “You’ve always been a triumphant kind of person…but you do need me now, Alexandra.” Like, he shows up because she’s finally sort of weak and needs him. And she’s like, yes, I do need you Carl. And he kisses her gently and she leans into him and she says, “I am tired…I have been very lonely, Carl.” And off they go together. And there’s no way Carl is the strong, amazing lover who can lift her across a field. He’s just Carl. Her choices are to die alone or settle for Carl, and she goes with him. Which, Carl is decent, I guess.
I was kind of harsh on Alexandra when I was a 19-year-old who knew everything.
In the past few months, I had a surgery that removed 30% of my reproductive organs (and some bonus cysts), I won a big award at work, I moved twice, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, I got my tires slashed (not ex-boyfriend-related), and I broke my glasses. I’m moving to somewhere permanent this week. My son is graduating from elementary school the day after I move. In three weeks, I begin a major work project for which I’m not quite prepared.
It’s a lot. I’m not running a farm solo, but I am alone. And I am tired. I’m also much less harsh on Alexandra.
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be strong. People always tell me I am strong. I think I am, for the most part. But two nights ago, just as I was falling asleep, I thought about the prospect of dating again, of putting my photo on an online dating site, next to some paragraphs that are supposed to be charming but not too real that they would scare someone away. Look, I’m unique and funny and cute and I like reading and hiking, I have kids I won’t mention yet but definitely no dark sad stories to tell you, let’s keep it fun! I think about a man scrolling through photos and “liking” mine, and of me scrolling through their lonely faces, “liking” theirs. And then how we will meet and click or not click and fuck or not fuck and then what. And then try a relationship and invest all of that energy and hope and hope it wasn’t a mistake when it very well might be, it probably is. It’s all so depressing. I started crying. I don’t want to wake up alone forever. I’m going to be alone, I told myself. It’s certain. I cried myself to sleep and it was incredibly lame.
I just finished this book called That Thing You Do with Your Mouth, which had some pretty moments, but feels incomplete. You can borrow it if you want. It’s a sexual memoir sort of thing. It begins with the quote “Intimacy is for strangers.” David Shields rearranges interview material from his friend, (pseudonym) Samantha Matthews. She talks about how when you’re married you stop seeing each other, you stop noticing things. She even states that infidelity can bizarrely correct this because it forces you to see the marriage with fresh eyes again. She’s not condoning infidelity, I don’t think. She’s just saying that we, sadly, stop seeing the person we committed our lives to, which I think is true. Is there a solution to this? The book doesn’t offer any. Intimacy between strangers, then, may be more rational than the alternative, but that doesn’t feel like a solution.
This is probably tangential, but she also says she is an “intimacy-junkie,” which is why she says she is sharing her highly personal story. She strives for authenticity, connection. That requires being direct and raw and real, rather than ignoring the thoughts and emotions and things around us that are disconcerting. You dive right into all of that and look at it, let it wash painfully over you, and you report back, avoiding cliches. If you lose a baby, if a friend dies, if you are desperate or lonely or sad, you confront it without the barrier of poetry or religion. I can relate to the need to do this. It is exhausting. It is a compulsion. But I also feel as though everyone would be less lonely if we owned up to these difficult feelings, the sad, hard things that happen to us. One alternative is to impose an artificial structure around it all, and convince oneself those deep dark things aren’t there. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you can collude with a partner to convince each other. Or maybe, and I think this is much more rare, you can find someone who wants to wade through this deep shit with you and then maybe drink a beer and laugh and cry at how absurd it is. I’m lucky to at least have a couple of best friends who can do that with me. And I try to do it when I write.
Everyone thought I was a lesbian in school because I am big and strong and good at sports. (Also, my haircut and clothes and being on the basketball team didn’t help.) It scares a lot of boys away to be direct, or bold, or strong. Or it attracts the boys that just want you to take care of them and give and give and give and give. I have mostly only been loved for what I can do, not for who I am. And so I will do and do and do and give and give and give and apologize when I am not everything to everyone. I always feel wrong and not enough. Then I get disappointed I can’t truly rely on anyone, when I helped construct that very building we were both living inside. See, I am to blame for this, too.
Still, I am scared to be alone forever. I don’t want Carl, and I hope I don’t settle for him. He wants Alexandra to be diminished, less triumphant than she has always been. He returns because he wants her only if she needs him. But I don’t judge you anymore, Alexandra.
Sometimes I am tired. Sometimes I am lonely. I want connection, real connection. Mostly I’m strong enough to lift myself. But when I’m broken down, I admit I want a strong, capable man to lift me across that wheat field, too. And that’s not about being heterosexual or being feminist or being a woman. It’s about being human. We all want someone to carry us sometimes. Don’t we?