Tough Mama is the first song on the album Planet Waves. I've never liked it, it seems objectionable to me and I object to it. But it puzzles me too, I don't have to think it's a great song, but the sense of actual objection ought to be unnecessary, once you've realised that low-level sexism is a simple fact of life. It's more a sense of resistance to physical discomfort. The song jerks me around - stop jerking me around! I may be tough, I'm not a sack of potatoes. Find a rhythm and try sticking to it for more than a phrase - that would be a start.
And another thing. This meat shaking on her bones. No one should have to put up with being spoken about like that, as if they were in an abattoir. It may have a long folky history, but I don't like it. I reject it.
Discomfort breeds irritability unless you're a very good person. And I'm uncomfortable and out of sorts, nothing seems easy, every day another jolt, every step another stumble.
And yet my garden here in England is tidy, and improving all the time. It's full of birds too, eating their heads off. Spring is on the horizon, this is usually a time of looking forward. Working in other peoples gardens in the mornings sometimes soothes me for a short time but I can't integrate that feeling into the general buffeting around me.
Dissatisfaction and discomfort are a problem for those of us who preach the therapeutic comfort of gardens, and garden work. Winter is always a challenge, no-one likes the way the cold, cold soil strikes through gloves to the fingers, and through the fingers to the bone. Who could enjoy working braced against the chilly wind and the occasional burst of sleet? Someone young and cheerful I suppose, someone unworried, with lots to look forward to.
I usually warm myself up by cheerfully complaining to other people about how hot it gets inside modern clothing. Bravado can be surprisingly effective as heating. And it does get warm, you end up with an overheated heart and cold cheeks and forearms. Chilly legs, uncertain lower back. Hope and enthusiasm might help too. I must get some. It won't be from this song though, which alienates me on nearly every level.
Is it that thing about the muse? I fear it partly is. Muses are horrible vapid creatures, balancing on their uneasy pedestals, being inspiring, even in their least febrile forms. When they're haughty, sultry or tempestuous my irritation at the falsity of their position knows few bounds. How did we women find ourselves here? Again?
I know people can inspire other people and I believe an artist who needs a muse will always find one. Like the child who cuddles a doll made out of a corn cob, or the addict fetishizing dependency, it's all part of the endless resourcefulness of the human brain.
The battle between artist and muse glories in details which quickly become tiresome to those outside of the relationship and here's a song celebrating the toughness of a failed figment of the imagination. Again I mislay my patience, along with the tools scattered amongst the chilly snowdrops, like my wintry wits, my confidence and my comfort.
A relevant digression here, even in a warm winter you can't avoid the fact that small scale ornamental gardening is compromised in all directions, not being natural enough to be real, not being arty enough to be exciting. And so we witter on hopefully about its vaunted therapeutic qualities, true, so true - a real truism. And sometimes we're just fooling ourselves, slamming about with heavy mulches, stabbing at the drenched and stony clay to drag up the yellow roots of nettles, longing for it to be finished. No therapeutic value there, only the slight self-congratulation that arises from having done enough to permit oneself to stop.
I have been wondering, as I jab irritably about, whether gardening could become part of mindfulness, and revitalise itself into a mass movement that way. Drifting, a sense of oneness, opening, healing - these sound like reasonable ways of calming down and reaching for a sort of peace. But as I scrub around in the dirt, hoicking out the weeds, breaking the roots of peonies as I move them from places that have become shady and overgrown, I have no sense of gentle acceptance. Struggle and judgements are the order of the day.
I understand you neither judge nor decide anything if you're being mindful, you observe, you permit, you let it all go, successively and continuously. People say it's hard work, this business of stopping the mind and liberating the self. I can see it might be. That kind of therapy is too difficult for me, gnawing at my problems and worries with jagged uneasiness. I prefer to rush outside and plant something, or rip something up. I banish plants, or I increase them against their own wills and desires. I rule, I govern. See how tough I am, a very tough mama, swiping about with my tough words.
Perhaps mindfulness never accompanies the attempt to make something, but only opens the gates, somewhere else, distantly.
If mindfulness won't work, gardeners have to fall back on some sort of inspiration to get them through the hard times. But we don't generally have muses, as far as I know, and if we did, they would not be human or female but elemental, though still difficult and capricious. No songwriter, railing against the unreliability of his own unhelpful muse, has any idea how tough a mama nature can be, along with her evil sisters, time and weather.
Gardeners find it hard to have subjects to be inspired about anyway, because gardens are their own subject matter. Any meaningfulness they hold arises from a mixture of contrasts and integration, harmoniously developed. The meat should not shake on their bones. There should be some sort of rightness.
But it's horribly hard to get it right, and trying harder can sometimes fail worse. Can you hear me whining? Try listening to the song, and take in the full range of slightly aggressive, slightly sexualised supplication. The singer's muse is both relentless and useless, she may have the long night's journey in her eyes, promising, promising, but she's not about to help, you can tell that from the music, which never quite catches up with itself and never finds a way to integrate a beat.
And now for some kind of testy resolution. Gardening does not always help with the travails of life. Sometimes you can hunt for peace and a feeling of success there and find only continued disharmony and new kinds of discomfort. The song reminds us that what we would like to rely on doesn't always work. And it does it, with bitter irony, by being a bit of a dud itself.