This is our first spring living on our little farm, and we are struggling to learn how to irrigate the fields with the cold water that comes down from the mountain snow. The water gushes through some of the gates and valves; in others it trickles and leaks from the wrong places; in others yet, nothing happens no matter which way we turn the gate. We’ve paid a lot of money for the right to irrigate with this prized and miracle-bringing water, and I worry that we’re not doing it right. When we call the previous owner, now in his eighties and moved away, he can’t recall in entirety how the system works, and the company that installed the pipes and gates has long gone out of business. So several mornings a week, we don our heavy rubber boots, grab shovels and a rake, and slog about trying to push the water away from where the field is waterlogged to quench the thirst of where it’s dry.
After a short while, our boots grow heavy, our feet hot and swampy. When I hear Henry scuffing his boots along, I raise my feet higher for a few steps, as if to remedy both Henry’s and my own heavy-footedness. But I can’t keep it up. Then my arms get tired from carrying the shovel and the rake, prone to getting tingly and numb from all the digging not just in the irrigation ditches but also in the large garden, which is almost completely planted. When I stop for a breather and ask myself for some insight into my fatigue, I see that both of us are resisting what needs to be done. We’re caught in an old trap: resistance feeds upon itself, a self-fulfilling prophecy with the predictable result of feeling even more tired, daunted, overwhelmed. But if we didn’t resist what we have to do, wouldn’t the work go easier?
I begin my query into the nature of resistance. The word comes from the Latin resistere, meaning to take a stand, to oppose. That makes me think of taking the substantial, grounded square shape in Aikido. Not so good for fluid movement, the square is very useful for setting a boundary, a rock parting the river’s water, a wall turning back a wave, our feet digging in, standing tall. Okay, I want to have that tool in my toolbag.
Then I wonder what it would feel like if there were no resistance at all. There would be no stand, no opposition, but also no substance. Two dancers would not be able to make a frame in which to dance, to feel and anticipate the steps of the dance, or follow a lead. Two Aikido players would not be able to feel each other’s balance or intention, much less redirect an attack. I wouldn’t be able to feel the watercolor brush’s resistance to the texture of the paper or the marble’s resistance to the chisel. How would I paint? How would I carve? If I were suddenly in a world void of resistance and I pressed my hand on Henry’s chest, would my hand go right through him? That sounds disorienting, too insubstantial, boundary-less. So maybe I better back up. Maybe the goal is NOT to free myself of all resistance.
A quick look at the dictionary reveals that resistance has several definitions and connotations. In electrical terms, resistance is defined as the opposition offered by a body or substance to the passage through it of a steady electric current. This sounds like resistance as friction; my electric range boils my espresso because electrical resistance creates cherry red heat. Definitely want to keep that kind of resistance in my toolbag too.
Resistance can also mean the effort we make to stop or fight against someone or something; the ability to prevent something from having an effect; or last, the organized covert opposition to an occupying or ruling power. This last definition of resistance was coined in 1939, presumably during the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation. Gandhi used passive resistance to defy the British Empire and gain India’s independence; later Martin Luther King encouraged civil rights workers to use passive resistance to defy Jim Crow and the oppressive rule of segregation. Here in the Four Corners, Henry and I both have a few Native students who struggle against mainstream culture’s relentless erosion of traditional culture even if their resistance spites their own faces. On a much less noble note, I remember my own rebellious years as a teenager, when I moodily, sullenly resisted all authority as if it were a matter of principle; and for years, Henry and I have resisted the idiocy of American mainstream culture by not watching TV. In all these cases, resistance feels like defiance borne out of an inherent sense of integrity and self-preservation. Taking a stand preserves your spirit, the meaning of your life.
This sense of self-preservation can also be seen in the medical definition of resistance when an organism resists harmful influences such as disease, toxic agents, infection. Having a strong immune system means we can successfully resist the invasion of bacteria and viruses. We take a stand within our bodies to keep unwanted invaders out. (However, on the flip side, this ability to resist unfortunately cuts both ways. Consider for a moment the worldwide increase in resistance against antibiotics; despite the life-saving virtues of antibiotics, their overuse has actually “taught” harmful bacteria to be more resilient, clever, resistant. Some think that these super bugs will be our undoing in the not so distant future.)
Resistance in terms of the physical mechanics of irrigation means that instead of allowing the snow-melt water to flow straight from the head gate to the lowest swampy place in the field as it might prefer (after all, that would be the path of least resistance), we channel it along ditches or pipes and set orange tarp-dams at critical places to “take a stand” and divert the water along side ditches, which if I rake clear of dead grasses and manure, provide smaller channels to disperse the water more evenly. Here, resistance is useful because it redirects the flow.
All well and good. But why are my feet still dragging?
The last and most common definition of resistance is the refusal to accept something new or different. That sounds like resistance to change, a desire to stick within a known comfort level, the sluggish fallout resulting from simple inertia. When applied to the challenge of irrigation, this definition certainly fits Henry and me. Although we’re both in our sixties, we’re new to being farmers. We don’t have a well-spring of experience to draw from. We’re new to the area and we don’t yet have a network of knowledgeable neighbors to help us out. We’re not born and bred to this work; we’re artists, for chrissakes. Just like the thick red mud sucks and tugs on my boots when I’m placing wet, mucky clods on the bright orange tarp dams to hold them in place, I can feel the suck and tug of all kinds of other projects waiting for my energy, some falling into the “have-to” category, some into the “want-to” category. The garden needs weeding, but I’d rather be writing. The studio roof needs repair, but I’d rather be painting. The gate needs to fixed, but I’d rather be carving. The thistles need to be dug out, but I’d rather be playing with my horses. I should be preparing for my next class, but I’d rather be taking a hike. No matter whether my mind goes into obligations or desires, resistance to the chore of irrigating splits my attention. The fact that I’m not fully present to the work at hand makes it that much harder, and my rubber boots get sucked deeper into the wet clay.
What if I could let go of this kind of resistance, the sucky, mucky kind? As I clear the ditch of physical obstacles, what if I also cleared my own internal obstacles and complaints? The water would flow where it needs to go, and I could emerge from this task not depleted, but energized. What if the energy I tie up resisting a job, be it hard physical work, completing a lesson plan, or writing this essay, were instead freed up and available to guide me, help me, empower me? All that sequestered energy bound up into resistance, knotted up and creating friction, could be opened up, released, like when in the predawn, Esperanza and Cinnamon, after having been penned up all night, joyfully burst out of the corral and into the lush green field.