Sunday, 5 June 2011

On Women's Literature: An Homage to Virginia Woolf

For there she was (Woolf, 172).

It seemed to her that Nashville would never cool, and it was only June. Jonathan had taken the boys to her parents' for the weekend, and three whole and perfect days were all her own. 'What does one do with three whole and perfect days?' she nearly asked herself--lying in bed, the bed she had made so perfectly every day of their marriage; the monogrammed pillowcases; the whiteness of the crisp linen; the curly-cues of the green letters of his initials; the sheets she had changed twice a week, for she so hated to get into anything less than a pristine bed. Clean sheets were the saving grace of the world, she thought. Civilization ends without clean sheets. 'I'll not clean out the attic. And I'll not exercise,' she thought. 'I'll not go up to that stuffy attic, and it's too hot to walk at all. Too hot to move. Even Edwin Warner will be horrible.' Not moving was delicious.

Then she pictured herself on that favorite path; the one she'd tread in college with girlfriends--sorority sisters with their iced coffees and pastel exercise clothes--the green of it; the twittering of the leaves above; the lady speed-walkers; the young men and their dogs; the girls her own age, it nearly seemed, with strollers and little ones. How she'd thought then what a lovely time she would have as a mother. All that nannying she'd done--especially for the Spars, the wonderful Spars! that little Alex with his dark curls; people were forever mistaking her for his mother in the grocery store; and squirrelly Andrew in his kid-sized basketball jerseys; dear Debra with her smooth, olive skin; always a tomboy and on the edge of growing out of it, but keeping all the best parts; her smarts, her sportiness, her cool head--all that nannying, and she knew even more than mothers knew.

Yet, she thought, for four and a half years, that walk could not be done. Never two hours to find with the boys; laundry always on; some meal pending; groceries to get; trips to and from school; doctors' appointments--O! the doctors' appointments! All of Lewis's ear infections and poor darling Nathan's head when he fell off of that ridiculous car! 'Mommy! Mommy!' he'd said and then nothing at all, just his head hard against the pavement, his eyes going bleary, no sound; no sound at all; no consciousness; her own world had gone dark; she moved as in a dream. She felt a quick, small wave of nausea, a sneaker wave with no warning, rise up and fall again in her belly. Her arms felt damp--her sculpted arms, the ones her sister envies. She would turn up the air conditioning, that was the thing.


It is the privilege of loneliness; in privacy one may do as one chooses (Woolf, 134).

The tractor was muffled through the windows of the house, Landon off in a far field, anxious to get the June grass under control. O, the June grass! The beginning of another summer, its months of bugginess and humidity and thirsty plants. What a glory to live in the time of air conditioning; what a lagniappe. Are those geese on the far end of the pond? she wondered. Or are they turkeys? She would get her glasses. Geese, yes. Four of them, stretching their necks and flouncing around with their handsome feathers. She pulled her bare feet up under the chenille throw on the paisley couch; the latest in the Mitford series lowering slowly to her knee; her eyes feeling a bit heavy; the timer set for the rolls; just a little while now before dinner.

But real things--real things were too exciting (Woolf, 125).

The day china would not do, she thought. George would be back from the store by noon. Philip and Sid wouldn't be back til evening with the oysters (which they would have to keep in the garage, she thought, trying to remember if the fridge were still full of watermelon for the meal at church on Sunday). Susan, her Susan, would help with the silver, she thought, pausing with the dishtowel midair; hanging her gaze on the lilies in the Limoges from Peach's mother, her favorite Limoges; wondering if Susan's dress, the white one with the empire waist and all the eyelet details, would be ready in time for the dance tonight.


One must say simply what one felt (Woolf, 170).

She squinted against the morning light through a London window, this flat she loved with Edward, not at all the difficulty she'd expected. What a perfect thing, a Sunday morning in June! How serene and fresh she felt, taking her Macbook to her lap, peripherally noticing the man in his underwear in a window across the street. An email from Blythe; she was glad. She logged in and set away to typing, not the least bit concerned with the yellow lilies in their clunky jar, dropping heavy rust-colored flecks onto the table. She wrote to her sister:

I've been thinking all night about our conversation; I'm so glad we had that time. I am worried that my maternal ambivalence seemed to you like a response to YOUR mothering and your experience of motherhood... Blythe, you and your kids make me WANT to have kids. You are the truth teller when other people are not; it is not insanity but an enormous gift--massively courageous and generous. That is all I ever want/crave from anyone in this world and most people will not give it. Not wanting to have kids is all about my own women's issues, feminism, reaction to our own upbringing, etc. ENTIRELY. Furthermore, the person who needs to be heard next to those women on that panel is actually YOU. You are the heroine here; make no mistake about that. Sometimes you undermine your own strength, your own 'accomplishments', so to speak. I was telling Edward last week how the big surprise of my adulthood is not being extraordinary--how it has been both terrifically shocking and sad for me to see that I am ordinary AND terrifically liberating to GET to be ordinary; I'm still swimming around in the middle of those for now. Edward said that what is extraordinary about me ISN'T any of the stuff that people might think it is (including me), like my work or degree(s) or those kinds of 'accomplishments'; he said that I'm extraordinary because I've chosen to see and name certain things about the world I was given and to seek to change them, move beyond them, etc. (or something along those lines). This is SO true about us. We grew up with this whole model of external rewards as meaning, when in fact it's the internal work that makes us, that means something, that matters. You are an amazing and inspiring person because of the person you are, have become, are becoming. Surely any friend you tell about what I'm up to can see that you chose the harder path... that the kind of bravery I have is if anything a lesser version of the kind of bravery that you have. That's that.


We know everything (Woolf, 171).

What knotty potatoes! she thought, turning them over in her sturdy hands, water falling between them into the kitchen sink; the dull knife trustworthy in its wooden handle; the potatoes with dark muddy eyes. She would peel the tomatoes and cucumbers, she thought; salt and pepper them both; cook up some apples; boil the greens and the corn; fry the three porkchops from that new grocer in town, picked up yesterday between Bible class and Landon's class picnic. She smiled to herself thinking of the picnic and that cocky Taylor boy, saying he could whoop anybody around the park; how she'd taken her shoes off before she'd said anything; decided not to worry about her pantyhose this one time; whooped him easily in her smart navy skirtsuit, without even disrupting a hairpin. She would drive to the store later, she thought. She would fix the cattleguard herself.


Postscript

When I ponder the topics of our semester, those I've written about--power, beauty, repression, perfectionism, individuality, forgiveness, identity, complicity, femininity, rebirth, existence, connectedness--it occurs to me that my life and the lives of the women who affect my story have been lives made of these, these wide fields of consideration, these discrete experiences, these words and stories unnamed but not untrue. So in the spirit of Virginia Woolf and the way she found for telling more than one story in a single story, these small passages and fragments capture us, if only for a moment or two, living what Woolf calls "Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life" (144).

Friday, 27 May 2011

Ideas for Final Post

So, I'm looking back at the sequence of posts on this blog over the course of our semester study of Women's Literature, identifying trends and points of interest to bring together in a final post.

Here is my list of titles:
STILL Thinking about Boland & Olds
On Power: the Poem & the Idea
On Power (2)
On ‘Black Swan’, Repression, & ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
On ‘Black Swan’, Repression, & ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (2)
On Perfectionism & the Personal-Political Blur
On Owning Your Own Mind, If Nothing Else
On Forgiveness in ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’
On Forgiveness, Sex, & Love
Bits & Bobs on ‘Vindication’
BIRDS. BIRDS. BIRDS.
On Being Complicit Most Days
On Violence: “The Numbers Are Staggering”
A New Paradigm: Real Beauty
On Celebrating the Mythic Feminine
On Rebirth & Reincarnation in ‘Jasmine’
Jasmine as Existentialist
On the Connectedness of All Things in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’
Exquisite Agony & Ecstasy in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

From this list, I can pull these themes/topics for further consideration and synthesis (preparing to write my final post): power, beauty, repression, perfectionism, politics, individuality, forgiveness, identity, birds, complicity, violence, femininity, rebirth, existence, connectedness, and agony/ecstasy.

I'll have a think, now, and let these percolate before launching in, Virginia Woolf style...

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Exquisite Agony & Ecstasy in Mrs. Dalloway

This novel seems wildly at work on the interplay between extreme passion or exultation and extreme anguish or terror. The two populate the lives of Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter, to be sure, if not others as well. Characters throughout the text makes exclamations about 'What joy!' or 'Horror!'

In the park, after leaving Clarissa's, Peter swings between desperation and peace, falling asleep, in the end, on a park bench. Peter reflects on his dream of Bourton with Clarissa in years past, saying, "It was an awful feeling!" (52) Two pages later, he reports: "Never, never had he suffered so infernally!" (54) Two pages later, however, "Peter Walsh laughed out" because a little girl puts a handful of pebbles down on her nurse's knee. Joy and anguish are brothers here. (Sisters?)

I am perhaps most interested (today, anyway) in Septimus who "lay very high, on the back of the world. The earth thrilled beneath him" (59). Through Septimus's perspective, we get his sense that the world seems to say: "We welcome [...] we accept; we create." This passage continues: "Beauty, the world seemed to say" (60). Is beauty, then, what is both terrible and wonderful? Is this a paradox not to be reconciled?

Septimus's meditation on beauty comes only after falling down: "I went under the sea" (which "was awful, awful!") Is it that he emerges? Is this rebirth? In the next paragraph, as he looks around at the world, "beauty sprang instantly" (60). Indeed, "Beauty was everywhere" (61). Perhaps this is a story of the many resurrections in a single day.

I think of Yeats, of course, and his poem 'Easter Rising, 1916', in which he writes of a "terrible beauty" being born. Terrible beauties have to do with war, perhaps (as his did, in Ireland). In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus has been shattered by WWI, is profoundly damaged, and in the film 'The Hours', the husbands have come back from war, yet supposedly Septimus in the novel "could be happy when he chose" (Rezia tells us); nothing at all is officially the matter (58). Yet characters in the wake of war are swallowed whole by a profound desperation--in the case of Septimus, to do with the world's meaninglessness.

How is it, then, these characters seem--Woolf herself seems--to ask us, that beauty still exists in the midst of what is terrible? Is the world, then, both broken and whole at once, both perfect and horrible?

Friday, 20 May 2011

On the Connectedness of All things in Mrs. Dalloway

In the early pages of Virgina Woolf's formidable novel, Mrs. Dalloway, we can observe the tenuous line between vital life and ending death. On the first page, in fact, the narrator says, "What a lark! What a plunge!" (1) Perhaps this lark connotes a kind of life and this plunge a kind of death from here at the very beginning. They are practically one and the same in this novel; they intersect; they intertwine; they flow in and out of one another; they overlap.

The narrator goes onto describe the London morning for Clarissa Dalloway, listing an enormous range of physical objects and people in a single, long sentences before summarizing: "... what she loved; life; London; this moment of June" (2). What she loves is thereby a totality, a wholeness, a pluralism (as opposed to a singularity or particularity). What she loves includes practically everything--this world of things and people and ideas that flow in and out of one another.

Just several pages further, the narrator confesses that "[Clarissa] would not say of any one now that they were this or were that", making presence and absence fluid (5). Who knows what is or is not? The narration goes on: "She would not say of herself, I am this, I am that" (6). We are inside Clarissa's perception as the narrator explains: "...death ended absolutely [...] but [...] somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of..." (6). Somehow death is total but life endures nonetheless.

Perhaps this is all why Clarissa has the sense that "it was very, very dangerous to live even one day" (6). Characters of all sorts, like Rezia Smith or Maisie Johnson, already want to cry out, "Help! Help!" or "Horror! Horror!" (12, 22). One man, Mr. Benley, interprets the aeroplane overhead as a "symbol... of man's soul; of his determination [...] to get outside his body, beyond his house..." (23). This life, this fate, is something that all of these characters are inextricably caught up in together--in all its "beauty" and all of its harm.

Jasmine as Existentialist

In Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, the main character (Jyoti, Jasmine, Jane) explores--both beautifully and painfully, throughout her journey--what it means to exist, whether or not we have control over that existence, and in what ways and to what extent we determine how we exist.

She tells us of her early childhood in India, "I was nothing, a speck in the solar system," reporting a sense of diminutiveness (4). Of Darrel in Iowa, she says, "He comes from a place where the language you speak is what you are," suggesting a relationship between speaking and being (11). Later, she notes, "Bud was wounded in the war between my fate and my will," implicating her decisive role in refusing to simply accept destiny or to simply deny it (12).

"We are just shells of the same Absolute," Jasmine says (15). I wonder about this. Is she acknowledging that we all share one humanity, that life is fragile and fleeting, or that we are just containers of one, same substance that is both everything and nothing? This women--young, abused, and underprivileged--reckons boldly with the universe and its laws. She wonders what it means for her to live, whether or not her life has meaning, and whether or not she control over her own direction.

I finished this post last week, but it was sucked into the vortex somehow, so I'll leave the rest of these lines from the novel without integration for now and hope to return to this thread soon...


"Out There, the darkness... In Here, safety. At least for now. Oh, the wonder! the wonder!" (21)

"In Baden, I am Jane. Almost" (26).

"We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams" (29).

"I feel old, very old, millennia old, a bug-eyed viewer of beginnings and ends" (35).

"Dida said, 'All it means is that God doesn't think you're ready for salvation. Individual effort counts for nothing'" (57).

"Enlightenment meant seeing through the third eye and sensing designs in history's muddles" (60).

"Perhaps I don't count in God's design" (60).

"Love rushes through thick mud walls" (67).

"To want English was to want more than what you had been given at birth, it was to want the world" (68).

"I felt suspended between worlds... I shuttled between identities" (76,77).

"We could say or be anything we wanted. We'd be on the other side of the earth, our of God's sight" (85).

Thursday, 12 May 2011

On Rebirth & Reincarnation in 'Jasmine'

Mukherjee suggests, through Jasmine/Jane/Jyoti, that perhaps we are reborn many times during our lives in one body—as opposed to being reborn to a new life in a different body—or at least that this is possible. I absolutely agree with this unexpected assertion and have found my own life to work very much in this way. The narrator tells us that Jyoti was not Jasmine, that Jasmine isn't Jane, and wonders onto which identity to put herself as a murderer or herself as a victim of rape (127). I think about this kind of thing a lot—how some of my previous selves don't seem like me now, me today.

(Different versions of me, different lives that I have lived include: Tally in an Emory sorority, M-tal to students at Cate, Meghan-Tally in braids in a Colorado mountain town, Meggie the daughter of my mom. There are others.)

Jane joins Mary Webb, who believes she has been reincarnated multiple times, at a luncheon because Mary sees Jane as a kindred spirit of sorts, trusting that she, too, believes in reincarnation (perhaps just because she looks Hindu and perhaps because she simply seems a certain way). Jane says, "When the waiter leaves, I tell her that yes, I am sure that I have been reborn several times, and that yes, some lives I can recall vividly" (126). A few minutes later, she continues, "'Yes,' I say. 'I do believe you. We do keep revisiting the world. I have also travelled in time and space. It is possible'" (127). Mary is talking about being different people in different bodies, different times, different places, while Jane is talking about being different people in one body, in different times and different places. She re-inhabits her own body as different people or different versions of herself all the time.

After Jane finds out that Professorji is actually not a professor but a procurer and seller of human hair, she tells us, "Nothing was rooted anymore. Everything was in motion" (152). She seems to have the sense that boundaries are fluid, that everything both is and isn’t at the same time. She is obsessed by questions about her own existence; she has to be.

"I feel at times like a stone hurtling through diaphanous mist, unable to grab hold, unable to slow myself, yet unwilling to abandon the ride I'm on," Jane says (139). Then: "An imaginary brick wall with barbed wire cut me off from the past and kept me from breaking into the future. I was a prisoner doing unreal time" (148).

Jane’s sequence of rebirths or reincarnations presents a paradox: they make everything and nothing possible. She can be someone new, but she is not entirely in control of who that someone will be. She feels consigned to this fate, in a way, and yet she understands her own adaptation and reinvention as a mode of survival, an utter necessity.

Sometimes this is positive, even though it is surprising and out of her control. Unexpectedly, Wylie and Taylor’s gecko jumps onto Jasmine at their apartment in New York, and Jasmine says, "Truly I had been reborn" (163). Jyoti would never have been able to embrace this happening, but Jasmine can. Jasmine adapts and survives, and this brings small lagniappes as well as traumas, depending on the day.

I have not survived nearly as much as Jane; nor have I adapted nearly as much. Yet I have survived and adapted through various mutations. Maybe being reborn or reinvented is a shedding of skin. The old skin dies and comes off, and a new person is revealed underneath—both the same and different.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

On Celebrating the Mythic Feminine

Eve Ensler (intentionally or unintentionally) chooses the mythic feminine, the way of the chalice, in the writing of her masterpiece, The Vagina Monologues.

The idea of the mythic feminine, represented by the symbol of the chalice, is that traditionally (in myth and other stories and in all relationships and social interactions), a feminine approach has been inclusive, open, collective, collaborative, and pluralistic (while the mythic masculine approach, represented by the blade, has been singular, conclusive, and hierarchical).

By incorporating many voices, styles, modes, stories, and fragments, Ensler chooses the mythic feminine. To tell this story, she relies on the power of many, including herself but also much beyond herself.

I love how Ensler's form imitates and reflects her content; this very pluralistic message thereby becomes even more powerful because it both promotes and practices pluralism.

A New Paradigm: Real Beauty

In her closing chapter of The Beauty Myth ("Beyond the Beauty Myth"), Naomi Wolf, as Wollstonecraft did, calls for a revolution. One of the points on which the revolution will hinge has to do with women choosing to see, love, appreciate, and celebrate other women. I'm encouraged. We can do this. Women I know already do this. Actually, all through the last chapter, I was thinking of my mentor, Gaby Edwards.

Gaby is the embodiment of "seeing other women as allies rather than competitors" (282). She has "compassion for [herself] and other women for our strong feelings about 'beauty,'" and is "very gentle with those feelings" (276). She makes "joy, rowdiness, and wanton celebration as much a part of [her] project as hard work and bitter struggle... by rejecting the pernicious fib... [that is] called postfeminism, the pious hope that the battles have all been won" (281). Her sexy performance in the famous red dress at Breakthrough comes to mind!

Gaby helped me see and believe that: "The best that 'beauty' offers belongs to all of us by right of femaleness", that "A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission", and that "A woman-loving definition of beauty supplants desperation with play, narcissism with self-love, dismemberment with wholeness, absence with presence, stillness with animation" (285, 290, 291).

She constantly mentors and supports colleagues and friends--male and female--acknowledging that "it is also in men's interest to undo the myth" (289). Gaby started a Gender Task Force, bringing women and girls together through the Independent School Gender Project and later bringing men and women together on gender issues as part of that action-based Force.

Gaby lives out Wolf's appeal to do with "what we decide to see when we look in the mirror", choosing to see a powerful, beautiful person, and in doing so, inspiring others to choose this way of seeing ourselves (291).

Most of all, I think of Gaby when I think of Wolf's call to:

"explore[e] more useful role models than the glossies give us. We are sorely in need of intergenerational contact: We need to see the faces of the women who made our freedom possible; they need to hear our thanks. Young women are dangerously 'unmothered'--unprotected, unguided--institutionally and need role models and mentors" (283).

She has been my personal mentor professionally and personally for years and the mother (not to mention wife and grandmother), friend, teacher, supporter, colleague, and mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women, boys and girls for decades (which would sound ridiculous if it weren't just TRUE), changing one life at a time, inspiring collective, loving, collaborative relationships, and thereby changing the world by shifting what is often a toxic paradigm towards one that is whole and lovely for all of us. 

Other lines I love:
--"Let us start with a reinterpretation of 'beauty' that is noncompetitive, nonhierarchical, and nonviolent" (286). 
--"To protect our sexuality from the beauty myth, we can believe in the importance of cherishing, nurturing, and attending to our sexuality as to an animal or a child" (279).
--"Let us charm one another with some of that sparkling attention too often held in reserve only for men: compliment one another, show our admiration" (287-288).

Thursday, 7 April 2011

On Violence: "The Numbers Are Staggering"

Wolf shocks me every time with this part (154-162) of her chapter on "Sex" (131-178).

She quotes Margaret Atwood on asking "women what they feared most from men" and "men the same question about women", to which women replied, "'We're afraid they'll kill us'" and men, "'We're afraid they'll laugh at us'" (153).

We're afraid they'll kill us?!  (Death strikes me as much worse than humiliation, though I recognize that no one wants to be humiliated.)

Could this really be how things are?

I'm sorry to say that I think Wolf and Atwood are right in this reflection of women's fears. I have seen (and felt) it all my life with at least two close friends as victims of sexual violence in high school and even more in college, including an encounter with Rufinol myself--thankfully, a close call from which I was generously spared (though I woke up with stitches in my face and no memory of hours of the previous night's party and after hours).

The shame and fear and guilt for women and girls around issues of sex and violence has pervaded my life and the lives of women and girls I know and have known.

I wish I could say otherwise.

The memories, encounters, humiliations, sufferings, and other manifestations dwell in a part of my mind that is mostly fragmented, nonverbal, and full of images:

The electrical tape around women's breasts in the first porn film my sister and I accidentally saw.

My mom giving me my first razor. Slicing one leg along the shin.

Walking around Boston late at night in my grad school neighborhood, clutching pepper spray.

Seeing girls pinned and zipped and painted into tutus and makeup and buns as a kid in ballet.

My friend (and our graduation speaker) in high school getting raped while visiting her sister at college.

Hearing about 'the date rape fraternity' freshman year at college.

Hearing freshman girls referred to as 'fresh meat'.

Wolf saying, "[Women] cannot discuss this harm without shame" (148).

My sister saying,  "God was punishing you for wearing that outfit."


Wolf writes: "It can change so that real mutuality--an equal gaze, equal vulnerability, equal desire--brings heterosexual men and women together" (152).

She also says, "Love freely given between equals is the child of the women's movement, and a very recent historical possibility, and as such very fragile. It is also the enemy of some of the most powerful interests of this society" and "Women who love themselves are threatening; but men who love real women, more so" (142, 143).

I share her concern about what has "[made] women violent toward ourselves", about men's and women's "separate versions of loneliness", about the selling of "sexual discontent", but I do believe we can undo (with hard work and a lot of gumption) much of the training that has brainwashed us, that we can choose to see and learn to see other men and women and ourselves as richly complex, authentically beautiful, and increasingly free human beings (142, 143).

Friday, 1 April 2011

On Being Complicit Most Days

Growing up in the Southern Bible Belt of the United States and in a fundamentalist sect of Protestant Christianity (although it was lovely in plenty of ways), I found myself constantly frustrated and undermined by manifestations of patriarchy (at home, in church, and in society) and eager to rebel... but I didn't rebel--at least not very drastically or admirably.

My default mode is to comply. (Isn't everyone's--or nearly everyone's?)

I dreamed of writing a (dystopian) short story I still haven't written, one in which all of the cultural norms I grew up with were exactly the same but the genders swapped. Guys in the story, not girls, would wear tight clothes, get groped, looked at, commented on. Girls, not guys, would inherit the family name and ring (from their moms), complete with the Roman numeral at the end. From time to time, stories about guys, not girls, getting raped would abound--and girls getting off the hook as the perpetrators because of their powerful moms in courtrooms and government offices. Preachers would be women. Men would be silent in church. And on it would go.

I was angry, and I think anger was appropriate. Sometimes I'm angry still... but on my better days, I want not a world that counterattacks and counter-assaults men but a world that honors and protects both men and women. THIS is why, I would say, Margaret Atwood's narrator in The Handmaid's Tale prizes "forgiveness". (Perhaps in order to begin, we must forgive others and forgive ourselves.)

I haven't read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth since college and wasn't sure what to expect from it nearly a decade later. And I must confess, I'm still pretty smitten.

Reading this, I am reminded of something visiting writer Nii Parkes said to my Modern World Literature: Africa class last semester: "We are impoverished by thinking in one dimension."

Wolf reminds me of many ways in which, unwillingly, unknowingly, I am still a slave, still limited by a single perspective on beauty, femininity, and womanhood. (What does it mean to teach this book while wearing lipgloss? Why do I feel less duplicitous when I'm wearing Converse (though still part of mainstream culture) than when I'm wearing heels?)

"Women are so well schooled in the beauty myth that we often internalize it," Wolf writes. "Many of us are not yet sure ourselves that women are interesting without 'beauty'" (84). Am I guilty of this? If I am really what Wollstonecraft would call a "rational creature", would I seriously have read The Beauty Myth while getting a pedicure the other day?

Part of me longs to be the kind of woman I encountered here and there while living in Colorado and California: smart, articulate, sporty, confident, makeup-free, flats-wearing, ever at home in the core of my own body, ever the owner of my own body. (I'm talking Lisa Holmes. I'm talking Gaby Edwards.)

But, as Eve Ensler reminded me some weeks ago at a lecture in Nottinghill, I am much more complicit than that in our culture of violence against the body, as most of us (maybe all of us) are complicit in much of the violence around the world. (Ensler pointed out her own complicity in being addicted to her iPhone while the wars in the Congo have been brought on by competition over the materials in our computers and phones, yet both ironically and admirably, Ensler has been working with victims of rape in the Congo.)

In her "Culture" chapter, Wolf describes the insidious, toxic dual nature of women's magazines: on one hand, they empower and inform and bring together, while on the other, they covertly but aggressively deliver a subconscious assault on women and girls, leading us to hate our bodies and ourselves.

Wolf writes, "The obligatory beauty myth dosage the magazines provide elicits in their readers a raving, itching, parching product lust and an abiding fantasy" (70). And near the end of the chapter, she calls it a "beauty addiction" (85). I can't pretend to be free of this. Nor, however, can I use guilt as an excuse to leave texts like this out of the curriculum. So for all of my students out there, I know I'm hardly a model of singular commitment against the workings of the beauty myth, but I want you to know what it is, to know that it exists, and to see it--even if that means seeing it yourself or seeing it in me.

Thanks to Wolf and others, I can see how guilt has been systematically engineered into the myth itself, effectively silencing us further. So as Jean Kilbourne enjoins at the end of "Killing Us Softly 4", I can "choose" to move beyond guilt. We all can. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

BIRDS. BIRDS. BIRDS.

Sometimes my boyfriend calls me his 'bird'. Men in England do this, it seems. For unexplainable and irrational reasons, I kind of like it.

But there's something to this bird thing. In women's literature, it's EVERYWHERE...

Mary Wollstonecraft writes, "Confined in cages like the feathered race, [women] have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch" (62).

In "A Jury of Her Peers", Susan Glaspell describes Minnie Foster as a bird (through the voice of Martha Hale) saying, "She was kind of like a bird herself. Real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and--fluttery. How--she--did--change." 

Maya Angelou famously wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The sirens, of course, in Homer's Odyssey are bird-women, seducing men to their death's with their unearthly voices.

Goddesses in all kinds of ancient cultures--including the goddess Lilith, for example--have been associated with birds.

What's the deal?

I grew up not liking birds. My mom likes birds and flowers and all kinds of pretty, delicate things (as did her mom), so generally, I avoided them, choosing not to identify with this part of my maternal inheritance. I tended to think of birds as silly, dirty, annoying, insignificant creatures.

I'm beginning to change my mind.

The coexistence of delicacy and power in some birds reminds me all too much of the human condition, including its female half, of course.

And though birds preen and nest and feed, some of the 'womanly things' in which I've never (yet) become especially interested, they also SING. They also FLY.

http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://fineartamerica.com/images-medium/digital-photography--the-bird-woman-munir-alawi.jpg&imgrefurl=http://fineartamerica.com/featured/digital-photography--the-bird-woman-munir-alawi.html&usg=__k1PRfTdvoO9OuQ6DIfniXmC6PB4=&h=397&w=600&sz=35&hl=en&start=23&zoom=1&tbnid=3_pFbXRGmoV1VM:&tbnh=133&tbnw=180&ei=xJZ4TdyFPI694AbT0YGcBg&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dwoman%2Bbird%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1257%26bih%3D592%26tbs%3Disch:10%2C718&um=1&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=230&vpy=169&dur=330&hovh=183&hovw=276&tx=156&ty=86&oei=upZ4TeHKAcfEtAaOzJD6Bg&page=2&ndsp=21&ved=1t:429,r:15,s:23&biw=1257&bih=592

 http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bQ8htT4GHrs/S6gBe61S12I/AAAAAAAAGmo/epvK76vC-BU/s400/Grayson_entryno1_BirdWoman%2B8x8-web.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.tafalist.com/2010_03_01_archive.html&usg=__zTHIJgpmyHaVef8uyLIrxKX4NTA=&h=365&w=400&sz=75&hl=en&start=205&zoom=1&tbnid=ozAQbMK0YgkS4M:&tbnh=131&tbnw=142&ei=Tph4TdO7O8uR4gatjezOBQ&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dwoman%2Bbird%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1255%26bih%3D582%26tbs%3Disch:11%2C4480&um=1&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=981&vpy=109&dur=5540&hovh=214&hovw=235&tx=185&ty=116&oei=NZh4TamrFsSBswbmooTsBg&page=10&ndsp=23&ved=1t:429,r:22,s:205&biw=1255&bih=582
 http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.lzmosaic.com/images/mosaics/woman-with-bird-large.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.lzmosaic.com/woman-with-bird-glass-mosaic.html&usg=__KK77Sg_XoVW3t8WZmiQnj4W_Zq8=&h=1566&w=1280&sz=1323&hl=en&start=65&zoom=1&tbnid=R2I9DjE-p6Pt8M:&tbnh=133&tbnw=109&ei=Y514TZhGxOziBq-e3IMG&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dwoman%2Bbird%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1257%26bih%3D592%26tbs%3Disch:11%2C1539&um=1&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=622&vpy=227&dur=602&hovh=248&hovw=203&tx=123&ty=148&oei=NZh4TamrFsSBswbmooTsBg&page=4&ndsp=23&ved=1t:429,r:19,s:65&biw=1255&bih=582

Friday, 4 March 2011

Bits & Bobs on Vindication

I cannot believe Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this in the 18th Century; it is beyond comprehension. And how is it that so many of the issues she named and described remain prevalent over two hundred years later? (Was I really just reading something about a twenty-four-year-old Playboy bunny marrying Hugh Hefner and prancing around the Mansion in her skivvies?) I love how Wollstonecraft is both totally passionate and totally reasonable at once.

She calls for woman "to obtain a character as a human being" and tells us, frankly that she "must declare what [she] firmly believe[s]" (5,13). Right on, Mary. After all, we are human, as Atwood kept trying to say in spite of the Commander in her work of speculative fiction.

This part is equally passionate and reasonable at the same time: "When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject?" (19) I often wonder the same thing. There is a paradox at work in this: men are stronger, it seems to me, when they are willing to put their own strength aside for a minute and consider the strength allowed women, in the past and now.

"Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things," Wollstonecraft is careful to say, acknowledging the fact that attaining equity and equality for women does not mean denying equity and equality for men--hence the words equity and equality, I should add (20).

Now I'm not so sure about this: "Her first wish should be to make herself respectable" as long as the focus of that respect isn't clear (23). If Wollstonecraft means respectable first to herself, if not then to others, then I'm on board. "Let her only determine, without being too anxious about present happiness, to acquire the qualities that ennoble a rational being" remains, in my mind, a worthy call for women and girls, should we also allow room for a fullness and wholeness of being in addition to rationality (29-30).

From time to time, I share Wollstonecraft's disdain for passionate and romantic, frivolous love as a kind of light and unworthy obsession. All those years ago, she was calling for a kind of partnership and mutual respect between men and women who love each other. "I love man as my fellow," she says (36). And: "The lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected. Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!" (24) I must admit to having enjoyed men's "fondness" from time to time over the years, but I certainly have better enjoyed their friendship and felt that their friendship was more substantial and therefore more meaningful.

Finally for now, I get pretty excited about what Wollstonecraft has to say about liberation. First: "It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjegated" (38). How can we know, in other words, what women are capable of? (This seems true to me even with regard to sports, for example. Too little time has past for us to yet fully see what women can do as athletes, at least when compared to men, who've been playing the same sports for much longer in most cases and, before that, whose bodies have been evolved for hunting and other quite physical enterprises.) "Liberty is the mother of virtue," Wollstonecraft proclaims (37). Amen, sister. Give me liberty, or give me death (or at least a kind of death, like there is for the narrator in The Handmaid's Tale). She notes, too, that "The women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex," reminding us that well behaved women rarely make history (25). Right-o!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

On Forgiveness, Sex, & Love

Remembering arguments with Luke (for which she sometimes hungers, the narrator tells us), she says, "We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then?" (202) For all of this novel's ambiguities, I definitely feel that Atwood equates happiness with freedom, or with certain freedoms--all relative, of course, she reminds us.

The narrator and Luke were happy then, as they prepared an escape, I presume, because they still had choices--a sense of agency, freedom, and control in their lives. "This does not seem as if it ought to be the true shape of the world," she soon tells us, reflecting on the present in contrast to the past (212). Even as the narrator relinquishes some of her self and much (or all?) of her power to this new regime, she knows and acknowledges that the world before was a markedly better world; that is her small bit of agency left, all that remains.

Chapter Thirty-Two closes with the line, "I feel buried" (223). The narrator increasingly loses ownership of her self--a kind of dying a slow death.

After she talks with Ofglen about Janine, the narrator comments, "People will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning" (227). Atwood seems to suggest throughout the novel that meaning in our lives comes from intimate relationships (with partners, children, friends) and from having some say in who we are and what we do. It is without these things that life has no meaning, as life for the people in Gilead has lost or is rapidly losing its meaning for inhabitants--at least for the women. (The Commander seems reasonably happy with his life.)

While the Commander describes women and girls "saved by childbearing", the narrator reflects on what is absent when sex is merely a woman's duty and when the fertility and productivity of her body are her only worth (233). Nuns, celibate and therefore outside the world of sex altogether, are treated like witches in Gilead and forced to recant or go to the Colonies. They are broken. This society uses sex as function and the dehumanization of women to control them. Women are without agency. Without any at all (save the confines of their own minds, we hope, though even there, our narrator is losing ground).

The Commander makes love sound "trivial", like "a frill", "a whim", but in fact, the narrator reverses his definition, saying, "It was on the contrary, heavy going. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself" (237). This is one of the central paradoxes in Atwood's book: even though falling in love sounds like a loss of self, it is in fact one of the greatest demonstrations of the human capacity for agency--choosing to be vulnerable, allowing oneself to love another. I share Atwood's admiration for the human ability to 'fall in love' and the ways in which it can be distinguished from a loss of power or a loss of self (all of which reminds me of Boland's poem 'Against Love Poetry' and its acknowledgment of the inherent contradiction in loving someone deeply and keeping all of yourself for yourself). Maybe love is both at once: a loss and a gain. Maybe we best express our humanity in this willingness to exert strength (emotional, spiritual, psychological) in the direction of loving another human being.

Along these lines, in my view anyway, sex is loving and healthy and good when it is a choice for both people involved, when it is an expression of love or intimacy, when there is freedom to give and to receive (and when both happen), and when both people have the freedom to engage or disengage. I think closeness (intimacy), committed relationships, and communication can be ideal in sex but not that these are absolute requirements. I would venture to say that the most important aspect of good sex is a balance of power between parties--even if roles and power balances are exchanged as part of the shared experience. When and if ever sex happens as one person's assertion of power and control over another to the extent of making the dominated person feel unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy, or inhuman, I would be extremely skeptical of a view of the interaction as positive for anyone (the dominator, the dominated, the society).

As for forgiveness, I wonder if practicing forgiveness is an even greater demonstration of agency--the greatest, even, of all (as the narrator suggests earlier in the story).

Friday, 18 February 2011

On Forgiveness in 'A Handmaid's Tale'

One of my favorite passages in this novel arrives suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere in Chapter Twenty-Three:
"Forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. 

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing" (144-145). 

Nothing about this novel seems to do with forgiveness so far, and we're about half way through. Why, then, does the narrator (Offred for now) present what seems to be a pivotal, climactic statement about a seemingly disparate theme?

This is what Atwood does in this story, though. The mood is unsettling. So is the language. We never fully know what is happening, what has happened, or what to make of it all. We both know the narrator intimately and fail to know her. She believes in contradictions. She speaks in paradoxes.

Perhaps one place where we have indeed seen forgiveness so far has to do with Luke and the notion of fidelity. When the narrator bumps into Nick in the night, illegally, she finds that she is physically attracted to him, but she says, quickly, to her husband, "'Luke, you'd know, you'd understand'" (110). In other words, Luke would forgive a transgression of this kind. Soon she adds that "It's lack of love we die from" and that there's "nobody here [she] can love" (113). So the story in part is about whether or not a person can forgive his beloved for a physical betrayal and about whether or not that betrayer can forgive herself...

I wonder, too, if this introduction of forgiveness as a significance in the story raises questions about whether or not this society can be absolved--whether or not individuals, people, whole cultures can be forgiven for what they do.

[TO BE CONTINUED SOON]

Monday, 14 February 2011

On Owning Your Own Mind, If Nothing Else

We have just started reading Margaret Atwood's work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid's Tale. The dystopian world with which we become quickly acquainted in early chapters is a place of oppression and fear, a place where people conform to the system or hang from ropes on The Wall, white bags over their heads, making them faceless and strangely doll-like.

I am reminded of other things I've read, namely George Orwell's 1984 and the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story I read again recently for this class, "The Yellow Wallpaper". In both narratives we meet oppressed characters trying to hang onto their sanity, at least within the confines of their own minds (if in no other way).

I am struck by this character (like Jane and like Winston) into whose mind we have access; as readers, we are privy to the thoughts therein.

On one hand, she says in Chapter One, "I try not to think too much"; on the other, her "longings" break through the narrative from the beginning, whether or not she intends for them to: "I long for [such talk]", "I hunger to commit the act of touch", "I looked at the cigarette with longing", and "such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself" (17, 21, 21, 24, 31).

The narrative is also punctuated by the words "I remember", as if remembering and longing are distinctly personal and distinctly human--as if they might keep her from losing herself entirely.

By Chapter Seven, she is more explicit about the power she reserves in her own mind: "The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet [...] The night is my time out. Where should I go?" (47) In this case, she describes the power to time travel back into memories.

In an oft-quoted passage, she juxtaposes these contradictions: "It isn't a story I'm telling" and "It's a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along" (49). The narrator both needs to believe her experience is only a story and knows that she cannot, that it is not. This is a particular kind of managing sanity, it seems to me.

Perhaps we all need to practice.

Memory indeed aids the narrator and gives her power (if of a limited variety). For example, remembering that Luke, her husband, told her about Mayday coming from the French M'aidez (meaning "help me") provides a certain solace (in terms of remembering her beloved) and a certain empowerment to do with language--the words themselves for "help me" (54).

At this point in the novel, I am nervous about the Commander, nervous about the Wife, nervous about the powers behind this entire system, and nervous generally about the narrator, who--we learn soon--is called "Offred" in her new post.

As with Winston and Jane in those other stories, I most want this narrator to survive, to endure and prevail because she is able to keep herself real and alive and honest within the confines of her own mind, because no one (I hope) can take that from her.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

On Perfectionism & the Personal-Political Blur

Sometimes I think the only thing not political is the natural world. I like to read Mary Oliver's poem 'Wild Geese' over and over again (and when it's not in front of me, to try and say it to myself--always a bit wrong and a bit out of order, but maybe that's her whole point; it's okay).

Maybe we could just read some nice Bronte novels for this class and call it a day. But I don't know. I don't know if we can. Whenever I start peering very closely into women's literature, I find myself up against that mantra of the women's movement: that the personal is political. In other words, these aren't just individual stories full of random and isolated ideas or incidents; these are people, ideas, and incidents to do with the very culture in which we live as well as its governance, written and unwritten.

One of the prevalent issues on a broad scale in this literature, it seems to me, is a cultural insistence on perfectionism, imprisonment by perfectionism, hatred of the self and others as a result of perfectionism, and violence against the self and others as a result of perfectionism (just to begin the list). And this perfectionism feels to me like a woman's issue more than a man's. (This isn't to say that it is a woman's issue more than a man's. In my experience as a reader and as a person so far, this has seemed true while I fully acknowledge that there are probably many prevalent, even related challenges to do with being a man these days.)

In cultures like ours--in schools like ours--it seems to me a particularly girl-focused demand for perfectionism (though I've certainly heard about boys straining under similar pressures as well). To speak in very broad terms, during my own years in schools like this one, it seemed that there was a more generous allowance in terms of expectations for boys to be messy or angry or inconsiderate or slobbish or tired or whatever at times, while girls labored under tighter expectations for neatness, kindness, tact, prettiness, and perkiness. (I could be wrong.) Girls at my college suffered eating disorders in droves and seemed to throw themselves more recklessly than boys into their do-or-die mission to win perfect GPAs. It all made me wonder what we've told girls to be and whether or not we've given guys a bit more room to be human. (Yet now I question both.)

Thinking back on growing up in my home, I see that both of my parents, mother and father, were trying pretty hard to be perfect, actually, but according to different definitions. The one for my mom went something like: sacrificing, domestic, beautiful, thin, put-together, persevering, unflappable, endlessly hopeful and positive, unfailingly kind, pure, and modest. The one for my dad went something like: strong, capable, problem-solving, bread-winning, clear-headed, fit and healthy, controlled, powerful, wise, doggedly loyal, and totally omniscient. I'm not sure which list I'd rather have. They're both horribly impossible.

I can't help but wonder when I look around what messages kids (and maybe all of us) are getting about what it means to be good. What messages have parents accepted about what it means? What messages are all around us all the time without our knowing? I worry about this.

So for myself (again), for my students, and for all our parents, here it is:


Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Friday, 4 February 2011

On 'Black Swan', Repression, & 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (2)

After the narrator (in 'The Yellow Wallpaper') says, "You see he does not believe I am sick!"she follows: "And what can one do?"

Variations of this question become a kind of mantra in the story. Yet every time the narrator utters one of these dismissive phrases, her Shadow counters with something like: "But I must say what I feel and think in some way -- it is such a relief!"

It is, at first, not the narrator (she thinks and we think) behind the wallpaper but a "shape", "like a woman". But increasingly, we learn that it is, in fact, "a woman", until the narrator says quite explicitly, "...but now I am quite sure it is a woman." Even then, it is not the narrator (she thinks and we think) behind the wallpaper until the narrator increasingly mirrors the behaviors of "the woman" in the wallpaper, until she "[gets] up and [runs] to help [her]".

At last, we hear that she has "come out of the wallpaper". In the final lines, she says, "I've got out at last."

As ever, I wonder about the story after the story.

Nina dies from the shard of glass she has shoved through her tutu.

The narrator in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' presumably keeps "creeping" over her husband John, who has fainted, "every time!"

Yet what happens after Nina's body goes lifeless at the back of that stage--the white tutu blooming with her blood--for her, for her "mommy", for the director who pushed her (at least in part) to this place, this death?

And what happens to Jane, if that is indeed her name, when John comes to from his swoon?

On 'Black Swan', Repression, & 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

My novelist friend Selden really loves Carl Jung. (I got him a Carl Jung action figure once, actually, from Urban Outfitters or some funky little shop in Santa Barbara; I can't remember which.) And Carl Jung, I learned from Selden (and later from reading), has this thing about The Shadow: that part of ourselves that we learn is not desirable and so cram into the depths...

I think about this a lot. Once you know about the Jungian Shadow, you want to figure out what yours is and help it out. But sometimes you don't know how. (And sometimes people get to helping theirs 'out' without meaning to at all.)

In the film 'Black Swan', Nina, always a white swan, begins to explore her Shadow (her black swan) for her lead role in 'Swan Lake'. I'm struck by the factors and presences pushing and pulling Nina into and out of her Shadow: namely, her creepy, infantilizing mother and her abusive, seducing director. (All of these roles are brilliantly well played.)

Nina doesn't get to explore her proverbial dark side in any remotely safe or healthy ways. Her mother has trapped her inside a pink, endless childhood--her bedroom full of stuffed animals, her mother physically dressing and undressing her, with Nina calling her 'mommy' in a needy, babyish voice (the only thing, it seems, that will talk her mother back from the extreme edge of her bouts of rage).

Nor can Nina explore her Shadow in the world of the ballet--dominated by the forceful and dangerous director and a cut-throat group of ballerinas, many of whom seem to share Nina's eating disorder and her willingness to do anything to be on top in the company.

So from the beginning, is there any chance for Nina? At the end of the ballet, the swan queen can only find freedom in death: a fate that Nina shares. I watched an interview (from The Telegraph, I think) with Natalie Portman, who expressed her own commitment to Nina's breakthrough in the story, her realization that she can only aim to please herself.

Huh? Natalie Portman, this is not a happy story. As in Greek tragedy, Nina's fate is sealed from the beginning (and as in Shakespeare, we still want to watch it unfold, even though we know).

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous short story, written in 1899, the narrator, like Nina, can only lose herself entirely or free herself (in part) by creating an alternate reality in her own mind. She is fighting the same losing battle. Or is she?

All over literature is the suggestion of freedom through death, suicide, or madness. Shouldn't we all be terrified? The Jungian Shadow, we understand, will sometimes claw its way to the surface and demand a place--like Mr. Hyde does with Dr. Jekyll.

The narrator gets out of that damned wallpaper, even at the cost of her former self. When Nina crosses over to the dark side ('perfection' in the film) and becomes the black swan (literally and metaphorically in the film), she (like the swan queen) falls to her death. Is this a kind of escape similar to the kind of escape for Gilman's narrator?

More on this shortly...

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Monday, 31 January 2011

On Power: the Poem & the Idea

When I was fifteen and learning how to drive, my dad told me, "Women always hog the middle of the road," so I made a point to drive with one wheel off the outside shoulder, spinning up a bit of gravel wherever I went. And now, when we're back in the States, my English boyfriend wonders why I give my passengers the sensation that at any moment we might go careening into the nearest telephone pole. This feels to me like a fable, or at least a metaphor.

Adrienne Rich talks about 'Living in the earth-deposits of our history' at the beginning of her poem, 'Power'. I, for one, am always doing that--digging into that 'crumbling flank' of earth, hoping for a 'bottle / amber / perfect' with some 'hundred year old cure' for something (maybe melancholy, maybe something else).

What do we find there in the dirt of the past? Not the 'harsh and exciting' freedom to see ourselves as inevitably, without even trying, part of 'the family of things', as Mary Oliver so serenely describes in 'Wild Geese' (my favorite poem), I fear. (Or do we? Or could we?) Perhaps the dichotomy here is that of the human condition: human experience tugging against its own tensions, social world (formed by society) pulling against natural world, freedom and liberation pulling against the fact that we are indeed inextricably and forever connected to a long human story.

When I was a teenager in the American South, I wanted a Wrangler (I think) because all the cutest (and coolest) boys I knew had Wranglers--boys in baseball caps and low-slung jeans, driving around with the doors off, on big wheels (and I did get a bit closer to the dreamy Eric Chilberg, I would still say, as a result of my Jeep (happily missing my curfew (in spite of knowing I would be grounded) the night he wanted to go for a drive)). Maybe the Wrangler made me feel a bit safer from the shiny pearls and sweater-sets of my female counterparts. Maybe it was the open air racing by on the roller coaster of those country roads. Maybe it had everything or nothing to do with being a girl in that part of the world at that time. But I suspect that it did. I suspect that it did when I start dredging around in the dirt back there.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

STILL Thinking about Boland & Olds

Granted, Sharon Olds and Eavan Boland have been two of my favorite poets since college. This is nothing new, in other words. I'm struck (endlessly, it seems), nonetheless, between the unexpected closeness of the two poems we read and discussed in juxtaposition this past week in Women's Lit (in its earliest days)--a kind of conversation they seem to be having with one another--American and Irish, newborn in its 'First Hour' and wife of thirty years 'Against Love Poetry'.

Essentially, Olds and Boland travel away from and back to themselves in these poems. At the beginning of 'First Hour', the speaker asserts that she 'was most [her]self', that she 'had shrugged / [her] mother slowly off', as if to say that independence and selfhood emerge only (or most completely) in solitude, that by ceasing to be part of another and initiating an existence of oneness, she experiences that most sacred of entities: pure, unadulterated being. Should we then deduce that there is a kind of loss (ironically) in partnering, in uniting with another human being, be it mother or partner or friend?

Boland echoes this near contradiction from Olds. She names marriage in the first line of her poem--a twoness or duality, a union of two. Yet as soon as the speaker says, 'I have loved you' she quickly follows with, 'I have loved other things as well'. She has loved 'the idea of women's freedom' but quickly follows with, 'marriage is not / freedom'. Surely the 'contradictions of / a daily love' lie here in the math.

I can't help but think of an 'Indigo Girls' song I used to listen to in high school: 'The Power of Two'. It says, 'adding up a total of a love that's true / multiply life by the power of two'--with this sense we have of adding, gaining through partnership. But Olds and Boland (bless them) aren't so quick to the zero-sum game; they acknowledge that paradox: that partnering is both gain and loss at once.

I've watched my friends, my brother and sister, and myself now in and out of love (and other drugs) for these years into our late twenties and early thirties, and I can't help but breathe a little bit more easily, a little bit more deeply, when Olds and Boland name what goes so often unnamed: that we are both more of ourselves and somehow less of ourselves as we negotiate our places in the world relative to the partners with whom we share much of our time and space, intimacies and idiosyncrasies. We are left, always it seems to me, with the contradiction. It is that king weeping over his 'old servant' in Boland's poem, or the fox with long ears in Le Petit Prince saying, 'You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed' (provided the definition for tame as 'to establish ties').

Sunday, 23 January 2011

First Week of Women's Lit: New Classes

First Challenge: Get blog up and running, having never blogged before, and convince students to get blogs up and running to do with a class for school... Assuming all goes well, more (longer and hopefully more interesting) entries soon. 


So here's me, and this is a Junior/Senior elective high school English class. The idea is to experiment with writing this semester in a medium that connects us to a more urgent sense of audience and therefore to a more authentic writing voice. Stay tuned to see how it all goes!