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.

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