Last weekend we took our first baby-free weekend to visit my sister in Nashville while the girls stayed with their Nonni and Poppi. A good time was had by all.
On the trip, I still had to do some reading for grad school, and this week it was Jorge Borges, an Argentinian writer. His short stories kind of warped my brain a little bit, as they explore themes of infinity, truth vs. fiction, what is truly real, the way fiction influences reality,and other crazy themes. They also feature a lot of labyrinths. At least two of the stories I read featured books, particularly 1001 Nights, influencing reality in strange ways. And then I began to feel the stories themselves were influencing me…..
First, I read a short story in which a man has died of an overdose of a drug called “veronal,” only to realize I had just read a completely unrelated story by a totally different author for another class that featured a woman trying to kill herself with the same drug. Coincidence, or books reading my mind? Then, I read a story about a labyrinth right before we went to check out a corn maze! (You can check out my sister’s post on the subject here.) Verdict on the corn maze: it was maybe 30 minutes too long, but hey, at least it wasn’t infinite! Also: do NOT tell us not to pick corn. Also: thank God we didn’t have a small child with us, because even we were very much DONE by the time we found our way out. And: essentially, any kind of scenic activity for my sister and me becomes an Instagram field trip. We may have even “styled” some cornstalks for better shots.
Also mind-bending was the simultaneous feeling of absolute freedom to be away from the girls, staying up late, having cocktails, sleeping in, and also missing them to pieces at the same time. We squeed over every picture and video Nonni sent of the good times they were having. Overall, it was very needed. We had a blast and came home overjoyed and re-energized to see our girlies.
This week we face a challenge possibly even more mind-stretching than a labyrinth: flying to Denver with TWO BABIES. If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them. Right now my plan is to strap them to us in carriers, and possibly to bake and hand out cookies (and possibly earplugs) to everyone unfortunate enough to sit near us. I know if I were on a plane and saw two people lugging two babies come aboard, I’d seriously be praying “Oh PLEASE let them sit far far away.”
While driving home from school today, I was thinking to myself about all of the stuff I’ve been reading this semester. I’m taking a women’s lit seminar and a “literature of the Americas” seminar (Latin American and Native American) and really enjoying the readings for both, which has stirred up a lot of thoughts. I realized, in a sort of meta way, that I tend to think almost in essay form. I’m not sure if it’s because of all the school I’ve had, or if I like all this school precisely because I’m constantly composing essays in my head, but my musings tend to become thesis statements and paragraphs in my mind. Of course, the problem is, I rarely get a chance to write them down, what with actual assignments to do and something about two babies to take care of….
But, I do have a blog, and I can at least get down these essay embryos and maybe one day return to them and turn them into something if I want.
One of my most striking realizations stems from re-reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It’s the story of an 1800s wife and mother experiencing a literal awakening to herself and her place in the world and her realization of her profound unhappiness the more she gets to know herself. When I read this novel for the first time, I believe I was a college freshman. I was 18, and it was a purely academic exercise. Now, I’m reading it nearly 10 years later as a wife and mother, and I’m practically a completely different person reading a completely different book.
Upon first reading, I vaguely remember feeling sad for Edna Pontellier, but I didn’t really understand her in any meaningful way. She wasn’t a very sympathetic character to me, and I found her largely selfish and annoying. She has a live-in nanny, for crying out loud, and she’s supposedly stifled by her role as a mother?! Of course, she’s still a little annoying, with her privileged white girl problems, and I think even Chopin would admit her protagonist is selfish (though how hilarious is it that Edna reads Emerson, perhaps the paragon of selfish male introspection, and he doesn’t get such criticisms). However, now I have a much greater personal window into Edna’s frustrations, even as I realize that maybe it’s precisely because I read The Awakening and other books like it before I became a wife and mother that I largely do not share her pain.
It is precisely because of characters like Edna Pontellier that my greatest fear before becoming a mother was that I would somehow lose myself. Edna argues with the great mother-figure of the book, her friend Adele, about what she would be willing to give up for the sake of her children, baffling Adele with her insistence that while she would give up her life for her children, she would not give up her self. Adele does not understand the difference. And of course, Edna does not understand Adele’s happiness, either, unable to comprehend that a woman who sees almost no distinction between herself and her role as a mother could be truly happy and fulfilled.
The problem for Edna is not that there is something inherently wrong with being a wife and a mother, or that no woman can be fulfilled in those roles, but that not all women are, and for Edna, there were few other options. She is not an Adele Ratignolle, joyfully consumed by her children, but neither is she content to remain a single woman like musician Mademoiselle Reisz. For all her supposed failings as a mother, the Edna we see in the novel is a woman who deeply loves and is very tender with her children. One scene that stands out is her tender rocking of her child to sleep when “the quadroon” is unable to get him to bed. She misses them when they are absent at their grandmother’s house. She would miss them were they not in her life at all.
She is a woman of privilege, even has the much-coveted “room of one’s own” in which to paint, and the childcare to give her time to do so and to think and wander the city as well, and yet she has no meaningful activity outside of her home, and no one in her life who truly understands her. She is a woman who favors the relationship of motherhood but is not well suited to the jobs of motherhood, a distinction made in this very compelling post from Ask Moxie.
Unlike Edna, perhaps because of Edna, I have remained determined to finish my graduate education and continue pursuing my dream of being an English professor. Because of Edna, I know how crucial it is that I get time away from my girls to tend to my other interests, because it makes me a better person and therefore a better mother. Because of Edna, I am grateful for a marriage to a partner who knows me deeply and loves me as a person, not for any prescribed roles I might fill. Unlike Edna, I got to go to college and get to know myself, to become an adult on my own terms before I became a wife and mom, and to discern what it is I want to do with my life and how to define my place in this world. Unlike Edna, I have options.
Somewhere between reading The Awakening for the first time and reading it for the second, I have had many, many awakenings that have made this experience of Edna’s story completely different from my experience the first time around. And in that difference, and in the difference between her life and mine, there is much much gratitude.
I have to confess: until The Bluest Eye was assigned for one of my classes this term, I had never read any Toni Morrison. And WOW. She’s amazing. Her prose is amazing. I can’t get over it. I’m so glad Beloved is also on my comps reading list.
I just finished The Bluest Eye and one of the things that stuck out to me is the theme of beauty vs. ugliness. Now, of course, I have to preface this by saying that race and socioeconomic status play huge roles in this theme throughout the book. I am a person of racial and socioeconomic privilege, and I do understand that I cannot fully relate to the characters in the book, but, who really can fully relate to the experience of another, ever?
Anyway, one passage just so aptly described what I KNOW to be true that I have to share it. It’s describing a family that everyone perceives as ugly:
You looked closely at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each of them a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
I feel like society hands women ugliness every day. It’s the message leering at us from the billboards and movies and magazines full of women who literally do not exist. They have been created in Photoshop and through lighting and makeup and editing and styling to become fictional representations of all that we are not. And these mirages reach out to us and hand us ugliness. They tell us we can be them, if we use the right skin cream, have the proper surgical procedures, wear the right clothes, follow the right diet, but they can’t even be them. They don’t even exist.
Another passage describes a character who comes to believe she is ugly in comparison to the women she sees in movies, women like Jean Harlow. Worse than judging herself, she judges her own daughter by that standard of beauty. She hands her own daughter ugliness:
She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed from the silver screen.
I know so many beautiful women who are utterly convinced that they are ugly. That they are less-than. That they are not worthy. But the truth is, their ugliness doesn’t really exist, not on their faces. It’s just a garment they’ve been handed and they choose to wear it. Eventually it maybe even becomes a part of them, but they weren’t born that way.
Are you wearing ugliness where you should be acknowledging beauty? You don’t have to take it from them when it’s offered, you know.
So, three years after graduating with an undergrad degree in English and political science, I’m finally back in the classroom and loving it. I fear that my one “non-degree student” class may indeed lead to a degree, though I can’t make any decisions on such things until after December, when I find out where we’ll be spending the next 3 years of our lives. Anyway, the class is ENGL517: Sex, Power, and Science in 18th Century Women’s Writing. With Sex and Power in the title, I went into the class pumped to talk about feminist and gender theory, among other things. I may have even geeked out a bit and pulled out my old Crit Theory text from undergrad to brush up a bit. What can I say, I’m a nerd! Anyway, apparently not everyone in my class expected to spend much time talking about gender, sex, and power.
Yesterday at The Pursuit of Harpyness, a blog I frequent, my friend Sarah.of.a.lesser.god did a post called “You Don’t Need to be a Woman to Study (Women’s) History,” about the dearth of men taking women’s studies classes. On the first day of my class, I noticed that the room was filled with women, with one lone male student. I hoped that he would be intelligent and willing to contribute a well-reasoned male perspective to our discussions, as I enjoy some good pushback in an academic discussion. Ok, more accurately, I enjoy a good debate or argument. However, after the second class, I’m pretty sure my high hopes for this guy were in vain. Not only is he too timid to really share (which, really, is understandable, it’s intimidating to be the ONLY ONE), but when he does share, he pretty much reveals his ignorance (which, maybe this class is just the eye-opener he needs!). Continue reading “talking about gender in a class on women writers? CRAZY!”