A Thousand Words About Pictures

September 22nd, 2020

A male friend of mine recently posted a challenge to describe oneself without words, using pictures of three fictional characters. One of his choices was Santa Claus, and it made me laugh because it did fit his generosity and cheerful nature.  I struggled to find a way to share my three fictional characters  in return.  Mrs. Claus?  Get real!  Who would leap to identify with her?

In the end, I gave up. I couldn’t do it.

Well, I came up with two, actually, but they were both from children’s media. I will get to who they were  in a minute, but I want to dwell on that for a while. What does it say that, with a Ph.D. in English, I can’t find three females in literature who could together, even in jest, create an image of who I am?

Why is it that to come up with anyone, I have to go back to stories of fictional little girls, written for real little girls who are still at an age where being spontaneous, daring, quirky, and individualist are still prized? What adult female literary characters would represent my love of self-reinvention, newness, adventure, and commitment to principles?  I could point to Amelia Earhart, Annie Oakley, pirate Grace O’Mally,  and RBG, but they are real people. and there are precious few of those.

How incredibly has literature failed us when women have to identify with male characters in order to identify with anyone at all.  How much easier it is to find fictional women who imploded under their circumstances, prostituted themselves in one or another of a thousand ways to men, became horrible people in the process of defying stereotypes, or paid for the crime of self-assertion with social ruin, or death at their own hand (or the second, following on the heels of the first).

Hopefully, things have changed. I love seeing girls in t-shirts saying “Forget Princess! I want to be X” with X being rocket scientist, president, or something equally ambitious.  Cheers to whoever bought them the shirts! I assume there are books and television characters whose behavior sends the message of female agency and efficacy, the ability to shape our world, and shape and reshape ourselves in that world because we choose to, not because we are forced by more powerful others into it. I am just blank about who they are.  Write to help me out, if you can!

I challenge anyone reading this, particularly women, to decide who their three images would be.  I’d love to hear if you did better than I did.  And now for my two. I have never watched Dora

the Explorer, but I have to figure I would like her and identify with her spirit of adventure.  In first place is one of my childhood heroines, Pippi Longstocking. She was the picture of boundless energy and cheer, making up a fun life as she went along, heedless of what other people thought she should do. She did no harm to anyone, and did so much to enhance the lives of her little friends who before she came along were already dutifully falling into line to become boring, unimaginative adults.  I’m not sure I ever wanted to be her, but I certainly did want to know her, to be her friend, to let a little of her rub off on me.

No, my triad will not have Madames Butterfly or Bovary on it,  nor Scarlett O’Hara, nor Jane Eyre.  It won’t have any men on it either, despite having found some Don Quixotes, Garps, Pooh Bears, and others I could feel some identification with.  I guess I will just have to stick with being my own unique self, and create a collage of countless pictures of me just bring me.

 

 

What Is It About RBG?

September 21st, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died three days ago.  The outpouring of pure, ragged grief is unsurprising, coming as it does in lockstep with horror at what it will mean if the other liberal voices on the Supreme Court are nearly silenced along with hers, by a 6-3 split.  Will the  only remaining women on the court, Elena Kagan  and Sonia Sotomayor,  be reduced to writing dissents for the remainder of their time on the court?  It could very well work out that way.

The media is as deluged with tribute pieces as the steps of the Supreme Court were with flowers in the aftermath of the announcement of her death. Tiny as she was, she was bigger than anyone else on the court. Still, I am trying to figure out why it has been so much harder emotionally for me to take her death in stride than I thought it would be.

It was, after all, expected.  It was, after all, just a fingers-crossed, knock-on-wood hope she could make it until the inauguration in January.  Everything is so awful right now that her death seems to twist the knife in the wounds we already have endured in this administration, but it’s more even than that, at least for me.

To understand my reaction, I have to go back in time to reconstruct everything I was taught directly or by osmosis about being female in my time and place.  I was blessed to have come to adulthood when feminism was front and center, with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and others writing and speaking so passionately about the largely untapped potential of women in American society.  The scales were tipping rapidly in favor of the mantra that as a woman I could do anything (hear me roar!), and away from the idea that high aspirations were probably no more than the prelude to disappointment.

I remember being whipsawed by my mother’s alternating perspectives that I should get a Ph.D., a prestigious post at some university AND write the great American novel, and her equally strong narrative that I would probably within a few years be living wherever my future husband’s work took him, and filling my time with housework and hosting cocktails and dinners for his colleagues as a way of promoting his career. These comments always seemed surreal to me, since I couldn’t imagine getting married to any of the man boys I knew, much less form an image of this phantom husband  having a career or colleagues who required martinis and a gourmet meal that I was responsible for providing.  My mother’s unfulfilled dreams energized the first narrative, and her reality gave birth to the latter.  High goals seemed reachable,  but how to have both a “normal”  middle class life  and  one in which I pursued what I was good at and what was important to me was the part for which there seemed to be no answer.

I went through my undergraduate years with zero in the way of plans for what I would do after I graduated.  I was uninterested in getting married, but I couldn’t imagine having a career either.  Fortunately, when the time came to have a plan for at least a single next step, my grades and GRE scores got me into graduate school, which was a first-class way of putting off having a plan for a few more years.

I will never forget my mother’s reaction when I told her I was getting married.  “But why???” she shrieked. I think that says it all.  I think in that moment she saw her daughter, well on her way to a Ph.D. squandering it all to follow a man, just as one part of her mixed narrative had predicted.  It didn’t turn out that way, as I managed to juggle part-time teaching and eventual motherhood with studying for qualifying exams and writing my dissertation. Happily my mother lived to see me finish, and be proven wrong.  Yes, you can have it both ways, but you have to prepare to give up a lot of sleep and expend a lot more energy than those with an easier path. RBG knew that too.

Years before, when I applied to graduate school, my advisor—despite the fact that I was one of the top undergraduates in the department—wondered aloud why I wanted to go to the trouble of grad school because “someone as good looking as you will  just end up getting married.” During graduate school I dealt with one professor who didn’t think women should be there and refused to give me the grades I deserved.  I also dealt with another who told me he was in an open marriage and wanted to sleep with me.  I called his bluff by asking for his home phone number, so I could call his wife to confirm the open marriage before I would agree. ( I didn’t get the phone number.)  The philandering professor was just an ass, but the other one was toxic because he was the expert in my dissertation area and I would never have been able to finish if another professor hadn’t seen my plight and volunteered to direct my work.

My professional life, and the schooling leading up to it were full of both opportunities and obstacles, and I think that is part of why RBG matters so much to me, and so many of us.  She wasn’t born with anything that stacked the deck in her favor—not money, not social status, not even size or looks.  She took what was in front of her every step of the way and made something of it.  They say showing up is 90 percent  of success. I would argue that the 90 percent is split between showing up and not giving up.  That’s RBG. That’s how she navigated the chasm between the two seemingly irreconcilable worlds my mother saw as possible for me.

And then there’s how unassuming  she was.  She didn’t seek the spotlight or blow her own horn, but she saw the power she had, and she used it, not for herself but for all of us through the causes she championed.  She showed how women can be quiet and powerful, modest and powerful, tiny and powerful, studious and powerful—whatever we are, and powerful.

Her life seems to illustrate that it’s okay to take life one step at a time.  The important thing is to have principles and to find work that keeps one’s life in line with them.  Like the Taoist principle of wu wei (poorly translated as effortlessness), we can do amazing things when what we try to do is in sync with what the universe wants.  She did the best job she could at whatever she was called to do, and as a result, doors kept opening for her professionally.  She made her life happen, not because she planned every step of the way but because she brought her full self to whatever she did and just kept on growing.

So when I think of why I was crying when I heard she had died, it’s because she represented what I strive to be. The best example I know of the life well lived isn’t  going to be here anymore, and that feels very, very hard. She was always just herself,  and she succeeded, with grit, humor, and a wink in her eye in rising to every occasion. There will never be another RBG, but there is nothing stopping me, and all of us,  from being our best selves too. That will be the gift we, in turn,  can leave  to serve as an inspiration for those coming up behind us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire Lessons

September 14th, 2020

My life was nearly upended twice by fire.

Many years ago I lived with my family on the edge of a canyon full of the low, dry brush we in the West call chaparral.  One day, when my two sons were still pre-schoolers in day care, a fire came up our canyon. That afternoon, as I was driving home from teaching at San Diego State, I saw a plume of dark smoke rising in the distance in the direction of my home. As I made the twists and turns in the road as I got closer, it became clear the fire was very, very close to our canyon. “Oh shit! Oh shit!” I kept repeating aloud as I drove.  I knew my boys were not home and were not in danger, but it seemed harder and harder to believe I would not arrive to see everything in ruins.

The smoke had already begun to dissipate as I turned up our little road but the smell told me what to fear.   I came over the rise and saw a blackened canyon, but my house intact.  The fire had burned partially beyond it, and neighbors were still standing in my yard, holding garden hoses they had used to spray our roof.  The fire department had been there briefly, sprayed a little and left when the last encroaching flames were doused.

While the ground still smoldered, I invited our neighbors to come in for a beer to thank them, and they told me I had missed the news reporter who arrived on our street and gushed at the miracle that a house nearly surrounded by blackened vegetation had been saved.

“Miracle?” They said. “We hosed down your roof! It was no miracle.” And they were right to be angry that their courage and effort was so blithely dismissed.  Lesson one in “miracles.”

My next near brush with fire happened when I was nine time zones away, teaching in Florence. I had recently moved from San Diego  to Lake Arrowhead, about two hours away, in the San Bernardino Mountains. That house, shown in photo, was not only my emotional refuge at the lowest point in my life, but the place where every last thing I owned, from papers, to furniture, to photos, to memorabilia, to clothing, was waiting in my little nest for my return.

This was back in the time when if you wanted to check your email you had to go to an Internet cafe.  In Florence one afternoon I had a message from my sister in Northern California, telling me she was tracking a fire that was heading in the direction of Lake Arrowhead.  I went onto the website that reports on California fires and my heart sank at how close it looked and how quickly it was spreading.

For two days, I lived in a nightmare duality of idyllic Florence and the image on that fire map, showing the fire less than twenty miles away, then ten, then five.  My mental anguish was exacerbated by the nine-hour time difference and the fact that the Internet cafe was not open very late or very early, meaning that I could not get updates in anywhere near real time.

And still I had to teach. I showed the fire map to the program supervisor, who shut her eyes and directed a few pleas to the powers above and then asked, “Are you going to go home?”  It was just October, two months to go before the semester ended, and since I was one of only two professors in our program, that would have been disastrous.  I pictured my collapsed and blackened house and burnt-out car, and said I would stay, regardless. What was there to go home to that couldn’t wait?

And so I waited. What would turn out to be the final day of this anguish began after a sleepless night and an interminable wait for the Internet cafe to open.  There was no hope, based on the last fire map, and I just expected confirmation that everything was gone.  Instead I saw an email from my sister, subject in all caps: IT’S SNOWING!!!”  In October. In the Southern California mountains, where it rarely snows before December.

The fire was out. It had not reached my house. Months later, when I finally returned, I drove to a neighborhood just two miles away, where houses lay in ruins.  One flying ember could have lit a treetop in my yard, but it didn’t. Everything was just as I left it.

So yes, it’s okay to pray for unexpectedly positive outcomes when fires are raging, but better to pray for those brave enough not to count on miracles, those who do what they can.  The snow felt more out of the blue than water from garden hoses, but what really saved my house both times was people who fought the fire long enough for something beyond their power to defeat it. People beat fires down as best they can for as long as they can,  and that is enough sometimes but not always. The snow fell on smoking ruins in Lake Arrowhead as well. A most unfair miracle, if that’s what you want to call it. I squirm at the word, and am grateful for all the lessons, like these, that I have not had to learn the hard way.

As my little boys stood in their Underoos looking at a canyon that was nothing but ashes, I examined the underside  of our deck, so blackened and crumbled it seems clear the house was actually briefly on fire. I was flooded by the kinds of insights one has to be emotionally vulnerable enough to let in through the distractions of the ordinary.  The loves of my life were down there, healthy, curious, and resilient. We had a home, and an affirmation of community. That night, we went to the drive in, and as the boys dozed off in the back seat, I realized that I could drive away and never look back because all I really cared about was right there in that car.

The following spring, I noticed sprouts coming from a tree I assumed been killed by the fire.  I thought of one of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, and the closing stanza of his poem  “The Light Comes Brighter”:

And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene

The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,

Will turn its private substance into green,

And young shoots spread upon our inner world.

Yes.  Hidden within the tree, and within my own mind, was the potential for growth, ready to burst out.  The road to Lake Arrowhead, which had been like driving through an ashtray at first,  was soon green again with the outpouring of life energy from scorched roots. Maybe my desire to break free of self-imposed boundaries was shaped by these two experiences that gave me a glimpse of another way to live, the way of “less is more.” It was a vision I would not act upon for decades, a way of thinking it would take many more losses to embrace.    Maybe my life has been a story of furling and unfurling, of retreating, regathering, and spending energy in a world that always has the potential to burst into green, even from the darkest of places.