Thursday, November 1, 2012

Gotta start somewhere

I decided to try NaBloPoMo for November. Am I crazy? Apparently. I almost a non-existent blogger as it is and now I'm going to try blogging every day for a month?

For my first post, I'm sticking (loosely) to the prompt: What is a favorite quotation and why?

This is not my favorite quotation--I can't even imagine choosing one quotation and naming it favorite--but it's a quotation from a poem I love, and I've read it multiple times in the last few days because I'll be teaching it this afternoon in my undergraduate class on women in literature. It's from Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck," which is a poem that I read to be about a woman who is diving into the ocean to see a wreck, a ruined piece of history. Instead of mythologizing that wreck or spending too much time imagining what happened to bring the ship down, or telling stories about the relics that remain on the ocean floor, she wants to see the wreck as it is:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

What I'll explain to my students is that this poem is, perhaps, about how Rich wants us to see beyond stories, especially stories that have left women behind and off the page, obscuring their contributions to famous "wrecks" in history and achievement. Rich wants us to envision ourselves (women, in particular) as explorers, not as people formed by old arguments and ideas, but as people outside the old system. Starting fresh, more or less, not without history but without hangups about history.

Or, as Margaret Atwood said about Rich's poem, "The wreck she is diving the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women. She is journeying to something that is already in the past, in order to discover for herself the reality behind the myth, 'the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.' What she finds is part treasure and part corpse, and she also finds that she herself is part of it, a 'half-destroyed instrument.'"

When I'm reading it today, I'm not paying much attention to the existing story that says that this poem is a vital work from the second wave feminist movement. That it's about hacking away at old myths of men and women.

Instead, I'm gravitating toward the diver's desire to see things as they are. To strip away emotion and myth and to really SEE the damage, the "threadbare beauty," and the wreck itself. To appreciate a thing for what it is rather than what we say about it. To stop telling stories and to just be. Without mythologizing or providing a running narrative of what should be or what might become.

I feel like I'm often telling stories about myself, not in the sense of lying or of pretending to be someone I'm not. I hope that at the ripe old age of 43, I'm not doing that in a public way anymore. I used to play fast and loose with the truth when I was young. When I was a teenager, in fact, I spent a year or so telling my friends that I was dating John Stamos and that he and I went on secret dates in his limo, hiding from the press (which is why they couldn't meet him or know more about the relationships). I was so terribly ashamed of being relatively poor and uninteresting that I invented a life I thought would work to make me into a person worthy of friendship and love. It never crossed my mind that they wouldn't believe me. Or worse, I found that some friends played along. Maybe they were deluded, too (I think this was the case with one friend, someone who had invented a life of her own and perhaps somehow understood my desperation). Or, as is most likely, they didn't want to hurt my feelings by suggesting that I was lying. I wasn't who I said I was at all. Eventually John Stamos and I broke up--I was sad for weeks about it--and I returned somewhat to more petty lies about my home life and who I really was.

But today, I live more as I am. I wear less makeup than I did in earlier parts of my life so that I look like my real self and not a socially-acceptable creation. I say what I mean and I think before I speak, both of which make me feel more true to myself than not. I give my attention more fully than ever before, by which I mean that when I am with a friend or my kids or even myself, I am mostly there, in the moment. I'm not daydreaming about what I'm doing later; I'm present and am soaking in as much of the interaction as possible.

Being just Rachael is easier than dating a fictional 1980s-era John Stamos. It's closer to being with the wreck, to being the diver seeing the ribs of the disaster and the threadbare beauty of the boat's contents.

I wonder, though, how to apply this concept throughout my life and not just in a few hard-earned places. In my relationship, for instance, I fall back on old myths and stories about who we are and how our marriage is plagued by seemingly insurmountable problems. I see him as he has been, not as a person who he is right now, someone who is also trying (I think) to make things better, even if he's going about it in a different way than I am. I don't always (ever?) see him for him. I see him as I believe him to be.

In my academic writing, I berate myself for being a terrible scholar. I tell myself, in that mumbling interior voice, that I have no new ideas, that I never really did, and that I should settle for being just a teacher because that's what I'm good at. The worst version of this story goes like this: Rachael, you're really good at asking provocative questions of other people and at nodding your head and making supportive noises at the right time, but you're not really very smart at all. You're pretending to be smart--and you're totally getting away with it--but there's no real intellect behind that pretense. It's a good thing you're a good actor in the classroom. This is a terrible story to tell oneself. Why cannot I not give myself credit when it's due? Why do I persist in seeing the myth of my academic self and not the actual flawed but fully interesting scholar and teacher that I probably am?

. . . .

Just got back from teaching.  I don't know if I was just "off" today or if they were genuinely unmoved by this poem, but I had a really hard time getting discussion going about this Rich poem. Sigh. It wasn't a total wash--one student came up at the end of class and told me that she'll be writing a response paper about it because even though she didn't get it when she first read it, now she thinks she has something worthwhile to say. That's a bit of success, right? I'll take it.

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking. I definitely feel the same way professionally. I used to say, when friends would remark upon my success, that is was all a "house of cards" and soon somebody would figure me out--which is such a horrible thing to think about myself. I often feel like I'm good at analyzing and critiquing others' science, and of maker minor deviations from past work, but not very original on my own. I have to remind myself that science is about building on what's known and expanding it.
    I think your students just need to think about it some more. I didn't actually think much about the original poem until reading through the rest of your post and chewing on it for a while.