blank'/> Mirth, Melancholy, and the Mundane: September 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Most Unspeakable of Crimes"

The above quote was spoken by Medea in Euripides' play of the same name.  In this play, he tells the tale of Medea -- who, for love of Jason, betrayed her family and did them violence to help him steal the Golden Fleece.  Then, when she had wed him and borne him two children, he spurned her for her foreignness and married the daughter of Creon.  In her rage, she killed his new wife, her father, and the two sons she had borne him.  Hell hath no fury indeed...

Some time ago I wrote about a dream catalog of courses I would someday like to teach. The fun thing about where I work is that we are often encouraged and supported to reach for those dreams and make them come true. So, it is with pleasure that I’m currently spending the fall semester planning for a course that will come this spring. Its unofficial name is “Women Who Kill” and it will be co-taught with a friend of mine in the psychology department. I know it sounds weird, but bear with me.

My side of the class will be primarily steeped in mythology and literature. My colleague will be focusing on real life cases of women who feel they have no other choice but to kill. We are still working out the details of what we will be covering, but the thing that bridges the real with the story can be summed up with a snippet from The Power of Myth. This was the title of an interview that took place at the George Lucas residence Skywalker Ranch wherein veteran journalist Bill Moyers spoke at length with Joseph Campbell – one of the leading scholars on mythology. Campbell told us that “[t]he myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth” (40). Here is the overlap of her world and mine. I have been studying mythology and archetypes for a very long time, and the way these things intertwine with what is called (for lack of a better term) the ‘real world’ is fascinating. Much of what we do not consciously know shows up in our dreams and myths and they are reflections of all the things we value and fear as human beings. So, when someone deviates from what we understand to be sane and normal, we react in a way that belies these almost primal concerns. The roots of this acidity lie in the Magna Mater – the Great Mother. The Great Goddess.

The female has long been given a rather limited and yet powerful status in a world largely controlled by men. Their power comes from within in a lot of ways – rather than outward power given to them by society and the ruling strata. The power of women often lies in beauty and sexuality/fertility – and this is echoed in the myths we tell of women and the sway they hold over men. A woman wronged – or locked into a situation from which she cannot easily escape – responds in ways that chill us to the bone. We are filled with vitriol and condemnation, for her spilling of blood seems to violate our most basic image of nurturing feminine power. We have, in our society, forgotten that the female, at its core, contained three facets – the maiden, the mother, and the crone. Before the patriarchal world in which we live, these were three powerful and intertwined facets revered and valued. A three-sided Great Goddess who was formed in the figure of the earth which gave life at its coupling with the sky. She is the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. She represents birth, death, and regeneration. As time plodded on, the three facets split and became, more often than not, the virgin / the wife / the whore. Her role became defined through its relationship with the male. She would never really recover from this and her darker side became a monster rather than a natural part of life. We are faced with such grim visages as Medusa, Kali, and Lilith. When we turn from ancient tales of ancient peoples to what we face in our own world, we see this same demonizing of the feminine – and the same vitriol poured upon those whom we have determined as violators of the sacred role of the female, the most sacred bonds of love and motherhood. Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, Casey Anthony, Aileen Wuornos. Statistically less common, the female killer fascinates and repels in equal measure and begs questions we hope to explore. Is what drives these women to kill (or be judged as killers) the same thing that drives men to kill? What is the psychological reality of the mythological and literary rendering of the woman who ends life when we value her as the one who creates it? Are her beauty and her sexuality at the core of the woman who kills – or is she just another human, a symptom of her environment? Murder is always about control – but the nature of that control changes with she or he who wields it and therein lies our exploration. Not to celebrate or to glorify – but to examine and to study. Not to demonize men, but rather to ‘undemonize’ the woman in the hopes that, in rendering her once again a woman, we can understand her as a human being who was broken, damaged, psychologically fractured.

"And now it comes to it at last. You will give me the One Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord, you will set up a Queen, and I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain...all shall love me and despair!" – Galadriel in JRR Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring

Campbell, Joseph.  The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.  Ed.  Betty Sue Flowers.  New York:Doubleday, 1988.  Print.

Euripides.  "Medea."  Classical Mythology:  Images and Insights.  Eds. Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner.  4th Ed.  Boston:  McGraw Hill, 2001.  761-799.  Print.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Will Survive...

First, a disclaimer.  I don't know as I have all the facts just right in the following blog -- but I know the overall picture is accurate, and that is what matters most for what I'm trying to say.

For no particular reason, this blog is going to be about one of those people I consider a good friend; although, to be honest, I really do not know her that well. That being said, however, what I do know never ceases to amaze me. She is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and is the kind of person who would agree with, and not be offended by, that statement. For the purposes of this blog, I shall call her Rosie, after the iconic image of female strength, Rosie the Riveter.

Rosie has made mistakes in her life – as have we all. Her life is also, from the sounds of it, very different than mine. I had a very sheltered upbringing in a lot of ways. I knew there were wild youth around me, but I was not one of them. I knew that there were smokers and miscreants, but my life never really intersected with theirs. I’m not sure I ever thought about sex in any direct way, let alone experimented with it. But Rosie, well, Rose could have been a classic story of teen pregnancy had she been less of the woman she is. Her life was a rocky from what little I really know – her mother setting only by negative example what a good mother is, her father raising his daughters alone. Rosie almost seemed doomed to a life unfolding in dark places into which the successful do not peer. But, not really. Her family was a loving one, and while it is true that she herself had a child too young – it was by the grace of her own father that the father of her child was not jailed for his part in the events. The two of them had their child, a beautiful baby boy – but perhaps too beautiful to stay with us. Within 6 months, he was gone. His resting place is one I pass by often as I walk through the cemetery behind my house. Always I dream of what it must have been like to know him, to love him, and then to lose him. He is, in some ways, a representation of the child I will never have. 

Anyway, Rosie suffered, as would any mother. In fact, I think it near impossible for anyone who has not felt what she felt to ever truly know the keening agony she continues to endure even today, though perhaps muted by time and life and the miracles that both can bring us. She gained weight, took up smoking, and from there, I lose track of her story. The details don’t really matter, though. She appeared in my life some time later, a vivacious student with a ready smile and a streak of fire. A student. She was fixing her life by going to school and doing wonderfully at it – being one of those students that any dedicated teacher will not soon forget. She has since finished with us and is now working on her Bachelors while serving as a Home Health Aide. And all the while, she has been with the same beau, though they are both older and wiser and now betrothed to one another. She has toyed with vegetarianism, talked about gastric bypass, tried to quit smoking, tried again and is currently succeeding. She is watching what she eats and the weight is sliding off. As I’ve said, I was not in her life for the darker moments, for the most part, and so I have the unique joy of watching how, like a phoenix, she is rising from what could have been the ashes of her life. She has suffered while I have known her, it is true – the heart of another child that she did not know she was carrying stopped beating and began to slowly poison her, the loss of a beloved grandfather, the frustration of her fiancĂ©’s family not seeing her for the beautiful woman that she is. Any of these alone would be enough to at least temporarily bring even the strongest of people to their knees. But she has pulled through – sometimes raging against the world with language that would make a priest blush – but always she has pulled through.

I have not suffered as she has. I have not struggled as she has. I have my own demons, certainly, but they pale when I look at what she has endured. Her strength, her smile, and her sense of focus are amazing to me. Rosie the Riveter shows us her muscular arm, cocks one eyebrow defiantly and tells us that we can do it. And looking at my own Rosie, I believe it. She has told me countless times that I have touched her life and I have helped her by being a friend and a mentor. But I’m not sure she realizes just how much she has done for me. I don’t precisely admire her mistakes – I wish she had chosen different paths in her life – but, that does not for a moment diminish my respect for her strength to rise above them, to set her sights on a distant goal, and then work to achieve them, with a loving heart for most and a quick word full of vinegar for any who might stand in her way. Stand tall, my friend, despite your insecurities.  Rosie, this one’s for you.

“Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong.” – Ella Fitzgerald

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Days of Denim...

Some days are just jeans days. I am always thankful to work in an environment where I have the personal freedom to be who I am in the process of doing my job. I try not to overdo it, but I’m happy that my ink is not something that to be covered, I can wear 9 earrings, and (on days like today) I can wear jeans. It’s refreshing to work in surroundings where the powers that be realize that my outward accoutrements do not impact my ability to do my job and, in some ways, may actually enhance it. I have never felt judged or restricted because I’ve chosen these augmentations, nor did I back when I used to change my hair color every few months just for fun. There is an incident that comes to mind that speaks to this even more acutely. The President of the college was sitting with me at a conference table in the Academic Support Center of one of our campus centers and she tilted her head at me for a moment and said something to the effect that it was pleasant to sit and have an intellectual conversation with me to remind her that tattoos have nothing to do with our mental capacities or our abilities in any way. This was early in her career here, and I’ve always remembered that – not because I felt like she was judgmental or troubled by my ink, but just that she is human and she is not all that different from me in terms of our goals and our desires for this place and the students here. As a society, we are psychologically trained – especially dependent on our age – to look at tattoos through a particular lens. That is changing, and to have her say that felt like an affirmation of what I’ve known all along. For me, my ink is just the creative expression of a creative mind. I’ve designed my tattoos and each one means something to me. They are not indicators of rebellion or counterculture to me and it’s consistently invigorating to be able to just be me whether I’m at home or at work. I don’t have to hide. And more and more, my presence is perhaps a gentle reminder to people that they need to constantly question the lenses through which they view the world.

In counterpoint, there’s the situation of a friend of mine. He has more ink than I do and while I understand the reasoning at some level, it sometimes irks me that he must wear long sleeves every day, even on those rare days when Upstate New York is blessed or cursed with hazy, hot, and humid days. He is in security, so it kind of makes sense that he would need to present himself in a particular way. There are numerous arguments we can make from the fields of psychology and sociology, but suffice it to say that I get it at some level. The Bohemian in me, however, rails on his behalf because I know that he is the same security guard whether his arms are colored in or not. But, I digress.

Education, if occurring in the right place, is the passionate conveyance and exchange of knowledge and ideas. I am forever thankful that I work in a place where I’m allowed to foster that passion and share what I know and love with the students around me. I’m teaching a class in The Lord of the Rings this semester and, together, the students and I are playing a massively multiplayer game online. I’m contemplating teaching a Harry Potter course next spring, and I’ve had a course proposal accepted to co-teach a class in mythological, literary, and real women who feel that murder is their only option. At a community college. I’m not really sure where I am going with this – other than to be thankful to be supported and encouraged to be myself, to explore and share my interests, and to express who I am. I am allowed – even expected – to find that joyous nexus where my intellect, my passion, my creativity, and my individuality come together to augment, enhance, and celebrate my role as an educator.

And, on days like today, I can wear jeans.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Water Warmth (Freewrite)

Yesterday, I gave my Introduction to Literature class the following prompt:  When you're having a really bad day, what do you do / where do you go?  If money, time, and travel were not an issue, where would you go and why?

Below is an unedited transcription of what I wrote in class in response to that same prompt.

 When I have a bad day, I really don't go anywhere or do anything - I just fold myself into my games and my home, putting on comfy pants, getting some hot cocoa -- perhaps a  hot bath.  Warmth seems to be key today -- though that may be a result of fall coming.  I get lost in writing or gaming, a tv show, or a book.  Something to take my mind off whatever it is.  I often look for affirmation -- comfort from friends.  Sometimes I want to talk it out, sometimes I want to forget it.  IT all depends on what it is.  Comfort is key -- sometimes nature is key as well.

If I could go anywhere, I think I would go somewhere with water.  Camping.  Unplug and unwind.  A beach.  I'm just now realizing my association with water as a soothing element.  I wonder if this is because I'm usually closer to fire -- candles, campfires, heat, warmth.  Perhaps water is a counter to that -- baths, rivers, waterfalls, waves.  There is an allure there.  I even find comfort in a rain day on occasion.  It makes me want to retreat into that idea of comfort and warmth.


"Earth's the right place for live:  I don't know where it's likely to go better"