November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment
Lucy and Her Mother
Lucy describes her rebellion against her mother and the identity their relationship represents: “I had spent so much time saying I did not want to be like my mother…her reply always was “You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am your mother, my blood runs in you, I carried you for nine months inside me.” How else was I to take such a statement but as a sentence for life in a prison whose bars were stronger than any iron imaginable.” Lucy’s affliction is her inability to know herself. She rebels against her inherited identity, determined to shed her old self in return for a self-created one. As Lucy rejects her identity, her mother derives her power from her own, embracing her given nature, while she herself cannot. Her mother becomes a goddess figure for Lucy, enriched by the strength of generations of colonial people, the power derived from embracing the culture. As a result Lucy is unable to free herself from the power her mother wields over her. She says: “I would see her face before me, a face that was godlike, for it seemed to know its own origins, to know all the things of which it was made.”
So the question lies, why does Lucy need to sever her relationship with her mother? Why does Lucy reject not only her mother, but also her native culture? Lucy’s mother gives birth to five sons, upon whom she projects visions of great education and accomplishment. Lucy is devastated to discover her mother’s lack of ambition for her, the daughter molded in her own form. She sees her mother’s actions and perspective as so unforgivable that she will not allow herself contact with her mother, because to give into her desire for her mother’s love and approval would be to accept and validate her mother’s opinions about Lucy’s, and all women’s, potential for achievement. She cannot embrace her mother, she must reject her culture, because to do otherwise would be to concede to the identity her mother and native culture have prepared for her; one without personal accomplishment, education, great deeds. Lucy leaves Antigua to escape this shattering blow to her identity, but no longer able to worship this perfect, self-sacrificing woman, is lost in America.
Lucy wants to have an identity of her own creation, an identity that gives her value. Lucy remembers deciding that she wanted to change her name when she was younger. Rather than Lucy Josephine Potter, a name steeped in colonial references but empty of grandeur, she wants to be Enid Blyton, “the most unusual of all the names” (Kincaid 150) of the authoresses whose books she loves. When she tells her mother, her mother is furious, “a ball of fury, large, like a god” (Kincaid 150). When Lucy asks why she was named Lucy, her mother replies under her breath, “I named you after Satan himself. Lucy, short for Lucifer…” (Kincaid 152.) In this piece of information, Lucy finds an existential anchor, a vision of herself that is at last meaningful and grand enough for her. After all, if her mother is god, it makes sense Lucy should be Satan. Lucy admits she is her mother, as an angel is to god. Lucy then rejects the identity her mother would give her, becoming the fallen angel, Lucifer. However, her mother was the one who gave Lucy her name. Her mother gave her this identity, an identity that essentially requires its holder to reject their identity before assuming it. This revelation is shared towards the end of the book, providing a sliver of hope that Lucy will find an understanding of herself. Lucy says that after hearing her name, Lucifer, she “was transformed from failure to triumph. It was the moment I knew who I was.” (Kincaid 152)
November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
Maybe homesickness isn’t only missing the place you left or the home that’s familiar and comforting. Homesickness seems to intensify with the less you have from the place you come from – the fewer people from home you travel with, the fewer people you know in the place you’re visiting, even the fewer things you take with you, like the familiarity of these elements anchors you. The less familiarity you have to anchor yourself, the less anchored you are within yourself. Does homesickness swoop in not as a yearning for the comfort of home and the exhaustion of the unfamiliar, but as a result of being unattached in this new place? Being unattached to your environment leaves you unmoored from yourself, as if identity is derived from our connection with the people and objects around us. If our environment is unfamiliar, are we unfamiliar? Is homesickness not a yearning for a place, but a yearning for the secure identity yours place in a community ensures?
Annie Dillard writes that as a teenager she confused “living with leaving.” When she was a young child, her father, frustrated with the static existence that Annie will later associate with adulthood, takes off on his sailboat, planning to make it to New Orleans. So Annie, fighting to avoid the dispassionate, static existence impending with the arrival of adulthood, plans her escape from her hometown, Pittsburg. In the same way, “the road trip” seems to be the quintessential promise of making something happen; the literal movement of travel sustaining us while our desire for movement within our life eludes us. And sometimes it helps. In the same way a writer can use literal movement to mimic metaphorical movement, I think we can trick ourselves with travel; like the feeling of speeding along a highway is hardwired within our subconscious to trigger the sensation of flight, and with it freedom. The “odyssey” archetype has to come from somewhere; we find things, simple things when we’re moving that can’t be found when stationary. Or maybe all the great stories of existential discoveries made on trips (Thelma and Louise, Homer’s Odyssey, On the Road) has conditioned us to believe in their power, and either we’re so enamored with this idea that we convinced ourself of the similar power of our experiences, or we are subconsciously freed during these experiences because we believe we should be. This idea of liberation as a result of movement and distance speaks of a connection between freedom of behavior and a state of being unattached.
Lucy, the title character in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy, holds this concept of freedom. Lucy flees from Antigua in hopes of creating a new identity for herself that is inherently her own. She intimately identifies with the question: “Isn’t it the most blissful thing in the world to be away from everything you have ever known—to be so far away that you don’t even know yourself anymore and you’re not sure you ever want to come back to all the things you’re a part of?” (Kincaid 66) posed to her by a young man, demonstrating her confusion between discovery and denial, freedom and escape, living and leaving. Despite this, there’s something electrically tempting in the terrifying freedom described.
Both Annie and Lucy’s stories lead me to wonder, is it ever truly possible to create a state of unattachment? Consider being far far away from your home, free of all attachments, free to recreate yourself, no expectation of your behavior, your identity. But this freedom comes from having no attachments, and it is our human nature to create bonds where ever we go. So we create attachments in this new far away place. With these people, objects, or activities we cement an identity through that with which we associate. We create our identity from our attachments, so to be free of attachments is to be free of identity. If we define freedom as being unattached, then we can never be free, or to be free is to be lost in a sea of uncertainty of our existence. This brings me back to Annie and Lucy, Annie who realizes her mistake in confusing living with leaving, and Lucy who hangs onto “leaving” as her lifeline, defining freedom as liberation from all personal attachments. Kincaid ends her novel with a description of Lucy weeping because despite having completely severed her ties to past identity and any personal attachment, she wishes she “could love someone so much that [she] would die from it.” (Kincaid 164)
November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
The following personal essay is partially inspired by themes explored in Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood. I used Maira Kalman’s children’s book “Oh la la! Max in Love” as a starting point to explore childhood memories and their significance in my life now.
A childhood seems to exist in the form of stories; a fiction of memories and anecdotes relayed to us by our parents and grandparents. It’s a composite of storybooks, favorite movies, cartoon shows, and make-believe games. Memories of “true” events differentiate from our memories of the stories we were raised on only in those random detailed images that sit stubbornly fixed in our minds: eating Cheetos at the half moon table in pre-school, reaching out to grab the ring on the merry-go-round in the Luxembourg Gardens. That is, unless we’re remembering our childhood as shown to us later in picture albums and home videos. Our little faces, counting in French at us from the screen: “Une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq and cinq means five!” In these pictures and movies there’s the certainty, the promise that this was our life—that at one point in time what we see in these images was happening. But within our minds we have other images, ones that might’ve only been real to us. These are the memories of the stories we loved and the stories we created. They coalesce to entangle our memories with their glorious discoveries, truths and tragedies, leading the subconscious here, to this realm of make-believe…
“Allo? Allo Jacques? Jacques, it is me, Mimi. Oui. Oui. Mimi. Have you heard the latest? Tout Paris is abuzz. Max is here!….”
Read from one of my favorite storybooks, “Max in Love,” when the poet dog Max goes to Paris (my town!) and falls in love with a poodle version of Josephine Baker…
“…You say good-bye, I say hello. Hello hello…”
Mrs. Jessup, the most beautiful, glamorous, joyous music teacher, who taught us to make noises with our mouths that sound like horse hooves walking, told us that one of our classmates was the inspiration for that song. She said that Paul McCartney called our classmate’s house to talk to her mom. This little girl picked up and when Paul said ‘Hello,’ and she said ‘Good-bye’ and hung up the phone. Good-bye Paul.
“Hello? Oh hey….” My sister would talk on the phone for hours; I couldn’t do that. When I talked it was hi, where when what, okay see you later then bye-bye. Sometimes my friend and I would eavesdrop on her side of her phone conversations when we were playing detectives. Or if it was just me I’d record what she said in my detective notebook, dark green vinyl with a gold decal, and then I’d report back to my friend the next time he came over. I’d sit concealed on the staircase, scribbling furiously fast, recording the fractured half story.
I made stories too. I’d become a fairy with my neighbors, and their backyard, with its cool dark forest and bright glowing flower garden, was our kingdom. But in the midst of it all someone would complain about being sacrificed to some dark king, and we had to go inside among tantrums and tears, and the story whispered away into the afternoon….
In other stories I’d be a runaway, living in the woods with my friends. We lived in the playhouse, making food from mud and leaves. When we decided it was time to go back home we embarked on the hammock: our boat that would take us through the stormy waters to safety. But the waves went so high! And the hammock flipped! My friend hung on but I was floating away, farther and farther…
As I get older, it’s harder to believe the stories I had once created for my friends and myself. My detectivehood in the past; the essential searching and examining of make-believe have been transferred to the study of a story already laid out for me: humanity’s great collective history wrapped up in academia. A childhood adoration of stories turns into analysis and design. These are the adult’s rendering of the world they encounter, as is make-believe to a child. Each biological process, philosophical theory, Renaissance painting, Romantic poem, Modernist principle, must be the universe reflected back at me through the filter of the eyes and hearts and minds of millions before me. Who’s to say what’s true and what’s make-believe? It can only be as real as playing runaways in the green sunlight of my backyard.
My past is a mélange of fixed images and fleeting storylines; memories fabricated and augmented and memories of stories and make-believe. Without the format of stories to lay the groundwork, how will the memories of my present look? So the soft search for a raconteur’s truth continues – searching in knowledge, searching in distance from what I know and what knows me. As I plan for travels to far-off places like Haiti, Hawaii, Greece, I am Max going to Paris for love, a Beatle hung up on for saying ‘hello,’ a fairy questing for a magic wand, a temporarily orphaned child, orphaned by the loss of my everyday life, hum-drum hum-drum hum-drum, “I don’t know why you say good-bye, I say hello…” …to my own story; a memory as good as the all stories.