Being of One Heart

“Who are you?”

cheshire-cat-smile

What a silly question. I know who I am. I suppose the better question is do I show you or him or fuzzy-eared Jim who I am. It’s an awful risky thing to do you know. And to further complicate things, I change. Constantly.

It’s not a drastic or dramatic thing like jumping into an icy river naked as the day you were born. Shocking! It’s more like a subtle change similar to the Delaware River which I am fortunate enough to live by. Everyone should be fortunate enough to live by a river. Sometimes it rises to staggering heights and spills over, flooding everything an angry brown. Other times it is so low you can walk clear to the middle of it and marvel at the smooth gray slabs of stone underneath. Sweet Earth. But regardless of  the exact state it is in, it’s still the river.

A couple of months ago I dared to show my very best friend a part of me. That day the metaphorical river was overflowing with a muddy brown. I was terrified. But I needed to show her the part of me she did not know. Relationships are built on honesty, right? Or at least in theory they are supposed to be. I also wanted to be honest with her because I felt she had a right to full disclosure. She had a right to know how I felt about something that was contradictory to an incredibly important belief she held, a belief that was a huge part of her life.

You see, this woman who I love with all of my heart and soul, who has inspired me and supported me and loved me since we embarked on this adventure of friendship, is in an intimate relationship with my other really good friend who happens to also be a woman. She supports gay rights and gay marriage and  transgender rights. She is very into rights for everyone regardless of their sexual inclinations or gender identification.

That is her life.

She is such a good, good person.

But I disagree with her on some things, important things. And I felt like a fraud keeping it hidden. So I took a deep breath and I showed her the hidden part of me at the risk of being rejected.

Homosexuality has never rested well with me. There has always been an uncomfortableness, a sense of something being off-kiltered. In my ideal world things would be simple, things would be defined, compartmentalized in a very neat and straightforward way. Blue would be blue and up would not be down. A pot would be a pot.

In my mind, a man and woman are compliments of one another, the yen and the yang, a complete and perfect balance. So to have two men together or two women together, it feels unbalanced. Although honestly, with the rate of promiscuity, infidelity, and divorce there is very little balance to be found. Throw in the pervasive violence and the whole world is a flippin insane asylum.

So I expressed this to her because she has a right to know who her friend is, who the person she is confiding in is. She has the right to choose whether or not she wants to be friends with someone who feels contrary to the way that she feels about something so personal and so important.

I also needed to express it to her because I believe the Bible, which in my mind is the word of God, indicates that homosexuality is a sin. Of course the scriptures can be and are interpreted in incredibly different ways. I have friends from all different branches of Christianity and they all have beliefs derived from and supported by scriptures, and those beliefs are contradictory, so who’s to say?

Next I had to confess to her that I did not believe it was right for any Christian authority to marry gay couples because I believe the God does consider it a sin. Would I protest gay marriage? No. I do believe in gay rights and if two women, like my friends, want to be married and it has been legalized, then that is their right. But Christian leaders have an important responsibility to be stewards of God’s word.

But again, the scriptures have many interpretations, so who’s to say?

I knew confessing these things to her might be the end of our friendship. The thought made me cry. I really did love her. So much. But I also was tired of hiding because of the fear that I would be hated.

There is a definite risk of being stereo-typed, labeled, and having words put in your mouth if you disagree with certain issues. Homosexuality and abortion are two major ones. And that has happened to me.

As soon as a person learns you have different beliefs they stop seeing you. They forget all of the things they love about you – your good heart, the laughs you’ve shared, all of the memories you’ve made together – and they only see hate. They see hate where there is no hate, just a difference in beliefs.

But my friend, that body of goodness, did not reject me. Her eyes did not see hate where there was no hate. Her ears did not hear words that my mouth did not speak.  She still saw me. And she still loved me.

Though homosexuality and transgenderality do not rest easy with me, I am not here to push my beliefs on anyone. In the end, everyone has a right to live a life according to their conscience – not my conscience – but their own.

Honesty is a wonderful thing. And it is truly a gift when you can share it. What I am learning is that life is not just about agreeing and being of one mind. It’s even more importantly about disagreeing and still being of one heart.

Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Flannery O’Connor lived only thirty-nine short years before dying from lupus in 1964, but in those thirty-nine years she left a legacy through her writing. Although she completed two novels, it was her short story collection that left an indelible mark on the literary world. One of her most noteworthy stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” was published in 1953 on the horrific heels of World War II and the devastating act of opening Pandora’s box releasing the atomic bomb, following the Korean War, and during the throes of McCarthyism and witch hunts that defined the Cold War. Considering the violence that permeated the world during her time, it is not a wonder that her writing was also permeated by violence.

As Gretlund and Westarp note in Flannery O’Conner’s Radical Reality, “O’Connor’s fictional world is so full of mental and physical deformities that her fate among readers is often to be placed among the writers off southern gothic whose horrifying characters and plots are seen as decidedly “grotesque” (4). It is from her Southern background and her religious background, Catholicism, which Flannery O’Conner writes with such a unique and disquieting voice.  It is also the conflict between her religious faith and the intellectual, existential, growing mindset of a country bombarded by conflict and death that O’Conner writes: “I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery. I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the church” (3).

From a reader response critic’s view point, Bertens explains this kind of critic “mostly starts from the phenomenological position that since we cannot with absolute certainty know that we know the outside world, we must focus on how that world appears to our senses and is constituted by our consciousness” (96). In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” many readers will struggle with the very same conflict that O’Conner writes about: religious faith versus hopeless despair and even worse, an intellectual apathy. Whether the audience lived through the angst and confusion of Vietnam or whether the audience suffers from the post 9/11 terror and the seemingly uncertain beginnings of the 21st century, the reader will most likely be able to recognize the fear through the character of the Grandmother and the apathy which unfolds through the Misfit.

Other themes like the collective feeling of disconnect which comes through the actions of the family (children with their comics, mother with baby, father with his paper, and grandmother…well, grandmother with herself) is also a theme that is relevant today and felt by many people. With the ever growing isolation that social media perpetuates, divorce, and two income families in which infants are sent away to daycare among other social issues, O’Conner’s story will resonate painfully with many readers today.

From a deconstructionist viewpoint, “the words we say or read never achieve stability, not only because they are related to, and take part of their meaning from, the words that have just preceded them, but because their meaning is always modified by whatever follows” (Bertens, 108). It can most certainly be argued that O’Connor’s story is unstable up to the very end and leaves the reader with a continuing sense of instability to take away.

Bertens mentions that the deconstructionist critic believes “…there is a category of literary texts that confess to their own impotence, their inability to establish closure,” which makes them, “far more interesting than texts that try to hide their impotence, such as philosophical texts or realistic novels that claim to offer true representations of the world” (120). O’Conner’s story fills the criteria for a “more interesting” text in that while there is a conclusion (ultimately the death of the entire family) to the story, there is no resolution. The final act of the grandmother of reaching out to the Misfit can be interpreted in more than one way but regardless of the interpretation, there is no closure.

 

Works Cited

Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford, 2015. Print.

Rivken, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998. Print.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

O’Conner, Flannery. Prayer Journal. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013. Print

 

Solitary Surrendering

This darkness is all I can see and it is only because I stare into your eyes.

In them I see everything in me I want to deny. 

I once believed you were God; you were my God.

But you had no answers and I was forsaken by you so many times I believed I did not exist.

I stomped through your life a ghost but my feet were invisible so they never made a sound.

I floated a solitary surrendering.

Alone.

I don’t want to be a ghost any longer.

Crashing Surf

We have played together underneath the sky so big, so wide. Underneath sunshine we have played in the surf, foamy delight, white surf. I take their little hands – one, two, and three – and we walk through waves. We are pushed and pulled and their laughter floats up to the seagulls. A song fills my head – children’s laughter and screeching seagulls, the crashing surf, the salt-scented wind. We build half-dilapidated sand castles framed by broken sea shells and dried out seaweed. I touch her sun-kissed, freckled cheek with the back of my hand – a mother’s caress.

I am getting tired. Life unfolding, expanding and contracting at the same time. They grow as I shrink. I lay on my back in the hot sand and close my eyes to the warm sun. A rest. A moment. Just one rest for just one moment. Though I do not see them I know they are there. One, two, and three. They are close, ever so close and I fall into bliss with the knowledge.

Time tick tocks by and when I open my eyes the sun is still high in the sky. Seagulls still screech their joy and the wind still blows a salty smell. But they are no longer near. Bliss falling away. My eyes scan the beach until at last they find them. They are walking through the waves hand in hand. They are pushed and pulled and their laughter floats up and is delivered to me on the current of the wind. Gracious wind.

A moment of panic seizes my tired heart. They are going out too far. I am not there; their hands are not in mine. What will happen to them? Just as the thoughts begin to overwhelm me to tears they disappear into the ocean. There is an explosion within my heart, my mind, my soul. They are gone.

As I let out the breath, which has been waiting ever so patiently to be released, I see them. Three smooth, grey-rounded backs and crescent tails. They leap out of the water and disappear again. I stand up and make my way to the crashing surf – foamy delight. But I know I cannot go where they go anymore. The three grey heads turn to look at me and though they are no longer my one, two, and three…they are still my one, two, and three.

They throw their heads back and release a sound, a clicking, a high-pitched noise. They are laughing. Still. I smile to them and lift my hand. Good-bye. I return to my place on the sandy beach amidst half-dilapidated sand castles framed by broken sea shells and dried out sea weed. I am tired. Life unfolding, expanding and contracting at the same time. I lay on my back in the hot sand and close my eyes to the warm sun. A rest. A moment. Just one rest for just one moment. Though I do not see them, I know they are there. One, two, and three. They are close, ever so close and I fall into bliss with the knowledge.

 

 

Loyalty Then and Loyalty Now: Cordelia, Kent, and Snowden

 

Loyalty is a principle on which many relationships and institutions have been built since the beginning of time. In Shakespeare’s day, if a person was unlucky enough to have his or her loyalty questioned, it could result in their imprisonment, torture, and/or execution. Sometimes they were accused falsely and paid the price for the paranoia that ran rampant at court. Other times, the paranoia had basis and those accused of disloyalty and treason were indeed guilty. Shakespeare captures the predicament of true loyalty versus perceived loyalty perfectly in his play, King Lear, which follows the tragedy and downfall of King Lear when he misjudges the true meaning of loyalty.

Shakespeare certainly had ample enough material to inspire him from current events of the time. One such event was the notorious Gunpowder Plot, which took place a year before the first performance of King Lear, conceived by Catholic citizens who wanted to see England back under the rule of a Catholic. Those same elements defining the story of the Gunpowder Plot are the very elements that Shakespeare uses in King Lear.

The overriding theme of loyalty in the play is a reflection of the overriding theme of loyalty in Elizabethan England. Not only was loyalty to the divinely ordained throne mandated, but also loyalty to the family. The family was considered a microcosm of the kingdom; huge importance was placed on obedience and respect for the hierarchy (Mahabal).  As King James warned Parliament, there was not only the benefit of unity to be considered but the dangers of division (Shapiro 36). The monarchy and stability of the kingdom relied not only on the subject’s loyalty to the monarch but their unity as well.

This idea of loyalty and the necessity of it has not changed since the 1604 when Shakespeare first performed King Lear. Every morning millions of children in the United States pledge their loyalty to the United States government when they say the Pledge of Allegiance. But what is loyalty and is true loyalty rewarded or punished? In this post, the idea of loyalty shown through the dissention of Cordelia and Kent is paralleled with the idea of loyalty through present day whistleblower, Edward Snowden, in order to answer those pertinent questions.

In King Lear, the question of loyalty is presented in the opening scene. King Lear, upon desiring his retirement, decides to split the Kingdom between his three daughters. It is thought that this will also prevent any division or war over the kingdom. Before King Lear divides the Kingdom, he requests that each daughter tells him how much they love him.

Goneril and Regan profess their empty words of affection but Cordelia, whose love is true, refuses to put words to her feelings. King Lear sees this as an offense and a sign of Cordelia’s disloyalty. You mean you’re not going to flatter me? Naturally, He refuses to give her a part of the Kingdom.

Kent, who also holds the King in dear affection, beseeches the King not to do this, that the King is indeed wrong. “Do: Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon thy foul disease. Revoke thy doom; or, whilst I can vent clamour from my throat, I’ll tell thee thou dost evil” (I.i.180-184). Once again, King Lear misinterprets true loyalty from Kent as disloyalty and banishes him. This form of narcissism and ignorance of what constitutes loyalty is Lear’s hamartia, the tragic flaw that brings his otherwise successful reign and life to a heartbreaking conclusion.

We can see the importance of loyalty and the swift action against disloyalty in other Shakespearean plays such as Henry the V when Henry must act quickly and decidedly without mercy upon the conspirators including one he holds dear. In that case, Henry was correct in his actions against the conspirators who sought to harm him. King Lear, however, misconstrues Cordelia’s good intentions for bad. This error in judgement becomes the catalyst for disaster. Though the audience can clearly see where true loyalty lies (Cordelia and Kent) and where true deceit lies (Goneril and Reagan), King Lear succumbs to his ignorance until it is too late. The message Shakespeare sends through the idea of misperceived good and misperceived loyalty is the danger that can befall a Kingdom.

In modern times, the idea of loyalty to one’s nation or sovereign is still as relevant. In present day America, there is no King. Citizens pledge their allegiance and loyalty to the nation, which is composed of the citizens. But when the nation’s citizens find fault in the government’s procedures and politics, as did Cordelia and Kent in Lear, if they are truly loyal then they will speak truthfully and defend the good of their nation against the will of their government. On May 13, 2013, a United States citizen by the name of Edward Snowden released top-secret NSA documents to the world: “‘My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them. The US government in conspiracy with client states…have inflicted upon the world a system of secret pervasive surveillance from which there is no refuge'” (Greenwald, 23).

In explaining his motives for what some could conceive of as treason, Snowden says, “I want to spark a world-wide debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance” (Greenwald 18). Snowden goes on to say, “I am not afraid of what will happen to me. I accept that my life will likely be over from doing this. I’m at peace with that. It’s the right thing to do” (Greenwald, 18).  Kent similarly justifies his actions by his loyalty to Lear: “My life I never held but as a pawn to wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it, thy safety being the motive” (I.i.169-171). Cordelia also acknowledges what she has lost through her honesty and true allegiance to the King: “A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue as I am glad I have not, though not to have it hath lost me in your liking” (I.i.257-259). All three clearly act out of their loyalty for their King and nation even knowing the consequences of that loyalty.

It seems apparent from King Lear that loyalty, while noble and good, if not understood by King as it pertains to Lear or nation as it pertains to Snowden, will lead to nothing. Cordelia gave her life as a result of Lear’s lack in understanding her loyalty, and Kent was left to mourn the King he loved. Snowden lives in exile, away from friends and family and the country he loves, and will most likely die on foreign shores. Is loyalty rewarded? In these two circumstances, no, unless of course loyalty is its own reward and doing the right thing for the sake of what’s right. It seems, given the present day circumstances and liberties being eroded through such things as the Patriot Act and gun legislation, people would do well to remember the tragedy that befell King Lear.

“Some sixty versions of the Lear story were in circulation when Shakespeare set about to dramatize the tale of the old King in 1605. Nobody remembers these prior versions today. But King Lear continues to fill theaters” (McDonald 162). Shakespeare’s ability to tap into the psychology of human nature, translating onto paper and stage the emotions, thoughts, errors, brutality, betrayal, heroism, sorrow and all of the other attributes that define man as something divine and something hellish, is nothing less than brilliant. As each generation comes face to face with the Law of Nature and, what some may argue as the universal morality which inevitably conflicts with subjective morality and self-interest, they too will have to struggle with the same themes in which Shakespeare wrote about over four hundred years ago. From whistle blowers like Edward Snowden to the man contemplating breaking his vows of loyalty and leaving his wife, the theme is timeless. Because of this, Shakespeare is also timeless.

 

Works Cited

Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2014. Print.

Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2015. Print.

McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: And Introduction with Documents. NY: Palgrave. 2001. Print.

Mahabal, Prasad. “Daily Life in England during the Elizabethan Era”. Elizabethan England Life. 2015. Web. 19 Jan 2016.

Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. NY: First Anchor Books. 1997. Print

Shakespeare, William. King Lear, Modern Library Paperback Edition. NY: Modern Library. 2009. Print.

 

 

Deconstructing A Good Man is Hard to Find

There are multiple ways to experience life as there are multiple ways to experience literature. We each, individually, experience both in our own unique way, with our own ideologies guiding us, and looking through the lenses of our own subjectivity. This is deconstruction; it does not take the meaning away but multiplies it. Lois Tyson so aptly observes, “Change the lens and you change both the view and the viewer. This principal is what makes knowledge at once so frightening and so liberating, so painful and so utterly, utterly joyful” (9). So it is with Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” As O’Connor herself once noted, “there are perhaps other ways than my own in which [“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written.” While the author wrote the story, guided by her own subjectivity and looking through her own lens, she acknowledges that her readers may, and some most definitely will, read it through a different lens. In this paper three tenets of deconstruction will be used to analyze “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: Derrida’s idea of impossible aporias or internal contradictions, undecidability and the way in which that erodes any sense of concrete binaries, namely good versus evil, and the concept of tout autre or responsibility to the other.

What is a good man? The question is first posed when the family makes a stop during their road trip to Florida at Red Sammy’s, an old dance hall/barbecue shack. Red Sammy bemoans the fact that you just can’t trust people anymore while wiping his forehead on a grey handkerchief. The color grey comes when you mix white and black. These are two binaries with underlying binaries, good and bad. Symbolically speaking the handkerchief represents the mixture of good and bad and how the two are becoming hard to differentiate between. According to deconstruction theory, there is no one good or bad. The binaries do not take their meaning from each other only, but from other traces left behind by other binaries, likened to a long chain and resulting in a chain reaction.

Red Sammy then proceeds to recount a story about two men who stopped to get gas. They seemed like good enough men to Red Sammy and so he let them charge the gas with the expectation that they would return and pay him. This is one example of undecidability in the form of decisions that can be found throughout the story. From a deconstructionist view, every decision is the equivalent of taking a leap of faith because there is no certainty to how the decision will unfold (IEP). For Red Sammy, he made the decision to let the men charge the gas with the faith that they would return to pay for it.

According to Derrida, the idea of hospitality is one such impossible aporia. “His point is relatively simple here; to be hospitable, it is first necessary that one must have the power to host. Hospitality hence makes claims to property ownership and it also partakes in the desire to establish a form of self-identity. Secondly, there is the further point that in order to be hospitable, the host must also have some kind of control over the people who are being hosted. This is because if the guests take over a house through force, then the host is no longer being hospitable towards them precisely because they are no longer in control of the situation” (IEP).

Initially, Red Sammy has the power to host because he is the owner of the gas station. While Red Sammy does have the power to let the men charge the gas, he lacks control over them which is determined when the men do not return to pay for the gas they charged. When the men do not return, Red Sammy’s act of hospitality no longer has a fixed meaning and can in fact be seen as something other than hospitality. “Often to show how those meanings cannot settle into a stable structure, we would seek out internal contradictions or internal differences that frustrate any interpretations of the text as holding a single, stable meaning” (Parker, 93).

They never returned and Red Sammy despairingly asks, “Now why did I do a thing like that?” The grandmother replies emphatically it is because Red Sammy is a good man. Red Sammy says that things are getting terrible and a good man is hard to find. The grandmother had just pronounced Red Sammy a good man because of the kindness or “hospitality” he showed the two men by letting them charge the gas. But Red Sammy is still pronouncing that a good man is hard to find. So what exactly is a good man?

It is interesting to note that the conversation between Red Sammy specifically and the idea of good and bad more generally is a reference to the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable a Jewish man is beaten, stripped of clothing, and left in a ditch to die. A priest comes by but crosses the road to bypass him. Then a Levite passes by without helping. The Samaritan, who is the despised enemy of the Jews, comes by and takes him to an inn where he pays for the beaten Jew to be cared for (NIV, Luke 10:29-37). This act of mercy and grace by the perceived enemy is the contradiction that will resurface throughout the story.

The next passage where the idea of “good” is explored is when the family careens off the road into a gulch. The Misfit, who is an escaped and dangerous murderer, comes upon the stranded family with his gang in tow. Upon realizing that the man she is seeing is indeed the Misfit, the grandmother pronounces emphatically that he is a good man. One is left to wonder, if the “hospitality” and kindness Red Sammy showed the men was what determined him to be a good man in the opinion of the grandmother, how she could possibly see goodness in the violence and murder the Misfit takes part in. This but another contradiction. Kindness and evil cannot both denote goodness. Or can it?

The signifier “good” has somehow shifted in its meaning for the grandmother. As Jack Reynolds states, “the meaning of the term changes depending upon the particular context in which it is being employed” (IEP). One explanation of the grandmother’s aporia is explained by Lois Tyson, “Every signifier consists of and produces more signifiers in a never-ending deferral, or postponement, of meaning” (239). The grandmother is relying on other traces of signifiers denoting good such as ethnicity perhaps. In her desperation in the current situation, to rely on the meaning of the signifier “good” as relating strictly to the kindness displayed by Red Sammy would leave her no hope in her current situation that the Misfit might also be good. Therefore she seeks out other meanings of the signifier “good” which she can rely on to convince herself and the Misfit that he is a good man and as such would never shoot her.

In the final scene of the story, we see the grandmother’s tout autre, or responsibility to the other occur. Her entire family has been shot to death one by one and she is now left alone, facing the man responsible for their murders. As the Misfit kneels in front of the grandmother, his face close to hers, she gains a moment of clarity and says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children.” She then makes a decision without knowing the results of that decision but for once, not even caring to calculate the results. For one moment in her life, the grandmother demonstrates what is so incredibly hard to do in this world. She reaches out to touch the Misfit and by doing that offers him unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness, according to Derrida is one of those aporias because the notion of absolute forgiveness “…requires a radically singular confrontation between self and other” (IEP). The grandmother, who has acted irresponsibly throughout the story in regards to her manipulation, is finally accepting the responsibility. “For Derrida, the paradox of responsible behaviour means that there is always a question of being responsible before a singular other (eg. a loved one, God, etc.), and yet we are also always referred to our responsibility towards others generally and to what we share with them (IEP). The grandmother, in reaching out, has found the common bond between herself and the other (the Misfit) and in doing so has revealed that to him. In claiming their oneness in her last words and in reaching out in a moment of grace, the grandmother has become the Good Samaritan.

Regardless, the Misfit shoots the grandmother dead, and as he looks down on her he says, “She would of been a good woman…had it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” And so the final aporia of the story is that perhaps goodness does spring from many different meanings and that it was only through evil that the grandmother was able to become a good woman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. NewYork: Oxford, 2015. Print.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York:   Routledge, 2015. Print

Reynolds, Jack. “Jacques Derrida (1930—2004).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” in her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, pp. 107-18.

 

 

 

 

Because People Change

What do you do when you’ve given fifteen years of your life to a man, given up your personal ambitions to give him three children and be a stay-at-home mom, only to discover over the phone that he is indeed ready to divorce so that he can pursue his relationship with the cute blond pharmaceutical sales rep with the apartment in the city and a not so attractive Pug she so cleverly named Toto because she is originally from Kansas? Well, if you’re thirty-four-year-old Maggie Murphy, you silently scream (so as not to wake those three sleeping children) every curse word in the book and when you run out of curse words you invent new ones. You tear the kitchen apart, cleaning out the junk drawer, throwing away old receipts and lottery tickets from years past (ripping them to pieces first), scrubbing the refrigerator and throwing out all of the meat, his meat, because you’ve been a vegetarian for sixteen years. You remember how he said he was also a vegetarian for the first two years you were together, only to find out years later that he did not forgo meat because he was a vegetarian, rather he was too afraid to eat the grade D meat the Navy served. But behind your back he would go to seven-eleven and scarf down a chili dog or two.

You hear the words echoing in your head “…because people change.” And you cry. Tears and snot all intermingle in one disgusting mess and you wipe your face with your sleeve, the same sleeve you used earlier in the day to wipe away your two-year-old daughter’s snot because even though she is your third child you still, for some unfathomable reason, cannot remember to carry tissues. You sink to the floor and think of your husband and the cute pharmaceutical sales rep, who also happens to be a tri-athlete. Triathletes have extremely tight asses you discover, not like the ass of a stay-at-home mom of three, an ass that your children affectionately call the “jiggley”. They are now “in love” and are planning their future together, a future that includes your children, and you feel the rolls of your stomach folding over one another and you try to replace the feeling of self-loathing with the memory of carrying each one of your children. But you can’t so you grab the box of cheese-its on the counter and try the best you can to console yourself in your broken home.

That was Maggie Mae Murphy eight months, four days, and seven hours ago. Since that phone call her life had been flipped upside down. In the first couple of months she was sure he would come to his senses and accept her offer of counseling. Fifteen years and three children and there was not a chance of reconsideration. The “I’m just not sure we can fix it” turned into “It could never have been fixed.” This translated into “You and the family we had were just not worth enough to even try fixing it.” And this broke her heart. It also really pissed her off.

Three scars on her stomach from three cesareans and a mass of stretch marks on her breasts, ten years of devoting herself to the “family” (what the hell is the definition of family these days anyways and if she had to hear one more time that they still were a family just a different kind she would gouge out her eyes) while Aiden filled those years with his shenanigans at the Ratheskellar. He spent those years building his career and his sense of importance in managing multi-million dollar projects at NYU and New York Presbyterian, reveling in his role as father, a role that she supported, reveling in everything but her. She seethed. And she cried. And seethed and cried.

“There are just too many mistakes.” That was his answer when she asked him why he did not want to try to fix things.

“What mistakes? I want you to tell me what my mistakes were. What did I do?!” Her voice rising with each word until her sentence ended in a scream. Shrew!

“What makes you think they were your mistakes?” And so he wiped his hands on his pharmaceutical sales rep’s wallet and walked away.

So she painted each room. The living room she painted butterscotch, a red accent wall in the kitchen, and the paneling in the dining room pastel green, blue, and tan. The latter ended up looking like the Easter Bunny had vomited all over the walls but it was different than before and that was what she needed. She gladly welcomed the Easter Bunny vomit. She painted in anger at first, each roll erasing her memories of what was. These would be walls that Aiden had never seen and never would. These were her walls now. Hers and her children’s. But when she got to the entrance way to the kitchen and began painting over the smudges and dirty fingerprints of her children, her anger turned to something else. Grief. It was an intense sadness that could not be put into words. She realized then that it was not just memories of her relationship, her marriage, she was attempting to erase but her memories of her children. It was not just her marriage that was gone but her family. She could not let go of him without letting go of part of her children. That pushed her over.

She packed away all of the photo albums of their life together. The early years in Virginia and Grand Rapids, and the past eleven years they spent building a life in New Jersey. Their trip to Martha’s Vineyard before children and their vacation to Saint Marten after children. She packed away photos, photos of him, photos of her children, photos of her family. The old family. She packed them all away in a five dollar tub purchased at Wal-Mart, color blue. She packed them away with the love letters they had exchanged the first two years of their love affair. The Navy years. Those letters had gotten her through the bad times in her marriage, the times she had wanted to give in and give up. Fifteen years all packed away in one five gallon tub purchased at Wal-Mart, color blue.

But in the end it did not matter that the walls were painted, the furniture replaced and rearranged, photos, journals and mementos packed away. The pain, the anger, the bitterness, and the confusion were still there. The what-ifs, should haves, and whys were still there. They were haunting the halls of her mind like ghosts. Their echoes were inside of her, the chains rattling in her heart, and they would always be there. That was when she came to the conclusion, which seemed rather logical at the time, that the only solution to the problem would be to kill him. She would kill him and with him all of the rage and bitterness.

 

You Say Apathetic; I say Hopeful (Why I Won’t Vote)

I’ve always been curious at the way people respond to that which they don’t understand or agree with. The raised eye brows in incredulous disbelief or the stupefied look of superiority.

I get it sometimes when people find out I am a vegetarian or that I do not partake in alcoholic beverages or that I don’t have a cell phone or that I refuse to watch the news or gasp, shock, horror…I don’t use a Face Book account.

But more recently I get it, and with much more vehemence, when I tell people I do not vote in Presidential Elections; the last time I voted was for Ralph Nadar.

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This is the first year, however, the disbelief of others came with the label apathetic, or at least the first year I’ve noticed it.

I don’t think apathy is the right descriptive word for everyone who refuses to take part in the election. Perhaps defiant or maybe angry and frustrated. Discouraged is another good one.

 

If there is one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot since going back to school it’s capitalism.

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It’s commodification.

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It’s classism.

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It’s this idea of “news” and the corporate sponsored media.

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What I don’t think people understand, people who call me apathetic, is that no matter who wins, it will be fraudulent. I can’t participate in that kind of fraud. I won’t.

But I do understand why people still vote, why people still want to believe in our system.

What’s the alternative?

While I could believe the same people who call me apathetic – the same people who believe in participating in and supporting what I consider to be a very broken system – are either ignorant, in denial, or hopeful, I choose to go with hopeful.

I’m reminded of my thirteen-year-old son. He’s so optimistic and so innocent. He believes what he is taught in school. He believes that the government is for the people. He believes that his voice matters.

What I’d like to do is shatter that hope, show him reality, tell him the real history and not the watered down and twisted version. I’d like to take off his reality-altering glasses and stomp on them.

But I won’t. Because hope is important. It is hope that initiates change. I want his hope to be so strong that when he does grow up and go out into the big, wide world, it will still remain.

So today, as people make their ways to the polls, I will respect their sense of hope, their idea of duty, and their commitment. And I will leave it at that.

As for me? I am hopeful and I will sit and wait. I will wait and hope one day, someone amongst the apathetic young people who acknowledge the corruption and the break down, will begin to initiate change.

 

 

 

 

Swallowing Darkness

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.”

Thirty-nine-years-ago, a light came into the world in the form of a slimy, mucous-covered ball named Lilly.

That would be me.

Though my light has had darkness swirling around and about it, though the darkness has tried to eat my light, the darkness has not overcome.

No.

Darkness has not swallowed me; I have swallowed darkness.

Now it lives in me but it is not me.

It lives in this body made of flesh and bones and tendons and joints.

It lives in my mind made of lobes and ganglia and synapses.

It lives in all of this which is me and which is not me.

Today I am alive.

Today the darkness has not overcome.

Richard Wright’s The Man Who Was Almost a Man and the Inevitable Failings of Capitalism (Just in Time For the Election)

American author, Richard Wright, was born in Natchez, Mississippi forty-five years after the emancipation of slaves. Though slavery was technically no longer practiced, codes and laws were still set in place which limited the rights and freedoms of African-Americans. It was in this atmosphere that Wright began writing. The focus of this research in regards to Richard Wright’s story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” is analyzing the story through a Marxist lens and identifying how the characters in this story are a part of the capitalist machine in which racism, produced by colonization in the form of slavery, is an important aspect. The components of capitalism- alienated labor, commodification, colonization of consciousness, and the ideology of the rugged individual – will be examined and how those structures work together to move the character of Dave Sanders through the entire story to the very end where his decision to hop the train illustrates the inevitable failings of capitalism.

“From a Marxist perspective, because the survival of capitalism, which is a market economy, depends on consumerism, it promotes sign-exchange value as our primary mode of relating to the world around us” (Tyson, 60). Wright’s story revolves around the seventeen-year-old Dave who so desperately wants to buy a gun because he is sure owning a gun will earn him the esteem of his fellow African-Americans and his white boss, Mr. Hawkins. For Dave, the gun holds a sign-exchange value because he is under the mistaken impression it will cause the men he works with to have some respect for him. “One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy…and if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him” (Wright, 899, 903). The gun symbolizes not only respect but power, the power that has always eluded African-Americans.

One reason for Dave’s angst and feeling of separation could be seen as a result of what Karl Marx refers to as alienated labor. Alienated labor occurs when the worker is separated from the production, the product of his production, himself, and as a result others. Richard Wright was the son of a sharecropper and so was well familiar with the practice of sharecropping and labor in general for African-Americans in the South. As History explains, many African Americans “went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation” (“Sharecropping”). It is from this feeling of alienation that Dave first begins to want a gun.

Commodification is perhaps one of the biggest traits of capitalism and is illustrated in the relationship between Dave and his family,  Dave and Mistah Joe. The capitalist ideology promotes the viewing of “objects or persons in terms of their exchange value or sign-exchange value” (Tyson, 60). “In a capitalist economic system, an objects value becomes impersonal. Its value is translated into a monetary “equivalent” –  the term capital means money – and determined solely in terms of its relationship to a monetary market” (Tyson, 59). Dave Sanders and his family work, along with other African-Americans, on Jim Hawkins farm for low wages. In this respect, the African Americans laborers hold a value for Mr. Hawkins that is detached and impersonal and merely relates to the cheap labor that benefits him financially. Equally, Dave can be seen as a commodity for the Sander’s family. His labor provides an income that helps support the family unit. But much like the early slaves who were beaten into submission, Dave is also beaten. “Nobody ever gave him anything. All he did was work.  They treat me like a mule, n then they beat me” (Wright, 906). Dave can also be seen commodifying his mother. Her value lies in the fact that she is the one that can give him the money for the gun. He exchanges his sweet talk and words of love in order to gain the money. And she willingly complies.

“To colonize the consciousness of subordinate people means to convince them to see their situation the way the imperialist nation wants them to see it, to convince them, for example, that they are mentally, spiritually, and culturally inferior to their conquerors…” (Tyson, 61). “Whut’s the use talkin wide m niggers in the field…Them niggers can’t understand nothing” (899).  Though Dave is speaking of his fellow Negro workers, he is also (whether he realizes it or not) speaking of himself. “He felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze” (Wright, 899). This is another example of the feeling of inferiority that has been colonized in his, as well as other African-Americans, consciousness.

The idea of the rugged individual, and individualism in general, is one of the biggest attributes of the foundation of the American dream. This is encouraged by the competition that capitalism involves. This idea of the rugged “individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved, a goal that often involves risk and one that most people would not readily undertake” has been romanticized throughout America’s history. One example of this rugged individual trait is when Dave goes to shoot the gun while plowing the fields. Though he doesn’t go far, he is striking out alone to achieve a goal he has been forbidden to achieve and entails risk if it is discovered. “Although it may sound like an admirable trait, Marxist thinkers consider rugged individualism an oppressive ideology because it puts self-interest above the needs – and even the survival – of other people” (Tyson, 57). In the end of the story, Dave decides he is no longer going to submit to anyone. He digs the gun back up from where he buried it, symbolically digging up the power and illusion of respect, and hops on a train. It could be conceived as a heroic feat but for the fact that has now robbed his family of the extra income and has left them with a huge debt, a debt that he created. In effect, he put his own self-interests before that of his family’s. Though the reader could interpret his actions as those that are “bucking” the capitalistic society that has oppressed him, he is actually participating in it.

Though America has been hailed as a land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity, through the story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” the opposite picture is portrayed. Through the character of Dave Sanders, the reader is able to see the incredible failings of a capitalist society selling the American dream especially for a “liberated” race. Through the alienation Dave feels as a result of hard labor without reward or pride, the inevitable commodification which strips away any meaning to be found for Dave in his life or family obligations, the colonization of consciousness and the idea that the consciousness of both whites and blacks have been conditioned to believe in the superiority of one over another, thus retaining the status quo, and the idea of the rugged individual propelling Dave to take his gun, claim his “freedom” and hop the train, the darker side of capitalism is displayed along with the inevitable failings. Wright does well to explore the dark side of capitalism in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” He explores it through the character of Dave Sanders and ultimately shows that there is no escaping the oppression that comes with such a system.

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory the Basics. NY: Routledge. 2014. Print.

“Estranged Labour.”  Marx Engels Collected Works. Lawrence & Wishart. Web. 2 April 2016.

“Sharecropping.” History. A+E Networks Corp. Web. 2 April 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. NY: Routledge. 2015. Print.

—. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. NY: Routledge. 2011. Print

Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Ed. Baym, Nina. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 899-907. Print.