Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rethinking Jo March

How's the thesis going, you ask?  Very well, thank you.  I have a general outline for my introduction, my two chapters, and my conclusion.  I have written about 1000 words for my formal thesis proposal for the graduate school, which greatly helped me to clarify my thoughts and my topic.

But today, I wanted to talk about Little Women (the 1994 film, not the book).  Last week my friend Kay came to visit for our friend Kelsey's bridal brunch.  So, since the temperature had taken a bone-chilling drop, we decided the best way to spend the evening before the brunch was to curl up with hot chocolate and our favorite winter film.  It can't properly be called a Christmas film, I suppose, but that's rather how we view it.  I've seen this movie more times than I can count; I pretty well have it memorized.  But, as an adult, I find that my views towards the characters have changed since my childhood and teenaged years.

For one, I love Meg much more now.  I always liked her, but now I see that she really has it together.  Secondly, I should've listened to Amy when she said, "We all grow up someday, Meg, we might as well know what we want."  I've always seen myself growing up and I've been hyper-aware of it, but really, I never planned much past "Go to William and Mary."  And then I did.  And I graduated. And now I don't.  And I'm still not quite sure what I want... a family, like Meg?  Artistic success, like Jo?  Money, like Amy?  In a way I feel an awful lot like Beth, unsure of my destiny and happy to stay contentedly at home, though now I'm quite grown up and really ought to know what it is that I want.

Though my problem might be the opposite of Beth's: it's not that I don't want anything, it's that I want so very many destinies, and I can't settle on which one to pursue, so it seems easier to dream of staying at home.  I want to write fiction and poetry, to work for Disney, to work at the Bodleian or the Folger, to learn everything about books and textual materiality, to become a professional bibliophile, to work in a theater, to travel the world, to live in London, to write a dissertation, to never have to write a dissertation but publish extensively on historical topics, to open an etsy shop where I would sell cross-stitch patterns and handsewn dolls, to become a tea connoisseur, to open a tea-house/bookshop, to become a professional historical reenactor... the list goes on.

Then, while I still love Jo March, I see her faults now more clearly than I used to-- and I see how much I am like her in those ways.  I don't mean her 'tomboyishness,' the 'faults' of being stubborn or those cliched Victorian faults about not being pretty enough or what have you.  I mean, she has trouble being truly happy for others, if it means that her life is impacted in a way that she views as negative.  Put perhaps more bluntly, she hates change of all kinds.  I've always identified with Jo.  When she sees Meg kissing John Brooke in the hallway, and sits on the steps moping at Christmas.  When Meg gets married and a chapter of their lives closes forever.  Wondering why she must grow up at all.  I know exactly how she feels; I've always felt time so keenly.  I remember talking to my friend Alina during recess in fourth grade and lamenting that we were almost fifth graders and then practically high schoolers and where did our youth go?  I so dearly miss the past and I rue things that threaten to change the here-and-now-- even if that here-and-now has actually been gone for a long time.  I think it was in Amy Poehler's new book, she writes that human happiness is all determined by how well we handle change, because everything changes and we can never stop that.  But if we roll with it, we're happy.  If we are the kind of people who resist it, we very often find ourselves disappointed.  I very often find myself disappointed.  I sometimes wonder if I learned this dislike of change from Jo, and if I need to learn to accept it, as Jo ultimately must.

Jo managed to learn to leave her past behind because she sought out the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.  She moved to New York City to become a writer (which goal should I pick?  Where should I move?).  And here's a major change in my viewing of the film: her refusal of Laurie didn't seem quite so preposterous on this rewatch as it has in the past.  Her relationship with Frederick also seemed much more believable.  This time I was able to see how much better for her Frederick is than Laurie: Laurie loved her and would have supported her endeavours, but Frederick loves her and not only supports her, but pushes her to become better.  That's a big thing.  We all have these ideas that we should be loved despite our imperfections, and we should be.  But that doesn't mean that our partners should love us, and though seeing how we could improve, offer us no help to become our better selves.  This is different than changing someone-- Frederick does not change Jo, he asks Jo to ask herself if she is living up to herself.  She realizes, with his help, that she can be more and that she has more to give to the world than she previously thought.  She becomes more herself.  That's a good relationship. 

...But there is no changing that Amy and Laurie  is just a plain bad idea.  Ladies, never marry a man who, only months (weeks?) prior to your wedding, has to take a swig from his flask when he thinks about how much your sister hurt him when she rejected his marriage proposal.  And who says that he's always belonged in your family and wants in one way or the other-- and you're the other.  Don't do it.  No matter how much money he has or how much he looks like Christian Bale.

(P.S.-- How come no movie made recently has so beautifully told girls that they are worth it, that they have an intrinsic value that no one can take from them?  That their desires and dreams are achievable.  That their ideas are valuable.  Marmee speaks real words of wisdom.  When I was a child I absorbed it as truth; as an adult, I am grateful to have been taught that lesson as a child, and I hope that girls today find similar messages in their beloved films and books.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Struggling for Structure

I feel like I've gathered many puzzle pieces and I'm still not certain how they fit together.  I think I've found all of the corner pieces, but there's no box to refer to, so I don't know which corner is which.  Maybe I'm putting it together upside down?  I've spent hours today reading, typing, reading, referring to old notes, taking new notes, re-reading some poems, thinking some more, going over my last thesis to get ideas of structure, thinking again, and so on.  I'm hoping that if I just sit here a bit longer letting everything percolate a beautiful and clear structure will present itself to me.  I feel like it's there, I see how these things all fit, but I can't quite write it yet.  Not in a thesis-acceptable way.

I've spent the past two days in Williamsburg.  I've always worked well in Williamsburg.  I feel like the city jams my thinking, clouding it with traffic and anxiety, but here I feel like I have so much space and freedom and oh so many trees.  When I need to take a break or think more deeply, I can simply take a walk down my favorite street in the world.  There's a ready supply of sticky toffee pudding, vanilla cokes, my favorite Mexican place, fast food, and a 24-hour Wawa with their extra-caffeinated mocha machine-- perfect for when I want to write late into the night (I've found that, unfortunately for me, I do my best writing at 3:00 AM).  And at night here, I can actually see the stars; given my thesis topic this time the stars really help me to put it all into perspective.  

All I need is that picture to refer to, and I know I'll be able to put this puzzle together.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Puzzle

It's just gone 4:00, and already the light has become the deep yellow of the setting sun and outside the shadows have grown long and I'm ready to light my lamps.  Last night it smelled like winter, sharp like burning wood and something undefinable, but cold.  I have ten days left before my self-imposed 'start to write by' deadline for my thesis.  I have thoughts, ideas, and notes.  I think, in fact, I might have the tiniest spark of a real argument, a good one, that fits with current scholarship.  Regardless, I'm falling in love with my subject, and each poem is beginning to stir within me, and the words are beautiful and full.  I want to memorize these poems, but I'm not sure if that will help with my 'thinking' about them 'critically,' but I like hearing the words on my lips and I want them on my heart.  I like the idea of words written on my heart, and it recalls the idea of the surface upon which the words are/were actually written, and that's what I want to write about.  The surfaces they appear on, the surfaces they reference, these everyday things that-- in some cases literally-- balloon into larger cultural references, movements, and ideas.  I want to hold a marble with a poem upon it.  I want to find out every green umbrella under which lovers could press close together.  I want to try turtle soup and I want to blow bubbles like hot air balloons as the stars whirl overhead.  I want to write figures on a slate.  I want to understand how the physical world we live in directs our thoughts and makes meaning in ways so subtle that we might not actually understand that it is our very materiality that instructs our thoughts.  I also want to acquire the proper vocabulary to explain myself, and I want to figure out to synthesize all of this into distinct chapters with pieces of arguments.  The past two major papers that I've written have, to some extent, felt like pulling teeth because I've noticed how constructed they are, how I am weaving out of the air and into so many pixels and processors a kind of overall order, and it has scared me to see myself constructing in this way, and sometimes all I want is a tangible product at the end.  It felt like putting together a puzzle wrong, as if I've mixed too many boxes together or forced things to fit that almost do but don't quite.  So I'm hoping that by taking the time to find all of the pieces, or at least most of them, I can build my borders, and fill in the middle, and if at the end I'm still missing bits I can go and find them out, and I hope that sooner than seems possible I will have made something beautiful, and at least in this metaphor I can hold my thoughts like puzzle pieces in my hand.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thoughts for Early November

This weekend Zan and I drove to the Shenandoah Valley to attend a wedding.  A really lovely wedding, with vows that got me to tear up, and a ring ceremony that invoked Frodo and Samwise.  The cake topper featured a silhouette of Jack Skellington and Sally, and the bouquets were red roses mixed with paper flowers made from pages of Shakespeare's plays.  The whole evening felt very relaxing, like a house party with good food and friends that I don't see very often.

The drive away from D.C. always feels like breathing a giant sigh of relief.  Out past the clog of office buildings, tiny cramped streets, metro stops and then the strip-malls at the very outer edges... the world breaks open into fields and streams and farmhouses scattered in the valleys.  Mountains rise up on either side, and stretch into the distance and at the farthest prospect look blue.  At this time of the year the drive becomes a sunburst of reds, oranges, and browns-- the mountains and hills like an autumnal bouquet, and the few trees that turn bright yellow stand out like Queen Anne's Lace or sprigs of Baby's Breath.  I thought a lot on the drive, about my thesis, my life.  I've been struggling to find meaning, because it often feels that everything is so meaningless.  Part of the problem with the thesis is that it doesn't feel like meaningful production to me, right now.  Things that feel meaningful are material: cooking, growing food.  Sewing.  Painting.  Giving gifts to people going through hard times.  That's what I want to do.  My job feels meaningful, too, because processing collections for future use feels like helping people (academics, students, other Special Collections users); it feels like growing the base of human knowledge.  The thesis, I suppose, should feel like growing human knowledge-- but right now, it doesn't.  It feels too amorphous and self-indulgent.  But then, thinking of the poems that I'm actually working with, they seem important in some way.  They resonate inside of me after I read them, but I'm not sure how to form my thoughts into something coherent, or academic, or new.  I don't know how to write about poetry intelligently; at least, my writing doesn't feel intelligent to me.  I've read a few secondary sources that make me 'oo' and 'ah' and fall more deeply in love with the poems, but then I feel that they've been explicated, and I don't know why I should write on them anymore.  I feel unable to add to the conversation at this point.  But I need to need to write twenty pages soon.  Then forty more.  I need to feel capable.

We drove back to D.C., the beginning of the drive feeling like anything is possible, the end again cramped with high rises and office buildings.  And now it's time to write.