Linked by Scars: Beloved‘s Sethe and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao‘s Beli

On the surface, any similarities between the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz seem very superficial.  Both are novels about Black families in America, but that’s about where the similarities seemingly end.  Beloved, published in 1987, tells the story of a group of ex-slaves living in post-civil war Ohio; Oscar Wao, published in 2007, tells the story of a nerdy Dominican teen’s search for love.  And the main character of Beloved, Sethe, who would do anything for those around her, seems to have little in common with Beli, Oscar’s mother, who is most often seen screaming and cursing at her kids.

However, the more you dig beneath the obvious plotlines, you notice the two novels actually do have a lot in common.  Both books reach deep into the family histories: Beloved into Sethe’s experience in and escape from slavery and Oscar Wao into Beli’s experience in and escape from the Dominican Republic under the dictatorial Trujillo regime.  Both explore how those pasts influence the women’s relationships with their children.  In fact, mother/child relationships are a very large theme in both books– both Sethe and Beli were nurtured by mother figures who were not their biological mothers, and the novels explore those relationships, too.  Both Sethe and Beli lose children that they very much loved and are left to mourn afterwards.

The thing that leapt out at me, though, that made me really link these two characters in my head is that both Sethe and Beli bear physical scars from their past on their backs– expansive, knotted scars, Sethe’s from being whipped as punishment for telling her owner how she had been abused by the overseers and Beli’s from getting hot oil thrown on her as punishment when she told her cruel foster family that she was going to go to school instead of work.  In both cases, the scars serve as a physical reminder of extremely painful pasts.

Sethe and Beli are complicated figures.  Sethe seems less complicated, at least at first– she is a bit of an outcast in her town, but she seems steadfast and giving and caring.  Then, we find out why she’s an outcast: she killed her own 2-year-old daughter by cutting her throat when they were found by slave catchers.  Sethe explains to another character that she was trying to kill her children “to put them somewhere safe” before they could be taken back to slavery.

Beli, as an adult and as a mother, never seems steadfast, giving, or caring.  She has a contentious relationship with her daughter and a manipulative one with her son, and has no problem yelling or cursing at them.  It’s obvious that she’s a terrible mother.  Even when she is dying of cancer, it’s hard to sympathize with her.
These characters’ pasts, exemplified by their scars, open a door to understanding them.  It is incredibly hard to move past the knowledge that a character has murdered her own daughter, but we are also invited back into her history to maybe understand why before we pass total judgment– to relive the horrors of slavery that Sethe endured, things so terrible that even death seems like a more humane option for her children.  With Beli, reliving her past lets us see her transformation from sweet and slightly sassy child and teenager into someone who is thrown around relentlessly, heartbroken and physically assaulted repeatedly by people and things entirely outside of her control, even as her adoptive mother tries desperately to protect her.  We learn that life under a dictatorship involves very little self-determination.  Is it any wonder that someone who was beaten down so thoroughly, time and time again, grows into a callous person?  Although Oscar is the main character, it was Beli’s story that I was most interested in and invested in as I read.

There is probably an entire school of literary criticism devoted to analyzing scars as physical manifestations of characters’ emotional wounds, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been in school and I can’t remember any others off the top of my head.  However, one thing that struck me as I considered these two characters: Sethe’s scar is described time and time again as a chokecherry tree, and Beli’s as an inconsolable sea.  Both images give the impression of something beautiful, something wild but quiet that exists almost separate of the women that carry them; something that you might stumble upon while out for a misty morning nature walk.  Do these women wear their scars, or do their scars wear them?  It’s obvious that they’ve been shaped by their experiences, and it’s obvious that, given the systems and circumstances they were born into, there was no other way for it to happen.  For all of Sethe’s caring generosity, for all of Beli’s seeming cruel lack of maternal instinct, it’s that sad sense of inevitability draws these two women together.

Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

If I had to sum up the experience of reading Gilead in one sentence, it would be this: I didn’t notice that there are no chapters in the book until I was on page 132.

That says nothing whatsoever about what the book is about, but it does exemplify just how quickly and totally you get sucked in, where you just read and read and don’t notice anything else– like the lack of chapters– because you’re so engrossed with the words on the page.

Gilead is the second novel by Marilynne Robinson (and published 24 years after her first one) and it is the first-person story of Reverend John Ames as his health declines in old age, written as one long letter to his son.  He knows he will be dead soon, and since he married his second wife late in life (after being widowed at a young age) and his son is still very young and he won’t be around to guide him as he grows up, he wants to leave him something to both know who is father was and hopefully know something about life too.  John Ames talks directly to his son in this letter, giving him advice and also going deep into their family history.

The plot of the book– and therefore the letter– is interrupted a bit halfway through when an unexpected character from the past shows up, the literal prodigal son of a good family friend with a shady past, and begins spending a lot of time with his wife and son.  John Ames, as a Congregationalist pastor in a long line of Congregationalist pastors, has made it a personal and professional goal of his to see the good and holiness in everyone, and he finds himself struggling with this particular thing as he watches a man he does not trust insert himself more and more into his family’s life.

*Gilead* utterly surprised me with its sheer, quiet beauty.  Friends had been recommending it to me for years and it won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I was expecting it to be good, but it was not at all what I expected in terms of content.  Knowing that it was about a pastor in a small town, I expected it to be full of controversy and corruption and oppression, the way most books about small town churches are (think: *The Scarlet Letter*, et al).  Even with the mysterious character who shows up midway through the book, the protagonist takes such a measured approach to it, going so far as to recognize when he is being unfair, that it never veers into the territory of the melodramatic.  The Reverend John Ames is much more of a scholarly man of faith than he is a dogmatic one.

The book is poignant– talking about serious issues such as slavery and war and segregation, all put into the context of John Ames’ father being a Christian pacifist and his grandfather being a radical abolitionist actively involved in violent acts before and during the Civil War– and philosophical, exploring various Christian theological questions as well as whether or not atheism can serve a purpose to those of faith.  Although there is plenty of action and plot, these theological questions and how John Ames explores them creates both the heart and the backbone of the novel.  One of the best things about the book, in my opinion, is that you do not have to be Protestant, or even Christian or religious, I don’t think, in order to appreciate and gain something from reading it.  Although it’s talking about theology, it is just as much an exploration of the infinite beauty of life.

This is perhaps exemplified nowhere more clearly than in one of my favorite passages.  John Ames is reflecting back on a trip he took to Kansas with his father as a boy, searching for his grandfather’s grave.  This was before Kansas was really settled and they were traveling on foot through desolate landscapes, very little to eat or drink, a physically exhausting and emotionally difficult journey.  They find the grave, and his father (who is also a reverend) starts to pray.  Young John Ames looks up to the sky and realizes that a full moon is rising just as the sun is setting, and that both are hanging in balance in the sky.  It moves him so much that he interrupts his father’s prayer by kissing his hand and they watched the sun and the moon float in the sky together.  After standing there quietly for a long time, his father says, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful.  I’m glad to know that.” (p. 15)

That, to me, is really what makes this book worth reading– it forces the reader to look around, question everything, and notice the beauty of the mundane.  And if that’s not worth your time, what is?

changes

My favorite part of the day is quickly becoming the wee, small hours of the morning. It’s just such a delightful time. There is a peaceful silence about the world. Everything is still blanketed in a soft darkness as the sun hasn’t quite made its appearance for the day; the early rays of light just beginning to show along the mountain skyline to the east. The Cottage is quiet while the roommates are all still happily dreaming.

My mind feels clear and optimistic for the day ahead. I am able to plan and organize my thoughts for the day while curled up on the couch with my beloved cup of tea. The sounds of Frank Sinatra washing over me.

It’s the most beautiful time of day.

I haven’t always been such an early riser. Quite the opposite, in fact. Waking up used to be a never-ending struggle for me. I have slept through many a 10:30 class because I couldn’t get myself out of bed. At 10:30! Once I finally did get up, I would spend my days sluggish and worn. My motivation was lacking and my mind foggy. Those were some very dark days, friends. And they weren’t even all that long ago.

I’m not sure what brought about this change. I suspect it might have something to do with how in love with myself I have fallen recently. No wait! Hear me out. After years and years of abuse and neglect, I am finally realizing just how wonderfully important I am. I deserve the best. It is finally time that I start taking care of myself. I am eating better than I ever have and taking care of my body – the most important thing I own. And the changes I feel are astounding. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. I feel cleaner. purer. happier.

I never set out to make these changes. They started out so small at first I didn’t even realize they were happening. When I started running it was the first time I was working out regularly in my whole entire life. Then I had to cut alcohol out of my diet and I really started to feel a shift in my energy. In order to become a better runner I began teaching myself more about nutrition and gradually my plates were piled with fewer cupcakes and more brussels sprouts. Have you been introduced to the brussels sprouts? If not, allow me to introduce you because those brussels sprouts? Well, they have changed my whole world.

Once I began to feel better physically, I noticed the mental changes that were taking place as well. While I can still sometimes be my harshest critic, I have also become my very best cheerleader.

“You ran thirteen point one miles!” I’ll say, “There isn’t anything you can’t set your mind to and achieve!”

“Don’t quit now! I know you can do this!” I’ll cheer as I do round off back handsprings (in my mind).

“You are beautiful. You are strong. You are enough.” I love to chant.

I used to be terrified of changes. If someone told me I was changing I always took it be a terrible thing and I would panic and try frantically to reverse the trends. Changes in life scared me as well. They meant a deviation from routine, a voyage in to the unfamiliar.

But if I have learned anything over this past year it is that change is the best thing. It’s progress. It’s adventure. It means discovering just how wonderful those wee small hours of the morning truly are.

That Awkward Moment

So there’s that moment after you’ve had sex with someone for the first time, and someone gets out of bed to put their clothes on, or make breakfast, and you really see each other naked for the first time. See their real nudity in a non-sexual context, without the filter of lust or passion.

There was a nice boy I had sex with one time, we knew from the start it was just for fun. And it was. When he got up to put his clothes on and  go back to his place, he said “Want to see something?”

I was more surprised I think than I should have been, but it seemed like such unusual timing for a question like that.

“Umm… sure?”

He climbed up, still naked, on to a low dresser. The ceilings were high, so he had plenty of room. He held his underwear dramatically out in front of him, paused, then he jumped. His legs went right into the legs of his underwear, in midair, and then he landed.

I paused for a second and started laughing hysterically. He had a big stupid grin on his face, and it was a perfect moment.

First, it was beautiful, his lithe naked body jumping. Second, there was an element of danger, if he caught a toe or mistimed, he’d land in crashing heap. Third, it was gut-bustingly, belly-laughing funny.

I always meant to learn the trick myself, but then I never even tried.

we should totally just stab caesar

AUGUST 3, 2011

Back in my early teenage years I was sort of a bitch to a lot of people. Like, only wear pink on wednesdays, you can’t have gold hoop earrings because those are *my* thing, trying to make fetch happen, you go glenn coco, total and complete mean girl.

One day in my tenth grade year, while in the midst of being extra bitchalicious to a boy in my French class, it suddenly dawned on me just how awful I had become. I felt horrible. It was in that moment that I decided to adopt a new life mantra – be nice.

In the weeks to come I repeated that mantra obsessively. I lived by that code. Nice was so fetch. If you looked nice up in the dictionary, you would probably see my face smiling back at you.

A year later I met a girl who was always just the nicest to everyone that she met. In fact,  you would actually find her face in the dictionary. She became my inspiration. And when I later learned that she actually wasn’t so nice behind your back, I used that as inspiration also. After some minor tweaking my new mantra eventually became – be genuinely nice.

Don’t gossip. Don’t be fake. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Respect.

By the time I had graduated high school, I had mastered the art of being nice.

It wasn’t until the middle of my freshman year that I realized something terrible  – I had become too nice.

Somehow “being  genuinely nice” stopped being about treating others with kindness and respect, and became more about overly accommodating everyone at the expense of my own wants and needs. It no longer involved being confident yet humble, but rather obsessing over what someone really thought of me and whether or not they liked me. In my grand pursuit of being the nice girl, I had checked my backbone at the door leaving plenty of space for people to walk all over me. I had not only lost the ability to say no, but I had also lost the ability to stick up for myself.

In other words I had created the nicest monster of all time.

Yet despite the fact that I realized this over three years ago, I still struggle with it every single day. As it turns out the “be less nice” mantra isn’t as effective as it’s sister “be genuinely nice.”

One of the most common adjectives used to describe me is nice. I’ve just really grown to hate that word. Nice. I want nothing to do with it.

Goodbye nice, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

I want to learn how to treat others with respect without compromising respect for myself. I want to accept that not everyone will like me and that trying to be agreeable to every single person I encounter makes me boring and entirely non functional. I want to feel like i have a voice while still respecting the opinions of others.

I just can’t figure out how to accomplish those things. I think the worst is my inability to stick up for myself at times. Whenever I find myself in a confrontational position I don’t know how to handle it. I shut down and lose the ability to form coherent sentences. Spoiler alert: I leave the conversation on the verge of tears and feeling utterly defeated.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I know that I can be mean. As a fairly sarcastic person I occasionally find myself crossing the line in to “too far” territory. But even then I fear that my version of mean and your version of mean are entirely two different things. I’m like the Kathleen Kelly of saying what I mean to say when I mean to say it – I inevitably feel awful once all is said and done.

I don’t know why finding that happy middle ground between nice and mean is so impossible for me, but I do hope I figure it out one day.

on youtube, concerts and anxiety

December 2, 2013

it is no secret that i spend a lot of my time on youtube. it just sort of happens. i’ll go to watch justone video and then before i know it i will have no idea what happened to the previous four hours of my life. i need you to believe me when i say that only about 10% of my youtube rabbit holes actually start with a one direction video but 100% of them end with a one direction video. it is the only place rabbit holes lead, naturally.

but that is neither here nor there. most of my youtube rabbit hole time is dedicated to watching live performances of my favorite artists. lately i have not been able to get enough of watching bastille work their acoustic magic all over the place. or just their magic in general, really. because seriously THAT VOICE.

so imagine how excited i was to discover they were performing for just $9 in salt lake on december 2. oh, i snatched those tickets up so fast. but also here’s a fun fact about me: i often forget that i have really weird and intense anxieties about being in crowds. especially concert crowds. unless it is the kind of concert with plenty of lawn space to sprawl out with wine or one with assigned seating (thank god one direction will be), i just can’t do it. and it wasn’t until i woke up this morning that it finally occurred to me that going to a sold out $9 concert sounded like my actual nightmare. so i spent all day trying my hardest to keep the anxiety at bay and praying that my roommate would be able to help me rise to the challenge. but even she wasn’t excited at the idea of fighting a crowd of 18 year olds for a concert that started at 8pm (which total side note but since fucking when do concerts start at 8pm?! don’t these people know how hard that is for me??) and basically that was when i knew we were toast. we never did make it to see bastille tonight.

which is a damn shame because i really love live music.

so now i’m back to watching bastille videos on youtube and i feel mostly okay with it.

anxiety is weird.

I can’t believe the inauguration is tomorrow

What a time to start writing this blog. With a man so full of hate about to become the president. We’ve got to keep making our voices heard. I’m going to be marching in my local city in solidarity on Saturday (I can’t realistically go to Washington D.C.) and I hope many of you will be doing the same.

I just keep trying to tell myself that Ted Cruz might actually have been worse.