Tag Archives: identity

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Food and Memory

My phone rang, and I almost missed the call because my arms were buried to the elbows in a bowl of ground lamb.

My sister Parry was on the other end of the line, and I told her I was making lahmajun, a thin pizza-like dish made with lamb, onions, peppers, and tomato. Lahmajun was one of our favorite things to eat when we were kids, and we frequently begged our Nana to make them. Rolled up like skinny burritos, we’d easily scarf down three in one sitting.

Lately, I’ve been flipping through my Armenian recipes, looking for the most beloved foods of my youth. My Nana gave me her recipes to follow, but cooking her food is so much more than following the instructions. It’s remembering, thinking back to how the dish looked and felt and smelled to me as a child. I channel my grandmother’s practiced way of spreading the topping, hear her voice telling me to make the meat layer thin. Even thinner than that, my hokhis.

The recipes are a connection between my sister and me, too, because we’ve shared tips and advice for making these traditional foods. We’ve both attempted choereg, the sweet bread rolls that were our favorite snack. Nana would make a big batch and put it in the freezer. When I came home from school, I’d take the bag from the freezer, defrost one (or two or three) in the microwave, and eat it, plain, or with whatever I wanted slathered inside. I preferred them with jelly, Parry with cheese. I remember Nana braiding the dough. Parry says she knotted it.

When my kids and I made choereg recently, my daughter and I had a good laugh at our dough-knotting incompetence. Between the mixing and the rising and the shaping and the baking, it was a day-long adventure. And now we, too, have a big bag of choereg in our freezer. When my daughter comes home from school and defrosts her choereg (she takes hers with jelly), or when my kids have their first tastes of lahmajun, it makes me feel like I’ve done something good.

This food goes beyond sustenance. Cooking these dishes connects my kids and me to our Armenian heritage, especially to my Nana, who even now cooks up yalanchi and boereg when the family gathers. I love the feeling that I am carrying on her role, and sharing an important tradition with my children.

I’m giving them something that they will remember.

Lahmajum!

Lahmajun, almost like Nana makes. Yum.

 

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

This Little Life

A news story caught my attention yesterday, a startling story about a group of Taliban soldiers who dressed as Americans in order to penetrate a U.S. military base. As I stood at the stove cooking dinner for my kids, I couldn’t fathom that something like this had really happened. The event sounds more like a movie, or a dream, than real life. Real life – my own life – is the furthest thing from a violent, dangerous event like that.

I struggle, sometimes, to envision a world in which the whole spectrum of experience coexists. How can it be that I am making a vegetable saute while another mother is watching her son leave the house for the last time? We’re all the same, tiny vessels of emotion and intellect, roughly four and a half cubic feet of hormones and synapses, bones and sinew. Each of us is consumed by our own worries and desires, so consumed that it’s hard to have perspective about whether our pursuits are important or meaningful. If I had such perspective, would I still feel anxious that dinner was late to the table? Or that the countertop in our new house might need replacing?

Our lives are all, by definition, small. Our days are tragically short. Our hands only reach so far. Yet, some lives seem smaller than others. As I listened to the world news on the radio, usually not much more than a bit of background noise, I realized that my mind has lately been occupied with issues that are unique to myself and my family: our son’s birth and infancy, our daughter’s needs and schooling, sick relatives, my friends, moving to a new city, finding a house. Big things to me, yet irrefutably small, in the scheme of the world.

I can’t live the life of an Afghan or anyone else. I can only live the life I’ve got, and I am grateful for and baffled by the blessings I have. That can’t be the end, though, to just feel grateful and go on with the vegetables and the countertops. I can only live my life, yes… can only reach my arms so far, yes. But, perhaps they could reach just a little farther? Perhaps my life, while it will always be small, could be just a little bit bigger?

It seems to me that we who are born into a family – or a country, or a time – with so many advantages and opportunities, have more of a responsibility than others do. A responsibility to use whatever meager time and talents we have for something bigger. Sadly, it sometimes feels as though the opposite happens. We who are born into lives of ease, we take it easy. Let others stretch and struggle.

I am grappling with this. It’s easy enough to say, reach. But how?

Making Do

I take pride in making do. As if it is a testament to my inner iron, or to my frontierswoman spirit, I proudly go without. Who needs a dishwasher? I’ve got hands, haven’t I? A car? An elevator? See, I’m just fine without all that stuff that other people think they need.

Ah, but I’m not bragging. There’s danger in all that pride I take in my own (perceived) virtue. See, sometimes I go without things like sleep. Or time to myself. Or the help that I can’t bring myself to request. And who does that serve? No one. Sometimes I’m so busy being fine that I forget that being fine is not the point. The point is to flourish.

And, in order to flourish, I need to give myself permission to want and need and dream and demand. To be the happy and creative and balanced person that I am at my best, making do won’t do at all. The list of things that I need is not long, but it’s also not negotiable: Time. Space. Sun. Rest. People (the right ones, of course).

Starting this month, I have been attempting the radical. Instead of being so busy and put-upon that I can’t engage in anything exceptional or creative, I’m going to prioritize my creativity and let the rest slide.  I’m making fast, simple food. I’m dropping off the laundry. I’m turning off my internet connection more often. Rather than making do, I’m making myself do.

The other day, I walked in the park and couldn’t stop noticing the trees. They are a gorgeous sight this time of year, with bright green leaves unfurling and buds of every hue opening like eyes waking to the new morning. The branches reminded me of a particular hand position that a yoga teacher taught me a long while ago. The palms face up and fingers extend, signaling openness and readiness for giving and receiving. As I walked I felt my fingers mimicking the trees’ gestures, turning toward the sky, opening to possibility.

So far, I’ve been surprised how even the slightest shift in attention and effort reaps rewards. I’ve arranged for some additional child-free hours, which frees my schedule to focus on my creative projects. I’ve joined with an excellent writer and awesome person in a writing critique partnership, which gives me the motivation to work on my book every day. Time, space, sun, rest, and people. Opportunities abound, and my palms face the sky.

How I Hold Them

When she was first born, she was my fragile thing, my carton of eggs, my soap bubble.

As she got older, she was no less precious, but not quite as delicate, so I jostled and shimmied and jumped and danced with her. Anything to make her sleep. Make her laugh. Make her happy.

After that, I held her on my hip, casually, like a load of laundry or a sack of groceries. She put her head on my shoulder, looked over my shoulder, looked all around. She pulled away, she pleaded to get down, to run. After such intense dependence, she shocked me with her yearning to be apart.

More and more, it was I who yearned for separation. I put her down. I made bargains and contracts and rules. I carried her only on the way there, only until that tree, only if she stopped crying, only if…

When she was hurt, or sad, or tired, I held her like a baby again, pressed her chest against mine. She wrapped her arms tightly around my neck like a dance partner.

It gets harder each day to pretend she is still a baby. I can only hold her on my lap if I fold her over onto herself. She lays her head against my chest and I wrap my arms around the whole of her, stretching to contain her limbs. We both stay longer than is comfortable, knowing well that the moment is gone already.

Still, I can hold her hand, which she doesn’t seem to mind as much as she used to. I hold her face between my  hands. I hold her close to me when she climbs into our bed in the mornings.

With the boy, I’m back at the beginning. He looks up at me, his face round and full of easy delight, a wide grin to greet the world. He looks my way and, impossibly, he opens his mouth even wider, showing me his gummy smile. And I smile back, both of us content to be safe and happy and together in a world no wider than the circle of my arms.

And, at night, I press him against my chest, and tuck my chin over his velvet head. My arms wrap all around him, my back curves forward to shelter him. He is my stolen loot, my thieve’s ransom. I say sometimes that I wish I could steal him away from time, from the changes the future will bring. And the words are true when I say them.

Really, though, I marvel at the different shapes our embrace will take. I can be their cocoon, their clown, their toy, their bed, their haven… And then what? And then what?

New Baby Boy

How very small my world is just now. A rocking chair, a bassinet, a bed. I mark time by listening to the world outside. Through my window, I hear the store gates open, the car radios blaring, the children laughing and racing ahead of their parents on the way to school.

But, here, just above the raucous world that exists on the sidewalks below, my only wish is to make you happy, my new baby boy, largely because it is so easy. Nuzzle you, rock you, feed you well, sing you to sleep, and you reward me with a contented burp or a sigh, the sweet heaviness of your body melting against my chest.

The mornings are my favorite, when you are finally sound asleep. Your sister comes in like a hurricane, then settles on the bed between your dad and me. She snuggles her body into mine, into the spot that, to be fair, was hers first. I feel so exhausted that I can’t raise my head. For a few moments, no one has to move.

I can smell my children, hear them breathing. I can touch my husband’s face. Those dearest to me in the world are within these four walls, and it feels like being inside a present.

Long and Short of It

It’s just hair.

And, yet, there’s much more to it than that. At least, judging by the amount of analysis, appreciation, and significance we devote to it. I recently got my hair cut short after wearing it long for a while, and I was surprised by how my acquaintances interpreted my decision. Or, really, that anyone interpreted it at all.

I have pretty non-descript hair. It’s straight, brown, and thick. All the way through high school and college I wore it in a plain bob with the occasional sparkly pin thrown in for pizzazz. When an event called for fancy, out came my curling iron (Exhibit A: helmet hair a la senior prom pictures).

After I graduated and moved to New York, I decided to go short. Really short. Having super short hair turned my plain look into something much more interesting. Short hair put the focus on my face, and made me feel bold and sexy. I wore more lipstick and mascara with short hair. I experimented with products to make it spiky, slick, smooth, or funky. I had fun with it, and it suited me. So, I wore my hair that way for about ten years, through those all-important twenties. My hubbie had never even known me with anything but short hair, and my friends who did know me before all but forgot what I looked like any other way.

But, anything gets old after a while. I started wondering what I would look like with long hair. I wanted to brush and braid my hair, things that I hadn’t been able to do since I was a little kid. So, I let it grow. And grow. It was as much a decision based on negligence and laziness as on style, really. Not getting it cut was easier (and much cheaper) for me, especially now that trips to the salon require me to arrange for childcare.

It was different, novel, and even kind of fun to have long hair. But, I missed my signature look. I missed standing out in a crowd. I missed rocking a look that set me apart in a sea of long-haired women. After I finally went back to the salon for the big chop, I practically skipped down the street. I felt the way that vanilla ice cream must feel after it finally gets its hot sauce and cherries.

What surprised me was the reaction I got. People assumed all sorts of motivations behind my decision to cut. Some suggested that I had cut my hair short because of the hot weather. Or, for convenience. Or, so I wouldn’t have to think about it. One friend noted that many “middle-aged women” cut their hair short because they already have husbands and so no longer need to worry about looking sexy or attractive.

Hmmm.

It’s weird that we so associate femininity and women looking good (read: attractive to dudes) with having long, flowing locks. Contrary to what some people concluded, I didn’t think: “Well, I need a low-maintenance haircut, so I’ll go for it, despite the fact that I am basically neutering myself and stripping myself of sex appeal.” I actually think… wait for it… that I look hotter with short hair. Yep, shallow as it might seem, I was only considering my looks – not ease, not temperature, not convenience. I was going for hot and sexy with this here short ‘do. So now you know. And you can continue to analyze at your peril.

I’m Feeling You, Virginia


Behold, my "desk"

Behold, my "desk"

This is my desk. You have no idea the shame I feel, showing it to you.

Calling it a “desk” sends entirely the wrong message. First of all, it’s only desk-like in that it is a piece of furniture with a flat top and four legs. In truth, this piece dreams of one day fulfilling its destiny as a dining room table. At present, however, it mostly functions as a holder for the motley assortment of junk that I find in my hands at any given moment in the day.

Secondly, to say that this is my desk gives the impression that I accomplish work here. And, well, that was my intention. But, I don’t. Or, not regularly. Of all the places that I work – couch, bed, coffee shop, subway – I work here at the “desk” least often. There was a time when this nomadic work life pleased me. I felt so footloose, slinging my computer bag over my shoulder and heading off to catch a few minutes of work somewhere. (In those days, that was the important part: that I was going somewhere. Somewhere where no one demanded juice or dumped markers on the floor or wanted to hear Goodnight Moon for the thousandth time.)

But, now, I find myself discouraged by this necessary transience. When I am working, I frequently need some material or resource that I neglected to pack. My computer battery dies, but I don’t have the cord. Or, I need to find a quote from a book that I know I have back at home on my bookshelf. I feel like I’m in a long distance relationship with my creative self. When we first reunite, it takes a long while to get settled together. I type out phrases, then erase them, self-conscious that nothing sounds right. By the time she and I are in full make-out mode and going gangbusters on some blog posts, I glance at the clock and – for the love of…! – it’s time to pack it in and say our farewells.

Lately, I’ve been longing for a space to call my own. Not a couch in the living room, where I sit like a waiting target for any and all persons who enter and want something from me. Not a dining room, cluttered with the assorted detritus of my life. No, the room I envision is mine alone. It’s not fancy or big. But, it has room enough for a desk and chair. It has natural light. It has walls lined with bookcases and an armchair for reading. A table for a snack, pictures on the walls, and a plant or two.

I’m taking this longing as a good sign. It means that I’m finally unsatisfied squeezing in my work in stolen moments, in any old location. I have serious work to do, work that needs dedicated space and time. Virginia Woolf famously insisted that women need a space if they aspire to have any success at their art. So, I’m wondering: do you have a wonderful space in which you do the work you love? What’s it like? If you don’t have one, what would it be like?

Inspire me, won’t you?  I’ll be over here at the cafe, taking notes while I dream up my writing nooks in the sky.

Digging God and Marcelo

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
I know I don’t look like the destructive type, but I once totaled my husband’s nativity set.

Well, I didn’t destroy it personally, but I did call in some hired muscle in the form of a disturbed dog. When the job was done and the wise men’s dismembered bodies were strewn around the kitchen floor, I secretly did a jig.

I celebrate Christmas, but you won’t find a nativity scene at my house. It’s not because I’m so private about my religion, or because Banana Republic and Zales have killed my spirituality with their ubiquitous marketing campaigns. In all honesty, I believe in God, and I love the story of Jesus’ birth.

But I keep it quiet. Because, let’s face it, it’s just not cool to dig God.

I recently read the wonderful book Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, about a boy named Marcelo with a diagnosis that lies somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. Marcelo has managed to create a world for himself that is comfortable and familiar. He goes to a special school, lives in his tree house, works with horses, delves into religious pursuits, and retreats to his “internal music” whenever life gets to be too much for him. Then, one summer, his father demands that Marcelo enter the “real world,” which translates into taking a job in the mailroom at his father’s law firm. Marcelo’s eyes are opened in some alarming ways, and seeing the real world – our world – through Marcelo’s frank and naive gaze is a little uncomfortable for the reader, because it’s so true.

In one particularly interesting scene, Marcelo and his dad are traveling on the commuter rail together for Marcelo’s first day at the law firm. To calm his nerves, Marcelo takes out his rosary and begins to pray quietly. His father calmly explains that praying is not appropriate public behavior. It’s just not done. I was thinking that the dad was a real jerk, and then I realized: if he’s a jerk, so am I. The dad is right. We live in a secular world, and there are rules we must follow to succeed. In general, people who are considered successful don’t make a fuss about their faith.

I don’t have any need to evanglize, but I don’t want to hide an aspect of myself that is becoming increasingly important to me. It’s hard to imagine feeling comfortable even mentioning prayer, church, or God in a group of my peers, the vast majority of whom do not practice religion. It’s not comfortable to admit it, but even though I’m all “grown up,” I still want to fit in. Shouldn’t I have outgrown this feeling by now?

Acknowledging faith in God makes me feel vulnerable, so I resist. I’ve been too embarrassed to be enthusiastic about religion or, really, about anything that makes me seem less than strong, less than self-sufficient. It’s the same way I used to feel about therapy Getting over that was a necessary step in helping my marriage thrive, and I’m so grateful that I did.

It’s scary to admit to believing in something that’s invisible, or to get help when you need it, or to build a life around loving someone else. It’s scary to need anything, period. People might laugh or, worse, judge me.

Seems a bit late, but I’m finally realizing what people mean when they say, “live your life for you.” My self-consciousness has gotten me nothing, except a bubble of protection from the mockery that I fear. Yet, how many things has that self-consciousness cost me?

Well, church, for one.