Every moment is a dying moment and a new beginning; every day a new year starts. So paying attention to the end of a man-made calendar year invites irony even while it draws benediction. Mulling the non-binary lying of benediction with irony – both benediction and irony have fluid shapes and fuzzy boundaries, for example a metaphorical image of irony as large polka dots imbalancedly in a variegated mess of benediction, or vice versa, seems entirely plausible – in the last days of 2015, I realized that this is a fundamental state of human being, wrought as much into writing – whether penny-dreadful Harlequins or immoderate literary fantasies; the range, shapes, and tones vary – as into my everyday life of elemental love, conscious good, and whiplash cynicism.
Long an admirer of Pollyanna, I love to hear the ways people love and are kind to themselves and others. For many years this was a practice I sought. At first I struggled to keep all of me, the cynicism, fear, shame, and anger, along with the love and kindness to self and others. And then the struggle stopped, not because the love kindness cynicism fear shame anger disappeared, but because the struggle, petulant, distracting, or sucking me into an abyss of perfection, was getting me nowhere. So that was resolved in practice. But not in my writing.
Writing under my nom de plume, which is my nom de nom which is my legal name, memorializes me, or, at least, memorializes my name. So I want beautiful, inspiring writing to throw lustre on my name, but what I want to write is often, mostly, flat, ironic. Be careful; I’m not just peer-pressured into wanting to be inspiring (or flat-languaged). At a gut level, with a final constancy, I love the inspirational. But when I even think of writing with singularly inspirational portent, my lips turn down. Can’t do it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. I like writing flatly, ironically. I want to write, with round eyes and a flat tongue, the ironic underside of benediction.
But (third time, third time lucky) surely I can write blips of gratitude here, offer genuine Pollyanna puffs of contentment for love in my life, for being able to write the words I want to write, for being able to drink wines in the evening, and fragrant coffees in the morning, indeed for being able to smile at the strangers who are laughing, swaying, and being silly in front of me. This gratitude curls away from irony.
In the spirit of this gratitude, then, …
All of you, those who have opened this post, those who have not, and everyone who does not know it exists:
As this moment dies, this sun-day ends, this calendar year draws to a close,
I wish you comfort with, or at least respite from, your cynicism-fear-shame-anger,
I wish you safety, joy, and good health in drinking and eating (so many of you will not have the safety or the good health or even the potable liquid to drink or food to eat, but, still, fiercely, I can wish this, I can deny the irony of this helpless benediction),
And I wish you love to give and love around you, even if unspoken, even if love is simply the mundane sloth of mourning doves on the wall.
If I could make a multidimensional line drawing, with fine articulations, fanciful depths, repeated variations, and foggy smudges – the more it is the same, the more it changes – that would be my representation of motherhood.
If I could make a multidimensional line drawing, with fine articulations, fanciful depths, repeated variations, and foggy smudges – the more it is the same, the more it changes – that would be my representation of personhood.
Sometime in the last couple of months, there was a question raised in a periodical I was browsing about how many, and which, books in the English language literary canon have a mother as the protagonist. This discussion caught my attention because both of the main characters in my first novel, Variations, are mothers; their status of “mother” is not incidental to their stories, but agonistically central. Mulling the ways mothers are represented in literature and art, I speculated, vaguely, because I didn’t really research and tabulate, that by and large traditionally they took on primary roles in static frames – visual art, especially sculptures, statues, variations on the trope of Mother Earth. The mother, in abstract, generates and contains. As a living, historical figure, she seems either too unwieldy (abstract grandness combined with (what is perceived as) very limited room for discursive and spatial maneuver) or too quotidian, rhythmic (repetitive acts of mothering combined with a repetitive focus on and celebration of successful reproduction) to be the dynamic protagonist of a coherent and particular narrative.
In the days that followed, my gloomy mullings floated and thinned but didn’t disappear. And then I went to Goa where I stayed with my mother, hung out with my aunt (her sister), and met other relatives – some mothers themselves, others ineluctably defined by their relationships to mothers in some articulation or the other – who, in an Indian way, carry a meaning of mother that is both glorifying and glorious. As I was drawn to bask in this meaning, the discomforts of my novel niggled. Variations struggles to represent and tell the story of both the (very real and deserved) glory, and the self-representational and practical possibilities that the glory crowds out.
My mother, as mother, is a heroine and recognized as such by many who know her. While far from perfect as a person, she lives her commitment to her children (and her siblings, whom she mothered after her own mother died) in a way that can easily be mythologized, with all of the magnificence and ludic pettiness that characterize mythologies. Such a mythical mother figure matches, and even exceeds, any masculine quest-er figure, but it also presents a two-faced challenge to women who live in its shadow. Not being a questing figure itself, it doesn’t provide a model for a feminine quest; and if a feminine quest is undertaken within the practical and categorical frame of motherhood, the protagonist can find herself shadow-boxing herself, dwindling in a kind of auto-immune disease of self-consciousness.
So where did these thoughts and perceptions – fragments in indistinct interiors of my mind and senses – take me? To an unsatisfying, inconclusive, but lighthearted end.
I don’t have to choose. I can be two-faced, fractal, or chaotic. I can love this and be gloomy about that. I can write about this and live something that is different, whether bigger, more petty, more loving, more frightened, more banal, more stalwart, more frantic, or just aging.
Also, I am not alone. Starting in the late twentieth century, writers in English, and probably in other languages as well, are finding more ways to experiment with mother-as-protagonist, often enough Mother Agonistes.
Postscript: Those of you who are worried that my novel is written in the same style as this post, don’t be! The novel is ordinary story-telling.