Esther Greenwood Found Me, By Way of Kristeva, Eating Mushrooms (It Only Took Her Fifteen Years)


I don’t know what I ever saw in Esther Greenwood but there was definitely something there; it still is. While I can’t claim to be a Plath expert, but that’s on my to-do list, I can say this about her: she understands me. And you might ask yourself how a woman that died when my mother was only eight could understand me, particularly when I’m not certain that she understood herself. But I was introduced to Plath at seventeen and she’s the reason that I was an English major in college, always write “the feminist paper”, and now teach.

I was assigned an essay in my college writing class during my senior year of high school. We were to read two works by the same author and do something thematically. I can’t remember all the details about the assignment, but I do remember making my choice off the approved author’s: Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. I’d purchased the book the summer before my junior year. I hadn’t yet read it and this seemed like the perfect reason to dive into the pages and Esther Greenwood’s story.

There was a research element to the paper too, which I think was my first exposure to either a.) literary theory (which I am sure didn’t happen) or b.) it was my first exposure to critical analysis. I remember sitting in my high school library with my friend, who was struggling with Kate Chopin, and looking up psychological treatment in the 1950s and 1960s. I recall being incensed with the expectations and limitations placed on women.

I was engulfed in Esther’s complicated world of restriction. And I wrote this essay before I knew that folding the corners of a book’s pages is tantamount to a million paper cuts on an infant’s foot. I have passages underlined and highlights throughout my war-torn book.

I highlighted this, “all my life, I’d told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me” (Plath 31). In the margin, in small lettering, the word “me” appears on the page. Thirty-one pages into the book, I wasn’t yet aware that Esther and I were in two very different places mentally.


But I connected with her. She was young, and curious, smart, and she was a writer. At seventeen, I didn’t realize that the book was largely about mental illness, women, and treatment (or what passed as treatment). All I knew was that I was desperate to be a “real” writer as well.

I still connect with Esther, and I wonder today how much of her story is a frightening reflection of a reality that doesn’t seem so distant. And as much as I’d like to pity her, I don’t. While her character is one that I don’t, I can’t, see myself wholly reflected in, she strikes me as more of a heroine than a victim. Even of her own design.

To complete my assignment, I purchased Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which is a collection of Plath’s short stories, notes, and drawings. Throughout it, I have passages underlined and page corners folded down. Again, I was embroiled in the world that she created in each of her stories, which, by the way, build thematically through the book.

My favorite line is near the end of “Cambridge Notes” from February, 1956. How fitting that I remember it in February, 2017? Plath writes, “what I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination. When the sky outside is merely pink, and the rooftops merely black: that photographic mind which paradoxically tells the truth, but the worthless truth, about the world” (272). I highlighted that passage in 2002 and fifteen years later, I wonder about its validity and find it striking.

I am currently researching the ways in which student voice is valued on university campuses. What happens if the imagination is stifled? Maybe that ought to be my research question.

When I made good on my promise to become “unstoppable” in college, I proceeded to graduate school. Once I was in my first class, I felt like the university made a mistake. I went, crying, to my mentor and said, “Oakland made a mistake! I don’t belong in this program! I just don’t get it.”

He was kind enough to chuckle and tell me that I’d jumped from the frying pan right into the fire. The first class I took was critical literary theory and I didn’t understand a word! To be honest, I still don’t. If I occasionally want to “sound” smart, I’ll throw a Foucault into my sentence, but it’s the one phrase that I half understand.

However, there was one theorist that I did understand. I “got” Jules Kristeva and her theory of abjection.

A few days ago, a friend of mine shared a Plath poem with me titled “Mushrooms” and it got me thinking of Kristeva. Mushrooms are fungus, the abject. And wasn’t that what Esther was talking about all along? Mental illness, the abject. The things we don’t want to touch.

I began studying Plath in 2002 because I thought The Bell Jar was about a writer, and it is. But it is also about the nasty, the things we don’t want to see, or touch, admit, or deal with in any real sense.

I plan to re-read it, as I did 1984, to a shocking new appreciation.

I think Esther’s ready for me and it’s time for both of us to learn something new from our bell jars.

 

 

Work Cited

Plath, Sylvia. “Cambridge Notes”. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Harper Perennial, 2000.

Plath, Sylvia. Bell Jar. Perennial Classics, 2000.

Tessellations

Today at school, we talked about writing research based proposal essays, and since today is Valentine’s Day, I gave my class a bit of a prompt to get them going on an in-class exercise. “Because I believe in the power of narrative, and because today is Valentine’s Day, I want to tell you the story of a failed relationship.”

The looks on my students’ faces went from that sort of “I’m with you, but not really, because it’s Tuesday and we’re tired and it’s almost break” to “say what… tell me… tell me…”

“This is the story of how my relationship with math ended.”

Some chuckles, but ultimately, interest.

Here’s the story:

I was a pretty decent student in the eighth grade, as far as I can remember. I don’t recall struggling much in classes beyond the “usual” and math was no different. Math and I have never been on the best terms but we didn’t always hate each other.

I entered eighth grade with only one fear. I had to memorize Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and perform(?) it for my English class. We all did but back then I was still afraid to speak in front of a crowd (this is a charming trait that would carry on until I reached college). At any rate, that was my biggest fear.

Eighth grade wasn’t exactly life altering in any way. I went to school, did my homework, had fun with my friends, missed recess, and wondered why on earth the bus had to come so early. It was also the year that I’d have my first boyfriend {insert: “ooooohhhhs” from my class today}.

Remember, this is eighth grade. There isn’t a whole lot one can do in terms of “dating” when one is thirteen. Mainly, we held hands during movies and let our parents drive us, and our friends (because eighth graders travel in packs) to and from each other’s houses on weekends.

One day, my math teacher assigned a project that seemed to speak to my soul. It combined the dreaded math with art. We had to create tessellations

I came home pretty excited to embark on my new assignment. I was going to kill it. I could do art.

I sat at my parents’ kitchen table with a box of crayons and a pristine sheet of white paper. I chose to create the outline for my patterned genius in crayon to create a darker, thicker border and then my plan was to fill in my shapes with the same color, different shape, from colored pencil. See? I was thinking like an artist.

tess

I remember sitting at the kitchen table for hours in silence working on this. It was a beautiful sunny day and my parents ended up going out and having fun, leaving me in peace to work.

I was proud of my end result and I happily turned in in the following Monday.

I was not happy to get it back with a big, whopping, ugly, horned, smelly, red, “D+ “on it. I was astonished. I’d never gotten a “D” on anything. I’d never even failed a math test much less math art!

I took it home and I was embarrassed. I wasn’t particularly afraid of getting into trouble, but I didn’t want to bring home a giant “D” either, and we all knew that the “D” didn’t stand for “delightful.”

I told my mom that I was pretty sure I understood tessellations but that I could have been wrong.

My mom and I had a meeting with my teacher to see what we could do at home to bring my grades up.

And this, my friends, is where my relationship with math went south.

It turned out that my grade had nothing to do with the quality of the work that I’d turned in that day. “Melissa rushes through her work so she can spend the rest of the class talking with her friends and that boyfriend of hers.”

Really?

Me?

Rush?

Homework?

(And what did my boyfriend have to do with it!?)

Was she new here?

I didn’t rush anything school related. Ever. I was, and remain, the queen of overthinking the homework perhaps, but rushing it? Nada.

I think my mom and I were equal parts stunned and annoyed. I had been graded for my character rather than the quality of my work. (Thinking of this now, I am reminded of a piece I read for the class I’m currently taking. A piece of writing my Sharon Crowley questions if composition instructors do this same thing.)

I knew that I didn’t. I knew how long and hard I worked on that project and how hard I tried to make good grades.

My mom helped me with the next project I had in that class. I believe we had to draw a map of our neighborhood and calculate angles. I was genuinely afraid that I’d “fail” again if I couldn’t draw a straight line. I couldn’t then, even with a ruler, and I can’t today either. (Every single photograph on the walls in my home hangs on an angle. Oh well. It’s my house. Get over it.)

After that, I know my attitude toward the subject went downhill. Science and I would have a similar breakup, but that was a year and a half down the line.

I entered ninth grade with resistance toward algebra, but I liked my teacher so I tried. Tenth grade geometry wasn’t much better. It revisited the whole shapes and math thing. Enter my old resentment combined with a genuine dislike for everything about the class.

I got through college without taking “real” math and I’m cool with it. I still maintain that I get through every single day without using algebra.

I told this story, albeit abridged a bit, in class today to get my students to do a little pre-thinking before an in-class activity. I gave them the vague problem: “grades are no longer working” and they had to develop a proposal. The idea was for them to practice putting the pieces together and then indicating where they’d need researched support for the idea. They are doing this on their own, but the in-class activity is the equivalent to sniffing coffee beans. It clears their minds enough to return to their own work afterward with a fresh example to follow.

I hadn’t thought about the tessellation assignment in years, but if I trace my abhorrence to math backward, it lands in that eighth grade classroom. Point of origin.

While I was leaving my happy place, my campus, my home away from home, I thought about the one and only time I saw my eighth grade math teacher since then. I was in college and I’d been asked to do a presentation for the marching band kids at their summer camp. Apparently, I had a really good technique for marching and marching backward. (I continue to use this today when I moonwalk out of my classrooms on the last day of each semester.)

Digression aside.

I didn’t speak to her. I don’t think she recognized me but if she did, I didn’t care. I didn’t like her when I was thirteen and I wasn’t over it at twenty.

I broke up with math in the eighth grade and I don’t see a nice reconciliation in the near future.

However, telling this story today did make me think about my relationship with my job. I grade every single day and evaluate writing, which people might fear as much or more than math.

Because of all things, I don’t want to be someone else’s tessellation story. When I look at my students, I don’t see character flaws. Perhaps I see a bit of myself in them instead… and it might be that we’re all flawed, but that’s not for me to judge.

I’m there to teach writing.

End note: I slayed at memorizing Longfellow.

Unpacking: A Tale of Memory and of Hoarding

“And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts”- Wordsworth

 

If there is one thing more painful for me than making appointments over the phone, it’s making me, a pack rat, move. Anything. Ever.

Since late October into early November, piddling into December, and picking up serious steam in January, I worked (played, let’s be real here) at packing my home office. We need the extra room and moving my office from upstairs to our finished basement seemed like the most practical of all our options. I still vote for a She-Shed, but it’s February and I live in Michigan.

Moving my office proved to be a relatively easy affair and I did manage to purge some things. You know… unnecessary things like tax returns from 2004 and one of the two instructor’s editions of a textbook I no longer use.

Then there are the things that I must keep. And I have many of them. I have movie ticket stubs for many, if not most, of the movies I went to see with my mom on weekends in high school and in college. I have the birthday cards from a friend claiming we’d be “best friends forever” even though we’re not and haven’t been for many years. I have photos of my actual long time best friend and notes from her ranging from fifth grade through our senior year. I may even have humorous e-mails printed out (at least those put us in college). I have photos and cards from the members of my fox-squad, the girl friends that get me through the crazy day-to-day-ness of life and all its insanity.

(above: when we were kids, apparently I was on the left, now I’m on the right. Proud to be her right hand woman. And yes, if you’ve seen me recently, that’s the same puffy  U of M coat I am  still wearing. Hoarder.)

 

I saved the birthday cards that my mom and dad picked out with care and love, waiting until they found just the right one for the year. I have the Valentine’s Day cards I got as a middle schooler. I have the first Christmas card I ever received from a boy (gasp)!

I have a Happy Meal toy from the first Happy Meal that I remember my dad getting me. It’s a blue and purple toy truck (to satisfy your burning curiosity).

And these are small things, paper products, or photographs. This doesn’t begin to touch the things I have saved simply for sentimental value. It took me years to finally file the first Oxford Wildcats hoodie I received as a gift from my family. I still have the necklace that my first real boyfriend ever got me, and, I have the vase that the very same boyfriend brought me flowers in (nearly 20 years after the fact). I have the concert t-shirt from the time I saw Hanson at the Palace in 1998.

the-shirt-i-couldnt-part-with

(above: this is the shirt I refused to get rid of until I was 25.)

In short, I have one of everything.

Last week, I was sitting in my office, dutifully working on a lesson plan and a Facebook notification popped up on my phone. It was my friend, Jen, who’d posted something on my “wall.”  I thought I’d look “later”, but “later” comes quickly when you’re a teacher working on lesson plans at 7:00 p.m.  on a Wednesday night.

It was a meme about remembering “code names” that middle school girls give their crushes. For some reason, the two of us thought that “ceiling tile” and “hands” were both excellent choices for the boys we liked. Clearly, I’ve been a seventh-grade girl, and I still don’t understand their mentality. I really don’t.

melissa-and-jen-two

(above: me and Jen, ninth grade)

Anyway, after prompting, I even remembered who they were. I remembered “Ceiling Tile’s” first and last name. My friend has a photo of the two of them and I must say, he was a handsome young man. I remember him making me laugh and per my and Jen’s collective memory, he was in our health class. I can only imagine what the hell we found so funny.

This sparked a conversation between Jen and myself regarding our teenage years. We both agree that while we had fun growing up, we wouldn’t want to be teenagers again any time soon, if ever.

I wasn’t what you’d call a rebel. I wasn’t a rule breaker. I mostly colored inside the lines, and when I didn’t, I made sure it wasn’t something that could get me into serious trouble. I was always the grownup, and I’m sure that my longtime friends would agree.

melissa-laughing

(above: I am fifteen years old and laughing at Legally Blonde. In this same album, I have photos of my friends and I trying to bend and snap)

 

What Jen doesn’t know is that after our conversation, I went rummaging through my boxes looking for old photos, even more than the ones I found while in the process of moving. And even though I didn’t want it to happen, I got tears in my eyes.

These were not tears of sadness. They were tears of joy. I was filled with memory. I had so much fun growing up. From putting toilets in driveways (yeah, I did that), to crazy drives (getting lost in Utica thinking we were in Pontiac), and many, many, many sleepovers and dream sessions, I have lots of proof that I was once there. I did that.

I said that I have one of everything. While that is true, and some may call it a “condition”, I call it a collection. I have one of everything.

(above: Me, Jil, and Jen. 2013, me and Jil, Santa Monica, California. December, 2016. Me and Jil, high school. Year undetermined  and undisclosed)

 

I have memories of bowling during the summer and walking to the movies after school. Band camp (yes, I know the joke). Driving. Bad poetry. Gossip. Crying about what amounts to spilled milk today.

These things, artifacts if you will, are pieces of the events that have shaped me. And even though it’s darn close to hoarding, I’m okay with it. I might be a hoarder, but I have the best memories and laughs. Even as I write this, I am surrounded by my memories. Because in the end, we all are. If we’re lucky.

current

(above: my desk, as I write today….)