Life in Books

I've read two extraordinary books over the past week, books that have helped me put some of the recent tumult in my life into perspective. They are also scholarly reflections, written by women whose work in the academy has transformed their ways of looking at their own lives.

Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing a Life.
Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, draws on the tradition of ethnography to create this detailed narrative of central themes in the lives of five women. She looks at women's work in an era when feminist ideals were at their height but women's realities were (as they are now) still often at odds with the concepts of equality. She sees lives as processes of negotiation. The chapter "Opening to the World" might be an excellent reading to include as part of the personal narrative portion of the storytelling class. (starts p. 56)

A few quotes....

Related to storytelling and narrative as the basis upon which we shape our lives:
--"Composing a life involves a continual reimagining of the future and reinterpretation of the past to give meaning to the present, remembering best those events that prefigured what followed, forgetting those that proved to have no meaning within the narrative." (p. 29)
--"Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning, whether we tell tales of the creation of the earth or of our own early choices." (p. 34)

Why feminism is still necessary:
--"...two kinds of vulnerability that women raised in our society tend to have. The first is the quality of self-sacrifice, a learned willingness to set their own interests aside and be used and even used up by the community. [...] The second kind of vulnerability trained into women is a readiness to believe messages of disdain and derogation." (p. 54)

On nurturing, caring:
"To be nurturant is not always to concur and comfort, to stroke and flatter and appease; often, it requires offering a caring version of the truth, grounded in reality. Self-care should include the cold shower as well as the scented tub. Real caring requires setting priorities and limits. Even the hard choices of triage have their own tenderness." She goes on to describe how many folktales reward the kind stranger, but that the mythological Psyche provides another model. While searching for Eros, Psyche must resist the cries of others. Bateson writes: "If she is to find her beloved, she must harden herself against inappropriate impulses to help and nurture" (emphasis is mine). (p. 155)

On commitment:
"It may be worthwhile to invest time and resources passionately in support of a cause, but it is wiser to avoid burning bridges or putting on blinkers as the tokens of commitment. A degree of caution need not be equivalent to disloyalty; blindness is not a virtue." (p. 188)
"Today I am unwilling to work from a position of dependent trust, and I believe the capacity to be self-supporting is a precondition to genuine partnership and responsible participation." (p. 189)


Tompkins, Jane. A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned
Strangely, I skipped the childhood portion of this memoir. I'll come back to it, I'm sure, but my main interest this week was in reading the memoir of an academically successful woman. In the end, she critiques the education system "as it is" because it "...fails to help its students find out why they are and where in the world their talents might best be employed...." (p. 217)

I thought how my undergrad education was all passionate self-exploration, and my graduate education (the master's at least) was all learning about the children's departments of public libraries, the place where I thought my talents would be best employed. How rare a creature I may be, one who was able to have all the passion of her early work and the practicality of later work. Unfortunately, Tompkins leaves no room for a oddity such as myself--she tries to "see" the university as a whole, but she is navel-gazing even when she gets beyond the narrow confines of her departmental work. She does not look beyond Duke, does not imagine that there are places (New College and many others) where students do take responsibility for their own education and have at least the opportunity to imagine how they may use it to make the world a better place.

I found myself thinking that she underestimates the disorientation of being young. Even with intellectual passion in full-flower, I did not have the faintest clue about where to place my passions in practical terms--where to get a job. All I knew was what my parents did. I knew early that my father's work (science) was not for me, and, when I considered teaching, my mother (a teacher) told me that I lacked the necessary patience for the work (a cruel thing to say to a young girl searching for a purpose).

I found libraries by pure chance, though looking back it seems predestined. I think the best education in the world cannot prepare a child to become a flourishing adult, to create a place for themselves that is appropriate, meaningful, sustaning, and allows for inventiveness.

Bateson's book, by portraying the paths of women who are praised for their improvisatory lives, is ultimately the most inspiring. It's as though Tompkins collapses under the weight of her own critical theory, failing to find a way to celebrate those that, despite systems that suppress their creativity, nonetheless create a life for themselves out of the brutal pieces that comprise their history. We survive and thrive without perfect educations, without supportive families, seemingly without anything but the wind and the rain, but still some of us do take up the task of composing our lives with relish.