Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | December 23, 2011

Gratitude III

In this post, I want to thank all my writer friends.  First, Jan, who was the first to encourage me to write something to post for a small group; an online friend in the UK, whom I had the good fortune to meet in real life during my visit to England last February.  I like to think that the two of us encouraged our mutual friend, Elaine, to start writing as well.  To them, and to the rest of my friends in that online community, thank you so very much for believing in me. You are counted among the best friends I have; I just wish we lived closer to one another.Last summer, I was looking for an online writing community, as living in the hinterlands of Florida meant the closest real-life group was forty miles away.  I stumbled across A Round of Words in 80 Days, which struck me with its reasonable goal-setting and ability to tweak them.  I lurked for a few weeks, then joined in when Round 3 started on July 4th. I was a sponsor for Round 3 and 4 of 2011; it was a great experience, and it helped me meet a lot of people.; I encourage you to try it, if you’re interested.I was blown away by the support and camaraderie of the group. Helpful links to blog posts outlining writing tips, suggestions for books to read, courses to take, all poured into my mailbox. As I grew more comfortable sharing my personal story, I received more support–virtual cheers when I succeeded at something, virtual hugs when I failed, but encouragement through it all.  I have met C. M. Cipriani in real life, as it turned out she lived only 45 minutes away from me.  She put ROW80 well, saying, “These are friends; I feel like I know them, even though I’ve never met them.” I know exactly what she means; I feel as though I know several of you. Thank you all for taking the time to come by to support, encourage, bolster and chide.

Finally, I would like to finish thanking the people who follow my blog.  This post will catch me up, so I can copy L. S. Engler from now on, thanking followers as they add themselves to my blog. I’ve included some information about their blogs, if they have one.

Cheryel Hutton http://cheryelhutton.wordpress.com/ working on her third novel, talks to dragons, and they talk back

Ramesh Nanda http://rameshnanda.wordpress.com/ blogs mash-ups

Tiffany A. White http://tiffanyawhite.wordpress.com/  blogs TV reviews and things that make you go  “Ooo”

Thea Atkinson http://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/ author of short stories and novels;  writes about the writing life

Catherine M. Johnson http://catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com/ everything about writing for children

Talin Orfali http://talinorfali.wordpress.com/ blogs about life, posts recipes

Coral http://alchemyofscrawl.wordpress.com/ posts book reviews

Julia Indigo http://juliaindigo.wordpress.com/ blogs about the writing life

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | December 9, 2011

Gratitude Part II

After writing about some of my family last week, I wanted to express my gratitude to some other family members: my aunt, my brother, and my sister. I am very grateful that my aunt found time to spend with her niece, and that my brother and sister have endeavored to stay connected with me despite the centrifugal force that characterises my family.

My mother’s sister was nine years older than my mother, with no intervening children; my mother always looked upon her as a mother, and I saw her more as a grandmother.  A big believer in idle hands leading to devil’s work, my aunt taught me how to knit, crochet, embroider, and tat when I was very young.  She was teaching my oldest sister, and I hung around like a pest and learned as well. She came to see us every month or so; we were always glad to see her, because she knew all sorts of stories and could bake the best pies and cookies I’d ever had.

Even though she always made me keep my hands busy with knitting or tatting while we talked, I looked forward to her visits.  I felt as though she could see me, when very few other grownups could.  She despaired when I became a perpetual student, often shaking her head at my explanations of why I studied all these things.  When I finally got married and settled down with my instant family, you would have thought she had been the matchmaker, she was so proud.  And when we added more children, she was ecstatic that I had given her more children to love.

Two days before my youngest son was born, Aunt Ellene felt ill, somewhat like indigestion, but worse.  The hospital gave her heartburn medication and sent her home.  Three hours later, she passed away from a massive heart attack.  My mother debated delaying her planned trip to help me with the baby, but she came the day he came home from the hospital, missing her sister’s funeral, because that was what my aunt would have wanted. My son is eighteen now, and I still miss talking with Aunt Ellene over our knitting or embroidery.

My brother didn’t become a human being until I was 11 and he went to college.  He actually corresponded with me; when he was home on vacation, he still acted like a jerk sometimes, but that behavior diminished through the years.  He married into one of those huge families that gets together for birthdays and holidays and weddings; I have never asked him directly, but I suspect he felt the same kind of attraction/curiosity at the concept that I did when I first saw this unaccustomed behavior.  No matter, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly, leaving my father to shake his head in consternation at how he and his wife travel cross country to see their kids and grandkids.  I stand back in admiration.

Last year, my brother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and had one lung removed.  I had not realized until that point how much I thought my siblings were immortal, nor how hard it would hit me.  He is still fighting, but it is a long path through the woods.  He cannot fly anymore, but he and his wife pack up the car and still travel hundreds of miles to see their families. I am so grateful that he has tried valiantly to establish the sort of relationship with me that his wife has with her siblings. I am thankful to them both for showing me that it could work when I was still young enough to do for my own family.

One of my sisters is four years older than I am; reportedly she told my father that I was not the fun kind of baby doll, and would he please take me back.  No luck, sorry!  After this bumpy start, my sister and I started to bond her senior year in high school.  I stopped being the “fairy child” who did not seem connected to the world, and started being able to see her.  During her college years, we shared hopes and dreams, despite long periods where one or the other of us would pull away to nurse our wounds in private–she, an abusive marriage; me, an early failed marriage, the abyss of graduate school.  Even now, she calls me regularly; I promise to call her, and forget (I am a very bad sister).  She and I are so different in so many of our world views, but we get each other, especially given the history of our family.  I am grateful that she continues to knock on my door and pull me out of my little world now and again.

****

In my last Gratitude post I included a partial list of the people who follow my blog, as some small measure of thanks.  I’m continuing that list with this post; I’ve included some information about their blogs, if they have one.

http://thewriteproject.wordpress.com/ blogs about getting back into the practice of writing

http://studyingparent.wordpress.com/ chronicles the “learning journey” of a midwife who has gone to graduate school to study literature

C. M. Cipriani is an author who blogs about several topics:
http://onesmallpiece.wordpress.com/ is her blog about raising her autistic son
http://theoutlandishavocado.wordpress.com/ is her writing blog
http://theprimaltribe.wordpress.com is her blog about moving her family onto a paleo diet

Susan A. writes about books she has read and liked, as well as musing about life and writing: http://mistressofthedarkpath.wordpress.com/

Jennifer M. Eaton, author of Hidden in Plain Sight, writes about the lessons she has learned about writing: http://jennifermeaton.com/

Jillian Dodd, author of That Boy, has the tag line: glitter, bliss, and utter chaos.  The first two sum up her blog well, but I’ve never noticed any chaos. http://jilliandodd.wordpress.com/

Alex Laybourne, author of Highway to Hell, writes about helpful tools, writing, and general musings on life at: http://alexlaybourne.com/

Raelyn Barclay writes about Tarot cards and their use in writing; other writing lessons, and book reviews: http://raelynbarclay.wordpress.com/

Sharon Howard writes about mental health in a open and informative manner: http://showard76.wordpress.com/

Heather Ponzer shares stories about places she has lived and people she has met at: http://darcywords.wordpress.com/

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | December 3, 2011

Gratitude I

The holiday season that ends the calendar year often focuses on family.  Many of the bloggers I read have recently posted about family and family celebrations during the holiday season.  I, too, am very grateful for my family, but I have very few traditions to draw upon.My parents both had Dickensian childhoods, it is nearly unbelievable that they grew up in the 20th century.  My father was supposed to be the daughter that arrived two years after his birth.  A fourth son, he was seen as completely superfluous.  My mother was the youngest daughter in her family; in the Southern tradition I thought had disappeared by the end of the 19th century, she was marked to stay with her parents and care for them until their death.  To that end, she was taught early how to run the household, standing on an orange crate to cook and wash dishes at four years old.

My mother and father met on a blind date and married within a year.  Because my father was an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts and my mother a Southern Baptist from Georgia, both of their families summarily disowned them.  My mother’s family went so far as to obliterate her name from the family Bible, because  she had abandoned her mission to stay with her parents and not marry until after their demise.  Eventually, some members of both families had some contact with our family, but for most of them, it was limited in both time and warmth. It left a legacy of a real lack of warmth among my own siblings, which is something I realized only in contrast with other families.

Also, my parents seem to have very little tradition to call upon. My father has resisted all my questions about holiday family traditions; my mother has been only slightly more informative, saying that she often got nothing but an orange for Christmas. Because my mother then spun into her “you ungrateful children” speech at that point, I never asked for more details.  Given these deficits, my parents tried to give us children the American dream holidays.  We rarely had a turkey for Thanksgiving, due to the cost, but my father did relax that day.  Christmas Day was a bigger deal, with  presents under the tree for the four children.  I did notice we never had any other family around, like all my schoolmates did.

Due to this upbringing, I really didn’t bring any holiday traditions to my married life; in my first marriage, I played along with traditions I didn’t feel inside.  When I married my second husband, we worked to create traditions together, melding his traditions with my dream holidays. We went through the common tug-of-war between the families, whom to visit when, whom to eat with, whom to stay with if we had travelled.  The situation was complicated by my daughters having their own traditions, as well as another set of grandparents, aunts, and uncles to visit. Thankfully, it got much easier as the girls became older and made their own decisions about the scheduling, rather than being pulled so many different directions.  Even when they spent less time with us, I felt better knowing they were making the decisions.

Perhaps because of my background, family is very important to me.  I don’t tell them often enough how important they are to me.  Some of that reticence is due to my teenage sons, who flee emotion as if it were hydrofluoric acid, but sometimes I take all of them for granted.

I am grateful for my sons, who defied all medical opinion to exist, appearing after three doctors had told me I could not have children.  They helped me learn how to be a mother to alien creatures, who didn’t act at all like their sisters. Furthermore, I had met my daughters when they were 5 and 3, so 0-3 was uncharted territory.  My sons laid to rest any nature versus nurture discussions I had in my mind; their drive and fearlessness taught me how to take risks, while making my face pale with fear.  They put up with my inability to help them with math and physics homework, as well as my crying through nearly every movie I took them  to see.  Well, not Pokemon 2000.

I am grateful for my daughters, who accepted me as a second mom, and weathered my learning to walk the tightrope, and how to be that second mom. Recently, one of my sons-in-law paid me one of the best compliments I’ve gotten.  He told me that the way I accepted and loved my youngest daughter showed her how to love and accept his two children.  He said she might not have married him had she not grown up with me. It brought me to tears when he told me, and it does so now while writing it.

And I am grateful for my husband, who puts up with my weird mental glitch, where I point right and say left, especially annoying when giving directions in the car; follow the hand, not the voice, is the trick.  He accepts my ADD as well as my Irish temper; he glories in my nerdiness, and thinks I’m still as interesting as I was when he met me so very long ago.

To all of you, thank you for keeping me sane, human, and giving me the time and the material to write.

And now for the envelope. . .

Lena Corazon honored me several weeks ago with the Versatile Blogger award.  I also received this award from L.S. Engler several months ago *blush*, and I am finally thanking them both publicly for the honor.  I am supposed to divulge seven random facts about myself, as well as pass the award on to fifteen more bloggers.  I have been waiting for inspiration on the 15 bloggers, and it is not forthcoming,  As this is the season for gratitude, I am going to tweak that last part a bit.

First, thank you so very much for the award, Lena and L.S.  I am honored that you think that I am a versatile blogger.  My Shakespeare professor in college called me “scattershot”; I do prefer “versatile.”

The seven random facts about me, in no discernable order, except that the sixth leads to the seventh:

1. I have always wanted to learn piano.

2. I always wanted blue eyes, like my father, so that I would look Black Irish.

3. I sing tenor, but only when I’m alone. During the holidays, I listen to Handel’s Messiah, and sing all the parts, even the basso.  Actually, I can handle the basso better than the soprano.

4. I can remember numbers far better than names.

5. I used to knit during classes in college, until one professor told me to stop; now I knit at work meetings and conferences.

6. I grew 10 inches taller in eight weeks the summer between fourth and fifth grade.

7. Because of the above, I still think of myself as tall, although I’m 5’3”. I often catch a glimpse of myself in windows while walking down the street and wonder who that short chick is.

Next, I would like to thank the people who follow my blog.  I noticed L. S. Engler doing this, and thought it was a nice way to thank my followers.  Since I am starting several months after beginning a blog, I won’t do an entire list in this post, but I will mention everyone during the month of December. I’ve included some information about their blogs, if they have one.

Thanks to all of you for your interest in my blogs!

Fallon Brown posts about family, knitting, and her journey as a writer, at http://fallonbrownwrites.wordpress.com/

Sonia Medeiros, whose tag line is taken from one of my favorite J.R.R. Tolkien poems, blogs about writing at http://doingthewritething.wordpress.com/

L.S. Engler, who juggles more writing and reading projects than most people i know, blogs about writing, posts book reviews, and generally muses on life at http://lsengler.wordpress.com/

P. A. Woodburn  is concentrating on writing her novel, not blogging, at the moment.

Cat von Hassel Davies writes about reading and writing at http://www.catrambles.com/

Rebekah Loper has several blogs; her writing blog is at http://blackanddarknight.wordpress.com/

Pam Hawley also has a great tag line:“There’s a freak show on my stage.” She blogs at http://hawleyville.wordpress.com/

Catie Harrell writes about writing and working on her first novel at http://catieharrell.wordpress.com/

Claire McA writes book reviews and other musings from the south of France (sigh) at http://clairemca.wordpress.com/

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | November 21, 2011

Six Sentence Monday

I know it’s not Sunday, but I posted non-fiction yesterday, so I’m plunging into the deep end with some fiction today.

He was lost before the music ended.  Her delicate, but not fragile, hand disappeared in his, starting the nerves tingling all the way up his arm. His other hand covered over half of the small of her back, the warmth of which raised his heart rate to a level he hadn’t felt recently save in combat. Even worse, the crush of the dance floor drew them closer together than was truly proper; although the joyousness of the celebration cancelled the affront, it didn’t relieve the chaos swirling through him as they were inexorably pushed chest-to-chest by the crush. For his own sanity, and to have any hope of talking to this vision, finding out her name before she disappeared back into the dreamland from whence she came, he leaned down to her ear, savoring the excuse to inhale the spicy-sweet fragrance of her, “Let’s go outside for some air.” She tipped up on her toes to answer, “Yes, please,” totally unaware of what her sweet, warm breath on his face was doing to him.
Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | November 20, 2011

Six Sentence Sunday

The parking lot for the Alachua Sink looked unimpressive; cars parked on the dirt under the live oaks. Next to a bulletin board full of announcements and brochures, a sign stuck into the dirt pointed, warning that the observation deck was a half-mile away. The path meandered off into the woods, with few signs of human habitation. Soon I crossed the Hawthorne Trail, a popular bike path that replaced an unused railroad line; its pavement new and bright, a stark contrast to the sandy dirt path that crosses it. Around another couple of turns, I walked underneath a train trestle, rails gone, gravel sidings disappearing into the grass, which was left to grow tall and heavy with seeds. Trees have fallen and been left where they lie, obscured by Virginia creeper and hanging vines as thick as my wrist, looking like those in the early Tarzan movies.
Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | November 19, 2011

The Professional Good Girl: Early Life and Training

For several years, I have followed Blogenspiel, written by Another Damned Medievalist, whom I will call ADM.  Many of you know that I am also a medievalist. A couple months ago, ADM wrote this heartfelt postabout why so many academics, especially women, put up with second-class citizenship, musing that we female academics were PGGs, Professional Good Girls.In one those wonderful serendipitous events, Lena Corazon wrote a wonderfully sensitive post  earlier this week, on her loneliness growing up and why finding the online writing community was such a tall drink of water to a parched throat.  I have only known Lena since July when we both joined Round Three of the Round of Words in 80 Days, but she and I connected quickly.  We are both academics who have written creative works for years, but have only recently gone public as creative writers.

The two posts struck chords: Lena’s stirring memories of my early schooling through graduate school, and ADM’s describing both graduate school and work life. ADM posits that Professional Good Girls had a common trait of not finding love and acceptance at home, but rather at school. I certainly fit that model.

I was the youngest child in my family, the “oops” child.  Although only recently diagnosed, my mother has suffered from depression since before I was born.  My earliest memories are of her sleeping on the couch all day while my father was at work and my siblings at school.  My father had a very difficult childhood and did not know how to react to children, so although he was there in the evenings, he was distant and withdrawn.  I spent most of my time alone, as my siblings were several years older.  My sister who is nearest in age has described me as a faery child, who lived in her own imagined world.

I found the yearned-for approbation and love at school among my teachers, although my creative efforts got me in trouble throughout school.  I made up fantastic stories in first grade; my teacher called my parents to tell them I needed a psychiatrist. I wrote a story for a creative writing course in sophomore year of high school; my English teacher called me parents to tell them that I needed a psychiatrist.  My parents didn’t believe in psychiatry; I have often wondered if I would have been better off if they had.

As long as I followed the rules, my teachers liked me, so I learned quickly to conform, to be a Good Girl. I was not so lucky with my fellow students.  I was a very small, sickly child, so I could not run, skip rope, or play the games that were popular in the early grades. n fourth grade, I had a strep infection that attacked my kidneys, so I was out of school for the entire spring, which made me more of a cypher to my classmates.  Although my teachers liked me, their attention made me more a target at times. My first-grade teacher found I could already read, so she had me read to the class while she went to the teachers’ lounge.  Her actions led to my being threatened with beatings on the playground.  My sixth-grade teacher announced my IQ to the class, making me more unwelcome among my peers than I had already managed to make myself.  After that time, I took a blanket and a book to school, reading on the grass alone in a far corner of the playground during lunchtime.

High school, with all its concomitant social machinations, was sheer hell.  Although I was an attractive girl, no one dated the brain.  At best, the boys saw me as someone to help with homework, or worse, to offer advice on how to get the girls they liked to go out with them. I was beneath the notice of the popular girls; my one friend and I spent all our time together, in the unbreakable bubble that surrounded us. When my friend found a boyfriend t the end of sophomore year and abandoned me for him, as often happened in those situations, I was bereft. I did continue to receive love and approbation from most of my teachers, and put my lonely nights and weekends to learning even more.  Actually, my loneliness helped me to leave high school early, as I took enough courses to have all my requirements for college by the end of my junior year.

I went to a very small college, where I really bloomed as a scholar.  My personal life was not going as well.  After my sophomore year, I had dated perhaps 6 or 7 young men; only one had ever asked me out more than once. Feeling that no one else would ever be interested in me, I married him.  My marriage worked on exactly the same lines as being a Professional Good Girl:  do whatever I was told, never question authority, never rock the boat, never stand out in anyway.  My ex-husband was also very young; he did not know any better, so he constructed and maintained the box in which my soul and personality was locked away.  I became a chameleon, without opinions of my own.  I mastered quickly the ability to find out others’ thoughts and reflected them.

When we divorced four years later, I realized that I did not know what music I liked, what books I enjoyed reading, or what foods I liked to eat.  I knew how to be a scholar, but I had to learn how to be a person.

All of this training made me the perfect candidate to became a Professional Good Girl; I will give you my thoughts on graduate school and my work life in another post.

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | November 12, 2011

Ellis Island closes its doors, November 12, 1954

Arrival at Ellis Island, courtesy of Scholastic.com

On this day in 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors, although it had not been the federal immigration center for 30 years.  From 1892 to 1924, immigrants to the United States through New York harbour had filed through its corridors, been checked for infectious diseases and mental problems; and then, if lucky, were released into the streets of New York.
When I thought of Ellis Island in the past, I always assumed that several of the Mitchells, Russells, Kanes, and other members of my father’s family came through this facility.  When I read that the facility was only open from 1892-1924, I realized that only one of my relatives would have come through its doors. Reading through This Day in History, I realized how little I knew about this icon of immigrant life. I was further surprised that Ellis Island only processed the third-class passengers; first- and second-class passengers disembarked at piers in New York or New Jersey to go through customs after a brief on-board inspection. Those at Ellis Island really were “the huddled masses.”

The Grand Hall, courtesy of Scholastic.com

I have not visited the Ellis Island museum, although I suspect walking through it would give rise to hundreds of stories. I cannot imagine waiting in the grand hall for hours, much less the days or weeks it would take before a family member was released from quarantine.  These photographs are taken from the tour on Scholastic’s teachers site; although the text is for 4th- or 5th- graders, and rightly so, the pictures are powerful in themselves.
It is very strange to think that only my paternal grandmother went through Ellis Island; to be honest, I am not even sure of that, although it seems likely.  The early life of my grandmother is largely unknown, which seems odd in modern times. Last week, the social worker who is helping my parents with assisted living asked my three siblings and myself for the history of my grandparents.  I was appalled at how little we knew about my paternal grandmother. The historical record is all too brief, and honestly, seems to have a bit of the Irish blarney attached to it.

One day in the 1890’s, a ship docked at Ellis Island from Cobh, Ireland. As the families filed out, there was a little girl who seemed to be alone.  She was about 3 or 4 years old, and had no family with her.  She only knew her first name, but left Ellis Island with a brand-new, patently made-up last name, O’Smith (oh, that’s very Irish).  The story goes that she had a piece of paper with the name and New York address of a first cousin pinned to her dress, and that he raised her as his own.

I have several problems with this story. First, how does a 3-year-old get on a ship in Cobh?  If her parent or parents died on board, wouldn’t the ship’s captain or purser know about it?  Would the officials on Ellis Island really just send a little girl off to the address given on a paper pinned to her dress?  And if this address is that of a first cousin, why didn’t he give her either his own name or restore her original one?

According to what we know, she did grow up in New York with her first cousin’s daughters, and she kept the made-up name of O’Smith until she married my grandfather. No one knows how old she was when she died in 1947, having taken to her bed several years before when she gave birth to a Downs syndrome child. It was whispered that the root cause was alcoholism, but no one knows much of anything about her life.  How can someone living less than 100 years ago, who married and had six children, be such a mystery?

Her story draws the writer in me; I want to know what she felt, dreamt, loved, lived.  I have always been fascinated with history, of a place, of a family, of a person.  My grandmother’s story would have to be fiction, but it is a story I am itching to write.

Do any of you have mysteries in, or mysterious members of, your family? What are your stories?

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | November 11, 2011

Veterans’ Day

For Veterans’ Day (U.S.), or Armistice Day, or whatever it may be called in your part of the world, I want to thank everyone who is serving, or has served, to protect all of us at home. I have a poppy decorating my purse, since one doesn’t wear coats in November in Florida, and a poppy on my avatar in Twitter, to honor all veterans and those currently serving.Both my own family and the one I married into are full of veterans.  One of my uncles was involved in D-Day and in the Pacific theater. My father was in the Army Air Forces in WWII, my brother in the Navy in Vietnam, and one of his sons is in Iraq now. My brother-in-law was in the Navy during Vietnam; one of his sons was in the Navy during Desert Storm, and one of my nephew’s daughters is in the Navy in Japan.

I cannot do any better than this post on Blogenspiel, and so I urge you to go read the full poem by John McCrae.  I will quote one stanza from it here:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

I am writing this at 11:11 EST, in the two minutes of silence for all those fallen in the service of their countries, as part of my remembrance.  I thank you:  Uncle Eddie, Daddy,  Allan, Chris, Tom, Jim, and Theresa for your service.

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | October 29, 2011

Christine de Pizan’s Letter of Othéa

As most of you probably know, I have a background in medieval studies, and more particularly, Western European medieval literature. This past week, I found myself wondering why so much medieval literature is unknown, or worse, denigrated. I wrote a post a few weeks ago on Christine de Pizan (1364-ca. 1431), who was a prolific writer of social criticism, political treatises, didactic works, histories, and .biographies. Perhaps due to the diversity and volume of her work, she has been described as a scribbler with nothing better to do, in Gustave Lanson’s view, than to portray her “universal mediocrity,” (Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française, 1896, p. 163; my translation). I am finishing a dissertation on one of Christine de Pizan’s works, which was described by Rose Rigaud as an “allegorical poem of the worst fifteenth century, in which the author makes herself known through her most unbearable defects” (Rigaud, Les idées féministes de Christine de Pisan, p. 21; my translation).

This particular work is The Letter of Othéa, Goddess of Prudence, to Hector of Troy at the Age of Fifteen Years. Never let it be said that Christine didn’t make sure her audience knew what her books were about. The Othéa, as I will call it henceforth, is a collection of 100 stories drawn from Greek or Roman mythology, mostly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Each story begins with four lines of verse summarizing the classical story. Next is the gloss, which gives the lesson to be drawn from the story for the good knight. The gloss ends with a quotation from a Greek philosopher. Finally, Christine delineates the allegory, which teaches the good soul the lesson from the story, ending with a quotation from the church fathers and another from Scripture.

The Othéa was Christine’s most popular work, surviving in more than forty manuscripts from the fifteenth century. Philippe Pigouchet first printed the Othéa around 1499, under the title Les Cent Histoires de Troye. It was reprinted three times in the next thirty-five years. The Othéa also fascinated audiences in England, where it was translated three times within one hundred years: first in 1440; again in the late fifteenth century; and last, in the 1530’s. After a while, medieval texts dropped from favor, and Christine’s work disappeared for several centuries. When it was discovered again, critics were not kind, as shown above.

Why the vehement dislike of this work and others like it? They do not appeal to our tastes. The critics who acknowledge Othéa‘s popularity often admit the unattractiveness of the work to our eyes. One problem with the Othéa is its blatant didacticism. Twenty-first century readers willingly read openly didactic works; witness the interest in self-improvement texts. However, fiction and non-fiction are kept pristinely separate in bookstores and on bestseller lists. While imaginative works often have a strong didactic element, the reader is left to cull that lesson for himself. In the self-help books, case studies of real people are acceptable; parables about fictional people are often seen as juvenile or demeaning. Twenty-first century plays seldom have a human Epilogue to give us the moral at the end, as did those of Shakespeare’s time. The Othéa, with its allegorical meanings, is seen not as a literary work, but a quaint reference work for classical mythology and the Christian interpretations attached to these myths in the Middle Ages. The popular distaste for allegory and didacticism combine to make the Othéa unknown to the twenty-first century general reading public.

Finally, the Othéa suffers from the longstanding critical stance that originality is good, and derivation is bad. At base is an eighteenth-century concept of originality, one that would be completely foreign to Christine de Pizan. The Oxford English Dictionary enumerates many denotations of the word “original.” The one perhaps closest to the common use today is: “Having the quality of that which proceeds from oneself, or from the direct exercise of one’s own faculties, without imitation of or dependence on others; such as has not been done or produced before; novel or fresh in character or style.” The earliest use in this sense given by the OED is from 1756-82 in Warton’s Essays on Pope. Ironically, the quotation from Warton is: “Dante wrote his sublime and original poem, which is a kind of satirical Epic.” It would be interesting to know whether Dante thought he was doing something “without imitation of or dependence on others” in writing the Commedia. Contemporaneous use of the word “original” is shown by Chaucer’s use of the term exclusively in the sense of “origin” or “author.” While Christine may well have felt that she was indeed “exercising her own faculties,” it is unlikely she would see the merit in departing from common expectations of character or style. In contrast, medieval authors saw their way of narrating as a major part of their contribution to the text. Christine also saw the choice and organization of her texts as part of her contribution. She had many choices to make as she began to write the Othéa: which stories from Greek and Roman mythology to include; which quotations from the Greek philosophers, the Vulgate, and her other sources would best fit her theme in each story. In her arrangement of the stories, Christine counted on the generic expectations of her audience to identify her work; through the glosses, the expectations common with other manuals of instruction; and through the allegories, with those of other moral treatises.

So, my question: Have I convinced myself that these didactic works aren’t all bad, just to justify the years I have spent on medieval studies? No, don’t answer that one!

How do you react to a mixture of moralizing or teaching in a story? Does it only fit in children’s literature, to your mind? What do you see as the originality in a story, even one that is “retold’?

 

Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | October 23, 2011

Life goals

Several months ago, when I stumbled across the Life List Club, I started thinking about how I have been driving on ice through life. For the Southerners among you, I will explain that driving on ice is simply impossible, unlike driving on snow, which is a pain, but usually manageable. Driving on ice means that turning the wheel often has no effect on the inertia of this 1-2,000 pound car, which merrily continues  in the same direction, whether that be into a guardrail, a parked vehicle, or a pond. In fact, when driving on ice, not turning the wheel is not the safe option it seems, because the tires may hit a little ruffle in the ice, or a ridge left by a snowplow, or any slight inconsistency, and also take off like a dog after a squirrel: perhaps a very old, very slow, dog, but just as intent and purposeful. I very much dislike ice. I have fallen on ice many, many times; in three cases, I broke bones; in a fourth, I dislocated my shoulder.

I went to graduate school to become a professor, but it became clear as I was planning my dissertation there were no positions in medieval studies.  I went to library school, and then proceeded to join the working world. The problem? I have missed teaching and research and writing. Also, part of why I wanted to teach included (perhaps incorrectly, since I hear complaints from my friends who are professors) having the time to write creative fiction and non-fiction that didn’t require twenty footnotes a page.

But I stuck my head in the sand, barely touching the wheel of the car, praying that it wouldn’t careen into the guardrail or a parked car. Last year, my first wake-up call came when my brother had a serious illness. I began thinking about my life, and why I was hiding from what I wanted to do. The second wake-up call came this summer when a woman I knew only online was killed in an auto accident. I had never met her, but in a way some of you will understand, felt I knew her rather well, She was young, had married the year before, and was a doctor who went to Pakistan to help out following the floods, had gone to Haiti to help after the earthquakes, a person whom I admired greatly. Suddenly, I realized that I was pinning all my writing time on retirement, and that life had given me no guarantees that I would survive to reach retirement.

Many participants in the Round of Words have been talking about life goals, beyond the writing goals. I signed up for a webinar on finding time to write; the presenter talked about having five areas that were of paramount importance and one would answer yes to any request from these areas. Other areas had to fit in where they could, or more often, get told “No.” My first four were easy: health, family, friends, and writing. Not to say that I haven’t neglected these areas recently, especially friends, but they were easily in the top five. The fifth one is much harder to add to the list, because it is the day job. I am often expected to be on call in the evenings and on days off or vacations any time my superiors want me. No, I’m not a neurologist, I’m a librarian. Yes, it is ridiculous, so please go ahead and laugh. As a first step, I would love to have a job that I could leave at the workplace; one where I am not made to feel guilty for each and every day that I take off (yes, I earn vacation, but the corporate culture is to retire with months of it saved up). However,  the best I can do right now is say no as much as I can without jeopardizing my job.

So, I haven’t yet made SMART goals (for the definition of those, see Kait Nolan’s post here), but I do have some idea of where I am headed.

My first area is health. I feel slightly guilty about putting this first, as it is all about me, but I also realize that if I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. I gained weight when I shattered both my tibia and fibula fourteen years ago and was confined to a wheelchair for several months; given the amount of time I’ve been heavy, it will take some time to come off. I have about fifty pounds to lose; I am hoping to lose between a half-pound and a pound per week through exercising at least forty-five minutes a day and careful meal planning. I tend to eat when I’m stressed, so I hope to transfer my stress relief from food to exercise.

My second area is family. I realized during this last trip that I like my kids (what a concept!) and that I need to have more contact with them.  I tend to withdraw from people, even family, when I am stressed or depressed. I had a strange and unhappy childhood, so I grew up as this strange, withdrawn child. I forget sometimes that I worked very hard not to pass that on to my children. I plan to be in contact with each of the four kids at least once a week, even if only a short text conversation. I am also going to devote one weekend evening to a date night with my husband.  We started out as great friends, and while we still are very close, we are so used to looking at one another over a row of kids, we need to get re-acquainted.

The third area is friends. I am a terrible friend, more so as I come under stress or during bad times. As I was a strange, withdrawn child, I had a lot of trouble making friends, and found rejection hard to bear. In the strange logic of the preemptive strike, I hide from my friends at the times I need them the most, so as not to be rejected. This leads to my not knowing what may be going on with them, not offering any help or support, purely out of ignorance. I plan to get in touch with one friend each week until I’ve re-established contact, and can maintain more contact. Depending on the closeness of the friend and our respective circumstances, I will keep in touch anywhere from once a week to once a month.

The fourth area is writing. Ah, this is the tricky one. I have sacrificed my creative writing, whether non-fiction or fiction, ripping out its heart to put on the altar of keeping the day job. However, I am not going to spend as many hours on the day job as I have in the past, so that I have more time for my writing. I will spend one and one-half hours on the articles I have to write, and one half-hour a day on my writing. It will be painfully slow, but it will be more progress than I have managed in the past several months. I mentioned in an earlier check-in that I had fallen in love with the dissertation topic again; it is bittersweet that I have done so, because it has to take a back seat to the articles; however, I am going to work on the dissertation one half-hour a day.

My fifth area is the day job. I cannot change it, but I can change my attitude. Thank you, Marcia Richards for a great guest post on  Lyn Midnight’s blog for that. My goal is to be as available as I have to be, and as unavailable as I can manage. I removed my work email from my phone; I will no longer answer the phone at home on the weekends if it is a call about work. Like all of my colleagues, I do the majority of my service and research requirements on my own time, and that is more than enough to ask. I do a very good job, but what I do is neither brain surgery nor rocket science, and I will not work 50 to 60 hours a week in addition to service and research.

So, here are my goals. I’m hoping to fold several of these into the Round of Words challenge, so that I will hold myself accountable for them.

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