Friday, September 18, 2009

Perspective: Body Surfing, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tenar and Sleeping Beauty

Remember nursing in a wetsuit? Trying to peel back one shoulder and noodle one arm free to the smell of salty rubber, wasted milk dribbling down your stomach....grabbing a towel, trying not to fling sand into the baby’s eyes...

Haven’t had a nurser for nearly a year now, so I’m back in the wetsuit, ten feet offshore beside my husband on a boogie board, losing, in the briny cold, some of the hypervigilant concern I tend to habitually train on my three children (wether they need it or not). Their drip castles spiral skyward—they’re oblivious to us, the parent animal, riding out the undulations, finally bearing down on them atop a breaking wave...I could get addicted to this...body of water, its gift of lift, wave after wave obliterating the grumpy pall of navigating the day’s transitions. And how odd, to be so separate, yet so close, to my children. They look so tiny, their physical frames no match for the proportion of space they occupy in my heart and mind.

Later, my daughter trades places with my husband, and she and I ride the white froth up the shoreline, laughing. We’ve needed to laugh, something we can do side by side without interruption or another voice calling my attention from her, she with the familiar intense grip of the firstborn. We share the birth placement, but in the tiredness of raising her brothers, I can’t always haul up the focus to give her what she wants in the moment. But I know she’ll find her way to what she needs, as I did.

By night, Ursula K. Le Guin does for my writer’s mind what the ocean did for my body, those billion ions in the air above the wave taking me up and out of my tiny, worried world. I came across Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea Trilogy as a child—I think on the brink of adolescence. I read A Wizard of Earthsea first, pouring my girl self into the spirit of the main character, a young boy finding his way to his source of power (and ultimately, true wizardhood).

But reading the second book, The Tombs of Atuan proved far more powerful. For I remember that delicate cusp when I was in love with fairytales, but unable to ignore the books my mother had on the back of the toilet: My Mother, Myself, and Colette Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex. Disenchanted, I guess, or armed for disenchantment with the “happily ever after” fairytale version of life, but still having no clue how to proceed. You are not supposed to want a prince, ok. You are supposed to be able to do all the things men do, ok. But how?

Le Guin’s Tenar (protagonist of The Tombs of Atuan) is a child taken from her family to be raised as a priestess, a “chosen one”, who will need the help of the wizard to find her true self...Bless Le Guin, for the wizard comes to Arha, not as rescuer, but as a three dimensional human being--a broken helpmate of sorts. He ultimately helps her escape, but not before he’s been her prisoner, and the book ends with her sitting at the prow of a ship, returning to her native land, walking up the street beside him. Though she’s faced down her own inner demons to arrive here, she’ll now have to remake herself in the present. Le Guin leaves her heroine here.

Tenar’s journey laid down alternate paths of possibility, forging tiny deer trails in my adolescent brain when I was lost, trying to follow or run from the stag, depending on the direction of the flow of hormones that day. And here in my 40s, Tenar continues to speak quietly to me of possibility, of the ever-present possibility of starting over, remaking oneself, after examining what you formerly were lead to believe or erroneously lead yourself to believe (about life, love, men, women, children, you name it).

Le Guin charts her own discovery of the power of shifted perspective in her essay: “The Wilderness Within: The Sleeping Beauty and “The Poacher” and a PS about Sylvia Townsend Warner” (from the Le Guin’s wave in the mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination). She speaks of a poem by Warner that changed how she thought about “Sleeping Beauty” forever. Two of Warner’s lines read: “Woe’s me! Must one kiss / Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?”

And Le Guin writes “I think the story is about that still center: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness’” p. 116. The rest of Le Guin’s essay is a prose poem itself (I think) so I hope you’ll read it in its entirety...she writes, “There she is alone (Sleeping Beauty), all by herself, content and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don’t wake me. Don’t know me. Let me be...
At the same time she is probably shouting out of the windows of other corners of her being, Here I am, do come, oh do hurry up and come! (p. 111)”

And so I watch my daughter approaching the end of her years of “birdsong stillness” and breathe a little deeper for the fairytales, and the writers forging the next layer of path-work based on those fairytales...and pray they provide the solace she’ll need to proceed safely, on her own, when she’s no longer topping off a drip castle or shooting past me on her boogie board.

Books by Ursula K. Le Guin: The Earthsea Trilogy: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore (the 1977 Tombs of Atuan volume in my home features beautiful chapter-head illustrations by Gail Garrety--I love especially the images for the chapters The Anger of the Dark and Light Under the Hill); the wave in the mind: and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination; City of Illusions; The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of name a few of my favorites.

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