Mary Beth Writes

This was the conversation in my head last week, courtesy of podcasts, books, live and streaming TV.

Ayad Ahktar wrote Homeland Elegies. I wrote this review of it last year. (Read here.) 

In the podcast interview I listened to, Akhtar said his memoir-like novel considers the compromises immigrants make in order to survive and succeed in the US.  (podcast: The Book Review/The New York Times, Sept 18, 2020 Ayad Akhtar on Truth and Fiction)

Compromises? Most immigrants, as well as the rest of us, are making compromises all the time. Are we even aware of this? That’s where the conversation in my mind went.

We observe immigrants among us aiming to fit in. In Racine I knew a distinguished man originally from Nigeria. Decades previously he had immigrated to UW-Stout in Menomonie to earn his second master’s degree after having previously living in London where he didn’t stand out. In case you don’t know Wisconsin, Menomonie is a rather rural community of about 17,000 people. My friend laughed hard describing his first day in town. The weather was hot and muggy, so he wore a comfortable, brightly patterned cotton dashiki with matching pants. He said people definitely noticed when he walked down the street, which is when he began to realize he was no longer in Nigeria or London.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu is about the ways Chinese immigrants learned to hide their complex personalities behind “made for white American consumption” expectations. And how, over time, those compromises became toxic. There is humor in the novel and it’s a fast read; I highly recommend it. But by the end, one chokes on how stifling the stereotypes were and are.

Think of the ways women learn to tamp down what’s in us in order to get along, find a job, keep a job, keep our family, not be threatened, not be harmed, not be assaulted. When Len and I dated, he asked me why I ended all my sentences with a question. I’d make my inflection go up at the end of a sentence as if declaring anything at all was impolite or “strident.” So many compromises unconsciously unfolded in us as we learned to arrange ourselves in ways that might allow us to be safe, to be ignored, and to move through our lives with the least obstruction. We honor others and denigrate ourselves and if that isn’t compromised living, I don’t know what is.

I am aware that it isn’t only in the US that people compromise to exist. This is part of the story of “civilization.” Figure out how to not offend others. Live small, so that we may exist at all.

This conversation is not over.

I am reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin; it was first published in 1956. It’s fiction by a narrator who has used self-will to deny that he is gay. He’s in his late 20’s and is waiting for his girlfriend to decide if she will marry him. He figures she is as cool and interesting a woman as he has met, so he might as well make the plunge with her.

While she’s gone, he meets Giovanni and they are powerfully drawn to each other. They have an affair. Then everything goes wrong.

This is what Baldwin wrote, in the narrator’s voice, about self-will.

"For I am - or I was - one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all - a real decision makes one humbe ..." 

This struck powerfully in me. Since I was a little kid, there have been people in my life who say I don’t have self-discipline or self-will. It’s a message I believed and repeated to myself.  As my particular life unrolled, I realized how much accomplishing of important goals was happening in and around me and I understood the ridiculousness of thinking I lack discipline.

I think of determined humans I’ve known, who, if they said they were going to do something, they did it no matter what. And how often that didn’t lead to happiness, but to a kind of anger at other people who live their lives on different terms. Can we talk about the judgementalism of unhappy people?

Of course, gumption and self-will are necessary. But, as we begin to see, they can also be toxic. The trick is knowing how to figure that out.

This conversation is also not over.

Did you watch the Meghan and Harry interview? We watched a little.

(As a humorous aside we switched to watching the Murder Among the Mormons documentary. We texted with our daughter while watching it. Lo and behold, she was also watching that exact documentary. The next morning, I noted on Twitter other people who had been watching the MAM show. Was Sunday evening the night to explore dysfunctional enclaves of privileged white people?)

But what is the Meghan revelation other than a pleasant woman asked to make so many compromises she no longer wanted to live? The royal family, which we see as one of the most privileged enclaves on earth, is apparently the mothership of toxic compromises and self-discipline.

What if Charles had, right from the get-go, married Camilla? What if Diana had married some nice young guy in her world? What if, when Diana was killed, the Royals had had a come-to-Jesus meeting about the toxicity of their portrayal as a family with no issues? What if they had acknowledged that they are a family just like ours, except with more crown jewels?

What kind of people makes a very lovely woman like Meghan so miserable she must flee for her life – but protects Andrew, the BFF of Jeffrey Epstein? Sheesh.

..

When you consider your own life … did the best stuff come from self-discipline? Or did some of the richness of your life begin where you screwed up and broke open and finally went towards what your heart and spirit wanted?

Comments

I hope it’s ok to write about a couple of previous entries. Thanks for the note about the film Henry. Enjoyed it a lot and would never have found it. Also, plumber coming tomorrow for basement drain check-valve discussion. Appreciate the recommendations and thoughts, as always.
Mary Beth's picture

You can ALWAYS respond to this or that. I ALWAYS appreciate comments. I'm happy when our conversations help each other move along.

Those who think anything can be accomplished by "will power" are proud to claim their accomplishments and attribute them to their superior strength of will. And those who have it and even those who don't are quick to assert that those who fail at whatever lack will power. What even IS will power? Whether one accomplishes what one sets out to do is affected by so many variables and one of them may be luck. I try to avoid using the term or describing anyone's success or failure using the concept. It's a loaded and judgmental world view. In my life I have accomplished some things which I wanted very much and I have failed to accomplish others which I wanted equally much -- in both cases, there are usually many factors contributing to my success or failure. I try to remember that when I start to be judgmental about the successes or failures of others.
Mary Beth's picture

It is obnoxious to listen to white men in Congress telling folks that it is their "hard work and will power" that allowed them to succeed. Not even recognizing their luck and the push and money and support of so many others.

Yeah, not to mention their white faces and “ maleness”. Those of us born w/o those attributes have to work more than doubly hard to get places. A real leader acknowledges the help of others in making something happen that is good, when something fails, a real leader takes the blame. Didn’t see much of that in the previous administration.
Mary Beth's picture

It boggles the mind, doesn't it? That complete lack of responsibility for anything that happened. Including a pandemic that we didn't need to have, at least not to this dire extent.

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