Sunday, May 04, 2008
My Life as Gilgamesh
I’m continuing to think about binaries, specifically gender binaries, and, yes, still in the context of Alma, although this post is going to noodle quite a bit. Basically, I grew up with some of the gender binaries that were important to certain kinds of 70s feminism—the kind of pop Feminism that celebrates and emphasizes woman’s connection to the earth, aboriginal peoples, and children. (Ah, even writing that sentence makes me want to leap out of my skin!) So, despite the many non-normative aspects of my childhood, no one was really overturning gender binaries. There was a lot of earth mother love though.
I received a pretty steady diet of hippie aesthetics and values as well as Western mythology growing up. Most of my friends came from global nomadic families, like mine, or else they were hippies (some wealthy, some genuinely not) who moved to Maine to establish communes and farm with various levels of success and failure. I lost touch with one particular high school friend after he graduated because he went to live in a teepee somewhere and was impossible to locate. Lao, if you’re reading this, drop me a line if you’re so inclined!
I moved around a lot as a child, but for several years I went to a Waldorf-inspired school in Blue Hill, Maine called the Bay School. Although the school now has an amazingly beautiful campus, when I went there, most of the classrooms were in a converted barn. We began everyday by lighting a candle and singing, reciting poetry, or playing musical instruments in what we called “opening circle.” I studied all of Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman mythology. The only science I remember was the history of science—the Copernican revolution, Pythagoras, and stuff like that. I learned how to knit, and crochet, and how to weave on a loom. Although they didn’t do this at the time when I was there, during the third week of May every year, the fifth grade participates in a Greek Pentathlon with other Maine Waldorf schools “as a celebration of the harmonious nature of that age.”
It’s really too bad I didn’t study Sappho when I was learning to weave (that was in high school), because then I could have sung “O sweet mother, I cannot work the loom,” while working. Except that I probably wouldn’t have felt the perverse delight about it that I certainly would now.
It’s because of the Bay School, in part, that I can enjoy reading the section in Isadora Duncan’s My Life where she describes going to Greece in order to build a Greek temple. In retrospect, that section of the book is hilarious—she performs dances among the ruins and wears togas, all while being laughed at and at times cheated by the nearby villagers.
In yoga the other day, my teacher told us to imagine ourselves as maypoles—calm and steady while people were dancing all around you. Except that I actually do know how to dance around a maypole to create different weaving patterns. And a maypole is a big phallic symbol. So the whole class I kept on thinking that I didn’t want to imagine myself as a phallic symbol, and I don’t want to imagine myself as the happy child in floral dancing barefoot around the phallic symbol. Instead, I imagined the dead cat I’d seen on the road that morning.
And only a few days ago, I drew a picture of a maypole on the white board in my ESL classroom with little smiling stick figures holding attached ribbons, and tried to explain about dancing around a Maypole. My class of mostly Korean and Japanese 20-somethings looked at me, blankly. Finally, one young woman said. “That is strange.” And I said, “Most Americans do not know how to dance around a Maypole. Yes, it is strange.” Then I taught a lesson on conditionals (my favorite grammar!) The largest events at the Bay School were seasonal festivals. Apple fest in the fall, Nowell in winter, and May Day in the spring.
I like to make fun of the Bay School, but I’m so glad I went to school there and not in the suburbs. So very very very very glad. My education was better, and I was spared some of the hidden physical and emotional violence that comes with living in the suburbs. My teachers were amazingly intelligent and creative (and that bio doesn’t mention all the years Charles Hutchison, my 5th grade teacher, spent with Greenpeace); and many of them had very non-normative ideas about what success meant. My 6th grade teacher, for example, spent ten years of her life living in Hawaii, working as a waitress and surfing. I was a pretty uptight young kid, so I despised her and thought she was stupid while she was my teacher—what driving, intelligent person would want to hang out in Hawaii and surf? Now, of course I’m grateful that my adult role models weren’t all suggesting that I needed to grow up and become a doctor or a lawyer.
It wasn’t exactly a feminist curriculum, though, and why would it have been, I suppose, given the context. Given all the earth mother rhetoric, I’m surprised that I never developed the strong desire to have children—I’ve got the farm fantasy down, but not the baby fantasy. Still, I absorbed fairly classical masculine/feminine binaries. At the same time, though, I was allowed to play with being one or the other.
There were never any female heroines in any of the school plays, but I did get to enact the role of Gilgamesh in our end of the year 5th grade play. As Gilgamesh, I got to spurn the love of my best friend, J--, who was Ishtar. There’s a lot of gender tension and weirdness in that moment to unpack: I played the hero of a story that describes conquering the savage or feminine wilderness. I tame Enkidu, the beast in the desert, then love and spurn Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. After loosing my chance for immortality, I return home and build a walled city and write my story on the walls. How classically masculine is that?