Tomorrow, I enter the last year of my thirties, a 365 day threshold between the first half of my life and the second. I really want to write an essay about becoming an “elder” in a culture that worships youth. How I want to enter that vocation as purposefully as I did adulthood and marriage and motherhood. But I’ve gotten derailed a little, because someone asked me last night, “Do you have any advice you’d go back and give your 29 year old self if you had the chance to repeat your thirties?”
My first thought: I would tell her to freeze her eggs.
My second thought: I would tell her to listen to John.
When I was 29 years old, I had a writing professor named John, and because of his particular way of being in the world—a way that precludes personal boundaries and makes him wear his vulnerability like a sensitive skin—he knew almost as much if not more about his students’ social and love lives as he did about their writing. On his comments for the last story I submitted to his workshop, he gave the usual sort of feedback, but he included a final note that I’ve kept.
Casey! This is your best story yet. Can I offer a piece of hypocritical advice? Yes! I can! Stop fooling with these boys. You’re a goddess—they know it, they know you’re out of their mortal league, which is why they act like they do. They’re perfectly nice boys. But sometimes a goddess needs to retreat into her deep cave, spend her days brushing out her long hair and weaving her magical stories.
Then he gave me a copy of Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, said, “Maybe try nonfiction-ish fiction,” and moved back to the East Coast. I didn’t really take his writing or personal advice to heart for at least another few years and another few male writers and bad short stories.
I’ve written often on this blog about Homer’s Odyssey, because I teach it every year and every year more of its secrets loosen and leaf down on me, sacred crumbs. This year I paid more attention to Calypso and Circe, nymph goddesses whose islands become spaces of retreat for our male hero.
A few weeks ago, while thinking about said goddesses, I read a particularly appalling student evaluation of my senior AP Critical Approaches to literature course. It was an outlier—most of my students love critical theory—and I have one every year: some students cannot differentiate me teaching them theories from me espousing theories, and when the theories crack open their world views and press at their hearts they get mad at me. This one was bad. Really nasty, really mean, really personal. Then, an editor that had solicited work from me decided not to publish the essay I drafted, calling it “gorgeous, but not fitting our mission.” (She was a kind editor, offering suggestions of other publications that might want it.) That essay, ironically, had to do with the divine feminine and attempted to resurrect Sophia—the wisdom goddess-partner to Logos, whose story has been buried in the Bible. Finally, the same week, after bingeing on my Facebook feed, I went into a colleague’s classroom and purged, “I’m afraid I’ll never be a writer with a published book. I’ll just be the woman who slept with all the writers of published books.” Those boys John encouraged me to “stop fooling with” have made names for themselves, many of them, found their way into glory after weathering any island wrecks and sheltering there awhile.
Seeking solace, I flipped through a poetry anthology and landed on Louise Gluck. I actually opened to a page with a poem where Gluck personifies Circe, telling the story in Homer’s epic from the goddess’ perspective:
I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.
I love the way Gluck flips the script here. Whereas Odysseus characterizes Calypso and Circe as dangerous temptresses meant to trap him, Gluck implies that the men trap themselves. Circe does not do anything to men; she reveals them for what they actually are.
I’ve had those opening lines taped into my journal, and I think of them often when reading criticism of Hillary Clinton, and I thought of them again in the critical aftermath of Beyonce’s release of her new song and video, “Formation.” The way men crash into goddesses and the way those goddesses unmask and disclose. I also thought often about the loudest critiques, the truth revealed that people get most mad at goddesses when they’re practical. Beyonce wants to make money as well as a statement? Clinton has used political strategy in the past? She has–gasp–changed her mind over the course of twenty years? The horror. We want our sirens to be all body and voice and no head.
As I reach 39, I think too about the goddess’ lot: Calypso and Circe never leave their islands. Their story is not a high sea adventure, but an internal journeying, a cave diving, a womb-ing. They know the isolating nature of real power. They recognize their strength, and they know it lies—not in trapping—but in releasing. Everything and everyone powerful that arrives on their magical shores they offer love and help and escape, a divine nurturing that is not the selfless, self-negating nurturing of the weak, but the self-aware, self-loving nurturing of the mighty that says, “If you stop being scared of me, you’ll learn something here and be on your way.”
I don’t want to tell my 29-year old self to become a goddess. I want to tell her to see she already is one. Back then, I was loving, writing, striving, working, putting my whole self into the world, regardless of “those boys.” But I looked toward the sea and its passing ships, at other people’s stories, at some land I thought I should reach that wasn’t mine. I couldn’t see the mythical paradise that was my Self. Of course, the Odysseuses in our personal myths aren’t always literal boys so much as all our insecurities and doubts arriving at the tired beaches of our psyches in boy costumes.
My 39 year old self is not afraid of her own power or authority, the tenderness and violence of liberation. I want to say to that terrified student, and to the various “boys” in my world, literal and metaphorical, what Louise Gluck’s Circe says to Odysseus and what I imagine Hillary or Queen Bey might say to the “boys” in their worlds:
I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think
A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.
Happy birthday to me. Time to return to the lush cave, grow out my hair, and get to my craft. Did I just call myself a goddess? Yes, yes I did. If that bothers you, consider yourself revealed.