Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, a patron saint of poets, one of those medieval women who was able to accomplish amazing things, despite the fact that she lived in a patriarchal culture that didn't have things upon which I rely, like running water and electricity. She seemed to have no trouble living a balanced, integrated life. Why do I find it so hard to achieve balance?
At this post on my theology blog, I wrote: "Of course, I know Brigid across a space of centuries, through the gauze of hagiography and legend. If Brigid could speak, what would she say? Would she tell us of the sleepless nights where she wondered how she was going to find enough food, enough contributions, to keep her religious orders afloat? Would she bemoan all her administrative duties, which sucked away so much energy, when all she really wanted to do was to illuminate manuscripts?"
Yesterday I went back to finish reading the David Bowie article in Rolling Stone that my administrative duties kept me from completing on Monday. Thank goodness I don't have many days like Monday!
I was struck by the ending of the article, where the writer claims that David Bowie did more to change rock music than anyone before or since. Hmm. He also claims that David Bowie did much to open up society, to make it easier for all of us outcasts to be who we authentically are. Intriguing.
I will leave aside the discussion of who did more to change rock music, but I will say that the author makes a good case for Bowie; I can't link to the article, alas--you'll have to read it the old-fashioned way, on paper, unless you already subscribe to the magazine.
I woke up this morning thinking about which poet had done the most to change poetry. I thought about Wordsworth and Whitman and all the 19th century poets who took giant leaps in terms of making the personal a suitable subject for poetry. I could make the case for numerous female poets. And of course, there are any number of African-American poets.
Today is the birthday of Langston Hughes, and he would certainly make the short list of poets who transformed the poetry landscape completely because he came along. You might read his work with no knowledge of his biography and assume that he was part of the Black Arts Movement that came along because of the Civil Rights Movement. Nope. He's older than that.
Along with other artists of the Harlem Renaissance in the 20's, he brought the lives of black Americans into poems. He also fused what would later be recognized as jazz rhythms into his work. He championed everyday people, and worked to make the lives of those everyday people better. He inspired many generations, of all colors, that would follow him.
Today is also the birthday of Muriel Spark, most famous for her slim novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. When I was in high school, PBS did a special multi-week drama of the book (like Downtown Abbey, but nowhere near as popular). My mom and I watched it every Sunday. We'd make ourselves a special dessert, usually involving ice cream, and we'd settle in for some of the happiest times I remember during that tumultuous period that was 10th grade.
It wasn't until later, in grad school, that I saw Miss Jean Brodie as the problematic character that she was, when I finally read the book for a 20th Century British Novel class. In my younger years, I saw her as a great teacher, inspiring, all the things I thought a teacher should be, all the things I thought my teachers weren't. As I got older, I was appalled by the ways she manipulated "her girls, the creme de la creme." And the betrayals in the book still shock me. I suspect that they were downplayed in the PBS series that we watched.
Of course, in high school, I wasn't the most discerning literary critic. I remember reading The Bell Jar, and thinking it was a hoot. It wasn't until later that I realized it was really a grim story of the downward mental spiral of Plath.
Miss Jean Brodie and Saint Brigid: perhaps I feel I'm not leading an integrated, authentic life because I have a habit of choosing impossible role models. Instead of thinking of the students and faculty whom I've helped as an administrator, I think of the religious orders I am not creating. Instead of feeling happy when I see an old student who tells me what a great teacher I was, I wonder if I should go back to teaching, if my life has gone off track. Instead of seeing myself as a woman who contains multitudes, each of those multitudes having gifts specific to time and place, each multitude who will take a turn on stage, I wonder why I can't do everything, all at once.
I will try to imagine Saint Brigid through a more realistic lens. I will write a poem where she tells me that she accomplished all sorts of things along the way, while all the time struggling to create her great illuminated work. I will imagine something that she did that we know nothing of. I will imagine that she will feel sad when she realizes that modern people don't even know of her great work, but instead of her institutions at Kildare and beyond.
I will think about a woman at midlife 1500 years from now, a woman who reads about my life. What will amaze her? How will she see the ways that I did, indeed, live an authentic life, even as I lost sight of that fact in the daily minutiae? If she blogged about me, what would seem important enough to include? How would she finish this sentence: In the last half of her life, Berkey-Abbott accomplished ______________ ?
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