Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born": On Seasons and Genres in The Winter's Tale

I found a flower in the snow
The last play I taught in my Shakespeare class this semester was, appropriately to the season,  The Winter's Tale. A strange play that few of my students had read or seen before, Winter's Tale spends its first three acts as a tragedy and then makes a surprising and bittersweet comeback by the end. The play begins with King Leontes's unfounded jealousy over an imagined relationship between his wife Hermione and best friend Polixenes. This jealousy serves to tear apart his family and friendship and country. His heir dies, his wife dies, and his newborn child, whom he wrongly believes to be illegitimate, is left out in the cold and bear-filled landscape to face the elements. Antigonus, the man sent to leave the baby, receives one of the most famous stage directions in history: Exit, pursued by a Bear. Perhaps Antigonus is punished by nature for abandoning the child, perhaps this is a lesson in conflicting loyalties (loyalty to the king's orders vs. loyalty to personal morality), or perhaps he is a scapegoat figure. In any case, the last we see of Antigonus he is running for his life. Offstage, he dies a terrible death (while the bear, presumably, gets a good meal). Also offstage, a young man observes the violent mauling, while onstage the man's father, a shepherd, finds the baby. And here, at the end of act three, we get the first moment of real hope in the play. The play has been filled with jealousy and despair and death and cold and darkness, but the baby lives. At this time of year, when days are short and temperatures are cold and it feels like spring may never return, a glimmer of hope can mean life. (I never really understood this when I lived in California, but I certainly get it in upstate New York.) To survive winter, we need something to look forward to. A celebration. A winter holiday. A candle or a sprig of holly. And, of course, the shortest day of the year means that each subsequent day will be longer. The play, tied to seasonal change, is rooted in such inevitable cycles. A tragedy or a comedy, the play suggests, is only a matter of where you stop the tale. And this play keeps going into spring.

The shepherd is amazed by his discovery of the helpless child, and his son is horrified by the violence he has witnessed, and their conversation brings despair and hope, death and life, into contact. It is no accident that it is the old man who finds the new life. The pivotal moment of the play is this one of life and death, beginnings and endings. At the same time as father saves a new life, the son can do nothing to stop a life from ending. Hope, it seems, comes at a price.

I won't go into lengthy summary or analysis (though I have much more to say on the play), nor will I give away the ending. Instead, I just want to say a few words about the play in terms of this holiday season. In keeping with my Christmas posts from the past two years (one on Gawain and the Green Knight and another on The Second Shepherd's Play), I want to think here about how The Winter's Tale might help us contemplate this time of year. It's a play in which hope comes just as things seem the most tragic. Death is everywhere and we are sure this must have been mislabeled as comedy or romance. Surely it's a tragedy. In Act 2, the doomed little heir Mamillius explains to his mother that "A sad tale's is best for winter" (II.i.25). And what we get is indeed a seasonally-appropriate sad tale. But then something miraculous happens. A baby is born; a baby lives. Time passes, and it is winter no longer.

One of the many things I love about this play is that it manages to bring together genres in the way that seasons come together, not as separate entities but as parts of a larger, interconnected cycle. Even the play's ending, which allows for resolution, reconciliation, and even joy, is not completely free from the sorrow of the first three acts. Time has passed, bodies once young are now wrinkled. The years cannot be regained anymore than the wrongs can be forgotten. People have died, people have been slandered and exiled. And though some wrongs can be righted, others never can. Leontes regrets and learns and gets some redemption, but none of this erases what he's done. His happy ending is truly happy, but also bittersweet. The characters value their happiness because they know how dearly-bought it is. Likewise, we can always do better and the world can always do better for us, but what we've done and experienced won't just go away. It makes us who we are. The baby grows into a woman, but this doesn't eliminate the fact that her father intended her death. Her name, Perdita, means "the lost one," indicating that if she's found she will nonetheless represent that which has been lost. It is in this lost one, this Perdita, that we find hope, and the hope is real, but that doesn't disconnect it from the circumstances that required hope in the first place. This looking forward as well as backward, this Janus posture fitting to the new year, helps us to see that joy and sorrow are not always distinct, nor do they need to be. As redemption is only possible after a fall, hope only means anything in times of despair. This holiday season, as we move to a new year, let's think on the fact that looking for joy and hope and goodness in the world need not mean that we've forgotten the bad and the sad. Instead, let us try to see the bigger picture, to learn from mistakes and to understand that sometimes our gain comes from another's loss. And as the happiness found at the end of Winter's Tale is more meaningful to the characters in that they've known such sorrow, perhaps we can remember that life has no simple happy endings. Happiness is tangled and complicated, and life very often continues even after marriages or deaths that would make such neat conclusions to comedies or tragedies. And even the times of year we associate with joy can be filled with loss as well. I shine with love for those around me, but I also ache with fresh grief for those I have lost. I know I am warm and safe inside, but others are stuck in the cold. Part of being in the spirit of the season, I think, is in realizing what it means to celebrate light in the middle of the winter. In the spirit of The Winter's Tale, then, I wish for more joy and compassion for you all this holiday season. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Exercise in Gratitude

When I was a little girl, and whenever I’d have a particularly bad day and found myself feeling as though nothing, absolutely nothing, was right with the world, my father would send me off to my room with a pencil and paper. My task was simple: to write down ten good things that had happened to me that day. I frequently responded to his insistence that I complete this exercise with some version of the following:


My father, however, is nothing if not persistent, and so off to my room I went, even though I was convinced in that moment that the paper would remain blank, the pencil just as sharp and unused as it was when he gave it to me. 

I’d sit in my room for a while, refusing to consider anything aside from all of the wrongs and hurts that had afflicted me over the course of the day. But after a while, some kind of quiet miracle would occur: I’d start to remember the beautiful birds I saw flying high above me as I walked into my school building, or the way a friend made me laugh at lunch, or the puppy I saw from my school bus window. I’d start there, and after a few minutes I’d find that recalling and writing down those ten good things wasn’t nearly as hard as I had thought.

This exercise taught me an important lesson growing up: that even when life kicks you repeatedly in the unmentionables (over and over . . . and over again in some cases), there are still a wild array of reasons to be grateful for each day that you’ve been given. 

The importance of this exercise came back to me rather suddenly a few days ago. I came home from an exhausting (and, to be honest, somewhat demoralizing) teaching day, only to find yet another quasi-rejection from a university to which I’d applied earlier this Fall.  I’ve been rather silent here on the blog over the last few months, and this silence has stemmed from the fact that I’m overwhelmed by the stresses of contingent labor as an adjunct and that I am equally overwhelmed with the job application process. There are so many aspects of both this process and adjunct life that frustrate and depress me, but as a powerless, contingent member of the academy, there is little to nothing that I can say here or elsewhere that will help me or anyone else in my position. And that realization only further adds to the anger and frustration, and leads to me feeling trapped by the very system to which I’ve devoted so much of my adult life and about which I care rather deeply.

I do a decent job on most days of keeping these broader anxieties at bay, but they creep up nevertheless, and I found myself so trodden down and beaten up a few days ago, that I retreated to my bedroom to take a wildly uncharacteristic nap. Having resisted nap taking with a vengeance since I was a toddler, however, I unsurprisingly found myself lying in bed, awake with all of my worries.

The simple truth is that I am terrified, just like any other recently-minted Ph.D. in my position. I’ve worked hard, I’m finding ways to publish and to keep my research projects afloat, and I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to continue going to conferences. I know that I’m good at what I do. But I also know that none of those things makes me any more likely to land the kind of job that I’ve worked so hard to achieve. And it terrifies me to think of having to start all over again.

As I mulled over these worries and tried to fly swat them away, I suddenly remembered the exercise that my father gave me so long ago, and I found my thoughts starting to shift. Yes, countless aspects of the job application process and the state of academy are cause for justifiable anger, depression, and resentment right now, especially for adjuncts like myself. And I am certainly entitled and justified in feeling those feelings. However, I know that what I’m really hungry for is a sense of purpose and a sense of happiness in my deeply uncertain and contingent professional life, and focusing on all of the things that enrage me (things over which I have little to no control) will not help me find either of those things. It dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, writing about what I am grateful for in the midst of this hell-storm could help buoy my spirits, and perhaps the spirits of others out there who are struggling along with me. And I say “with” because I truly believe that we are in this together, and, as a wise a wonderful friend recently observed, a win for any of us is a win for us all.

So friends, for what it’s worth, here is my list from a few days ago:

Today, I’m grateful for . . .

1. The fact that it was 41 degrees when I woke up. It finally feels a little like winter, and I now have plans to go out and purchase an obscene amount of hot chocolate and start decorating for the holidays while drinking said hot chocolate.

2.  This video, which (miracle of miracles) actually got me to crack a smile this afternoon:

3.  Nutella. Because, let’s face it – stressful days are simply made for nutella.

4. The fact that even with all of my fears about my professional future, I am still madly in love with medieval literature. Case in point: I can’t wait to curl up by my parents’ fireplace and re-read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this Christmas.

5.  Being able to teach world literature. Where else can you help students forge meaningful comparisons between Old Norse sagas and Japanese warrior tales?

6. Being able to end the content portion of my current course with Midsummer Night’s Dream, and having a rollicking good time discussing the mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in class this week.

7.  My husband, for always being able to make me laugh, especially on a day like today.

8. My friendship with Kristi. We've swapped countless job letters, CVs, teaching statements, and the like over the past few months, all in an attempt to help each other create the best portfolios possible. That we were often applying to the same positions was never even so much as a concern, and I count myself so very, very fortunate to have her (and several others like her) in my life.

9. All of my family, friends, colleagues, especially those who have buoyed my spirits over the past few months. You might not know this, but your words of encouragement are ones I go back to immediately on hard days, and I find myself deeply humbled and truly grateful for the number of people out there who believe in me.

10. The fact that I had the opportunity to do EXACTLY what I loved most for well over seven years. Grad school was certainly brutal at times, and it came with no guarantee of an academic job; those years, however, were richer beyond anything I could have imagined, and I know that they will always be meaningful, no matter where I find myself in my professional life.  


After I wrote this post, I asked my scholar friends on Facebook for some advice on how to survive the job market, and I was truly humbled by the warm, honest, and heartfelt responses that so many people took the time to compose. My hope is that both that conversation and this post might help others out there who are feeling similarly trodden down by the application process. I know that writing and responding to both have helped me immeasurably. And as I said to my friends on Facebook, their responses reminded me of how very grateful I am for pursuing the career that I did, because I’ve managed over the past several years to surround myself with truly wonderful people, and that makes all of the struggles I’m experiencing right now far more than worth it.