Today in history

NYT 2:3

Today, in 1917, America broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, who had announced unrestricted submarine warfare. This was the beginning of America’s entrance into the Great War, also known today as WWI.

I recently finished listening to a book I’ve re-read frequently since I was about 11, Rilla of Ingleside, which is all about Anne of Green Gables’ daughter as she experiences the war while being stuck at home, knowing very little of what’s going on, and trying to remain brave and heroic. The book hasn’t aged perfectly. It was written several years after the war, and is quite patriotic and very idealistic about the war, but I try to remember that during the war itself, these sentiments would have been true and dearly held. But, I was surprised by some of the very modern and very true ideas in the story that I would not have noticed as a child. I still love it, and it still makes me cry and breaks my heart. It does what good fiction ought to do– help place us there, make us empathize and make sense of what we are experiencing.

Having grown up since I first read this book, and studied WWI extensively, both in college and on my own, I know just how terrible and meaningless this war was. All war is terrible, but for me, this one was even more tragic because the modern warfare we know today was basically unfamiliar to the young men facing the enemy from mere yards away across no-man’s-land. Machine guns, barbed wire, airplanes, chemical warfare– all of these were new experiences for the armies and they ripped apart the old world, leaving an entire generation to die or figure out how to live again. This war changed the course of human events in ways we are still feeling today. It influenced civil rights movements, the music, poetry and art of the era, language, it changed the political and social climate and set the stage for another terrible war.

Please take a minute to think about that. 99 years ago today, our country took steps that would lead into a war that would impact us even now.

Had We But World Enough and Time I Could Make You Love Poetry Too

In addition to writing about love, I spend a lot of time talking about the literature of love, and of sex. I teach British Literature as a professor at a community college in Texas, and I get to teach high school students all about British Literature from 1000 to 1800.  I say “get to” because it is my privilege. I feel very fortunate on most days to be the one who gets to introduce them to the complex wonders of Chaucer, Donne, Marvelle and yes, Shakespeare. I love showing them why I enjoy sonnets and love extended metaphors and all the other ways that poetry challenges us, and makes us respond to the words on the page. And sometimes they point out things that make me pause and re-evaluate my own responses and then I have a deeper appreciation for the poems we’ve been reading for the past 500 years. Today, I got to experience that, and it was a great way to finish the day.

Today we discussed two of the better known “Carpe Diem” poems, Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. (The latter happens to be one of my all time favorite poems and the link I’ve included has a great version of it read by someone who sounds awfully like Patrick Stewart.)

As we were reading the poem I pointed out why he praises various body parts of his lady, and what he is trying to do by focusing on her eyes, forehead and heart, and also why he is trying to convince her that if they had “but world enough and time” then he would be committed to loving her “ten years before the flood”.

One of my students mentioned that parts of the poem are really weird, and that the idea of worms trying her “long preserved virginity” was a really gross image. When she said this I agreed, and I also pointed out that he compares them to “amorous birds of prey” and suggests that they “tear [their] pleasure with rough strife,” and that these are not usually images or birds we associate with love. When we think of birds and love we think of songbirds, or doves or lovebirds. We rarely think of falcons and hawks.

But, I went on to say, this is one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem. Andrew Marvell contrasts these gruesome or unpleasant images with some astoundingly beautiful ones. He says to his mistress that “my vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires, and more slow” which brings to mind green growing life, and vines curling outwards across the land. I love the idea of vegetable love. It seems so precious and earthy, and yet it brings forth life and nourishes us. Or, if you aren’t a fan of vegetable love, you might prefer, “the youthful hue / sits on thy skin like morning dew”. I would swoon if someone said that to me. But, shortly after that he’s talking about death and ashes.

And for me, the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly is what makes this poem startlingly great. It’s like life, in that beautiful things are set right next to ugly ones. Amazingly beautiful flowers grow out of mud, and lovely, wonderful things are right next to gruesome, awful ones. This poem sees the reality and the beauty and isn’t trying to hide one with the other. And that makes the beautiful things all the more marvelous (get it? Marvell-ous?) and the ugly things take on their own sort of loveliness.

So many of the poems from this era try to disguise their intentions with flowery, lovely language, or complex rhymes so that we don’t notice the truth. Or, we might notice it but we see it as insincere. Marvell might be insincere in his commitment to this woman, but he’s honest about it. He’s saying if we had time, I’d make you all sorts of flowery speeches, but we don’t. We’re going to die and it will be awful. Let’s enjoy things now while we can, and even if we can’t stop time, we will give it a run for its money.

That right there is how I finished my class. *Mic drop*. Isaacks Out.

Why Anne Shirley Was My First Feminist Icon

I was thinking recently on one of my all time heroines, and contemplating how Anne Shirley has influenced my life.

I first learned of Anne of Green Gables because my mother borrowed the VHS of the two movies starring Megan Fellows. You know the one. And then, I checked the books out of the library and proceeded to read them over and over and over and over. All of them. For years. I can even re-read them now and still enjoy them, and get new insights from them (for instance, I recently re-read Anne’s House of Dreams, which chronicles her first few years of married life with Gilbert, and as a married woman as well, I gained a new perspective.) Yes, the stories are sentimental, dramatic and very romanticized, but Anne remains for me, as Mark Twain put it, “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

When it comes to boys she might have done me a little disservice. I now have a tendency to over-romanticize boys and not see when they are actually just being normal boys. And I will never be as beautiful or as good. It has been a little disappointing to realize that no matter what, I will never be the mother she was to the Ingleside crew. But in general, Anne Shirley Blythe has taught me so much about being a strong, smart, creative girl that I never really stop to think about the influence she’s had until I am doing something and realize there’s an Anne quote that fits perfectly into the moment. Sadly, I know so few other Anne-obsessives that I can’t say the quote aloud without feeling slightly ridiculous (also happens with Lorelei Gilmore quotes). But, I do it anyway, because Anne would too.

So, here are my top lessons in being a feminist from Anne Shirley Blythe:

1. She is ambitious, and doesn’t let society’s expectations get in her way:

“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”

“We pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self denial, anxiety and discouragement.”

“I’ve done my best, and I begin to understand what is meant by ‘the joy of strife’. Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.”

As any good fan knows, Anne was top in her class, except when Gilbert took that honor. She worked hard to learn geometry, and all of her other lessons to keep her place. She was so ambitious that she went to high school and college, earning a B.A. in English. But she also understands what it means to fail, and what we can learn from our mistakes.

When I was in college I used to remind myself of Anne’s study habits and this inspired me to work a little harder. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.

2. She is smart, and isn’t afraid to admit it

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Anne is a reader, and an imaginative thinker. She isn’t afraid of being perceived as “too smart”. She accepts her love of literature, poetry and writing, and even though it makes her seem odd to others, she refuses to apologize for it. She says that she needs her big words because she has big ideas. Her example made me proud of loving books and being smart as well. The fact that she never hid this made me more courageous too.

3. She doesn’t let boys or romance distract her from her goals. 

“Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it?”

Not only is she smart, she’s not afraid to let boys know it. Anne uses her competition with Gilbert to become the best in their class. She refuses to accept any disrespect and refuses to be swayed by a pretty face, even when that pretty face is trying to apologize for wounding her pride and calling her “Carrots”. Of course, later on, when they’ve grown up she becomes friends with Gilbert, but even then, their feelings for each other don’t keep her from working. She earns her degree in a time when co-education is rare and not well accepted, then becomes an English teacher and also a high school principal in Kingstown while Gilbert goes to medical school.

4. She is a good friend, who won’t let others talk badly of those she cares about.

“We ought always to try to influence others for good.”

Too often we tend to disparage or insult our friends, or other women in general.  But Anne Shirley isn’t standing for it. Anne tells Phillippa Gordon that she won’t hear anyone talk badly about her friends, even if it’s self-disparaging talk. She encourages positive thinking, and friendship above all else. When I hear myself saying something negative about a woman in my head I remember her example and repent.

5. She knows herself and accepts herself.

 “Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads.”

When Anne and Gilbert finally get engaged she wants a circle of pearls, even though Gilbert says that diamonds are traditional (actually this tradition didn’t start until the 1920s, well after Anne and Gilbert were married, but L.M. was writing in the 20th century, so we’ll excuse her. Besides, without the error we wouldn’t have this great quote). Anne learns to accept herself over the years and knows what she does and doesn’t want. And what she doesn’t want is a bunch of diamonds that don’t fit her, even if everyone else is doing it. I remember this lesson sometimes when I’m feeling discouraged because my path differs from the people around me. I remind myself to choose what works for me, not what others think I should be doing. I might not have monetary goods, but I still get to be me.

6. She understands the power of clothes.

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

“All I want is a dress with puffed sleeves”

Some might say that feminists shouldn’t worry about clothes, but to paraphrase Anne, it’s easier to be good if you look good too. When I like my appearance, and my clothes I find it makes me more confident and happier. When I take care of myself, I’m loving myself.

7. When she does have children she doesn’t play the mommy wars

Anne is ambitious, and loves teaching. But the social expectations of her day require her to devote herself to her family. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with her choices. Anne has five children, and little time to do the writing that she so loved. But when someone calls her out on it at a dinner party, trying to make her feel badly for having so many children! she responds gracefully, and tells the busybody that she is writing “living epistles now,” meaning that she is focusing on creating living, breathing letters to the world in the form of her children. She doesn’t feel guilty for her choices, and refuses to downplay her role as a mother. She might not have the same choices I have today to be married, work and have children, but she’s not about to let someone insult the choice she does make.

8. She’s human and makes mistakes too.

When she was a child, Anne once told Marilla that she never repeats the same mistake. Marilla replies by saying something like, “but there are plenty more out there for you to discover.” And it’s true. Anne is constantly learning more about herself, and growing from the experience. Whether it’s her hair dye fiasco, her red currant cordial mix-up, lashing out when people insult her red hair, her almost engagement with Royal Gardner in college, her poor love advice to Janet while she’s substitute teaching, or her jealousy over Christine Stuart (both during college and later, when she and Gilbert are married) Anne isn’t perfect, and she sometimes makes a mistake, driven by vanity, pride or jealousy. But she takes it all with the spirit of one who is optimistic, and wants to learn from her mistakes. And that’s some great advice.

There you have it, my top 8 reasons why Anne Shirley is a feminist icon. Who are your early fictional icons? Or, if Anne is one of yours, what lessons did you learn from her?

Stuck in a Book

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I just finished listening to Joshilyn Jackson read her most recent novel, Someone Else’s Love Story, and I’m stuck in her voice. It has earwormed its way into my brain and will remain there, earnest and Southern and sweet. I want it to remain there. I want to keep hearing her voice reading her words and I want to just sink into them. But I am about to join my husband for a viewing of Outlander and the voice is about to be chased out of my head.

I sort of don’t want it to. I love the show, and I’m excited for the episode but I still want to live in this space for a while yet. Have you ever experienced this phenomena, where you are in a story and it fills up your eyes, and ears and nose with its world and then the story ends and you can’t quite figure out how to handle it? I feel as if some limb has been cut loose from me, or a past experience sliced out, or like I moved houses in the middle of the night and woke up in a new one. Even writing this I hear it read in Joshilyn’s voice. It is her cadence and inflections and I’m just repeating them.

I absolutely love her books, all of them. But this one spoke to me in new ways. I’d read it when it first came out.

ASIDE: My husband bought it for me for Christmas and I found it while innocently! putting away laundry. So, I started sneak-reading it. Just bits and pieces of it, when he wasn’t around and marking my place with a teeny-tiny fold so I could find it but he wouldn’t notice. I hadn’t finished it by the time he wrapped it so I didn’t feel too guilty, and was also really excited to finish it so it wasn’t like I was lying when I enthusiastically thanked him for the gift. I’m pretty bad at showing my excitement for gifts and didn’t want to fake it, as I already look like I’m faking it, even when I’m sincere.

Back to the present: This reading was different because I knew what to expect and could pay attention to the rest of it more closely, and god, was it sad. It does end in a positive, we can assume HEA, but man, it made me feel a lot of feels. And I’m sort of mourning for the characters’ pain as well as my own pain at having finished the book. This book is not a romance novel. Not in the sense you might imagine. But it is a whole lot about love, about all kinds of love, and about how to keep love. And about what happens when love is not always enough. God, it was good.

But now I have to go and try and pay attention to a really great show when part of my brain will be thinking about how much I adore William Ashe and his rational, odd and loving brain. And Shandi and Walcott too. Goodnight guys, I’ll miss you.