Friday, January 27, 2012

... No one can find the rewind button now - sing it if you understand ...

DISCLAIMER – This is a banned book post.  A report of sorts. On a book that is either frequently challenged or is/has been banned. Some content may not suit you. So, consider if you want to continue reading, or if you’d rather wait for a ‘normal’ post.

Very few things in my life have perfect timing. A precious, precious few. My art class study-abroad came at a perfect time, as did my travel to the UK. My first summer working at camp. Meeting my longtime tenant and friend, K. My independence rearing its head in the summer of ‘09. The events that all culminated on my birthday week in ’11 (what a week). Meeting my new Greenville friends.

My latest banned book had freakishly perfect timing because it dovetailed with timing of events in my life in a strange, mysterious way that I can’t wrap my brain around. It’s even weirder when you consider the book is Beloved by Toni Morrison. To begin – the book. At the end – the way it fit into my life, at a very odd juncture.

Beloved has been challenged in schools in Florida, Texas, and Maine (at least, these stats are the results of only light research). The reasons varied – violent images, language, sexual material (incest, rape, pedophilia, graphic sex, sexual abuse, bestiality) physical/emotional abuse, infanticide, and profanity. And yes, this is a dark book. A heavy book. A book that repeats itself time and again in the final chapter as a story you aren’t meant to share. Why does it keep popping up? Why does it keep offending people? If it isn’t a worthwhile book, why doesn’t it just go out of print? The reason is that Beloved is a book that confronts. It makes people confront their past, confront their sins, and realize their present. And people don’t handle these ideas well at all. I don’t handle these ideas well at all.

Sethe is a former slave (she escaped to Cincinnati) who lives in a house haunted by a baby – her child. She has given birth to several children, but only one still lives with her – the others have fled or died. She and her daughter, Denver, do not mix with the community. In the beginning you assume it has to do with the house – and you are partially right. But as the story moves on and you learn the daily struggles of Sethe and Denver’s lives, you begin to realize that it is much more then the house that keeps them isolated. In the opening of the novel, a slave named Paul D. visits Sethe and becomes her lover. They worked on the same plantation years ago before Sethe escaped. While Paul D. provides her with joy and companionship, he begins to bring back memories that haunt Sethe. Paul D. (briefly) exorcises their resident ghost. Denver is upset, because she believes the ghost to be her baby sister. The ghost is also Denver’s only companion. She partly forgives Paul D. when he takes both ladies to a carnival. Sadly, this joy is short lived. Upon returning, a strange being appears at Sethe’s house. It is a well-dressed young woman who calls herself Beloved. She looks strangely like Sethe and behaves oddly – exercising a surprising amount of control over Paul D. (to the point of impelling him to have sex with her and moving him bodily around the house) and Sethe (using emotional manipulation and fear to cripple her). Eventually you discover Beloved is a sort of revenant/ghost/demon of Sethe’s dead child – and is back to be with Sethe. Sethe begins telling the women about (and while telling, begins to relive) her horrific past. Paul D. finds out why the community shuns Sethe and why her baby is dead. He cannot stay with Sethe after he discovers her secret, and leaves. For a time, Denver is alone with the demon and her mother – providing for them and trying to protect her mother from the overbearing, overwhelming presence of Beloved. Beloved physically harms Denver and Sethe when she does not get her way, causes them to starve, and keeps Sethe from working. Finally, Paul D. and the community overcome their distaste for Sethe’s past actions and exorcise her house. While free of Beloved’s presence, Sethe continues to suffer and is burdened with guilt. She has to come to grips with her past and see it for what it is before she can move into the present and dream of the future along with Paul D. and Denver.

Still from the movie with Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton - 

Wow – this book is violent. There are descriptions of bloody deaths, rape, whippings, difficult childbirths, and slow decent into madness. The descriptions of what some slaves could have gone through (just bodily) to escape to freedom in the north made my stomach turn. The emotional strain and heartache Sethe and Paul D. endured and boxed away was enough for several lifetimes. However, the fact that they boxed all of these emotions up and did not confront them lead to the very physical oppression of alcoholism (for Paul D.) and the crippling presence of Beloved (for Sethe).

The things that made this book worth the struggle were the characters of Baby Suggs and the realizations the community, Paul D., Denver and Sethe have in the final chapters. Baby Suggs is Sethe’s mother-in-law and the spiritual leader of the community. She calls the people in the community to laugh, cry, love, dance, embrace life and heal. When Sethe does the unthinkable and begins to justify her actions to others, Baby Suggs is overwhelmed and succumbs to illness. The community draws on her memory and the memory of her strength to save Sethe – realizing the hatred and fear they feel for her should be tempered with love. Sethe and Paul D.’s story closes on his realization that they both have had enough yesterdays and they need more tomorrows. They embrace themselves and each other, deal with the past, and leave Beloved behind.

I had to confront my past this week. Actions I took. Actions I did not take. The ways the actions and inaction hurt others. My mindset. My opinions. My desires against what my desires should be. Truth against lies. Past versus present versus future. I looked into the eyes of someone who was standing where I stood almost a year ago and realized I was being haunted.  It wasn’t until that instant I was able to dispel the complete feeling of worthlessness and futility I’ve been carrying, In that instant I exorcised the demon – pregnant with hate and rancor – from my mind. I realized I was my own ‘best thing’.

Today, I choose to love myself. – all of me. I choose to trust, yet verify. I choose to remember without reliving. I choose to forgive myself and others. Today, I choose tomorrow.

Extra Credit - some of my workweek soundtrack.

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