Friday, June 24, 2011

Children, Nature, Selves

The return from Atlanta has been a deep nesting experience (the exact opposite of Mac's days in India which have been unfurling in more and more extraordinary ways).  The fifteen (!) boxes of glorious books from my beloved Donna have emerged, categorized in perhaps new ways, finding new alphabetical companions as they meet books already on my bookshelves.  There are many memories of her fantastic classes in these books, a kind of long look at the love and thinking that go into teaching and research - the spines of these books are worn with consultation, and I think of myself as a 17 year old on the other end of that book-professor relationship, taking notes, thinking on art history all the time, now making my own consultations.  There is a seamlessness in Donna meeting the kids that is wonderfully untrue, considering all of the radical changes that have occurred over the past 20 years - yet, there we were: one art historian passing her books on to another art historian, Donna's lovely daughter meeting my eager kids.  They knew that they were in the midst of something special, the kids, they savored the seamlessness - to them it had to be inevitable that things turned out this way. In the way that photos of loved ones allow us to over-interpret them, the three outlines of Oliver, Iris and Eleanor at the mind-blowing Georgia Aquarium say it all: Oliver, relaxed, with his hands in his pockets, sighting enormous beluga whales; Iris reaching up to touch the glass to verify or count something, to keep track and annotate as she goes; and Eleanor, little pixie, twirling about, engaged in some imaginary dance with the belugas, which she adores.

No need to over-interpret this one: Eleanor is registering everyone's reaction beneath this phenomenal tunnel where whale sharks (which are huge!) and enormous manta rays and dozens of other sea life swim above our heads.  It took our breath away: the gentle beauty, the ease, the enormity, the flow, the quiet purpose, yes, the seamlessness of it all. Which brings me to a realization: that aquaria are starting to be our image of the ocean - that we see more of them than of the actual ocean; that while these gorgeous environments entreat us to do all we can to preserve the ocean, they also allow us to forget its actual demise a little. Reading Bennett and LaTour has made me increasingly excruciatingly aware of the categories and boundaries that have been set up and (more importantly) of the work that these do to perpetuate our primacy (which is not (always) a good thing - wait, is it ever a good thing?).  We categorize nature As Such and make it a place apart, while in lived reality, we are utterly enmeshed in it. To quote Graham Harman on Tim Morton's blog: "Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized."  At the same time, there is an aesthetic (oh no, not that word again!) to Nature As A Place Apart, that of natural history (there's a great term) museums, and museums in general (perhaps Art "in general" is the entire idea of "a place apart) that I wouldn't want to give up. I don't think that any of the people I'm reading for the ecocriticism class are calling for the end of aquaria or museums, but they have become increasingly strange places to me, symptomatic of our will to make nature an aesthetic rather than, say, a politics, or even at times, a reality.  The challenge is to understand all of this within living my life; the other is to make this gripping for students. In the absence of subjectivity, they have a really hard time staying interested. And I know that one of the aims of ecocriticism is to provide nature with a subjectivity (that is not anthropomorphic) that we can all more interactively engage in - but it's still a challenge.

All of this is somehow related in my mind to the latest development here at home. Two days ago, Iris announced that she wanted to be a boy. She came downstairs, having raided Oliver's closet, wearing a shirt and tie, dress pants, and "boy shoes."  When that is too formal, she has taken to wearing the clip-on tie with a t-shirt. She has asked that we now call her "Edgar." I dug a little, and it turns out that these biographies that she's been reading have had a powerful effect on her. Iris has discovered three things this summer: the parenthesis, the phrase "physically impossible," and biographies.  She absolutely adores this genre - gripping narrative, but all facts (she resisted my attempts to get her hooked on historical fiction because she couldn't tell "where the facts end and the fiction begins" - !!!).  BUT, the genre of biography, I now realize, is all about people who break the mold, who change things, who rethink categories.  So in reading a lot of women's biographies (Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart), she has been reading a lot about the historical expectations of women (to stay home, squelch intellectual ambition, and (and I can't believe that this is the phrase seared in my little girl's mind), "worry about their complexion.") And she is balking.  My entreaties that today, women have more agency in defining what it means to be a woman aren't convincing her, although she concedes the point that there are women engineers and women doctors.  Oliver and Eleanor have offered the greatest resistance to Iris's project - they miss her as a girl, they've said, and want her back (remember, it's only been two days). Nothing doing.  Eleanor was the first one to give in, and I took this picture of she and "Edgar" getting married. Yes, it gets weird. And it also makes me wonder if this isn't about Iris missing her dad.  One could over-interpret.  I'll confess to missing Iris as a girl as well. She has been clear, though, that this is a project - she knows that she will have to use the girls' bathroom come the fall (interesting sex-gender realization there), and she has said that her attempt to play with cars "proved embarrassing" (I'm quoting her precisely because these comments have been so vivid to me).  She will try again today.  What is she playing with, my darling girl? My dear child.  I could say that she is testing the boundaries of her gender, but in some ways, with the tie and all, it seems as though she is reifying them. Perhaps it happens simultaneously, or in some kind of continuum of testing and reification, as she makes sense of her self, her "nature."  Or maybe this is about her thinking ahead: yesterday in the car, as Oliver and Eleanor were begging her to go back to being a girl (and their trust in the absolute nature of her decision is dear to me, too) and using the "girls only having babies was a long time ago" argument, Iris said "Well, just in case things go back to the way they were, I'll be ready if I'm a boy."  Progressives, take note: keep the wheels of social progress turning!

1 comment:

  1. oh so beautiful my friend!! your children are just amazing, and your level of conversation with them is so inspiring. oh how i wished we lived closer together.