Our Experiences, Our Stories, and Our Truths

Yesterday I read Ursula LeGuin’s 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr. (You can find it and many other interesting essays in her book Dancing at the Edge of the World.) Her address includes an extended discussion of the different ways language can be used — to separate and to exert power-over [which LeGuin calls the “father tongue”] or to connect [her “mother tongue”]. I was struck by an anecdote she related:

“Early this spring I met a musician, the composer Pauline Oliveros, a beautiful woman like a grey rock in a streambed; and a group of us, women, who were beginning to quarrel over theories in abstract, objective language–and I with my splendid Eastern-women’s-college training in the father tongue was in the thick of the fight and going in for the kill– to us, Pauline, who is sparing with words, said after clearing her throat, ‘Offer your experience as your truth.’ There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn’t talk objectively, and we didn’t fight. We went back to feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking to one another, which involves listening. Not claiming something: offering something.

“How, after all,” LeGuin asks, “can one experience deny, negate, disprove, another experience? …. People can’t contradict each other, only words can: words separated from experience for use as weapons, words that make the wound, the split between subject and object, exposing and exploiting the object but disguising and defending the subject

“People crave objectivity because to be subjective is to be embodied, to be a body, vulnerable, violable.”

*********

To be able to “offer our experience as our truth” and to be able to hear another person’s experience as their truth… To listen deeply to both — to find compassion for both our experience and the experience of our “adversary”…. How different would our conversations be? How different would our world be?

I was reminded of Marilyn Frye’s description of the way the Arrogant Eye objectifies its world while the Loving Eye is situated firmly in its own living body, a participating aspect of the whole living universe. [See For the Earth, posted 4/22] How do we learn to see ourselves & each other with both eyes?

I was also reminded of how difficult it can be for many of us to trust our own experience/truth rather than that which has been scripted for us by family, teachers, society, culture. And, once we do manage to claim our truth, how difficult it can be to find the words that would let us offer it to others.

Nearly 30 years ago, the amazing poet Mary Oliver was Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College, a women’s college just down the highway a piece from where I was living at the time. I was fortunate & privileged to take a semester-long writing class with her. She was a wise person and an excellent teacher. And it was wonderful for me — then at ca. 50 years — to have talented, vibrant, and remarkable young women as colleagues in this learning experience. One day we were given an assignment for a prose poem about how it would be, after a long time alone in a lifeboat, to approach an island.

When we read our poems aloud in the next class, I was struck by the discovery that although the responses were as diverse as the writers, they all had one point in common. So, instead of revising my poem for the next class, I went home and wrote about that.

TRUE STORY

On Tuesday our teacher said, Write a poem. Make it like this: Your ship has sunk; you have been long in the lifeboat alone; you see an island. And we women went home, our heads filled with islands.

Mine was stern– a cliff without path, a face closed against me. I could not be sure that death on the surface might not be simpler than a frozen flailing towards shore or final rejection by the rock. When I showed the lines to my husband, he said, Why don’t you paddle around the island? Check it out? I can’t, I replied, I have no oars. Paddle with your hands, he urged. I can’t; the wind is pushing me past.

On Thursday we went over our writings, told how we had seen, with exquisite clarity, our various ways through the storm and into a calm of words. Our islands rose fiercely or gently; we sighed with anguish or relief; we moved forward into disaster or salvation– but always oarless.

Had we been men, we’d have written different poems–equipped ourselves with oars of oak; rigged Gortex anoraks into sails, taken from the emergency kit our freeze-dried chocolate ice cream. Sisters, shall we write again? Shall we supply ourselves with strong alloy paddles and waterproof battery-operated radio locators?

Dare me to speak more truthfully. Dare me to tell how I rose from the raft and, with many falls and bruises, learned to dance daily on the slick shifting waves. Dare me to tell how I bared by breasts to the moon, sprouted a silver tail, and slipped deep into this lucent world.

MCK

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P.S. Comments & responses to these Friday posts are welcome!

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