“Kicking the Stone”: Two Sisters and a Relationship, a Trifecta of Heroine Journeys

Barbara Leckie’s “Kicking the Stone,” in Salamander’s Summer 2018 issue, is a wonderful, complex short story that interleaves three life stories that broadly follow Victoria Schmidt’s formulation of the heroine journey. The short story revolves around the life trajectories of two sisters and a husband and the changing relationships between and among them.

In our lives we often complete the heroine’s journey cycle nonlinearly. We  return to stages as new challenges are presented, and we examine previous experience more deeply. We can also work on several stages at one time. “Kicking the Stone,” illustrates the role that memories play in our navigating and narrating our lives, and flashbacks play in composing stories. Indeed, the “present” of the story takes place in the relatively static setting of a University town coffee shop in the space of about an hour.  Flashbacks provide tension, action, context, emotional complexity, and pacing.

The story begins in a cozy coffee shop where Sylvia waits for her sister.  It’s early spring, but a surprise snow storm has temporarily buried the crocuses. The setting suggests Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey’s Stage one–the illusion of the “perfect” or “normal” progressing world, but almost immediately we realize that things are not what they seem because Sylvia is tearing tiny holes in numerous packages of sugar and pouring them into her tea to make a sugary slush at the bottom, as if her drink cannot be made sweet enough to swallow.  She overhears a student at the next table say, “We are never quite prepared for death.  I don’t think.”  The overheard statement sounds unreal due to the lack of context and curious grammatical construction, but also ominous because it comes so soon in a composed short story.

Sylvia’s sister, Marg, arrives and apologizes for being late. coffee shopiiThe author then describes Marg’s illusory perfect world from Sylvia’s point of view.  Marg is a university professor who teaches in the linguistic department who “possessed the room” and commands “a sort of erotic attention [by] her confidence.” Sylvia, a couple of years older than Marg, feels as if she plays second fiddle to her younger sister. Sylvia has worked at a variety of community non-profits doling out food to the homeless and delivering community newspapers door-to-door. She is, by her own half-joking admission, “still trying to find herself.”

From this description of Marg as the “successful” sister and Sylvia as the plainer one who travels in her sister’s orbit, we are jolted by the matter-of-fact revelation that Sylvia is living, and has lived, with Marg’s husband for years. We are also told that Sylvia believes Marg had been negligent with her husband. The story thus abruptly enters the land of betrayal, or at least, coping strategies have not gone as expected.

We return to the present and Marg, the accomplished jilted sister, asks Sylvia if she is angry at her, again apologizes for being late, and asks if Sylvia has been waiting long—signaling that the story itself is moving on to Stage 3—Awakening and Preparing for the Journey.  Sylvia reinforces this sense of anticipation by telling Marg that she has something to tell her without revealing what it is. Both sisters lean toward each other, signaling the importance of their relationship which the reader senses has been, and will be, its own journey.

The author again references Sylvia’s “affair” with Marg’s husband (the Stage 2 betrayal), and then a second blow up (Stage 6), before describing the period between the estrangements when the sisters reconciled and referred to Hugh, Marg’s former husband and Sylvia’s current partner as “our Hugh.”  This moment feels like a Stage 5 “Eye of the Storm”– during which the sisters had managed to find equilibrium in their relationships with Hugh and each other.

We return to the coffee shop with Sylvia privately wishing she could begin the current conversation with something “as light and intimate and bonding” as an “our Hugh” reference– strongly suggesting that the story and the sister’s relationship and lives are headed for a Descent (Stage 4).

The story then takes one last backward glance at stage one’s illusory perfect world as Sylvia tries to find her footing before moving forward with the descent.  She muses that she would have liked to open a similar coffee shop-bookstore, but the vision quickly fades.  From here, the story continues to tack forward and back, like a carefully crafted multi-thread chain stitch that braids together the heroine’s journeys of the sisters and their relationship. We learn that Marg and Hugh were in a car accident years before that left Hugh in a wheelchair (his descent).  Marg, who was pregnant at the time, appears to have recovered, but she has some irreparable nerve damage, and she lost her baby.  Thus, we are introduced to Marg and Hugh’s experience of death (stage six) before we find out Sylvia’s news.

The semi-omniscient narrator describes the cause of the accident (a child’s game that ended in the street and  an SUV rear-ending Marg’s and Hugh’s car); Marg’s rehabilitation and response to Hugh after the accident (the descent of their relationship); and Sylvia’s support of both of them.  While Marg has largely blocked out the details of the accident and aftermath, Sylvia remembers them because “it had given her her life.” In this and in numerous other instances, Leckie uses a single sentence and moment to move characters into different stages of their journeys—in this case the Descent for Marg, and the Preparing for the Journey for Sylvia. ii coffee shop two women

The narrator continues to slice back and forth through Sylvia’s memory and narrative flashback, revealing the literal and psychological journeys of each of the characters as they move toward and away from their relationships with one another. With each move, Leckie illustrates the effect of a character’s action on the others and their relationships, which lead to new actions and effects that ripple throughout all the characters’ lives.

Back in the present, Sylvia reveals that the reason she has asked Marg to coffee is to tell her that Hugh (her partner now for at least a dozen years after the accident) has stage four colon cancer.  We see a moment of shared concern for Hugh and for one another. Sylvia then refuses Marg’s request to go see Hugh immediately which we sense is, for Sylvia, a moment of truth and resolve (Stage 8)  in the midst of  her responding to others’ decisions and calamities.  In this moment Sylvia is able to know and say what she needs—as hard-hearted as it seems at that moment of the story.

The story again flashes back to Sylvia’s support of Hugh and Marg after their accident, Marg’s growing impatience with Hugh, and Hugh’s attention to Sylvia in a way that makes her feel that she is more than Marg’s shadow.  The story is constructed so that the reader is repeatedly surprised by the flashback action and then comes to understand and empathize with the character(s) and their journeys only to be surprised by another revelation—from Marg’s affair with a neighbor which launches Sylvia’s romantic relationship with Hugh, to Hugh’s confession to Sylvia that he and Marg have been once again sleeping together after Sylvia tells Marg that she is pregnant, etc.  In each betrayal and struggle we wonder how things can be repaired after this move while hoping that somehow they can be, and knowing that somehow they must have been repaired, for now the sisters are sitting in a coffee shop talking honestly with each another and expressing concern for Hugh.  There are no neatly tied-up endings in this story or in these lives, but there is beauty in the efforts each makes to live an authentic life and preserve difficult relationships that change in ways they do and don’t control under circumstances that are never ideal.

Back in the present, Sylvia has still not agreed to a specific time when Marg can come visit Hugh, but Marg has stopped pressing, and the story and the sisters know that it will not be long.  DSC_2241 (2)Marg listens to Sylvia describe Hugh’s illness and the difficulty of telling Sylvia’s kids (she now has two) and tears up when Sylvia tells her she already finding feels sad to see High’s empty coat hanging in the hall.

Nothing is simple for these characters, but there is an underlying conviction that they will do whatever it takes to affirm their important relationships and themselves, although they don’t yet know how this will happen. In the last paragraph of the story, after Marg has left the coffee shop and Sylvia is preparing to leave, Sylvia remembers Marg telling her the last last thought she had  before the SUV slammed their car into the car ahead in the accident that altered the course of all of their lives. “Brace Yourself” is both a warning and a strangely affirming declaration that the task of life, regardless of our current situations, is to engage reality while acknowledging and aligning ourselves as best we can with internal truths.

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“Kicking the Stone” can be found in the summer 2018 issue of Salamander.  Salamander is one thirty-plus literary journals offered by the Journal of the Month Club that enables you to sample a variety of literary journals for the price of one or two. Click here to see their holiday specials.

 

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Willa Cather’s “Coming, Aphrodite!”; The Hero and Heroine’s Perspectives on Success

Willa Cather’s short story Coming, Aphrodite! includes both a Heroine’s Journey and a Hero’s Journey—with a twist. Published in 1920, it chronicles a woman undertaking the Hero’s Journey while a man simultaneously undertakes the Heroine’s Journey.

Originally a small-town girl from an Illinois prairie, Eden Bower has set her sights on becoming an international-stage star when she moves next door to Don Hedger, an orphaned and independent artist living in a small New York apartment.

nyc broadway theatres 1920sEden has wanted to an actress from the time she was very young and is convinced “that she would live far away in great cities, … be much admired by men and … have everything she wanted.” This vision guides Eden throughout her life and she accepts advice (such as changing her name from Edna to Eden) from anyone whom she believes can move her closer to international fame and adoration. She goes to New York, where she believes she is fated to find someone who will take her to Paris. In New York, Eden is for the first time momentarily free to do what she wants, when she meets Hedger who presents her with the opportunity for a new life perspective .

Meanwhile, Hedger, who has grown up in foster homes, has already brushed up against recognition and prosperity as an artist which Cather describes as twice having been on the verge of becoming “a marketable product.” However, Hedger has turned down easy renown because he recoils at being stuck doing “the same old thing over again.” Hedger wants to follow  his inner artistic intuition  and supports his modest domestic needs through occasional commercial work.

As neighbors, the Eden and Hedger (the story refers to the female protagonist by her first name and the male by his last ) have several brief and tense odd couple-like interactions and then fall into a  brief romantic relationship. Their affair begins after Hedger invites Eden to Coney Island, a trip which Eden uses to insert herself into a hot-air balloon performance (for which she has no training) to show off her talents. Hedger, upset by her disregard for his feelings in taking such a this “foolish risk,”  forgives her in part because he recognizes that Eden causes him to consider things “that had never occurred to [him]” before.

Their different worldviews, which initially intrigue and excite them, soon lead to conflict. Eden does not understand how there can be any achievement or purpose in being an artist that “nobody knows about” and criticizes Hedger. Eden wants to be popular in the eyes of the general public and she cannot forgive Hedger for consciously rejecting fame. For his part, Hedger believes he has already found success because he works for himself on projects that please him. Hedger wishes to create new things and paint for other artists “who haven’t been born” yet. He is looking towards a future, but it is one that values internal personal progress and ingenuity, not one that is subject to the taste of popular culture. He chides Eden’s focus on public approval, telling her that “a public only wants what has been done over and over.”

After their fight about success (which, of course, cuts to the core of their identity and sense of place and value in the world) Hedger is hurt more than he’d previously imagined possible and leaves Eden for several days “to be among rough, honest people.” when he returns he is ready to forgive Eden and attempt to integrate their lifestyles so they can continue their relationship, but in his absence Eden has found a way to get to  Paris, so Hedger finds only a hastily written note of explanation.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the hero’s journey as  “a hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.” Eden has embraced this (hero’s) journey and managed to become successful (at least by her lights). The story picks up when Eden returns to New York after performing in an opera in Paris. She visits an art gallery to ask about Hedger in order to find out if, in her absence, he has become rich and famous. The gallery owner tells Eden that Hedger is a well-received and influential artist among the New York crowd who has gained the respect of others for being “original” and “changing all the time.” Eden cuts the gallery owner’s explanation short, demanding to know if he’s much talked about in Paris, saying that’s all  she wants to know.  The story then pulls back closes with a wonderfully enigmatic paragraph description of Eden sitting in a car after leaving the gallery as she is being driven to her next performance.

hermione lee secret selfIn Coming, Aphrodite!, Cather presents her readers with a complex  discussion of success. Both characters find the success they seek, and  Cather is careful to present a neutral view. But by the close of the story one senses that her sympathies lie with the Heroine’s Journey.

To learn more about Willa Cather and read her short story Coming, Aphrodite!, you can find it here or in Hermione Lee’s wonderful collection, The Secret Self: Short Stories By Women

The Heroine’s Journey of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a historical fiction novel that profiles the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini resists telling Keckley’s story as a hero’s journey arc in favor of a more complicated, seering heroine’s journey.  Keckley, an African American  lived from 1818 to 1907. She lived as a slave for thirty-seven years before earning her freedom by becoming an expert seamstress for wealthy women in the pre-civil war Washington D.C. area.

Engraving_of_Elizabeth_Keckly (1)When Abraham Lincoln is elected President, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln selects Keckley from among numerous applicants to be her personal “modiste.” As her modiste, Keckley has the responsibility for designing and creating the First Lady’s gowns and dressing her for important occasions.  Mary Todd Lincoln is viewed as an outsider by Washington society women, and Keckley becomes the First Lady’s trusted confidante. If the story had ended here, it would be a hero’s journey arc – e.g., former slave overcomes great odds to become a member of the White House’s trusted staff through her own ingenuity and skill during the years in which Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation.  But Keckley’s life and Chiaverini’s story are more complex and don’t end with Keckley becoming a celebrated seamstress and Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante.

Mrs. Lincoln was a complicated woman with many physical maladies who never fully recovered from her grief of losing her youngest son shortly after Lincoln was elected President. Keckley’s son dies in the Civil War, but but Mrs. Lincoln is so fraught by her own grief that she cannot empathize with Keckley or the thousands of other mothers whose sons are killed in the war.  Her husband’s assassination as she sits next to him is yet another terrible blow.  Mrs. Lincoln is portrayed as being unprepared to leave the White House and live on her own after her husband’s assassination. She has grown psychologically dependent on Keckley’s support, so Keckley reluctantly agrees to accompany her to Chicago although Mrs. Lincoln is unable to consistently pay her.

Elizabeth_Keckly_UNCChiaverini chronicles Keckley’s post-White House life with the increasingly debt-ridden and mentally compromised Mrs. Lincoln. When the money runs out, Keckley tries to earn a living by writing  her remembrances of her time in the White House, by writing her remembrances o her time in the White House, but is betrayed by her publisher. Although Keckley intends her  portray Mrs. Lincoln with sympathy, the book causes a public outrage in large part because Keckley, an unschooled African American, has dared to give voice to her impressions o the inner workings of the White House. Moreover, her publisher ignores her instructions and  adds the contents of Mrs. Lincoln’s confidential letters to Keckley.  Not only does Keckley fail to earn any much-needed money from the book, she is scorned by the public and Mrs. Lincoln refuses forgive her, see her, or believe in her good intentions.  The novel follows Keckley’s subsequent efforts to recover her life as an independent seamstress and her years as a dressmaking instructor in a college. When she suffers a stroke, she is gain without means and is forced to reside   at the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children a few blocks from the White House. Keckley endures a multitude of hopes and heartbreaks, and Chiaverini offers no “final” triumph (or failure).

In the book’s final chapter, Chiaverini depicts Keckley, then in her 80’s, being interviewed by a young reporter who asks  what it is like to be so famous. Keckley is described as being fully aware of the world as it is—fame and fortune can wax and wane.  Effort, intention, and justice play a role, but success is  often short-lived and followed by heartbreak.  Keckley informs the reporter that knowing famous people does not mean that she herself was famous, and that it would be fool hardy to take pride in something so fickle and fleeting as fame.

9780142180358-lMrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker closes with an affirmation of the complexity and dignity of Keckley’s whole life, including her losses. Instead of focusing on Keckley’s unusual role in the White House, Chiaverini observes that “[Keckley] had lived a full and fascinating life. She had known the most remarkable people of the age, and she had never refused to help the humble and down trodden.  Despite its disappointments and losses and heartbreaks, she would not have wished her life a single day shorter—nor, when the time came for her to join the many friends and loved ones who had gone on before her, would she demand an hour more.”

To learn more about Jennifer Chiaverini and/or read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, consult your local library or go to https://jenniferchiaverini.com.

 

 

 

 

Wholeness Introduces Herself to Promises of Happiness and Success

Unlike Heroines’ Journeys, The Hero’s Journey ends with the hero returning to his tribe, kinsmen, country, or home with the Elixir. In Hero Journey stories such as the Lion King, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Wonder Woman, the hero (male, female, or otherwise) finds the treasure, restores his tribe’s lost honor, learns the magic code, or discovers the key to success and is rewarded with recognition, status, and respect.

Maureen Murdock describes the heroine’s quest as an “inner journey toward being a fully integrated, balanced, and whole human being.”  Although Murdock focuses on the integration of feminine and masculine personality traits, the heroine’s journey can be understood as a quest to integrate almost any two dichotomies, binaries, opposing concepts, or ideologies. Victoria Schmidt’s version of the heroine’s journey concludes with a “Rebirth– the Moment of Truth” when the protagonist faces her own (and others’) fear with compassion and returns to the “perfect world” or  “the world seen for what it is.”  The reward for the journey is an integrated connection to the world and something larger than herself.

The Heroine Journeys Project team believes that the Heroine’s Journey is, in essence a search to affirm and experience wholeness. By definition, wholeness necessarily includes both sides of a binary including the masculine and feminine, but also success and failure, perfection and imperfection, joy and grief, happiness and despair, respect and disrespect, glory and stunning disappointment, etc. The world and human experience encompasses each of these things, so respite from disappointment or suffering is temporary so long as life, or the story, continues.

Creative Cycle by Nancer Ballard

Artist book by Nancer Ballard depicting pleasant and unpleasant aspects of  creative cycle

Throughout our lives, most of us are told that loyalty, hard work, sacrifice, and some notion of universal fairness (sometimes called Destiny) will bring us Happiness and Success and eradicate our suffering, frustrations, and disappointment. We are taught that it is possible to “make it,” and become our family/tribe/community leader or win a coveted personal relationship and live happily ever after…. or at least a relatively care-free comfortable life.  Many of us know differently but still secretly believe in the mythical hero’s journey arc because we have grown up in a binary-soaked culture and recoil from the unpleasant aspects of wholeness we have been led to believe are unnecessary.

A few months ago I was given a poem by Lynn Ungar (which she has graciously allowed us to share) that describes the kind of stories and lives that royalty and most of us commoners actually live rather than the make-believe myths we think we want to live.

The Story

I’ll tell you a secret.
There is no happy ending.
Also no tragic conclusion.
The prince and princess don’t
live happily ever after.
They live happily sometimes,
and sometimes they are stricken
with so much grief that they know
their hearts will explode—
which never actually happens—
and sometimes they are
well and truly and deeply
bored, and ready for the tiniest
of catastrophes to shake them awake.

They will not, of course,
live ever after.  No one does.
But they might have children
who carry on the royal line,
or friends who tell the story
of how the witch showed up
at the baby shower, or maybe
they planted trees. One way
or another the story
inevitably continues.
Pray that it is some kind of
story about love.

In this poem, love is viewed as the best glue for a full evolving life rather than the reward that ends the story-life arc with flatlining good fortune. A good working definition of “love” is an enduring, positive, attentive connection between two (or more) separate beings that creates a relationship.  The relationship is distinct and larger than its individual members or constituents. Love does not abolish loneliness and vulnerability, but having a positive, enduring connection with others can make the pain of being alone and being imperfectly understood tolerable. A loving connection also provides company in times of vulnerability.

In Maureen Murdock’s formulation of the Heroine’s Journey, the final step in the cycle is integration.  Integration has several meanings. It can refer to the act or an instance of combining disparate elements into an integral whole—as in the integration of personality.  But integration can also refer to harmonious behavior of individuals within a larger environment, or to the coordination of distinct previously segregated elements within a unitary system—as in the integration of a school system.  In other words, integration can refer to blending or synthesizing or to the coordination of parts in which the parts retain their individual distinctness and integrity within a larger whole.  Love draws upon both types of integration. Unless the individuals in a loving relationship maintain their individual selves and identities, the result is a merging of one person into another, or domination and subordination, rather than connection borne by love. Love’s connection also produces a relationship which neither person can create by themselves.  Their relationship, a product of their connection to themselves and each other, is a third thing that is something different than the sum of its parts—just as a story depends upon character, action, motivation, and result but is more than the sum of these elements. As in a relationship, each element in a story is necessary and significantly influenced by other elements but can still be somewhat differentiated from the other parts.

Integration of the masculine and feminine, and whatever other binaries are at stake, can involve blending, synthesis, or the coordination of separate elements that retain their individuality within a larger whole.  The best stories and fullest of lives involve evolving combinations of each of these.

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We appreciate Lynn Unger’s allowing us to share “The Story” in this post. To learn more about Lynn Unger’s work and/or purchase her book of poetry, Bread and Other Miracles, go to http://www.lynnungar.com.