Social Context and the Sociological Imagination in Our Real Life Journeys

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


How do our journeys interact with others’ journeys and larger world forces?  In this post we examine the role of social context and social awareness in a protagonist’s consciousness, decision-making, and journey—a topic that is particularly relevant to these times of a pandemic, a time in which we are acutely aware of how we affect and are affected by others, and a time when we are watching to see how other communities across the globe are handling situations which may be on our doorstep  tomorrow.

In the middle-grade novel, “The Lions of Little Rock,” Kristin Levine tells the story of racial school segregation in Arkansas in the late 1950s. Twelve-year-old Marlee is quiet and shy before she meets Liz, who helps Marlee become more confident as their friendship grows. When Liz disappears from school without warning, Marlee learns that Liz was removed from the all-White school because she was actually a Black girl “passing” as White. Marlee begins to talk to people and learn more about the social context she is growing up in. Her own parents don’t agree on racial segregation, and as these tensions grow within her own home, Marlee also sees them grow within the community. Marlee comes to understand how her relationship with Liz and Liz’s experiences are not unique. She realizes that their experiences are not fully within their control—and not only because they are children. Marlee joins integration efforts, but is unable to prevent a bombing attack on the home of a Black family. She is ignored by the police, but ultimately supported by her family. She fights to defend her relationship with Liz, but ultimately cannot stop them from being torn apart when Liz’s family moves away. She better understands her privileges and her friend’s hardships. She repeatedly takes action and discovers new communities but she also sees how her actions are not able to bring about the societal changes she wants—no matter how determined and passionate she is. By the end of the book, Marlee has developed a social awareness and has a deeper understanding of the interplay between her individual actions and experiences, and the larger forces beyond her control in the world. 

 “The Lions of Little Rock” illustrates how unrealistic it is to force complex real-world situations into the Hero’s Journey myth structure. It is unrealistic because in the real world, individual actions are embedded within a larger environment that is not susceptible to quick change for the better. The Hero’s Journey emphasizes the supreme power of individual agency (or of a group acting as one) rather than the complexity of interconnected personal and collective struggles. In many—if not most—hero’s journey stories, the hero solves their own problems through personal effort and brings about decisive changes to their world or community. The hero does not see how they are deeply embedded within a social context but see themselves as outside of and above it. For example, in Wonder Woman, in the course of completing her own journey, Diana also ends World War II and secures victory for the Allies. But such decisive, sweeping changes are rarely, if ever, possible in the real world.

In the late 1950s, the same time period described in “The Lions of Little Rock,” American sociologist C. Wright Mills articulated what he called the “sociological imagination.” Mills believed that people would feel less helpless and more empowered if they could recognize the societal and structural causes that shape their individual personal experiences. Mills suggested that people often feel stuck in their daily lives because they do not recognize how their personal troubles connect to and are part of larger public issues.

For instance, one person may feel like their fear of getting sick is a personal trouble because they know they cannot afford treatment and because if they miss work, they will not be able to buy food for their family. However, when a significant percentage of the population worries that they cannot afford to miss work or pay for treatment, each experience is part of a larger public issue. Moreover, each person who cannot afford treatment and continues to work while sick may inadvertently infect others. Thus, one person’s health options and decisions impact and are impacted by larger economic and societal factors that are beyond their individual merit, fault, or control.

The sociological imagination is most often discussed in the context of people who are at the bottom of social structures, but it can shed light on the experiences of those in advantaged positions as well. In the simple but powerful article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, author Peggy McIntosh lists forty-seven ways in which White people benefit from their privilege as members of a dominant group in society. McIntosh identifies experiences such as: “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” and “I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.” Such advantages are often considered to be “the norm,” which make them invisible to the people who benefit from them. By drawing explicit attention to everyday White privileges, McIntosh encourages members of dominant groups to examine their role in a racially (or otherwise) divided society.

As Mills points out, recognizing privileges and disadvantages can enable us to see what seem like personal shortcomings in a larger context so that collective responses can be developed to alter circumstances through structural change. When this is not possible within the desired time frame, seeing your own experience, and others’ experiences, in a larger context, promotes empathy towards others and towards yourself. Such empathy enables meaningful changes to take place at a local level and may also bring about imperceptible but cumulative changes in the larger world.

The sociological imagination usually plays a key role in a Heroine’s Journey story. The heroine works to integrate their understanding of themselves (including their values and social position) with a world that is not of their making. The very idea of wrestling with “the feminine” and “the masculine” requires one to examine the intersection between one’s own life experience and the roles and expectations ingrained in the larger culture. In order to heal, the heroine must come to understand how masculinity/masculine values and femininity/feminine values are defined by the culture, and what role those attributes play in the heroine’s own self-definition.

The sociological imagination also frequently plays an important role in a Journey of Integrity. In this journey, the individual frequently must make a decision that involves weighing personal interests against his or her ethical values on taking action to benefit the larger world. See our post on Marie Jovanovich’s decision to testify before Congress during the U.S. Impeachment hearings. The weighing process requires the protagonist to consider how their personal experiences and actions relate to and are part of larger realities.

The sociological imagination can also be a part of a Healing Journey. For example, a story about opioid addiction could address the role doctors and pharmaceutical companies play in making opioids seem less addictive than they are, or in making them the first rather than last response to chronic pain. This recognition may be important to the healing person to prevent him or her from feeling that their addiction is just a personal weakness, or to help them to work through their denial, shame, or prejudices for being someone “like that.” Of course, someone struggling to overcome an opioid addition could also formulate their story without significant attention to the larger societal structures that play a role in access to opioids and treatment availability.

The Coronavirus pandemic is shining a spotlight on the ways in which our individual and systemic vulnerabilities and our responses affect individuals, organizations, governments, countries, and the world. Some journey stories do not include any attention to the role of social context. However, a sustained sense of Wholeness is not possible without attention to context because context is part of the Whole, and each part affects the other parts and the Whole. Context is not static, nor is wholeness. As our context changes around us, and as we ourselves change, so too must our understanding of wholeness grow.

Where the Story Begins

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


In our last blog, we discussed the role of the ending of a journey story. In this post, we’ll show that where and how a journey story begins can be equally important.

A journey story does not always start at the beginning of the journey. Sometimes, as in Barbara Leckie’s short story, “Kicking the Stone,” the beginning of the journey is revealed later in the story through flashbacks or character narration.

The opening of a story must hook the reader, so many journey stories begin with a moment of conflict or danger. In a hero’s journey story, the first stage occurs in the “ordinary world,” yet the story often open right at the precipice of the call to the adventure. This is particularly true when the “ordinary world” is routine for the character but new and intriguing to the reader. For example, in The Hobbit, the reader or viewer has barely learned what hobbits are when Gandalf arrives to invite Bilbo on an adventure. In the opening of a hero’s journey, the hero is often portrayed as being like everyone else at the beginning of the story—a quiet hobbit smoking a pipe outside his home as he has done many an afternoon.

But there are almost immediately hints that something greater and unusual (and usually dangerous) is about to happen. The reader quickly understands that the hero will not remain ordinary for long.

In a heroine’s journey, the story may begin with the betrayal (which hooks the reader). Alternatively, the heroine may be presented in a world they are expected to belong in, but the heroine is internally or externally at odds  with this world. At the opening of the story the heroine may be at the point of trying new life strategies, and/or nearly ready to leave where they are. For example, the first act of the play, I Want to Go to Jail, opens with the main characters deciding to try a new picketing tactic because they are not satisfied with the results they have achieved thus far in their attempts to convince the country to grant women the right to vote. The fight for female suffrage in America did not begin where the play opens, but playwrights Pam Swing and Elizabeth Dabanka begin the journey of the play at a time when the suffragists are ready to separate from the more feminine tactics they have been using to try to win the vote.

Stories do not have a single “objective” place or moment where they must begin or end. We live in an interconnected world where actions lead to and impact multiple other actions, where every experience and event has multiple causes and consequences extending through time in different directions, involving ramifications we cannot fully see or appreciate. A storyteller’s task is not to tell the definitive story of a person or event, but a story that may increase the listener’s understanding or appreciation of some aspect of another person and/or of the world. The place where the storyteller chooses to begin the story shapes our understanding of the meaning of the narrative.

In the recently re-issued collection of essays on social movements, Hope in the Dark, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit, the author challenges us to re-envision where stories—even the stories of our own lives—begin. As the informal storytellers of our own world, we tend to see big, hard-to-miss, events such as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or the 2008 economic crash, as concrete moments that “changed everything” and started a new story or era. In Hope in the Dark, Solnit asks us to consider whether the “new era” really began with an explosion, or whether the beginning of this new way of life actually started quietly at an earlier time.

As informal storytellers, we live our history as we make it. We are constantly narrating our lives and our perception of the world to ourselves and those around us. Because of this, we tend to view the “end” or outcome of a story as the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Our current actions will shape the lives of those who come after us, but we can’t clearly look back from the future–we only know how the story “ends” now. We describe our current situation as the result of what has come before. Thus, we shape our narratives by look “backwards” towards “the beginning” and then telling it forward to the present moment.

Our understanding of ourselves and our reality changes if we simply consider that the story might begin somewhere other than where we assumes it does. Too often, history is written by and for the victors to glorify and validate their actions. A dominant person or group will start the story in a place that diminishes the experiences and achievements of “outsiders.” Dominant groups and people structure their narrative, consciously or unconsciously, to reaffirm their power.

Solnit suggests that if you feel trapped by lack of progress or by failure in the present moment, you should look back further for the “beginning” of the story.  “[I]ncremental changes have happened quietly, and many people don’t know they have begun, let alone exploded.” “The powerful would like you to believe [their story] is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable,” writes Solnit.

“[A]nd lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view…. For a time, people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first world cities.”

What story might you understand differently by beginning in a new place?


Where the Story Ends

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


One of the questions we are most frequently asked by our readers and workshop participants is “How do you know where a story ends?”

Where to end a story is one of the most important decisions a storyteller makes. A story ends when a central character finds what they are looking for—even if it wasn’t what they thought they set out to find—or finds what they didn’t know they were looking for.

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Where and how a teller ends (and begins) a story frequently determines whether the story is a hero’s journey, heroine’s journey, or other journey story. The ending can be even more important than the nature of the events being described. For example, if you tell the story of Joan of Arc and end with her leading the French to an unlikely victory over the English at Orleans, the story would likely be a hero’s journey. If the story then continues through her capture and trial for witchcraft—depending on the perspective—it could be a hero’s journey (Joan as martyr) or a heroine’s journey (Joan seeking understanding and serenity in the face of a rigged trial). If the storyteller then reflects on Joan’s life and meaning from the present day, the story could be a hero’s journey characterizing Joan as an inspiring icon to generations of women and the French following her death. It could also be a heroine’s journey that reflects on recent theories regarding Joan’s mental health, or on the differences in how passionate male and female leaders are treated. Or it could be a Journey of Integrity, in which the narrator reflects on Joan’s decision-making process through the lens of victory, defeat, and the years since her death.

The Hero’s Journey ends when the hero finds success or the ultimate boon. He has achieved his goal, returns to his society, and/or is recognized by his peers as having achieved success. The hero is a master of two worlds—the inner world which makes him a good leader/hero and the outer world which allows him to be a leader or proclaims him a hero.

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The hero’s journey also ends with the implication that the hero’s success won’t be snatched away any time soon. It’s a kind of happily-ever after ending. If a sequel is anticipated, perhaps the hero’s success will lead to other complications that provide the chance for a new hero’s journey, but the success won’t be undone—at least not for that hero. If the success is undone, the former hero tends to become a supporting character (no longer the main character). They may become a wise elder or a mentor who urges the hero of the next generation to reclaim, recapture, or make additional progress on a larger problem that wasn’t anticipated when the first success was achieved.

In a hero’s journey, there is always the sense that success is right around the corner. Their journey is not envisioned as a long, imperfect struggle that will continue forever. The hero’s agency—his or her ability to bring about change—is central to the hero’s journey arc, so the journey usually ends shortly after the hero accomplishes their final feat and/or their victory/ability is hailed by others.

In a heroine’s journey, the story ends when the heroine recognizes and experiences wholeness. Life includes both success and failure, vulnerability and ability, self and others, and a larger world. The heroine’s self is not necessarily dominant or foregrounded, even over long periods of time. The heroine’s final goal is not to defeat or dismiss vulnerability, or failure, or sadness, or pain, or self, or others. Their goal is to integrate and value all these as necessary and valuable aspects of the human experience. It is rare that this experience of wholeness is solely an internal realization; a non-dual world is also manifested in the events of the story. It may be tempting to try to view wholeness as a resolution to a story in which the unpleasant aspects of life are part of the past but not the present, or new understanding will eliminate future suffering—but that is a hero’s journey.

Several of our readers have wondered if the heroine’s journey is more depressing than a hero’s journey. Many heroine journey stories have heartwarming or uplifting endings. For example, in the play about the women’s suffrage movement, I Want to Go to Jail, the story ends with a celebratory moment after a group political action. However, the main characters and the audience (which has the benefit of hindsight) understand that more action will be required before women are able to vote.National Womens' Party picketing

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Another example of a heroine’s journey that ends on a positive note is the 2018 movie, The Green Book, which tells the story of an African American pianist traveling through the American south in the early 1960’s with an Italian-American bouncer who serves as his bodyguard. The story has a heartwarming ending when the jazz pianist drives through the night so that the bodyguard can get home for Christmas. The jazz pianist is then is welcomed into their home, but it remains clear that the pervasive racism that has followed the pianist throughout his tour has been neither “solved” nor “conquered.” The odd-couple main characters have grown personally and relationally within the racist societal backdrop. The heroine’s journey doesn’t end with a sense of a “once-and-for-all” victory.

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The end of the Healing Journey revolves around forgiving the self and sometimes others for not being able to control even one thing that you feel you most need to control. In this journey, the protagonist’s rage against the wound is at the center of the story. This may also appear as the apparent unfairness of an injury/illness, or the protagonist feeling overwhelmed by the cards they have been dealt. The protagonist often tries at first to solve their dilemma with a hero’s journey approach. For example, she might imagine that if she fights her illness hard enough, she will be healed, or that if she just accepts her illness instead, the conflict within will be resolved and she will get better. The hero’s journey promises that you can get well. The heroine’s journey involves finding compassion for one’s self and others whether or not you recover. The Healing Journey usually involves a point of absolute break-down, where the injured one wants to quit, and possibly die. Then there is a moment or experience of beauty that surprises them, and allows for a shift in perspective, a shaft of light to enter their consciousness. Sometimes they give up trying to control, sometimes they give up magical thinking, sometimes they give up, giving up—the action can vary. What is important is that the protagonist forgives him/herself and an imperfect world.

A Journey of Integrity involves both the protagonist action and awareness (culminating in the moment of integrity), and also the witness/viewers’ awareness of and reflection on the meaning of the protagonist’s action. These stories may end with the protagonist returning to ordinary action in the ordinary world, but they also often jump forward in time or expand geographically so that the narrator or audience can see and comment upon the protagonist’s action within a larger context.

Readers and listeners always evaluate the meaning of a story through the lens of its ending. No story has a single, objective endpoint. As storytellers, we shape the readers’ experiences and the meaning of a story through the endings that we choose.

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In our next post we will discuss how the storyteller’s choice in where to begin a story affects the journey.

Facing the Witch: The Aletis Heroine’s Journey

by guest blogger, Jody Gentian Bower; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson. Jody Gentian Bower, PhD., is a cultural mythologist and the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.


In the 1980s, I belonged to a women’s book club. Over time I noticed that most of the novels we read featuring a female protagonist had a similar plot. Then I realized that many of the great novels by women, the established classics, followed the same plot. I found a similar plot in the biographies of many noted women.

The idea that women authors* have been telling a consistent story for centuries wouldn’t leave me alone. Yet I couldn’t find any discussion of this plot by scholars of literature. The Heroine’s Journey by therapist Maureen Murdock, Women Who Run with the Wolves by folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Jean Benedict Raffa’s memoir The Bridge to Wholeness touched on some of the motifs I’d seen (and opened my eyes to a few I’d missed), but their approaches were not quite what I was looking for. My fascination with the literary plot itself eventually led to Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.

I came to call this plot the Aletis story—aletis being an ancient Greek word that means “wandering heroine.” Allerleirauh_by_Arthur_Rackham (1)Her story is not defined by an external quest like the Hero’s Journey plot. Instead, her journey takes her farther and farther away from home until at last she finds the place—both within and without—where she is able to create the life that she has always longed for. Unlike the hero, who proves himself a man by a heroic act that enforces and preserves the idealized vision of the status quo of the community, the Aletis finds her inner worth and bases her life on what she values. She doesn’t ask anyone else to change, but her example often causes her community to shift out of old ways that no longer work.

I call her the wandering heroine because she keeps moving, keeps on leaving situations where she cannot be herself. For example, Jane Eyre longs for a life lived fully, with passion. She chooses to leave her adoptive, abusive home to go to school; chooses to leave Lowood School and her teaching job to become a governess for strangers; chooses to leave Mr. Rochester when he asks her to compromise her integrity; and chooses to leave the safe harbor she’s found with her cousins when St. John tries to force her into a loveless marriage. Eventually, the Aletis finds (or, like Jane, builds) her own home where she can put down roots and create what she was meant to create. She provides an opportunity for others to do likewise, like Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, who draws a community of like-minded creative people to her—including her own formerly abusive husband.

But first the Aletis must journey into the wild place, the place of danger, the very place her family and community have warned her against. In old tales like “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she goes from her little village into the forest where the scariest thing of all, the witch Baba Yaga, lives. Bilibin._Baba_Yaga (1)In many recent stories the wild place is the big city, the center of sin and crime. The heroine has been taught all her life to fear this place, yet she is drawn to it.

In the wild place she encounters the witch. The wicked witch is often the villain of a hero story; the hero must defeat her. But in Aletis stories, the witch becomes the girl’s teacher. The witch must be approached with respect; not as an enemy, but not in a craven way either. The heroine has to prove herself to the witch, and the first thing she must prove is that she respects herself too. She must stand boldly before the witch and tell her what she has come for.

The witch sniffs, unconvinced. She sets the girl a series of impossible tasks. These tasks require the girl to use discernment—to sort out the good seeds from the bad—or be diligent and unwavering as she spins the mountain of straw into gold. Her commitment provides the magic that allows the task to be accomplished. Once the girl passes the test, the witch gives her what she needs.

Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is a modern Baba Yaga, feared by all who know her. (“Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestly” evokes someone in touch with divine power.) The heroine Andrea, newly come to the big city from her small town, walks boldly into Miranda’s demesne and asks for a job. Miranda sniffs, as do all the sycophants around her, but she lets Andrea stay and sets her a series of increasingly impossible tasks. After Andrea passes the tests, Miranda recommends her for her dream job, investigative journalism. Andrea will not only get to write but will have a positive effect on the wider world.

The Aletis story teaches us how to go willingly into the heart of the unknown. It teaches us that when we come face to face with those we’ve been taught to fear, we don’t have to fight them or defeat them. Instead, we must stand firmly in our integrity as they test our commitment to learning from them. In showing them respect while maintaining our own self-respect, we often receive their respect and ultimately, their cooperation and aid.

To learn more about Jody’s work or purchase a copy of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Journey, click here.

*And a few visionary men. Shakespeare’s Viola of Twelfth Night, Charles Dickens’s Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn of The Lord of the Rings are examples.

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

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


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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Thanksgiving Reflections

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Until women can visualize the sacred female, they cannot be whole and society cannot be whole. 

– Elinor Gadon

In late November in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday to celebrate the harvest and gratitude. Many of us also share food with people from other cultures and circumstances. The first “American” Thanksgiving was celebrated by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans in 1621. Thanksgiving was officially declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War to express hope for an end in civil strife, and as a day of gratitude. Some Americans  also observe American Thanksgiving as a day of mourning to commemorate genocide against Native Americans by United States settlers.

Not surprisingly, the United States was not the first to celebrate harvest feast days.  The Canadians held October harvest feast celebrations years before the Pilgrims arrived, and the French and Spanish have been celebrating harvest feast days since at least the 16th century.  Wisdom practices such as honoring female deities connected to nature, expressing gratitude, sharing, and giving, are integral to many indigenous cultures and communities.

Regardless of your geographical location or cultural identity, the season of harvest seems appropriate time for The Heroine’s Journey Project to review some of the year’s gifts.  WP_20160823_002

We appreciate the thousands of site visitors from around the world who read our blog posts, send comments and suggestions, and ask us questions. We are grateful for the essays, plays, books, and stories sent to us by our readers. In particular we’d like to give a shout out to Jean Marie Bishop who sent us her plays about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office in the United States when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, and Mary Dyer, an American Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1660 for defying Puritan law banning Quakers in the colony.  We would like to give a shout out to Jody Gentian Bower, author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters;  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story who sent us an essay on the Heroine’s Journey; to Duda Dorea, who is translating The Heroine’s Journey Project site into Portuguese so that it can be more widely shared in Brazil, and Judah Quinn, a filmmaker in Australia who is making a documentary on five women’s experiences with the Heroine’s Journey in their lives.  We are hoping to feature some of this work in the coming months.

Elinor GadinThis year we are sorry for the passing of Elinor Gadon, cultural historian, Indologist, art historian, Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the author of The Once and Future Goddess; a visual chronicle of the sacred female and her reemergence in cultural mythology and was an exuberant student of the heroine’s journey throughout her long life. Filmmaker Megan McFeeley put together an excerpt from her two-hour interview with Elinor in 2000 for Elinor’s Celebration of Life at Brandeis. We hope to introduce you to Elinor Gadon’s and Megan McFeeley’s work in the near future.

Your most-requested items are the names of books, films, and stories that include a Heroine’s Journey.  This fall we have begun to compile lists  which we plan to add as permanent page to the site  this spring.

Some of the books with heroine journeys that we’ve reviewed in the past year include:

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (fiction); Tell Me a Story 3A with printing

Fun Home by Allison Bechdel (graphic novel, later made into a musical);

Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction with many heroine journeys depicted in the descriptions of the lives of non-conventional families);

Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverni (historical fiction);

Lila by Marilyn Robinson (fiction);

Once and Future King by T. H. White (the first portion of the book known to many as the story of The Sword in the Stone is a Hero’s Journey, but the book as a whole is a Heroine’s Journey);

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by  Adrian Nicole LeBlanc  (nonfiction); and

Chalice and the Blade; Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler is not a heroine’s journey story but traces the origins of the descent of goddess worship and the psychological impacts of the denigration of female deities on men, women, and cultural values through archaeology, anthropology, history and religion.

Movies we have recently reviewed and plan to blog about in the future include:

Boys on the Side directed by Herbert Ross and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore;

RBG,  a 2018 American documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, on the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg  which includes both elements of the Hero’s Journey and Heroine’s Journey. RBG was chosen by the National Board of Review as the Best Documentary of 2018; and

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, the story of a Native American’s health worker’s search for the truth about the death of prominent transgender activist Marsha Johnson.

In the next few weeks look for an upcoming post on “Kicking the Stone,” a wonderful short story by Barbara Leckie in Salamander, one of the literary journals that’s one of the offerings from the Journal of the Month Club.

Later in the winter and spring we will be exploring work by Jean Marie Bishop, Elinor Gadin, and suffragist scholar, memoirist, and playwright, Pam Swing and her student playwright co-author, Elizabeth Dabanka.  We are also seeking to interview several others working with the Heroine’s Journey in a variety of disciplines.

We will also be focusing on how the Heroine’s Journey can be applied to social activism and, hopefully, collaborating with others working on similar projects.

We would love additional suggestions from our site visitors. Send the name of a book, story or film with a sentence or two on why you think it follows the Heroine’s Journey and we will review it as we work to expand our lists. Meanwhile, may your lives be full and your burdens light.

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This chalkboard mural by Coty can be found at the wonderful Green Goddess Cafe in Stowe, Vermont.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard. 


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