The New “Normal” or What is Normal?

I just read a comment on another blog that made me think about language again, and this time I want to discuss the concept of “Normal”.

The comment was this:

What annoys me deeply in many cases is the effort of (some members of) the LGBT group to convince the world that theirs is the “normal” way. What do I mean with this? Male + Male = No Procreation. Female + Female = No Procreation. No Procreation = No Life Renewed. And I don’t speak of modern artificial means — I’m talking about human nature, which has not changed.

I don’t want my child or other people’s chidren get brainwashed into thinking that homosexual is “right.” Homosexual just exists in this world and we have no reason to be mean and dictate to others how they should live their lives.

I get what she is saying in the idea that the laws of nature require a male and a female for procreation. However, in this abundant natural world variations occur, naturally.  I’m not a scientist. But, just my basic high school biology taught me that there is variation depending on genetics. Using the fun and completely nerdy website Wordnik, I found this definition of normal in terms of biology:

. In biology, a species or race considered as a fixed standard which individual organisms may approach by heredity and from which they may recede by variation. The conception of a normal is statistical rather than biological, for there is no evidence that an exceptional specimen of a species differs, as such, from an average specimen in any essential or qualitative way. The notion of a species as a fixed standard belongs to the pre-Darwinian period in the history of biology.

(Click on this link for the many definitions of Normal)

So, if I am reading this correctly, variation is normal.

Yet, there are many people in our world who seem to want to define the NORM as one thing and one thing only. In those minds Normal=Right, and Different=Wrong.

The terms are not synonymous. Right and wrong are moral terms, based off of our individual interpretations of the world. Yes, we can probably agree on some basic tenets of right vs. wrong, but we break those every day. That’s evident.

Normal and different are not related to morals. The are just ways by which we can communicate how we perceive the world, which again relates to our individual interpretations of the world.

There is no truth. There is no norm. There is just perception.

I am the first to admit that I don’t have a”normal” life, whatever that might be. My life, at the moment, seems more like a confusing mess– a carnival ride gone out of control. But, despite my ups and downs, the craziness is part of my normal.

My norm lies in difference.

Perhaps we need to get rid of the term “normal” and use something else. I don’t know what term can replace it, but there has to be a way to celebrate diversity rather than try to make everyone and everything the same.

I would love diversity to be the face of the Norm.

Learning the Power of Words: Words and Power

I just read a post called “Why Are Women Letting Men Wage a War Against Them? Cut Them Off, Ladies!” after Good Ole’ Woody linked my post from yesterday to his. In it, he too mentions the “deny sex” option. That made me laugh.

However, as I was reading, I suddenly became very aware of the dangerous power of language and our choice of words. I felt that power surge through me yesterday, as I tried to craft a piece of writing I could be proud of that truly spoke from my heart.  I am, indeed, proud of that post.It seems I always write my best posts on Fridays, when fewer people read. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

In the above post, Good Ole’ Woody wrote:

“Men, women are smarter than you. Let them control their bodies. Let them be involved federal conversations about laws which affect them.  Let women have the leading voices.  Experts agree: We would be a better country if women ran it. We, men, cannot look with pride on what we have done to America. Yes?”

Now, while I agree with the sentiment of this statement, I found myself stumbling over the choice of words. “Let them . . . Let them . . . Let them . . . ” When we let someone do something, it implies that we have the power to stop them, and we give over that power. Women are indeed, and have been for a long time, letting men control the reins. However, men shouldn’t have to “let us” take control over issues that concern not only our bodies and our freedoms but the very future of our country.

This is by no means a criticism of Good Ole’ Woody’s post. I admire and am wowed by the men who recognize that women are their equals if not their betters, and that this whole situation is ludicrous. I only use this as an example of the dangerous power of words, and the danger of using words for power. Like it or not, our language guides our perceptions. In languages like Japanese, the power dynamics of male vs. female become more evident, when even the characters show dominance and power.   For example the Kanji for man combines the characters for rice field and power:

The kanji for “wife” in Japanese (Kanai), combines two kanji 家内. The first represents house, the second inside. The symbol for “husband” 主人 is even more demeaning to women, combining the symbol for “lord, chief, and master” with “person.”

I am not trying to teach a Japanese language lesson, but using what little I know of the language and its construction to show how deeply language can affect perception in any culture. English is no different. The words we choose to use can unintentionally establish dominance or weakness.

I have begun to find my voice in writing, as I keep returning to writing things about and for women, justice and equality. Sometimes I fear I come off as a man-hater, although I never intentionally lump all men in one lump. Sometimes it seems like I cannot avoid making sweeping statements about groups of people, when I know that individuals within certain groups do not represent the whole. I am limited however, by words. It can become utterly unwieldy to try to write in completely non-judgmental, non-gendered language.

The limitations of language can be frustrating, especially for someone who loves to write.

I won’t let it stop me though. I will just be much more conscious as I craft my words, so that I can be heard and understood.

Defined by Breasts

“She was outraged at the thought that people would even consider that the letters might not be from Mariana, and I thought of the times when, as women, we are not heard and how after 300 years, Mariana, whose words have changed so many lives, is not allowed the most basic of rights, to claim her own voice.” (Myriam Cyr, “A Note from the Author,” Letters of a Portuguese Nun, xii)

“Be prepared,” my friend Jackie said as we sat working on projects in her fabulous Blue Box Art Studio. “Some artist think that you can only really be an Artist if you’ve taken the proper technique classes, and they will also judge you as a woman.”

I’m just dipping my toe into the world of art right now, and I’m really not doing it because I want to be known as an “artist”. Projects, words, and ideas have all been flooding into me lately, and I’m simply embracing them and then finding ways to express them. This personal journey that I am on is exciting and terrifying and opening me up to so many possibilities.  I don’t really care if  Artists (with a capital A) think what I am doing is Art.

I can’t say the same thing, however, about the Woman issue. If you read my recent post called The Power of Women’s Voices you know that I am fascinated by the stories of women who have pursued their passions and dreams despite society’s expectations. In that post I talked about women historically, but more and more I have come to realize that nothing has really changed for women.

I know, I know. Women hold higher positions throughout the world and have more equality, and yada, yada, yada. But, the reality lies in a subtle manipulation of language that does not allow women to be equal. A woman is almost always defined by her sex: a woman writer, a female artist, a congresswoman, the first woman to run for president. (Yes, yes, I know–Obama will forever be known as the first black president. This subtle manipulation of language to assert power or difference is not exclusive to the description of women).

So, I suggest we change this by our own manipulation of language. How, you ask? Well, here are some examples that have popped into my head:

  • William Shakespeare, perhaps the most well-known non-female playwright of his time . . .
  • Hilary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State under the male President Obama
  • Non-female talk-show host, David Letterman swapped jibes with Ellen the other day, and of course lost (Now . . . I’m making all of this up folks, as examples. This is not intended as a serious statement of fact.)
  • One of the funniest non-female bloggers Mark (aka The Idiot) battles Tori Nelson to a duel of witty banter causing a medical emergency as blog readers every keel over with extreme fits of laughter and tears.  (Okay, I’d really like to see that).
  • The Tony Award goes to newcomer Lisa Kramer who defeats the better-known non-female directors . . . (I told you this is fiction, now bordering on fantasy)

I hope you get my point by now. If we turn the tables, will it reverse the expectations of what is the “norm” or the “ideal”? Or do we continue to stand by and let the “norm” be defined as “white, male, heterosexual etc.” which we all know is a fallacy of the highest order. As long as we continue to define people by their gender/sexual identity/race we reinforce the perception that somehow only certain people define the norm.

So, now I’m moving on to the more “serious” or academic part of the discussion. Feel free to stop reading if you would like, although I hope you won’t. After all, despite the fact that I am a woman, sometimes I actually have valuable insight.  😉

I realize there is value in identifying ourselves by our gender, our sexual identities, our races, and our religions. I myself would be really interested to know the numbers of bloggers who are female vs. the number who are male. I know that most of the blogs I follow happen to be by women, but I wonder if that is simply because they write things that I am more interested in reading, or because there are a greater number of female bloggers out there. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more women, because we all know the reality that it is hard to get published, and I think it is even harder for females unless they are writing in specific genres. Of course, I don’t have evidence of this, but I’m sure it could be found.

Myriam Cyr’s quote from Letters of a Portuguese Nun shows that, historically at least, anything that surpassed expectations and “threatened to upset the delicate balance of power between men and women” (xviii) could not possible be written by a woman. Apparently, the debate over this issue still rages, led by French scholar Jacques Rougeot and Frederic Deloffre who say

“Admit that the Portuguese Letters were written in a convent, by a nun with little if any instruction, having never known the world, is to believe that spontaneity and pure passion inspired a woman to write a superior work of art over and above what the best minds of the greatest period of French literature could offer their public.” (Cyr xix)

I know there were some French female writers from the time period, but I wonder if the objection is more based on the fact that the nun was a woman than on her training (since she clearly was educated to some extent in the nunnery).  Those who disagree, attribute the letters to a male French aristocrat.

Can we even tell the difference between things created by a man and things created by a woman? I mentioned earlier that most of the blogs I follow happen to be written by women, but how do I really know? Identities can easily be faked in this strange world of web technology.  And, I guess it doesn’t really matter if someone is hiding his identity behind the facade of a woman if I enjoy the blog. (Why anyone would do that, of course, is beyond me). In past Comp classes I’ve conducted an experiment with my students. As a class we pick a topic, and then they write about it with a time limit. They hand these papers forward and I read them out loud. The students then need to guess whether the writer was male or female. I can usually (but not always) by the handwriting or the color of pen (for some reason guys rarely choose purple pens, go figure). Sometimes the students can guess, and sometimes they can’t.  When it comes down to writing about the same things, it is often hard to tell the difference.

Does it matter if something is written or created by a woman? Or by someone with more or less education? Or by a black, asian, mexican, alien with five eyes and a tail. . . It only matters if the creation in some way relates to being one of those things.  It only matters if the creation is rooted in actually living a certain experience. But even then it does not matter . . . because emotions and thoughts can be universal, can’t they?

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the differences between women and men can be seen in everything we do. If that’s true, then that must be celebrated, because it is difference that makes this world such an interesting place. But difference need not imply one is better than another, Difference simply implies difference.

Art is art whether or not you have learned all the techniques. A writer is a writer even without an extra appendage between the legs. Leaders are leaders even if they happen to have breasts. An artist is an artist, even if the art reflects the feminine divine. A movie star is a movies star even if he/she loves someone of the same sex. [Sometimes movie stars are movie stars despite the fact that they are actually creatures from another planet ;)]

Our reality is defined by language. The question is, does the language control us or do we control the language?

 

Elizabeth Barret Browning

 

“A Curse for a Nation”
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)

I heard an Angel speak last night,
And he said “Write!
Write a Nation’s curse for me,
And send it over the Western Sea.”

. . . “Not so,” I answered once again.
“To curse, choose men.
For I, a woman, have only known
How the Heart melts, and the tears run down.”

“Therefore,” the voice said, “Shalt thou write
My curse to-night.

Some women weep and curse, I say
(And no one marvels), night and day.
“And thou shalt take their part to-night,
Weep and write.
A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt, and better and good.”

Loving Language: Reflections on Dylan Thomas, 19

Maritime Quarter: Swansea. A statue of Dylan T...

Image via Wikipedia

Last night I went to a one-show called Dylan Thomas, 19. As expected I was washed away in  a torrent of language that brought with it the eerie echoes of wind blowing over the ocean and the earthen clump of humans plodding their way through life.

The performance was elegant and challenging.  I will not claim I understood every word, but I think that is impossible unless you’ve read his work several times before watching and hearing. But that is what is so amazing about Dylan Thomas. His use of language takes twists and turns so that meaning becomes malleable, while at the same time he creates word pictures so beautiful and yet grounded in the earth that you feel and smell the rain and earth surrounding you.

I had my first in-depth immersion in Dylan Thomas a couple of years ago when I directed a staged reading of Under Milkwood for Durango Public Library. The challenge of creating an entire village of people out of a community cast of volunteer actors was a challenge in itself, but first I had to work through the wonder that is Dylan Thomas’ work. Each page is filled with honest and bawdy reflections on the state of human kind, including every fart and twitch that grounds us in the very dirt that our intellect tries to carry us from.

Watching the show last night, my mind began to wander, not because of the performance but because of the challenge of Thomas’ words. I wanted to surround myself in the sounds and the imagery. I wanted to envelope them into my body so that I could later encourage them to spill out onto a page, taking on new form, new meaning, and new life. No, I’m not comparing myself to Dylan Thomas, I am wishing that I had his power of observation and language. I also envied him the ability to say: screw the world, I’m going to pursue my passion whether I get paid or not, whether I eat or not, whether the world approves or not. Now that is not a direct quote or anything, but his words said that to me. He relished language over love and popularity, land over people and politeness. And he created himself as something wondrous.

I want to live in a land of language like that. I don’t want to give up the world, but I want to become lost in words when I am writing. Even more so, I would love to bring others into those words as well, and take them into a journey of sight, sound, and sighs created through language.

Ah, I wish.

Creating Passionate Readers; Engaging Passionate Learners

 

On the platform, reading

Image by moriza via Flickr

 

Yesterday I watched as my seven-year-old daughter did her required 20 minutes of reading.  The 20 minutes were not finished when she sighed and said, “I wonder how long I’ve been reading.” As soon as the time was up, she closed the book and went on to her next thing.

My heart broke a little.

I read. Depending on what I’m reading, I can go through piles of books a week. Or sometimes I focus on just one: savoring every word, picturing every moment, getting lost in the language. Of course, I have my times of getting sucked into movies and television as well, and my daughter knows that. But books have always been my escape, my comfort, my best friends.

Sarah knows I love books. She loves to have me read to her. She loves getting new books from the library. She loves all these things, yet somehow she doesn’t love reading. She does not get lost in the books, letting time pass in the blink of an eye. She doesn’t fall asleep dreaming about her favorite characters and the adventures they might be having.  I wonder if she is better off, or is she missing something truly valuable.

When I changed my Facebook status to reflect on this question, an interesting discussion started.

My husband blamed himself and the internet. He was not much of a reader until I came along, and now his interest in books has grown. The internet is a time sucker for us all. But, is reading blogs and articles on-line less valuable than reading books?  What about playing games which challenge her thinking and math abilities? In our society, it seems important to develop internet skills, as so much is done through social networking, and so much information is gained through access to the vast resources on the web. So perhaps it isn’t the time suck that I think it s.

Two friends responded that her love of reading will develop over time. I’m sure that is a possibility in that her interests change and grow daily. But, I also see her following the trends of friends, and that doesn’t always include books.

Two friends commented on the idea that education today squeezes all the joy out of reading because of making it a chore or a punishment. Students are required to read so many minutes, to keep logs, to write journals, and to read from required reading lists. Reading then becomes a chore rather than a pleasure or, as I view it, a reward.

It makes me sad to realize that learning isn’t fun for most kids. Maybe it never was. Maybe I was one of those strange children who loved learning just because I did. I still love it; that is why I read. But I see the possibility that my daughter won’t find the same joy. Learning is a chore, not because she’ not smart (she is) but because there is some subtle competition or pressure going on in her education that feels wrong.  To me, it seems like we should be less concerned with timing the reading and more concerned with having her enjoy, comprehend, and learn from what she reads. Yesterday she was more concerned with time than reading.

In the same way, I see her struggle with timed math tests. How many answers can she get correct in three minutes? She doesn’t do well on those, but if you give her time to think about her problems she does fine.

In a way, it seems, that the only thing we are teaching our children is that fast time and quantity are more important than quality and enjoyment. I think that is going to make a sad society, if it hasn’t already.

I’m not sure how to encourage Sarah to become a passionate reader. I know she loves learning right now, and I only hope I can continue to encourage that love. I glimpsed one possible answer, though. The other day I asked one of Sarah’s 10-year-old friends to read the book I wanted to enter in a contest and give me some feedback.  Sarah is still too young for this book, I think. She read it in an afternoon, and loved it. Sarah saw her reading it and asked “Can your write some stories for me to read, Mommy?”

Looks like I have some writing to do.

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