Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Paper Before the Poem"

"Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem."

I reread Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street Sunday night.  Twenty-five years after its initial publication in 1984, Cisneros wrote an introduction describing the time when she was writing the novel and the process of adjusting to--and growing to love--the experience of living alone.

"As a girl, she dreamed about having a silent home, just to herself, the way other women dreamed of their weddings."

To live alone, as a woman, is an endless adventure and a constant justification.  It has a resonance that living alone never has for a man. 

Because you're alone, people assume you're always a little lonely.  People assume you're always a little afraid.   

And sometimes you are.  But often you're not.  Not at all, in fact.

Looking at a photo of herself from 1980, Cisneros asks,
"What is the woman in the photograph afraid of?  She's afraid of walking from her parked car to her apartment in the dark.  She's afraid of the scuffling sounds in the walls.  She's afraid she'll fall in love and get stuck living in Chicago.  She's afraid of ghosts, deep water, rodents, night, things that move too fast--cars, airplanes, her life.  She's afraid she'll have to move back home again if she isn't brave enough to live alone."
I remember how, after my house was robbed one night while I was asleep upstairs, I worried that I wouldn't be able to live alone anymore. 

I was afraid to go downstairs after dark.  I woke up in the middle of the night, afraid.

I thought about moving in with friends for a while, until the fear was gone.  But then I wondered, "What if it never goes away?"

I wondered who I would be, if I couldn't live alone.

I knew that sooner or later, I would have to come home.  And that for me, living alone was always being home.

So, in the middle of the night, every night, I got up and dragged a huge trunk across the floor to block my bedroom door.  I did it until I stopped waking up afraid.

When a friend comments, "You live here ... alone?... How did you do it?", Cisneros replies,
"I did it by doing the things I was afraid of doing so that I would no longer be afraid.  Moving away to go to graduate school.  Traveling abroad alone.  Earning my own money and living by myself.  Posing as an author when I was afraid...".
It's a cultural residue that still lingers with us, the idea that a frightened woman should simply accept the fear, find a safehaven, a protector, a retreat. 

Let someone else handle the finances, the business, the "serious stuff."  Get advice.  Follow it.  Get a job, but then fall in Love.  Get married.  It's all you can do.  It's all you have.

Except that there are no safehavens, no protectors, no retreats.  Jobs are just jobs, but love isn't always Love, in the end. 

And not all advice is good advice. 

This is life, what Dorothy Parker cynically characterizes in "Coda" as "This living, this living, this living."  This is the life that you have.  And there is always more that you can do, always.

Reading The House on Mango Street again on Sunday night, I thought about where I was the first time I read it and I thought of all of the spaces I've occupied since then--apartments, houses, rooms.  I thought of all of the places I've been since then--Moscow, Providence, San Francisco, Paris, Lisbon, London. 

I never knew I was that brave, and I never felt very brave.  I ignored a lot of good advice along the way.

As Mary-Chapin Carpenter sings, "We've got two lives, one we're given and the other one we make." 

So take what is given, and make it into something more.

And then come back.  As the old women tell Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, "When you leave you must remember to come back for the others.  A circle, understand?"

"You must remember to come back.  For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you."


  1. I needed to read that just now. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Victoria! I think we always have to come back for each other, too--sometimes, leaving is easy, sometimes, not so much.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."