How T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock Articulated My Feeling of Alienation and Helped Me Identify Myself As a Writer

In response to the Daily Prompt, My Hero

We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I remember my state of mind. The melancholy. The dislocation. It was around 1990 and I was 16. I felt there was no one with whom to share my thoughts, my fears, or my dreams. My father whose idea of spending time with me involved going to NASCAR races or RV shows never knew how to connect with his sensitive, literary daughter. My schizophrenic mother was not in this world and spent her days muttering to herself and scribbling notes in the margins of the New York Daily News. The friends with whom I felt so close just a few years before were morphing into creatures who listened to angsty indie crooners like Morissey and only wore Doc Martins. Where once we talked easily, I became less interested in their conversations and numbly smiled and nodded at the appropriate moments. In AP classes full of kids groomed to attend Dartmouth and Boston College, I only opened my mouth when called on. I walked the halls of my high school and my life playing my part but feeling as though there was a pane of glass separating me from everyone else.

There’s something desperately wrong with me, I told myself. Perhaps I would become schizophrenic like my mother. The books and articles that I read about my mother’s illness indicated that 17 was often when the voices would begin whispering in my ear. And I DID feel as though I couldn’t connect with anyone. I craved closeness and intimacy, but I didn’t know how to achieve it and I was afraid to try.

Then I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I absorbed his words and whispered them to myself again and again. This narrator, paralyzed by doubt and indecision, lived entirely in his head.

…There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

 

…And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair…

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

And when I am pinned and wriggling against the wall,

The how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?

How did he know? How did T.S. Eliot in 1921 write a poem about a middle-aged man  that articulated the very alienation I was feeling? The same fear of judgement?

For once I felt understood. Prufrock gave voice to my fears and I knew I wasn’t alone. The poem also helped me understand that writing, and poetry in particular, could be a way to explore and give voice to doubts swirling in my head. The poem also gave me permission to not be confident. Eliot painted a portrait of a man wracked with doubt and turned his voice and feelings into art. Could I do the same? While I had always been a reader, experiencing Prufrock helped me recognize that writing could be my way of connecting to myself and connecting with others. Through writing, I could show people what I was thinking, construct a narrative for myself, and claim an identity: I am a writer.

Finding Contentment, As-Is

“Do you have any resolutions?” I asked my friend the day after New Year’s Eve.

“No,” he answered. “Why should I disappoint myself?”

My husband and I laughed along with him, but the truth is, I’m always on a self improvement mission. When I look at my old journal entries, I see the same list of goals over and over again:

  • Lose that flap of skin hanging over my waistband.
  • Eat more healthfully.
  • Avoid carrying a credit card balance.
  • Meditate.
  • Get a new job.
  • Blog more often.
  • Network more.

I’ve started throwing out old journals (sacrilegious, I know) because I’m embarrassed by all the promises I’ve broken to myself and also by the whininess of my voice. I’m a toddler in a 40-year-old woman’s body. I’m tired of not measuring up. I’m never firm enough, outgoing enough, organized enough, tough enough.

The articles spilling into my email box and the tweets on the web only reinforce the belief that I could and should be doing more. 5 Habits of Productive People. How to Write Better Emails. Why Your Kids Don’t Listen To You.

Ug.

Here’s a blog post: Why I Feel Like Throwing Myself Off a Bridge Because of This Self Improvement Madness.

Then there are all the social sciencey books spawned by Malcolm Gladwell and Gretchen Rubin about success and creativity and happiness and how to develop the habits to get there.

This year, I’m aborting the mission. Improvement is a marathon I will not run. 2015 will not feature a Better! New! Improved! me. 2015 will simply feature me, a worn floor model piece of furniture with some scuffs on her.

The Results: My Month Without Women’s Magazines

At the beginning of the month, I decided to go Women’s Magazine Detox. Here are the results:

Day 5: I cheated a little bit. More magazine had a piece called “How To Command a Room” and I figured that had more to do with empowerment and sharing my best self rather than thinking I wasn’t good enough, so I read it, skimming past the anti-aging creams and best new spring outfits.

Day 6: While at BJs, I snuck a peek at some haircuts. With my renewed focus on myself, a new haircut fits the bill. Cheating? Hhmmm. Yes. Forgiveness? Yes, too.

Day 11: Getting better at passing by those glossies now.

Headline: The UNDiet: Eat like a normal person and still lose weight.

My Response: Who says I need to lose weight?

Headline: Your Body’s Dream Suit Is Inside

My Response: You can go swimming in a sweat suit??

Headline: Kristen Stewart’s Beauty Rules to live by.

My Response: Does it involve a perpetual sneer?

Day 22: I’m redefining the rules so that I can read personal essays, books, personal finance, and food and while skimming by any article that smacks of improvement, makeup and dressing for my body type. There’s not a lot to read.

Day 27: Homestretch! Work and my personal life have been challenging this week, and typically, when I feel this way, I “treat” myself to a manicure, a new lipstick, or a new book. But when I walked by the nail salon, I thought to myself, “Perfect nails won’t make me feel better,” and I kept walking. When I strolled into Macy’s on my lunch break, didn’t even glance at glittering tubes of lipsticks and glosses, “Who am I trying to look good for?” I asked myself. Even the New in Paperback table didn’t tempt me. “I have a shelves of books at home that I haven’t read.” At long last, I am recognizing these storms of insecurity and discomfort and letting them pass.

Here are some of my new treats:

  • a cup of chai
  • meditating
  • yoga
  • not checking email on my day off
  • going to the gym
  • writing in my journal
  • Cadbury mini dark chocolate eggs

 Summing It Up

O Magazine, Real Simple, Allure, and Redbook continue to arrive in my mailbox, but their glossy pages of “50 Great Drug Store Buys!”, “How to Dress Your Shape,” and “The Best Foods That You Are Not Eating,” have lost their allure. While these articles and magazines take on the voice of a helpful friend, I realize now that they all have the same message: You’d be [insert adjective here: prettier, slimmer, smarter, healthier, more efficient] if you bought [insert product they are trying to sell.]

Turning 40

okeeffe_skyabovecloudsDaily Prompt: Frame of Mind | If you could paint your current mood onto a canvas, what would that painting look like? What would it depict?

If I were to capture my current mood on a canvas, I’d create a black and white photograph of woman’s figure from behind. She’s standing on the edge of a promontory, arms crossed, her long, dark hair fluttering straight behind her in a breeze. The sun simmers beneath the clouds (think: O’Keffe’s “Sky Above the Clouds“), pinking their edges with a white glow. Below I imagine the sound of the ocean shushing and roaring below.

I am turning 40 this Friday. 40! When I was younger, I expected 40 to be a grown-up dinner party with tiny, carved vegetables and locally sourced meat on a large, white plate. The conversation and the wine would sparkle. I’d have my career figured out (writer). Maybe I’d be married, but definitely no kids because kids are expensive, loud, and demanding. Plus, given my tumultuous childhood, I would have no idea how to raise them.

Well, I am NOT at that grown-up dinner party. My dinner party, which starts at 5:30 sharp, serves orange-made-from-powder-macaroni and cheese, chocolate soy milk, and chicken nuggets. Our New Yorker subscription has lapsed, and Netflix suggests that I watch “Handy Manny” and “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” since I watched “Curious George.”

I don’t need that hip, intellectual Brooklyn life, but I don’t want to surrender to the tyranny of chicken nuggets, either. Satisfaction isn’t  a fat salary and 500+ Linked In connections, but as much as I love my children, satisfaction also isn’t being a stay-at-home parent 100% of the time.  For the better part of this year, I fretted about what I was not. I am not a prolific, published writer. I am not involved enough at my daughter’s school. I have not run a 5K. My body fat percentage is closer to chuck than sirloin.  I’ve been at my current company for 13 years, tethered by velvet handcuffs (terrific benefits, a slightly less than full time schedule) and by my own fear of leaving a comfortable, though not creatively fulfilling, position.

But I am coaxing myself toward self acceptance. This is where I am, and that’s okay. I find the more I compare who I thought I was going to be with who I am, the more miserable I feel. Resolved: I will tell myself that I am enough.

The woman in my canvas, her hair fluttering, her gaze on the emerging day, has resolved that, too.

“Mine!”: What I Learned About Selfishness and Assertiveness from My Toddler

mineMy son is going through the possessive, small tyrant stage. If my daughter sits on my lap, he races over, clings to my knees, and wails, “MY Mommy!” If I try to put him in the stroller so we can walk from the store to the car in less than an hour, he shrieks, “I walk!” pulls the lead noodle move, and slithers from my arms. If I am reading the Sunday New York Times, he, like a cat, will insert himself between my eyes and the page, laying across the newspaper, flipping over on top of the crumpled mess that is the Style section, and flashing a wide, toothy grin.

Apparently, my husband is going through the same stage. Once I finally have a moment to tuck my legs under me and crack open whatever book I’m reading, he pokes his head under my left arm, plunks his face between me and book, and grins like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Hi,” he announces. “There’s me!”

They don’t have a problem demanding attention. They don’t stop and think, “what if I inconvenience her?” They know what they want and demand it. And I oblige. There are days I put on my exercise gear in the morning and tell myself, “I’ll go to the gym after I feed the kids, put a load of laundry in, make a grocery list…”

You get the picture. A mother’s work is never done, and let’s face it: I will never get to the bottom of that List. There will always be a shoe that needs tying, a hug given, a dish to be washed. My family is oblivious to Mommy’s lack of me time, so when I snap, they rightly wonder, what’s wrong with her?

No fairy godmother will descend from the heavens and say to me, “My God, Evonne, how do you do it? You deserve the weekend off. Let me wash the dishes, watch the kids, and pick up the house while you go to yoga.” I need to take matters into my own hands.

So instead of wondering waiting until everything is done, which it never will be, I am going to take what I need.

Sunday morning yoga: Mine.

A night out with my girlfriends: Mine.

Uninterrupted reading time: Mine.

and…

What else do I need? It’s been so long since I put myself first, I’m not even sure. Does this feel familiar?

My Month Without: Women’s Magazines and Catalogs

Women's magazines in the trashFor the next month, I’ll be conducting an experiment: living without women’s magazines and catalogs.

I reach for a woman’s magazine whenever I have free time. Flipping through the glossy pages of Real Simple, O Magazine, People, or Lucky Magazine is my way to unwind after a long day of work and kid wrangling (I have an almost 2-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl). I dogear pages featuring a structured handbag, a moisturizing berry lip tint that will brighten my look, and articles on self-acceptance and organization. Let’s not forget those profiles of women who are saving orphans in Africa or who started their own multimillion dollar business while single-handedly raising three children.

Catalogs are a guilty pleasure, too. “If I get these yoga tights, I’ll go to the studio more,” I tell myself. “I should try to look more put together for work, so maybe I’ll get this ponte sheath dress.”

In essence, these magazines and catalogs represent my aspirational self, the person I wish I was. The person I’d like to project to the outside world. Look: she has her shit together. She looks good. She’s organized. She’s stylish. The lipstick and the yoga tights are also small gifts to myself. You work hard, I tell myself. You deserve a treat.

So now I have a drawers full of treats, but I still haven’t become the person I thought I should be. I also don’t feel rewarded. I am still not enough.

If I don’t have a magazine or catalog to influence what I want, how to look, and how to feel, then how will I replenish myself? My mission is to find out.

When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a…

As I child I loved those very intricate coloring books with Escher-esque patterns. Considering all those shades and placing marker to paper was meditation for me. Watching the image bloom into color generated in me a feeling of quiet satisfaction.

When I learned there was no such profession as a professional color-er, my heart sank. Now what? Around the same time, I joined my local library’s young reader’s book group, and learned that stories offered me the same quiet satisfaction. Cracking open a book, running my fingers along the rough-cut edges, and losing myself in a story was pure bliss for me. The noisy, extroverted togetherness of school didn’t mesh with my quiet nature, but sitting in a group of like-minded kids discussing The Bridge to Terabithia made me feel comfortable and most like my real self. Enter creative writing around fifth grade, and I’d found my niche: writing, art, and reading.

My first real job after college was working as an editorial assistant at the American Association for  Clinical Chemistry. I wrote a feature article about the man who invented the urine dipstick, I copyedited, I worked with the publisher to re-size images. Then this thing called the Internet came along, and I knew that I needed to get on the bandwagon. I quit my editorial assistant job and took an HTML bootcamp. Not long after that, I landed a job as a online research coordinator with the health policy think tank that I still work at over 11 years later.

My official title is Associate Director of Web Development and Production. When people ask what I do, I tell them that I’m a web project manager. I work with the creatives to develop the pretty stuff, and I meet with the squints who understand the technical aspects of a project and make sure that projects get done. “Getting her done” involves keeping tabs on lots of moving parts, gentle or firm reminders to team members about deadlines, and productivity apps like Evernote and Trello. As a parent, my job isn’t too dissimilar, except my moving parts are a tech-geek husband , a perspicacious six-year-old, and a toddler obsessed with power surge protectors.

But what I do and who I am differ, and when I meet new people I try to mention my masters in writing, letting them know that I’m also a creative soul. I wanted to be a writer and an artist and a thinker when I grew up. At 39, I find myself ready to write those words and create those images instead of managing the people who do. I AM a grown up, but now I ready to grow into myself.