Friday, November 12, 2010

The Villanelle

I am a teaching mathematician who writes fantasy novels.  Weird? Yes, but that is who I am.  I majored in Pure Math and minored in English.  There was a time when the roles could’ve reversed or I could’ve double-majored.  In my senior year, my Modern British Drama professor tried, on several occasions, to change my mind.   I took a course in Chaucer, learned to read and speak Middle English, and took almost enough hours to complete the degree.  I love literature, especially modern American lit.  Dr. G could not fathom why I stuck with math.   

Well, math is pure and frakkin’ hard.  I like, and often crave, a good challenge.  And, let’s face it: there is always a demand for good mathematicians, especially those gifted at teaching, and there aren’t many American females who are interested and talented. 

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In my sophomore year, I took a creative writing class for an outlet and to bring balance to the hyper-analytical nature of mathematics and the tedium of undergraduate literature courses.  In high school, I wrote a lot of terrible poetry and a few decent short stories, so I thought, “What the hell?  I can use the 3 hours of Humanities.”  I worked my ass off, as is my nature, and I enjoyed every second of it.   

Except for the part where I was forced to write a villanelle.  You know what that is…Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” with its imprisoning rhyme and line schemes?  Yeah, that.  Instead of letting us do as we pleased, which for me was using a style similar to Wallace Stephen's "Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird," my professor handed out poetry styles for the coming week’s assignment.  She apologized when she gave me the villanelle.  After class, when we were outside having a smoke, I asked her why she cursed me with the villanelle, and she said she thought I was the only one who had a chance of doing it well.  I was touched, pissed, but touched.  No one in the math department said things like that to me, but then again, all mathematicians are a bit sadomasochistic.  If you have read my tweets when I'm grading, you know.

I spent more time on that damned poem than any of my math homework, including my programming.  When you have to keep up the same two rhymes for so many lines, it is a challenge to make it work, make it sound right, make it not just a bunch of crap you slapped on a page.  When I finished it, I hated it.  It didn’t matter what my professor thought, I hated it.  I reread it the other night, and all but one stanza sucks.  But, I put my heart into it, and I did it.

There have been times (my eyes water just thinking of them) when I either didn't or couldn't put my heart in it because I had no heart.  I was sleep walking through life.  Let me tell you, class, that life sucked big donkey balls.  I settled to the point where I didn’t feel very much of anything anymore.  I spent the five miserable years sleepwalking through a life that society told me was what I should want.  Get up, make and eat breakfast, pack lunch, smoke, drive to work, teach, smoke, drive home, make dinner, smoke some more, watch TV, be ignored by my ex-husband, go to bed.  Most nights, I dreamed of fighting my Shadow, who is male, and he either mortally wounded or killed me almost every time we met.
In the fifth year, I walked into my Differential Equations class and heard my best student sing, "I beat my dick like it owes me money," from the puppets episode of The Chappell Show.  Here was someone who didn't give a flying fuck what people thought of him.  It was literally like a switch flipped in me.  He woke me.  I looked at myself and thought, "Who the hell am I?" 

I took the villanelle challenge at the personal level.  I began to rewrite myself as who I truly am, and when I did, I found that my old life and most of my relationships didn’t fit anymore.  I found out who truly loved me, and to the rest...fuck 'em.  I had to shed that old skin, which earned me the honor of my waker saying, "You remind me of  '46 and 2' by Tool.” (see below for a video with lyrics and analysis)  I cry perhaps once a year, except that one.  I cried more in that year than I have in my entire life, but it was to be expected.  Any meaningful metamorphosis is going to be hellishly painful.   
So, here I am, awake and living, mostly at peace with my Shadow.  Some of my rhymes are cheesy, and some of the line breaks are awkward, but this life, this skin, fits.  In my true skin, I can grow as much as I am willing to let myself.  This life is worth being awake to experience.  

"46 & 2" by Tool:

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