Nonfiction: Through a Glass Brightly by Amy Irvine

You know the tale in which the fair maiden—the nubile, blonde-haired, blue and wide-eyed at-the-world girl—gets locked up by her mother? Or her stepmother? Or some-such version of the Crone, the dark maternal that is so eternal, on which we refuse to shine light—because god forbid, it would illuminate our own shadows? It’s the same tale as that in which the prince, or the Greek god, or some other version of a strapping, studly savior of a Duuude saves the fair maiden’s valuable, virginal ass. It’s the same tale (a myth, really, given its long and enduring effects) in which guy and girl live happily ever after, a tale that persists in a culture where over half of all marriages fail.

There’s an economy to this story, a measure of worth for the taking. Meaning it’s less of a love story than a good business deal: If he has riches, if his kingdom is full of treasures, then he surely also wears toupees. After all, he’s lost the real hair—because oh, how taxing it is, to worry day and night about how to keep it all going, how to spend it all, how to build tributes to trumpery. If it’s his money, then she’s an acquisition—a just reward for that loss of hair. And if it’s hers, well, she’s just part of the real estate—the kind in which you buy the McMansion in a Colorado ski town and the pine-log furniture comes with. Either way, the Dude has scored.

But I digress. I want to talk about the Fair Maiden. The Mother. The Crone. I want to talk about the maiden I once was, that my twelve-year-old daughter now is, and the way all that fresh beauty is mistaken to be the Key to the Kingdom, with which we can step inside and become, instantly, revered alongside the log furniture—where our perky 34C racks are admired alongside the bull elk’s 7-point rack, which hangs over the great room’s granite hearth. It looks lovely. The tale tells us that all is well in the Kingdom. Maybe the maiden even believes it—for a spell. Or maybe she just hasn’t yet found her way back to the door. After all, it’s a very large house.

But then…not slowly, not imperceptibly, but immediately—the plot thickens. This is the moment: the maiden becomes a mother and pushes new life into the world and those sisters swell with sustenance—progeny is now the priority! All eyes on the baby, people! The baby clutches, in its tiny hand, miniature copies of the key to the kingdom: if it’s a girl, she’ll be a fine asset. If it’s a boy, well he is made in the image of the Dude and is therefore entitled to all.

But I jump ahead. Not that it matters; you know what happens. The belly now is stretched. The sisters droop. Arroyos of worry erode the face because the Mother is never in the moment. She has gone ahead, sprinting toward a casserole dinner, a piano recital, a birthday party. She picks up dry cleaning and schedules needles that drip with vaccines—it’s all happening tomorrow, or later, not now. Oh, then there’s that side gig—the forty-hour-a-week job—and on top of all this she’s gotta make time for the perfunctory performance of fellatio—lest the Dude stray. She knows the clock is ticking, that her expiration date is near, and she’ll dance on the head of that pin as fast as she can, keeping it all together, because she has somehow gone from Great Room to Kitchen, and while it looks like she is the alchemist, cooking up her own destiny, in which she earns a living and dances to Zumba and drinks prosecco for Girls’ Night Out, it’s hard to get out of that room, away from the heat and dishpan hands. Because still, even now, a woman’s work is never done and she’ll realize that it was this way even when she was the Fair Maiden, all the effort it took to hold a key to what is, after all, no way out. To what is, after all, just a prettier pink version of Lock the Bitch Up.

Enter the Crone. The sisters no longer sag, they droop. They are rocks in socks and there’s the leaky bladder and too many strands of hair on the bed pillow and two pairs of reading glasses on the head. There’s the inner climate change of hot flashes and gnarled knuckles that type stiffly now, but the Crone rubs them and keeps typing. She has not the key, but the keys, on which she taps away, her sharp mind ablaze—a sun that has in fact, not yet set, that is really at high noon. This act is the alchemy—where the true gold is in the glittering promise of a new tale. A tale that’s for everyone, even the Dude, who also can’t find the keys, the door. Who can’t find the portal to his own soul.

The Crone persists. Even as we slink away to the dark corners of our mind— despairing and hopeless having learned that it’s not happily ever after, after all—she grins her mad, toothless grin—and this too is an illumination, a beacon that beckons us toward the threshold of the story she began long ago, the one she’s been writing all along.

It goes like this: On Tuesday, Icarus also flew.[1] Meaning on Tuesday, Mothers let loose the millennial maidens, and they painted the nation a solid, sensible blue.

This is the new story. Peering in from an open door, we see the sun, above the glass ceiling that is our lens. But the ceiling shows signs of strain. There is fear: what happens when we finally break through? How high will we go? What if we reach too far? Will we singe these new wings and go down in flames?

To which the Crone says: What if you fly?

We cannot stare into the sun. But if we look just off to the side, away from the screen, the teleprompter, the binding, life-sucking agreement of binary-opposites, new stories are everywhere: The Monarch butterflies, in desperate decline, have returned. For the first time in decades, a wolverine was spotted in Michigan. Five Tribes in the Four Corners have banded together to lead the movement to designate their collective holy lands in the southern Utah as a national monument—and to this groundbreaking collective, the great white environmental patriarchy has actually deferred. Gay marriage, the right to end one’s own life, and medical marijuana have been legalized (and the latter one is available, thank god, for my daughter—as we use it to control her seizures—because pharmaceuticals obliterate her radiant personality). Indeed, even as we forget how united we are, how far we have come against tyranny in all its forms, colonies of microbes have banded together in the ocean, to devour swirling islands of plastic shopping bags and other human-generated trash.

Miracles abound. The millennial maidens are one of them. They write their own stories, their own characters. They have forged their own set of keys. They are the kundalini coils of snakes—the sinuous, sensual life force that Eve in the Garden just barely entertained. The Crone knows: These maidens, they live in us all—the daughters, and granddaughters, of the witches they could not burn.[2]

[1] From Jack Gilbert poem, Failing and Flying

[2] Have been unable to find the original author of this line; it’s used by Occupy, by feminist writers and poets.

 

 

 

Amy Irvine’s memoir, ”Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land,” received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and Colorado Book Award—while the Los Angeles Times wrote that it “might very well be ‘Desert Solitaire’s’ literary heir.” Her essays have appeared in the Pacific Standard, Orion, Triquarterly, and High Desert Journal, and in numerous western, nature, and environmental anthologies. Irvine teaches nonfiction in Southern New Hampshire University’s Low-Residency MFA program, and lives in Telluride, Colorado.

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