Final Self Reflective Essay: The Power of Noticing and Self Observation

I came into this class with a pretty clear goal in mind; I wanted to become a better listener, and continue contributing to class conversations and growth while taking up less overall space in class discussions and collaborative assignments. This goal was a direct result of things I noticed and observed about myself across my time at Geneseo. I started to become far more aware of what I would say is one of my biggest flaws both as a student and as a person: I always have something to say. I used to see this as an indisputably positive trait, but I started to see the negative aspects of it over the past few years. As I stated in my goal-setting essay at the beginning of this semester; “The same enthusiasm and willingness to speak up that drove me to actively engage in every class discussion could also lead to me dominating conversations and bulldozing over my less extroverted or confident classmates. The same eagerness to share my learning that led to me raising my hand could (and has) lead me to interrupt the insights of others. Often I find myself so fascinated by the things that I notice that I’m more interested in sharing them than I am about hearing what others have noticed.” With this in mind, along with a rough knowledge of the basic structure of this class based on previous experience in Beth’s courses and confirmed by the syllabus, I came into this class determined to make more space for others in class conversations.

At the beginning of the class, my idea as to how to go about this was simple; talk less, listen more. This didn’t quite go as planned, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m not what I consider to be a very eloquent person, and as a result, my method of contributing to class has always been not only to talk, but to keep talking until I’m confident that the point I meant to make came out somewhere in the stream of semi-coherent rambling I just uttered. Secondly, I’ve found that I am uncomfortable with silence, particularly in an academic setting. This means that often, when a professor asks a question to the class and is met with no immediate response, I feel compelled to say something to end the silence, regardless of what that something is, just to ease the growing discomfort I feel as the quiet takes hold. These idiosyncrasies of mine did not mesh well with my plan, and I often found myself still struggling with taking up too much space despite my best efforts, with the fun new bonus of being far more aware that I was doing this and feeling guilty for not being able to rein myself in more. I do want to acknowledge, however, that even on my bad days, when I took up the most space in class discussions in this class, it still was not as bad as I’ve been in previous courses, due, I think, to a combination of my own efforts to be more aware of this and rein myself in a bit (even if not enough) and Beth’s efforts to be aware of this goal, remind me of it when need be, and find ways of keeping me from taking over class conversations when I was doing too much.  

So, it’s around mid-October, we’re well into the semester, I’m still struggling with my goal, and my current method of trying to achieve it is very clearly not enough. Where do I go from here? Well, without really meaning to, I started thinking about my goal-setting essay. One part of it in particular, about the most common reason I heard from some of my friends and classmates as to why they don’t say as much in class;  “it’s not like I need to, there’s plenty of others that will speak in class anyways”. When I’d originally written this, I had looked at it as a challenge. If I tried to reduce my voice in the classroom, surely the absence of it would force others to speak up. That, as it turned out, was the wrong way of thinking. Instead of thinking of this situation as me trying to challenge this common notion held by my friends and classmates, I needed to start using their way of thinking to help me achieve my goal. I realized it would be far easier for me to take up less space if there were other people I knew would speak up in class discussions instead. I started to try to use small group discussions as a way of seeking out insights from classmates, raising up classmates who shared those insights, and inviting them (or lightly pressuring them, take your pick) to speak more on them. To my delight, I noticed that more and more people started speaking during whole class discussions and Beth’s questions were met with silence less and less. Whether this had anything to do with me or was just a result of the natural process of people getting more comfortable with each other and the material as the course went on, I’m not sure, but even though my gut says it was likely the latter, I’d like to think that I helped a little bit. 

In the spirit of noticing, it’s time to change direction a bit. I’ve noticed that, for someone trying to argue that he’s gotten better at seeking out and listening to the insights of others, I’ve crafted an essay that has so far been largely about me. But a large part of the reason I was able to achieve any success at my goal this semester overall was because of my classmates, whose insights shaped not only this course as a whole but also my understanding of both my goal, the texts, and the collaboration process. Through our collaborative projects this semester, I was reminded of just how many deep insights and interpretations my classmates can come up with, and how many pieces of context and interpretations I would never have come up with in a million years without their contributions. Circling back to my goal, this further reminded me just how much my classmates have to say, even when they aren’t sharing it with the whole class. I was brought right back to the mix of wonder and frustration I felt when first having conversations about class material with my softer-spoken friends in freshman and sophomore year, wanting to shake them and asking in amazement why they didn’t talk more about this stuff in class? Luckily, I have since found nicer and more effective ways of suggesting to classmates that they share their ideas, but I always appreciate the reminder of just how many ideas my peers have to share. 

As far as how this relates to the texts, I’d say that a lot of the characters we’ve read about this semester achieve their development mostly through noticing, or being forced to notice a flaw in themselves, and taking the steps necessary to try to correct that flaw. Not all of these characters were successful. But in most cases, how successful each character is determined by how self-aware they are in their flaws. 

Cee may be the prime example of this. Cee starts her journey in Toni Morrison’s Home as an innocent but helpless girl with not a clue in the world how to survive without the help and protection of others. For the first portion of her life, that help and protection came from her brother Frank. When he enlists in the Korean War and leaves, Cee latches on to the first new source of protection and security she can find, in the form of Prince, who she falls in love with, gets engaged to, moves out of town with, and is then promptly abandoned by. After this, she receives support, protection, and guidance from her friend and neighbor Thelma, before finding a job under Dr. Beauregard Scott, who, along with her coworker Sarah, make Cee feel secure again. It’s only after Dr. Beauregard takes advantage of her trust and performs dangerous and destructive experiments on her, causing her to nearly die and rendering her permanently infertile, that she finally realizes how big a flaw her lack of independence is. Once she realizes it however, she never loses sight of it. She immediately takes action to become more independent, aided by Miss Ethel Fordham and the other women of Lotus. By the time Frank next sees her, we are told that “Cee was different”(Morrison 121) and that “this Cee was not the girl who trembled at the slightest touch of the real and vicious world…Frank didn’t know what took place during those weeks at Miss Ethel’s house surrounded by those women with seen-it-all eyes… They delivered unto him a Cee who would never again need his hand over her eyes or his arms to stop her murmuring bones”(127-128).  Through these lines, readers are given the sense that Cee is a far more independent woman, and is shown to the readers to be doing the same sort of chores she had watched the woman of Lotus do during her recovery. By the end of the novel, in a perfect inversion of the first scene in the novel, the two properly bury the body of the man they watched so hastily and improperly buried in their childhood, and when the deed is done, it is Cee who leads Frank home this time around, displaying her newfound mental and emotional strength and independence. 

Another example of this is Keira in Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler. From the very start of the book, we are told that Keira is sick with cancer. She is perceived by almost everyone in the book, even her kidnappers, as frail and fragile, and is constantly treated differently as a result. This, however, is exactly what offers her a unique perspective from her family when they’re introduced to the Clay’s Ark colony and its inhabitants. Out of her family, she is the only one to see the sphinx-like children of the Clay’s Ark colony as more than simply inhuman. When she first meets one of the children, a girl named Zera, she greets her almost entirely with approval, remarking that “she’s beautiful”, and later thinking to herself that the child “was perfect. A perfect, lean, little four-legged thing with shaggy uncombed hair and a beautiful little face”. When asked if she’d be open to having one someday, Keira replies “I think I could handle it” (Butler pages 119-120). This clearly impresses Eli, the leader of the colony, who later tells her “I liked the way you got along with Jacob and Zera”(Butler 128). This is the start of her bond with Eli, but it’s not the only thing that makes her stand out to him or to readers in contrast with the rest of her family. Keira is also the only one in her family to seem to have any compassion for the people in this community and the situation they find themselves in. It is that compassion, both for the children and adults of the Clay’s Ark colony, that allows her to build a deep bond with Elijah, the leader of the Clay’s Ark colony. Later, when Keira and her family escape, only to be kidnapped again by a group of travelling thieves, rapists, and killers, called a “car family”, she has faith that Elijah and the Clay’s Ark colony will rescue them. She acts on that faith, apologizing to Eli through the window in the room the ‘car family’ kept her in and asking him for help(page 167-168). He clearly hears her, and does indeed help, storming the ‘car family’’’s hideout to either try and help Keira and her family escape or have his people rescue Keira and her family themselves. Sadly in the end, she is the only one of her family who survives the ordeal, because one of the Clay’s Ark children that she showed compassion to comes to rescue her and lead her back to Eli’s people. It’s worth noting that it is not only her compassion to the Clay’s Ark children being rewarded here, but also her willingness to work with the Clay’s Ark colony as a whole, as Blake makes it out of the car family hideout only to attempt to flee from the Clay’s Ark colony again, and it’s implied Rane might not have gone back with the Clay’s Ark colony even if she had made it out. Keira is explicitly the only one of her family to survive because she realizes that not trusting the people of the Clay’s Ark colony is a mistake, and fleeing from them would only make things worse. The novel also portrays their decision to attempt escape the first time and especially Blake’s decision to attempt escape again as flawed, reckless choices. In the end, these choices not only lead to Rane’s and Blake’s deaths but also the infection getting out into the world, resulting in the Clay’s Ark disease spreading to the entire human race.  In contrast, Keira’s decision to trust Eli and the people of the Clay’s Ark colony is framed as both rational and the most morally good option available, as it is, for all its flaws, the least destructive option Keira and her family has.

In Fortune’s Bones we see examples of what happens when people don’t take a second to notice their own flaws and attempt to get better. Fortune’s Bones gives us the ignorant Dr. Porter, who is too wrapped up in the excitement of examining the corpse of one of the men he enslaved to think about the fact that Fortune is a human being and what Porter’s doing to his corpse is wrong. We see the twisted fate of Fortune’s remains as it is passed down from descendant to descendant in the Porter family line before finally being abandoned in the boarded up wall of a house only to be rediscovered and put in a museum to be gawked at by even more ignorant white people too caught up in the novelty of the experience to remember that these bones came from a real person and deserve the same respect that we grant so freely to most other human remains but that has been denied to poor Fortune for centuries. We even see how Porter’s descendants, in their desire to continue using the remains for their own selfish purposes, rename the Fortune’s skull “Larry” so as to make it easier to forget the real identity of the human being that they so flagrantly disrespect in death. In a brief moment of self-awareness (that likely came more from author Marilyn Nelson herself rather than the character whose point-of-view she’s writing from at this point), we see one of Porter’s descendants admit to the reason behind the renaming, stating “I called him Larry. It was easier/To face him with an imaginary name./For Fortune was an image of myself:”(Nelson page 21).  This admission that Porter’s descendants renamed Fortune in order to avoid having to face the horror of what they did and continued to do to Fortune even in death shows just how awful human beings can be when we’re not willing to notice our own flaws, acknowledge them, and attempt to better ourselves. 

In a way, I think the theme of noticing that ran throughout this course and its texts helped me to keep my goal for this class in mind as we kept moving through the semester, and I’m very grateful for that. I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with where I’m at in terms of my goal. I still take up more space in a classroom than I might like, and I still find myself speaking a bit more than I should in class discussions. I notice and acknowledge this, and appreciate that I still have a ways to go in working towards making room for everyone in academic spaces. However, with all that in mind, I’m still confident in saying that I have accomplished my goal, which was, as a reminder for both myself and whoever may read this to become a better listener, and take up less space in class discussions, not to become the best or even a good listener, and not to take up the right amount of space in class discussions. I feel that I can confidently say that even though I’m still not necessarily where I want to be in terms of listening and making space for others, I have definitely made significant progress. And for now, that’s enough for me.

“Mini” Collaboration 2: How reduction leads to internalization.

By Tommy Castronova, Jake Clark, Sammy Comstock, Nayy Diarra, Rebecca Perry, Dineen Vogler, and Quentin Wall.

William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen’s From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century makes a strong case for reparations paid to Black Americans for their continued mistreatment at the hands of the United States government. The authors describe the foundations of the American institution of slavery and its history of reducing human beings for economic exploitation. The argument made by the authors is that restitution is owed to those who survive the systematic reduction of human rights and the consequential damage of internalization for the benefit of other human beings. Throughout the course texts, Clay’s Ark, Zulus, Zone One and Darity and Mullen’s book, internalization affects individuals’ will to live and self worth.

In Clay’s Ark, by Octavia Butler, characters infected by the virus must fight against internalization at all cost. If they begin to internalize the idea that they are the infection, that the disease is more in control of them than they are, they either lose all their humanity, as Eli is terrified of, or they lose all will to live, like with Zeriam. We see this when Zeriam asks Eli  “How much of you is left?”(Butler 150). Zeriam, unconvinced by Eli’s response, chooses to end his life rather than become the virus. Butler even spells this out for us in the last lines before Zeriam’s death, writing: “ He wrote a letter to his unborn child… He talked about the impossibility of spending his life as the carrier of a deadly disease. He talked about his fear of losing himself, becoming someone or something else. Finally, he put the letters aside and cheated the microbe of the last few days it needed to tighten its hold on him. He took one of Meda’s sharp butcher knives and cut his throat.” (Butler 151). Zeriam, newly infected, has already internalized the idea that anyone infected by this disease is nothing more than a slave to it, acting on whatever impulses it gives to its hosts. Now that this would soon apply to him, he chooses to end his life rather than live out that narrative. We see Eli fighting this internalization throughout the novel, as he constantly talks about trying to preserve as much of the infected’s humanity as possible, despite the disease. We see Lupe mention it when talking to Rane: “Eli says we’re preserving humanity. I agree with him. We are. Our own humanity and everyone else’s because we let people alone”(Butler 91).

In the book Zulus, Percival Everett discusses how the protagonist, Alice Achitophel, is constantly seen as “the fat woman” (22). Everyone around her degraded her in a way that made her feel less than who she actually was. One particular woman, Body-woman Rima, called out Alice Achitophel on her body. She said to Achitophel, “you’re a stupid woman and probably a slut… and let you know how much of a thing you are” (Everett 106). Instead of calling her by her name she is referred to as “thing,” reducing her to one thing which allows others to view her as only that thing. This makes others view her as a worthless person, allowing them to act in ways that reduces Achitophel’s humanity by viewing her as only a fat person, lowering her self-esteem. After the rebirth of Alice Achitophel, Alice’s perspective of herself changed as her physical appearance was altered. In her mind, she was no longer defined as being fat and was eager to reinvent herself as a new person. However, the people in her life continue to view Alice as worthless, causing her to continue to see herself the same way. Her fatness may have been removed but Alice’s negative perception of her self-worth remains. Although Alice is given a sense of identity through the new name, Esther MacAree, she still struggles with her own identity and self-worth throughout the novel, despite her change in physical appearance, because she has so deeply internalized the way society perceives her.

Throughout Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, internalization affects the way the main character perceives his identity. In the end of the novel, after being asked by Gary, Mark Spitz explains why he is called “Mark Spitz.” Mark mentions the “Northeast Corridor, and the jokes when they got back to Fort Golden Gate,” after giving him this nickname. He reveals that he “laughed along with everyone else, but later had to look up Mark Spitz” in an encyclopedia (Whitehead 287). He learned that the real Mark Spitz is a successful Olympian swimmer and immediately realizes that he is being made fun of through this nickname because he is quite the opposite of the real Mark Spitz. In the beginning of the novel, Whitehead mentions, “They called him Mark Spitz nowadays. He didn’t mind” (9). Mark Spitz is aware that he is being made fun of, yet he is not offended by his nickname because has internalized it to the point that he views himself just as those individuals had when they initially gave him the name; as a joke. Mark Spitz being reduced to “Mark Spitz,” which is not his true identity, and him understanding that he has been named this as a joke, affects his self-concept and the way he views his past. Spitz begins to internalize his self worth and see himself as an average person and nothing more. For instance, he shares, “His most appropriate destination would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything” (Whitehead 11). Mark Spitz reflects his internal thoughts regarding his significance; he shares that he had an unremarkable past. Further, Whitehead states, “His aptitude lay in the well-executed middle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life’s next random obstacle” (11). Clearly, it is conveyed that Spitz internalizes his new identity. The constant reminder that others view him as a joke through the repetition of the name, Mark Spitz, leads Mark to take on their beliefs and alters the way he views himself, solely as an insignificant individual.

 In the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century written by William Darity and Kristen Mullen, it is evident that Black individuals are constantly being degraded and looked down upon by their white peers in society. For example, the novel mentions that every African American “has either directly or indirectly experienced racial discrimination or has been indirectly influenced by it”  in chapter 12 (Darity & Mullen 1). These individuals are being reduced based upon their race. Consequent to society consistently viewing African Americans as inferior human beings and treating them as such, Black individuals may begin to internalize their worth based on the perceptions of others. Inequity in their society begins to alter their self concept negatively; the unequal treatment that Blacks experience daily can affect the way they perceive their importance as a human being. When treated inhumanely, it is difficult for one not to internalize the aspect of their identity that they are being reduced to. For this reason, “Reparations could be the beginning of a true revolution in values” (Darity & Mullen ch 12-1). In order to reduce societal injustice and reverse internalization that can occur due to racial discrimintaion, steps need to be taken to repair the damage that has been inflicted on Black individuals. 

When referencing all of the texts mentioned above, the concept of Internalization comes in multiple different forms and affects people and society in numerous ways. We’ve seen time and time again the negative impact that internalization brings, whether it’s discrimination of something, to shun or belittle, or make others inferior to a norm of society. Internalization of discrimination and stereotypes is still a problem today. The inability of American society as a whole to acknowledge the lasting harm caused by the actions done as a result of reducing groups of people to one thing is arguably one of the biggest problems we face as a nation. Darity and Mullen put it best: “White America must come to terms with its false beliefs about “black behavior” and with the sanitized version of the nation’s history” (7).

Noticing your own flaws: Goal-Setting Essay

The idea of noticing that runs through our course epigraph strikes me as particularly important not just in the literature we read for this course, but also in our growth as people. One goal that I came into this course with is to be a better listener. While I have always excelled in a classroom setting, I’ve usually played the role of the resident hand-raiser. The student in every class whose voice can be heard in every discussion. The one ready with an answer to almost every question the professor asks. This has been one of my biggest strengths throughout my academic career, and I’ve always taken pride in it. It’s not until my past few years in college, however, that I saw the both/and of this situation. The same enthusiasm and willingness to speak up that drove me to actively engage in every class discussion could also lead to me dominating conversations and bulldozing over my less extroverted or confident classmates. The same eagerness to share my learning that led to me raising my hand could (and has) lead me to interrupt the insights of others. Often I find myself so fascinated by the things that I notice that I’m more interested in sharing them than I am about hearing what others have noticed. 

I’ve made a conscious effort to amend that a bit this semester. I’m trying my best to take a step back both in whole-class and small group discussions, and engage in the observations and insights of my classmates without always responding with one of my own. This is in part due to experiences in other classes, and in part due to several friendships I’ve made with classmates and fellow students who I know to have just as many valuable insights and thoughts as my own but who I know, either from being in classes with them or from their own accounts, don’t tend to share them as often, either for fear of being wrong, an aversion to attention, the assumption that these insights are not important or valid enough to warrant sharing, or any number of other reasons. In almost every case, my initial reaction to my friends and classmates’ relative lack of verbal class participation was frustration. If you have all these ideas and insights about what we’re learning, why wouldn’t you share them? While all the reasons I listed before were some of the more common threads, by far the most common was some variation of “it’s not like I need to, there’s plenty of others that will speak in class anyways”. This answer stuck out to me. As an Education Major, most of the other reasons I heard for why my fellow classmates and friends don’t speak up more in class came from issues I recognized as things that were mostly the responsibility of a professor to fix, largely due to them being the only ones with the power to do so. If a student is afraid of being wrong for example, it is on the teacher to create a classroom environment where being wrong is not only allowed but celebrated, referred to as “a culture of error” by Lemov in his book “Teach Like a Champion” which was used as a textbook in one of my education courses. In contrast to this, the idea of “other voices will be present anyways, so no one will notice or care about the absence of my own” is not really something a professor can fix on their own. Sure, teachers can stress the importance of everyone’s unique perspective and experiences, but without a class of students that are attentive of each other and willing to make room for everyone’s voices, no action on the part of the teacher or professor will be enough. 

That is largely why I’m trying to get better at talking less, and putting more time and effort into noticing the ideas and insights of my classmates when it comes to the learning we’re doing. I’ll be the first to admit that I am in no way disciplined enough to stop myself from speaking at all in class, and I confess that despite my best efforts, I still have trouble reining myself in enough to keep from dominating some conversations. But it’s something that I’m working hard at consciously noticing and getting better at. 

As for how all this ties in to what we’ve been reading, learning, and thinking about in class so far. I’d argue that many of the texts we’ve read so far have largely concerned people in dire need of self-reflection. Doctor Preserved Porter, for example, displays a painfully obvious  lack of self-awareness in the section in Fortune’s Bones written from his point of view. His obsession with examining the corpse of the man he enslaved for years with absolutely zero regard for the wishes of Fortune’s own family or even Fortune himself is the entire reason that the section “On Abrigador Hill” reads like the narrative of a delusional man engaging in a perversion of the highest degree. This effect is even more profound when contrasted by the first speaker in “Kyrie of the Bones” who is at least self-aware enough to recognize that the reason they renamed Fortune’s Skull was because “It was easier/to face him with an imaginary name”(Nelson page 21) then be confronted with the fact that Fortune was a real person, just like anyone in the Porter Family. 

We see the same blatant lack of self awareness in Frank Money throughout most of Toni Morrison’s Home. While Frank at first seems at least self aware enough to understand that his PTSD brought on by his time in the Korean war is a problem, everything else he does in an attempt to solve this problem seems to be the lack of any introspection on his part. We see him turn to love as a solution, and while being with Lily alleviates some of his worst symptoms, he still has difficulty regulating his emotions in certain situations, and shows clear sign of depression in his inability to complete even the most basic of household chores upon Lily’s request. We later see him attempt to ease his symptoms with alcohol, which also doesn’t help. Later, after engaging in physical violence in the form of assaulting a man, we see Frank fail to connect this to his PTSD at all, instead believing his symptoms to have gotten better due to his ability to remember his time in Korea without immense mental and emotional stress. What’s striking about Frank is that we know that his lack of self-reflection is a deliberate choice, as we see through the italicized chapters (in which he is presented as writing his account of his experiences to Morrison) that he is entirely capable of deep introspection. In chapter 14, when he confesses to being the soldier that murdered the child, in part because he was aroused by her, we see him unpack his thought process, along with the guilt, shame, and fear that his arousal toward that girl caused him. So when we as readers see him thinking about how much better he’s doing after beating a man up and actively enjoying it, we know he’s being willfully ignorant. 

This is my senior year in college, and while I plan to go onto graduate school, the fact that I’m graduating from Geneseo this spring and crossing what is considered by many in our society to be the final threshold into adulthood. It’s making me reflect on the type of student and person that I am, have been, and want to be. Given that I will likely be going into teaching soon, it’s also making me reflect on the type of teacher I hope to be, and one of the main things I want to be that I have noticed that I haven’t always been in the past and still have a hard time being in the present is a good listener. I want to be someone who people want to talk to, about anything from their thoughts on what we’re reading and learning about in class, to their day, to the things they love, or fear, or are passionate about. In order to be that person, I need to be able to listen more attentively, without catching myself thinking about what to say next while others are still speaking. I hope to use this class as an opportunity to get better at this. 

The Omnipresence of Contradiction

I’d say that the main way that my own thinkING habits have evolved over the course of this semester is to recognize how wildly different people’s interpretations of the same events and/or texts can be. One of my favorite parts of this class was reading the insights of my fellow classmates and marveling at how many connections they made and points they brought up that I would never have been able to see or come up with. I think that understanding is going to help me take more care in my work and how it plays with the ideas of others. 

One thing I found absolutely striking in Butler’s work was the abundance of contradictions in every aspect of them. Butler tells us right from the beginning in Dawn that humans are composed entirely of a genetic contradiction between intelligence and hierarchy, but contradiction has been everywhere in this class, and more often than not, the lesson is that the contradicting forces are as interwoven as they are conflicting. We’ve discussed already how harm and care are far more intermingled than we typically think, (and I’ll go more in-depth about that in a later move in this essay), despite their contradictory nature, and the same can easily be said about the Oankali’s knowledge of humans and surprising lack of understanding of human thought processes. In addition, I would argue that another theme that continuously shows up throughout the trilogy, and leads to quite a bit of contradiction in it of itself, is free will.  

I would argue that one of the things that Butler teaches us about what brings people together is a shared desire for a legacy. All the communities we see in Butler’s work are built of individuals with a shared view of the future. Whether that be the Oankali, who view the future as an opportunity for their species to go through another exciting trade, or resister colonies like Phoenix that are desperate for a way to get to a future where they can have entirely human children and allow the human race to survive. It’s clear from both the human and Oankali perspective that the continued and long-lasting existence of their race is one of the most important things in their communities.

This becomes even more evident when you consider that typically, the biggest conflicts that we see in Lilith’s Brood are also typically caused by someone’s idea of the future, especially how their legacy will fit into that future, is threatened. For example, almost all the horrible acts committed by resister humans are reactions to Oankali making them infertile and taking away their chance to have fully human children. From the stealing of the most human appearing construct children in the hopes that raising them among humans and breeding them with each other will result in the closest possible thing to another fully human generation, to the increasingly common raiding of other resister towns to secure the future of their own. In fact, the whole reason that the later decision to allow humans to have an akjai colony on mars is a divisive one is that the Oankali as a whole believe that this can only lead to a future where humans exterminate themselves. While this is morally abhorrent to the Oankali on its own, it also directly contradicts the Oankali’s view of their own legacy of leaving other races better off than before they traded with them. We find that this contradiction of Oankali respect for human autonomy versus the Oankali’s inherent value of life above all else is a central focus throughout all the Oankali’s interactions with humanity. 

When comparing the legacy of the Oankali to the legacy of Humanity, it may seem easy to say that the Oankali legacy is about embracing difference, while the Human legacy involves rejecting it. In my opinion, however, this is a gross oversimplification. Most of the time, the Oankali embrace difference only when it’s convenient. Oankali, especially Ooloi, rarely embrace differences of opinion or desire. We see this various times throughout the trilogy, from the scene in Dawn when Nikanj responds to Joseph saying he’s decided he doesn’t want to mate with it by saying “Your body has made a different choice.”(Butler page 189) to Adulthood Rites when Nikanj admits that it made Lillith pregnant “Against one part of her will”, and even Lillith admits she doesn’t know if she actually wanted it, or if Nikanj just made up a justification that sounded like it could be true after the fact in order to manipulate her into going along with it (Butler page 300 & 301). On a broader scale, we also know that they don’t accept difference of opinion from humanity as a whole, because despite the very clear consensus among a large portion of humanity that they would like to be unsterilized and repopulate human society on their own, it isn’t until a being that is part Oankali urges them to accept this request that they actually listen. 

Meanwhile, while many of the humans in Lillith’s Brood do tend to negatively respond to difference when first confronted with it, we see several humans go on to embrace difference, or at least disregard it. Akin bonds with several humans during his time away from Lo, and while it is made abundantly clear that this is initially made possible by his human appearance, there are plenty of humans he meets along the way that accept him even after they know how different he is from them. Even after he goes through metamorphosis and looks fully Oankali, his bonds with Gabe, Tate, and several others from Phoenix remain. Of course, there are also plenty that react with fear or outright violence, but the fact that this is not the reaction of all or even most of the humans Akin comes across serves as evidence that humans can embrace difference just as much as Oankali. 

I’d argue that the real contrast between Human legacy and Oankali legacy is not whether or not to embrace difference, but how much value is put in individual freedom. This is perhaps most easily demonstrated with the reaction the resisters have to the news of the Mars colony. While the humans are initially full of shock and disappointment at the prospect of having to abandon the planet that Humanity has called home for its entire history, by the time Akin is able to perceive things after metamorphosis, a fair number of humans have dismissed those feelings almost entirely in favor of the overwhelming relief and excitement they feel at the chance to be able to be truly free and autonomous again. Contrast this with the Oankali model, where freedom is rarely a topic of conversation, and most Oankali seem content with whatever role their society expects them to play, and it seems fairly clear that they don’t place nearly as heavy an emphasis on free will as humanity does. 

With this in mind, we arrive at another contradiction. What brings and binds people together appears to be the desire for a legacy, but the main legacy that people seem to value above all else is free will, which allows groups of people to divide and split apart from each other just as easily as they are brought and bound together.

Despite being a fundamental part of what it means to be Human, free will is also inherently dangerous, and it’s important to analyze why we might want to commit a certain act or make a certain choice before we make it. In Lillith’s Brood, Butler takes one of the most common human motivators, care, and explores how it can cause people to do themselves and each other harm. Butler’s trilogy shows us countless times that harm and care are not mutually exclusive. The Oankali seem to truly care about the health and wellbeing of humanity, but through this care, combined with their fumbling to understand human thought-processes, they cause a great amount of harm and death to come to quite a number of humans. We see this in the very beginning of Dawn, in the harm they accidentally inflict on their human subjects by isolating them, right up to the very end, in Joseph’s death and the other disastrous consequences of their refusal to heed Lilith’s warnings about how humans would react to the Oankali’s methods. Additionally, due to how much the Oankali care about humanity, they are incredibly reluctant to allow humans to go back to having an autonomous society completely free of Oankali influence, despite their continuous pleading, because they believe that doing so would be to allow humans to eventually inflict upon themselves the ultimate harm; extinction. We see this plain as day in Akin’s interactions with the Akjai Ooloi on Chkahichdahk (who, as far as I can tell from my searching through Adulthood Rites, never makes his name known to Akin or, by extension, the reader), when it says to Akin: “You and those you help will give them[humans] the tools to create a civilization that will destroy itself as certainly as the pull of gravity will keep their new world in orbit around its sun”(Butler page 475). However, it is also through this care that Oankali create Akin, as close to a truly half-Human-half-Oankali being as they possibly can, to help them decide to give in to the will of the humans and allow them to have an akjai colony, because even if they don’t entirely understand it, they seem to recognize on some level that denying the freedom of an entire species is, in the eyes of humanity, far crueler than extinction. 

I think this also nicely ties in with our key course concept of consent. Several times throughout Lillith’s Brood, we as readers witness decisions made and actions taken due to how much one character or group cares for another, but in almost every circumstance where those decisions and actions are made without the consent of all involved parties, there are disastrous consequences. We see this in Dawn both in Lillith’s isolation and the psychological trauma she endures as a result, and in the catastrophic results of the Oankali refusing to show the humans Lillith wakes up that they are on a ship. This continues over into Adulthood Rites, as the Oankali decision to sterilize the human populace without their consent and only reverse the process for those who would mate with them results in the disastrous consequences of countless resister humans dying avoidable deaths due to either the brutality of resister society, their desperate desire for children, or their own distrust for the Oankali. It also has the far more subtle but equally negative consequence of creating a quiet but powerful rage in human characters like Lillith and Tino who live with the Oankali, as they feel like traitors to their own race. We see this to the extreme in Imago, where Jodahs’ struggle to master its Ooloi gene-manipulation powers causes it to make subconscious choices to manipulate genomes without the consent of either itself or the thing it’s genetically altering. Of course, it is inherently contradictory to harm someone because you care about them, but I believe that by including this theme throughout the trilogy, Butler helps demonstrate to readers just how intermingled harm and care can be, but also perhaps warn us to be wary of how much free will we take away from a person or group in the name of caring about them. 

Honestly, this is the question I’m having the hardest time with. While I do think this course has helped me better prepare “to change and be changed”, this is by far the claim that I would have the hardest time relating to the text. Butler’s work has helped me better understand how people change each other, but other than the lessons I’ve already discussed, I’m honestly not sure how I have been fundamentally changed, and I certainly don’t know how I would go about preparing to change anything or anyone else, for better or worse. I believe this is likely in large part due to my own failures in this class. I have not been nearly as present as I’ve wanted to be this semester, and though I’ve tried many times over the course of these few months to correct that, and recommit myself to this class and the work we’re doing, I still found myself so overwhelmed with my job and life and my other courses that I kept consistently falling behind here. I’m aware that in this way at least, I have failed to prepare “to change and be changed” and it is a failure that I hope not to repeat, but find myself unsure of how to avoid. It’s yet another contradiction, between my own desire to be present and engaged in every aspect of my life and my learning, and my own limited human time and energy capacity. 

To be clear, despite my own personal failings, I do think this course has taught me some incredibly important lessons that will be instrumental to me as a person going forward. Among them are the importance of free will, the need to be aware of and ready to fight our desire to commit possible acts of harm out of a place of care, and perhaps most importantly, that contradiction is everywhere, and they are an important part of both the Human and Oankali experience.

Goal Setting Essay: Setting the Right Habits, and Continued Learning

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not….Habit is persistence in practice.”- Octavia Butler, “Furor Scribendi’. When I first read through the syllabus, I recognized that there was wisdom in these words, but didn’t stop to think about them. Over the course of the past month or so, however, that has changed, in large part due to my own failings. I’ve always been the type to rely on inspiration over habit, and have never been good with time management or organization for as long as I can remember. I’ve learned, over the course of my academic career, that there are certain factors that make these things harder for me. My ADHD, for example, doesn’t exactly help me when it comes to making and sticking to a regimented schedule. Despite this though, it is clear to me that at the core of my issues with organization and time management is a failure to adopt the right habits. 

I have mentioned this before, but I’m studying from home this semester rather than on campus, and consequently find myself juggling school-work with a job for the first time in my life. I used to think that being able to successfully balance these two responsibilities required a level of self discipline that one either innate had, or didn’t (and to be fair, if I’m being honest, I probably would’ve put myself in the “didn’t” category, but I really like my job, so I decided to try and make it work). I now realize that this isn’t the case. It has nothing to do with discipline, and everything to do with habit. I need to find a way to start setting habits for myself of planning out what work needs to be done in any given week well in advance, and working on it throughout the week, rather than sticking to my current habit of waiting until the weekend to complete all my coursework because I can’t seem to force myself to do anything productive after coming from my job. Of course, much of this is information I knew before. Even while lying down in bed while succumbing to laziness and allowing myself to wait another day to begin that week’s coursework, I know what I’m doing is stupid, and that I’m going to regret it later, but as almost anyone can tell you, breaking a habit is difficult. 

I’ve tried on numerous occasions to get more organized, be more disciplined, and manage my time better, and almost every attempt has failed. I used to tell myself that this was just a sign that I could never be organized, or disciplined, but I think I’ve always known that the real reason is that habits take time to form, and almost always require a stretch of time where you must intentionally perform the habit, however unpleasant, without it yet being automatic. This excruciating span of time in which you must deliberately choose to perform the habit despite your id begging you to go do something less difficult, and more fun, is the part of the process where I always failed. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I can change this. I don’t know if I can succeed where I’ve failed before. What I do know is that now more than ever, I want to. I was in the Toni Morrison class, I’ve seen firsthand how thoroughly rewarding this process of “continued learning” and collaborative thinking can be, and I would feel terrible if I squandered this opportunity to participate in that process again. In the past, when I’ve tried to work on these skills, the only motivation to do so that I had was the fear of my grades suffering, and while the fear of failure can be a powerful motivator, it is one that has only ever worked for me in moderation. If I feel it for too long, I eventually become numb to it. As such, all my past attempts to better my organization and time management skills have been superficial and short-lived. I’m hoping that this time around, now that I have something I truly value on the line, I can muster up the effort to succeed. This, of course, is all talk, and I’ll have no way of knowing if I can back it up with action until I truly see myself changing, but I want to record my intent now, so that I have something to look back on when I find myself struggling. 

“Learn and Run!”- Octavia Butler, Dawn. Honestly, this feels like it could very well be Butler’s message to anyone reading Dawn. This novel started out agonizingly slow, but from the second we meet Jdahya onward, it felt like the pacing was suddenly moving at breakneck speed. I think there’s another way of interpreting this, though, and it’s one that I believe helps fit the context of the novel a bit better. I think learning and running in the context of Dawn can be seen as one and the same. Lilith, and by extension, the reader, are thrust into a world where they know next to nothing, and find themselves struggling to play catch-up in a new world. This process is made all the more frustrating by the fact that, sticking with our running=learning metaphor, Lilith is a tortoise in a world of cheetahs, learning incredibly slowly compared to Oankali, to the point where it clearly frustrates not only Lilith but the Oankali themselves, which is big considering how few emotions they seem to display in the first place. We see this frustration on the part of the Oankali the most on page 74, in a conversation between Lilith and Nikanj: 

“‘We humans… if we don’t use a language, we forget it.’ 

   ‘No. You don’t.’ 

   She looked at its tightly contracted body tentacles and decided it did not look happy. It really was concerned over her failure to learn quickly and retain everything.” 

Nikanj seems literally incapable of understanding how humans can’t remember everything they learn, and while we do later learn that it can genetically alter humans to be capable of this, it seems to be frustrated that this isn’t naturally the default for them, as it clearly is for Oankali. I’m really curious to see how this will play into the story going forward, as Lilith will undoubtedly continue learning at a much faster pace (almost as if she’s gone from walking to running),  and I’m curious to see to what extent Butler will attempt to accommodate the reader (much like divine accommodation in Dante’s Divine Comedy) in order to allow us to take all the information in while still giving it at a rapid enough rate to make it believable that Lilith wouldn’t be learning more with her new and improved memory and learning capabilities. 

“I chose a spot near the river. There I prepared the seed to go into the ground. I gave it a thick, nutritious coating, then brought it out of my body through my right sensory hand. I planted it deep in the rich soil of the riverbank. Seconds after I had expelled it, I felt it begin the tiny positioning movements of independent life.” –Octavia Butler, Imago. There were two things that immediately stuck out to me when reading this quotation.

My first thought was that this is clearly from the point of view of an Ooloi, as indicated by the reference to the narrator’s “sensory hand”. This both intrigues and worries me. While I would love to find out what goes on inside the head of an ooloi, I also feel as though a bit of how fascinating they are comes from their inherent “otherness” and the fact that they, as the furthest removed of the Oankali sexes from humans, seem to exist somewhere just beyond human understanding. I worry that, in trying to show us their thought process in more detail and from a first person point of view, the Ooloi will be simplified in some way, losing some of the nuance and uniqueness that makes them so interesting in the first place.  

My second thought was that “tiny positioning movements” is an excellent way to describe not just independent life, but also learning. We, as learners, (especially in the field of literature), are constantly exposed to new bits of information and unique perspectives that challenge our existing views, perceptions, and beliefs. Ideally, we learn from this exposure by adjusting, or repositioning, our views, perceptions, and beliefs accordingly, in response to the new insights we gain and the new perspectives we’re shown. This process tends to happen little by little, in ways that tend to seem “tiny” when looked at out of context, but can provide a huge boost in understanding. I think we’ve already seen a bit of this in Dawn, as twice now, we have been shown evidence of Oankali learning based on their experiences with Lilith. The first time is when Jdahya offers Lilith the opportunity to die swiftly and painlessly rather than become part of their experiment, which seems to go against everything the Oankali value, leaving me to believe it was a response to Lilith’s absolute disgust at the isolation and humiliation the Oankali inflicted upon their human subjects. The second time is when Nikanj is unsure how much to tell Lilith about what’s going on, and ends up asking her directly if she needed to know what it just told her, to which she responds that she did need to know, and Nikanj seems to accept this response with a weight that implies it will heavily affect how it deals with humans going forward. These moments seem to be small “repositionings” in the Oankali characters’ perceptions of humanity, and what they value, and I suspect we’ll see more moments like these in the coming chapters.

Paradise and the Painful Practice of Growth.

In the interest of clarity, I think it worth starting this move, and by extension this essay, by confessing that after all the work we’ve done in class this semester, and all the discussions we’ve had about Morrison’s novels and Dante’s divine comedy, there is still much about both that confuses me. The Eagle of Divine Justice, most prominently featured in cantos 18,19, and 20, is chief among the aspects of both Morrison’s and Dante’s works that I find perplexing. Throughout our process of reading, discussing, interpreting, and writing about both Paradise and Paradiso, I found myself struggling, as I repeatedly tried and failed to find the larger significance and meaning to this imposing figure. I understood the basics of it: the Eagle, as we see it in Paradiso, is formed from an “array of fire” (line 107), made, as Dante tells us, out of the numerous “blessed spirits”(line 88) of “saintly being”(line 76). These same spirits, before taking the form of an Eagle, write out a phrase in the sky with their bodies: “ Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram”(lines 91-93), which translates to “Love justice, you who are judges on Earth”. From the moment I read Dante’s description of the Eagle’s formation and the phrase the spirits wrote with it, I knew both the phrase and the Eagle were significant. Where I found myself struggling however, was trying to pin down their significance, especially in the context of Morrison’s novel. I found myself searching for a meaning or message displayed through the Eagle and its phrase that I could assuredly and persuasively argue Morrison’s stance on in relation to Paradise, and consistently came up empty. I realise now that I couldn’t find such a message or meaning because one simply doesn’t exist. The confusion I was feeling about the Eagle, and frustration and turmoil I felt in my fruitless search for answers that didn’t exist, were in fact, exactly what I should’ve been focusing on all along, because in the end, it was never the answers that mattered, but the question, and the thoughts and discussions it could spark. 

The oven in Morrison’s Paradise is a symbol of tradition, but also of legacy. The oven was a fundamental part of the original town of freed slaves, Haven, and was brought with the descendants of those freed slaves when they left Haven and went on to found Ruby.  More importantly, to many of the citizens of Ruby, the oven is one of the last connections they have to not only Haven, but to the generations before them who were turned away by everyone and had to build a community and town from nothing. To those citizens of Ruby, the oven is the one material reminder of the countless stories that the community of both Ruby and Haven passed down from generation to generation of the struggles and hardships the founders of Haven faced, and what they accomplished. The oven’s historical and cultural significance to the people of Ruby is only compounded by the fact that it served as an important tool during the early days of Haven, as well as a communal gathering place for decades following Haven’s establishment. On top of this, however, the oven finds itself a new significance in Ruby during the events of Paradise, as a debate over the words on the ovens lip, as well as the meaning of those words, occurs throughout the whole town. Importantly, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines, with the vast majority of the older generations in Ruby believing that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” and that this was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement of God, while the vast majority of the younger generations of Ruby believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God. The oven’s appearance also plays a role in its significance, particularly after unknown members of Ruby’s younger generation paint a “fist, jet black with red fingernails” on the Oven’s back wall. This symbol of black power goes to further illustrate the generational divide between the old and young people of Ruby. As for how the oven is in conversation with Dante’s eagle of divine justice, the main feature of the oven is the message on its lip. Either interpretation of the words all refer to the eyebrow of Dante’s eagle. More than that, however, the nebulous and interpretable nature of the words on the Oven’s lip directly mirror the Eagle and the phrase associated with it. To some, the eagle might come across as a warning, an ever vigilant watcher of those on Earth, there to constantly witness who follows it’s commandment, and who does not. Others may see it as a role model, a symbol of how those “who are judges on earth” are supposed to act, constantly looking for injustice to correct. Others still might see it as the very embodiment of the justice that the Latin phrase tells us we are supposed to love. After all, it is quite literally referred to in this very prompt as “the eagle of divine justice”. This inherent interpretability of the Eagle in relation to “Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram” is the perfect backdrop for the dueling interpretations of the words on the oven.

The residents of Ruby find themselves in a rather heated debate over the exact words and phrasing of the phrase on the Oven’s lip.  As mentioned in a previous move, the sides in this debate seem to form mostly along generational lines. Most of the older adults in Ruby argue that the words were “Beware the furrow of his[Gods’s] brow” before the Oven was moved to Ruby, at which time, a few of the letters fell off.  Most of the younger adults and teenagers, however, believe that the words on the oven are and always were “Be the furrow of his brow”. What I find interesting about this argument as that while both sides, especially the older side, of this debate seem to attach a lot of values and moral significance to these phrases, the debate is consistent with most debates over literary interpretation, as every individual person has a slightly different idea of what their side’s phrase means. We as readers are never given an exact summary of what either side’s message means in contrast with the other. Sure, we’re given glimpses as to what individuals on both sides believe their side’s phrase signifies in contrast to the other’s, like when Harper Jury explains that “‘Beware means ‘Look out. The power is mine. Get used to it.’ ‘Be’ means you putting Him aside and you the power.”(Morrison page 87), but these glimpses don’t give us the whole story, as they come from arguments that are inherently biased toward one side or another, because everyone who’s arguing feels strongly that their interpretation is the correct one. An overall summary of the two sides would be that the older side believes that “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”  was a warning to always keep in mind the judgement and power of God. They see this as a connection to the history and plight of their community, who were wronged many times by people that they view as not having properly bewared the furrow of God’s brow, and see the act of remembering that message on the Oven as a championing of all that the people of Haven accomplished in spite of those that wronged them.  Therefore, they become incredibly angry at the younger people of Ruby’s interpretation of the message, as they see it as an insult to the legacy of Haven and its inhabitants, and view the switch from Beware to Be in the Oven’s message as an arrogant assertion not only that those on the younger side of this argument believe themselves to be equal to god, but are also too self-involved to respect a message that does not directly involve them in some way.

The younger side, however, believes in the message of “Be the Furrow of His Brow” which lends itself to a far more aspirational interpretation as an encouragement to attempt to live your life as if you are a part of God.  They seem to believe this as they are clearly unhappy with the way things are both in Ruby and the world at large, and want a force of change able to help them fix what disappoints them about the world. As such, their interpretation of the oven’s message is almost a call to arms, asking them to be the force of change they want to see in the world. This is further demonstrated by the black fist with red fingernails that they painted on the Oven, as the black fist is a prominent symbol in the black power movement, which sought to change the status quo in order to promote equality for people of color as well as pride in their heritage. They see this as honoring the legacy of Haven and its founders by following their example and coming together to do something great. 

It seems to me that the citizens of Ruby have proven by the end of the novel that they are incapable of large scale, inter-generational collaboration. We see throughout the book examples of small groups within Ruby using collaboration to accomplish their goals, but we never see the entire population of the town willing to work together on anything. I think this is intentional, as Morrison is trying to show us that the town is falling apart due to the inability of its citizens to work together as one to achieve something. Every time they even get close to a semblance of unity, an argument or violent incident occurs that causes them to divide again amongst themselves, either on generation lines, familial lines, or even gender lines.  I also think Morrison does a good job at showing us that things didn’t always used to be this way in Ruby, part of what makes the falling apart of this community so catastrophic to those who love it is that there was a time when everyone in it could collaborate without it devolving into argument and conflict. I believe Morrison shows us this not just in the stories the older generations treasure so dearly, but also more recently in the timeline of the novel. I’d argue that the last time all of Ruby was able to collaborate in earnest was at the horse race over a decade before the start of the novel. I think that’s, in part, why the older generation of Ruby citizens value the Oven and it’s legacy so much, as it stands as a reminder of one of the last great feats accomplished through the collaboration of everyone in their community, the founding of Ruby. One thing I find especially important about the citizens of Ruby is that even when they can’t come together as one, collaboration in the town does not disappear, it just occurs in smaller units. The younger generation collaborates to come up with a new interpretation of the words on the Oven, the Older generation comes together in what could be seen as collaboration to condemn and scold the younger generation for their new interpretation. The Morgan twins collaborate in almost everything they do up until the end of the novel, especially in the molding of K.D. into a suitable heir to the Morgan business and reputation. I would also like to point out that there is a very clear message that the shift from the whole town as one collaborative community to these smaller familial and generational collaborative groups is a negative one, as collaborative efforts can be used for good and evil purposes alike.  It is demonstrated throughout the novel that these smaller groups dedicate most of their collaborative efforts to the purpose of battling a common enemy. The generational groups may be collaborative within their group, but they’re engaged in an ideological battle against the other.  The men Lone spots at the oven are indeed collaborating with each other, but the goal of their collaboration: to either drive away or kill the women of the Convent, is unambiguously unethical. It seems to me that Morrison is warning us all that if we become so intolerant to the people and communities around us that we are unwilling to collaborate with them for any reason, we will inevitably find ourselves trapped in an “us against them” mentality that continuously divides us and consistently leads to conflict, violence, and destruction.  

One thing about Paradise, and indeed, all of Morrison’s novels that we’ve read as a part of this class, is that throughout them all, Morrison uses every means at her disposal to raise questions to the reader that seem to be of dire importance, and in every instance, leaves those questions unanswered. I have to believe that this is an intentional decision on her part, in order to provoke careful thought, introspection, and discussion on the part of her readers. While I realize there’s an argument to be made that this is another aspect that she appropriates from Dante, I found it much more prominent, and much more powerful, in Morrison’s work. Throughout this course, I found myself frequently finding small bits, a character detail here, an interaction there, a repeated word or phrase here, an interesting description there, that raised so many questions. Questions like “Why does Toni Morrison keep talking about things that “wear her[Denver] out”(Beloved page 15) in the beginning of Beloved?”, “Does Violet have some sort of precognitive abilities?”, and “Who is the man that appears to Connie on page 251 of Paradise? Is it the same man that Soane calls her ‘friend’? ”  Each time this would happen, I’d take a mental note of the question, and as I continued to read, a part of me would be searching through the remainder of the book for an answer to these questions, for the payoffs to what felt to me like fascinating and incredibly important setups, but each time, I came up empty.  If I’m honest, this was disappointing and occasionally frustrating for me, as in the case of each of these questions, I felt like I had found something deeply significant to understanding the novel as a whole. However, in time, and due in large part to discussions and conversations I’ve had throughout this class with both my fellow classmates and Professor McCoy, I have come to realize that these questions aren’t meant to have answers.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve picked up on this sooner, as Paradise is full of people searching for answers that don’t exist. Each of the girls at the convent ended up there in search of the answer to a question that haunted them, and none of them find it. For Mavis, that question is “how do I escape the grief I feel for my children and the guilt I feel at being responsible for their death?”. For Gigi, it’s “how do I get a terrible memory out of my mind?”. For Seneca, it’s “What do I do with my life?”. For Pallas, it’s “How can I  recover from the trauma I’ve faced?” (Note: While Pallas does physically recover, there’s no easy answer to how to emotionally and mentally recover from what she went through). For Connie, the question is raised twice, but both times, the question is the same; “How do I cope with someone I loved leaving me?”  While none of the women find the answers they’re looking for, they do find each other, and in doing so, find different ways to resolve the problems in their lives that their questions are trying to solve. The citizens of Ruby have a less fortunate ending, as the question that they as a collective seem to have on their mind, especially the older generation, is “how do we keep Ruby from falling apart, and stop its citizens from dividing and eventually scattering?”. Throughout the novel, we see that every attempt to find an answer to this question, and all efforts made in service of accomplishing the goal outlined in the question, inevitably backfire, because, much like I was when starting this class, the citizens of Ruby (especially the older generation) are so obsessed with finding an answer to their question that they forget the purpose of the question in the first place. That is why, in the end, Ruby’s most devoted citizens end up having to bear witness to their town and community suffering the fate they tried so desperately to avoid. It’s why things don’t work out for the citizens of Ruby, and why, I think, my earlier attempts in this class to understand Morrison’s works (especially Paradiso) in a meaningful enough way to write something substantial about them were so fraught with frustration. In both the case of the citizens of Ruby, as well as my own struggles with Morrison’s work, the whole point of the questions we find ourselves asking is not to find an answer, but to get us to think both critically and introspectively, and challenge our own assumptions. This is especially fitting, because for me, that’s what this course has been all about.

Before this course, I assumed that essay writing was an exclusively solitary activity. I assumed every question raised in a piece of literature had one or more answers embedded within that same text. I was confused by the very concept of both/and because my learning was built upon the concept of either/or. Each time, my old ways of thinking were challenged and eventually proven wrong. Our collaborative essay and abstract have been some of the best writing exercises I’ve done, I’ve learned the hard way that Morrison doesn’t do clear-cut answers, and I’ve begun finding both/and’s everywhere I look. This process has been uncomfortable, fairly challenging, and a bit painful at times, but I can tell that I’ve grown as a reader, writer, student, thinker, and person, and I wholeheartedly believe that the way I look at literature has been changed. And while I will be the first to admit that I’m still grappling with finding meaning and making sense of certain aspects of Morrison’s works, I’m no longer searching them for answers, but rather for the discussions and dialogue they encourage. Had the people of Ruby been able to do the same, I believe they might’ve found a way to stop their community from dissolving out from under them. 

As far as how I can apply what I’ve learned in this class going forward. I’m only a sophomore at Geneseo right now, so I have the incredible good fortune to make use of my new understanding of collaborative writing, the importance and relevance of both/and, and the necessity of letting go of the desire for answers in literature, as a student here for two more years. After that, I intend to become an English teacher at a high school or middle school level, and I can say without a doubt that I will certainly be applying all of the previously mentioned skills in reading and analyzing literature not just to understand it for myself, but to help shape the way my future students understand it as well.