I've been thinking about heroines lately. Having lost my faith in old stories about heroes in our present tense, I've been casting around in my imagination for symbols, images, anything that might reignite a flicker of home in my hurting heart. Did you see that? I meant to say hope, but I typed home. I think we may be experiencing a crisis between those two words right now in America.
That old story, the Hero's Journey, it's a terrific archetype — that mono-myth in which a lone hero embarks on a journey, encounters crisis and difficulty, and returns home transformed, changed, glowing. But when you can be attacked and raped because you deigned to walk outside of your door for a run; when you can be shot for reaching to retrieve your book or your license from a wallet or for a pack of Skittles; when your sanity or economic status is viewed through the lens of mental instability, whether you are mentally unstable or not — these lives and bodies will not jam comfortably into the Hero's Journey.
And yet, what I'm saying is, there's a myth slightly to the side or underneath the Hero's Journey worth unearthing just now. It's the misfit's myth. It goes like this: Even at the moment of your epic failures, you are beautiful. Because you have risen from mud or trauma or despair or jail or grief or abuse or alcohol or drugs, you have the ability to endlessly make yourself from your own ruins. That's your beauty.
I know. It's a weird image.
So while I was desperately casting about for an image of hope or home or heroism in my imagination, I remembered my favorite statue of a woman, the Statue of Liberty, lodged in my childhood imagination from my first trip to New York City. As a kid, I was arrested. Stunned and frozen in front of her. Which, as I remember it now, immediately gives me pause.
I have held that moment in my mind's eye since I was five, the first time I saw it. What I saw most when I visited the statue was what I could see at kid level, the poem at the base, underneath her feet. My sister, who is eight years older than me, read it aloud. I didn't understand it at the time, but I loved my sister's voice, her body, everything about her standing there. In case you don't remember it, here is "New Colossus":
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus wrote this poem for a fund-raiser auction to raise money for the pedestal upon which Lady Liberty sits. Read the poem again.
It's actually a clear critique of the tradition of the male hero's journey, with his "conquering limbs astride from land to land," and, in its place, at the bottom of things, sits a different story, one in which Liberty turns into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world. You can keep your storied pomp. She wants the outcasts, the downtrodden, the immigrants — us misfits.
My life is filled with flaws and mistakes. Some of the obstacles I encountered were of my own making, some came from the outside and were out of my control. I started out in hell, like so many other people on the planet: I was born into an abusive household. I had to find and invent escape hatches just to keep from killing myself. I numbed my body in waves of drugs and sex just to ease the pain of failing at ordinary social paths: college, marriage, motherhood, employment. Flunked out, twice divorced, dead child, fired twice. Up against the magnitude of history, I felt like a fallen woman.