Jenny Joseph: Warning

Image Notes: This piece is a bit like Louise Erdrich’ “Advice to Myself.” But the struggle in this poem is more external. Both have the same underlying theme of revolt against the norm/expectations but the revolt that Joseph is trying to make here is not really an introspective one but more on persona vs. society.

I love how empowered the persona is in this poem. She is already at the point where she knows what she wants. Unlike the “Advice to Myself” persona who still has to pursue and decide what’s authentic, the persona in Jenny Joseph’s poem  has her truths laid out before her. The problem now lies NOT with what she thinks is genuine or not BUT on how the people around her will accept the genuity that she has.

The thing is, social acceptance for “weirdness” has an age bracket. If a child exhibits a different behavior/outlook than his or her peers, it can still be considered cute (at some point). But continuous expression leads to lab tests, meds and reprimands. Even more so if one is already at the peak of adulthood. Suddenly, one finds himself thrown into a factory of deadlines and responsibilities where everyone gets hammered into a small box of sober people, always rushing to their businesses.

The respite only comes during old age where “weird behavior” is excused for senility or Alzheimers. I think the persona in this poem is looking forward to that- hence, the warning. If this is the case, then one can say that she has already accepted the fact that there are responsibilities that she needs to answer to- thus, she has to bottle everything until the right time.

And this is where, I think, the struggle takes place- The persona stops and asks, does she really have to wait until she reaches old age (a.k.a. “the right time“)? And her answer cements the point: She’s going to rebel against the order- NOT when she’s old already BUT NOW.

Far more important to the persona is the need to be true to herself.

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Louise Erdrich: Advice to Myself

Advice to Myself

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Notes: I don’t like housekeeping and Erdrich’ “Advice to Myself” provides another convenient reason why I should avoid cleaning the house. Of course, If I would tell that to my mom, she’d only roll her eyes and tell me to clean my room. “You’re already a woman and you’re supposed to keep your things organized. ” She often says.

But I don’t know why…I already like my room the way it is. I’m already familiar with the pile of junk that has accumulated beside my bed. In fact, It’s even more unnerving if I’ll put everything into boxes because I have to keep track again of what knickknack I put in each box. Looking for things in an organized place requires logic and memory as opposed to groping for things in the dark that only need intuition. I know, not very practical. But I still prefer the latter because it makes me feel that the things in my room are all personal- I am the only one who knows the weight and the feel of each thing in my hands. And I can distinguish what is and what is not mine. It’s like finding my own pair of slippers in the dark- I know what is mine because my feet have been very acquainted with it.  So, aside from being bothered by the dust (I have skin asthma), I don’t see any reason why I should put things in boxes and in order. Except of course when I have visitors.

Which brings me to my point that the most common reason why my mom and I would suck it up and still do housekeeping is not really because we like it. But it is because of expectations. We are worried of what the neighbors and the visitors would say. We are worried that we might not pass their standards of what a good home should be. Most importantly, we are worried that it might ruin our image as women in the society.

Erdrich poem makes me realize that really, I do not have to suck it up and try to please these people who are only mere visitors of my life. People come and go but in the end, I’m still the one who’s going to remain and to live in my house. I might as well make it comfortable and friendly for me.  I like how she makes a connection from our houses to our hearts- “Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out,” she writes. True enough, I don’t like the idea of having an empty heart. Or a clinical heart. Because it feels too dry and it smells like antiseptic. An ideal heart, for me, is something that overflows and is brimming with mementos- each telling a unique story of why the heck they’ve gotten in here. A rich heart.

Another thing that I like about this poem is the way Erdrich tells that we have the power to choose what and should not stay in our lives. “Pursue the authentic-decide first what is authentic, then go after it with all your heart.” Sure, Erdrich tells that we should enrich our hearts memories and what-have-you. But she also tells that we should only enrich it with the things that make us true to ourselves. And by determining those things, we have to decide for ourselves- regardless of what other people would think or say- of who we really are. This then would become our compass of what should we accept and reject as individuals.

This gets me thinking about people who hold on to things that seem worthless to other persons. My father, for example, is a big hoarder of fastfood/restaurant napkins. Whenever our family would eat out, he would always tuck a portion of the tissues into his pocket. My mom and I would often disapprove because it always ends as a space eater in his cabinet. But my father would still hold on to his collection. And now I realize why. He has decided for himself to be a family-man, that’s why he holds on to the memories that we have as a family.

As you can see, he proudly shares this picture online.

As you can see, he proudly shares this picture online.

Finally, the third thing that I would like to highlight in this poem is the importance that Erdrich places on life rather than on the material things.

“Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead”

This strikes a chord in me because I’m often too Nazi with the people that I meet in my life.

Erdrich tells that someone other than you enters your life even without  you knowing it. The dust and the pink molds, they will grow and accumulate in time. And it is the same with people. They’ll hang around you, coating those little mementos you’ve stocked in your house. And there’s a big tendency that they’ll bother you, even make your hands dirty. But Erdrich tells that instead of wiping and/or washing them clean, we should let them be. Remember that they are only little life forms. They will not harm you unless you want them to, so let them stay. Materials, for Erdrich, can be broken or can be thrown out of the house. But life should always stay. And she persuades you to accept them because these little forms of life will help you grow and mature as a person.

I mean, we’ve seen this a lot in our science class. A glass of freshwater becomes stale after days of isolation. And it’s the same thing with life. If we do not accept life forms other than our own selves, we become stale- only fixed to the material stuff, lacking richness that comes from sharing your life with other people’s lives.

Of course, Erdrich’ advice to herself seems so easy to read but so hard to do in life. Because we’ve been conditioned to clean our houses and to eradicate useless stuffs and bacteria. But it does not mean it is impossible. I, for one, can start slowly- stashing used notebooks in my closet, one at a time.