MOTHER OF PEARL

Dear,

What is the meaning of a song lyric? Is it just whatever you need it to mean? A great lyric operates in different ways than the factual, which is how a truly great lyric can become a mantra, trickling intravenously into your limbic system, entwining itself with your DNA and connecting the person you are becoming to the person you were.[1]

Consider this:

When I was a very small boy,
Very small boys talked to me
Now that we’ve grown up together
They’re afraid of what they see…
[2]

I know for sure that this means something else to me, than to those who wrote it, but since I am the author of these letters, it can mean what I need it to mean, for now [3]:

So, when I was a very small boy, I walked like a boy and I talked like a boy, and I had my hair cropped like a very small boy. Which didn’t mean that I didn’t know that I was a girl, or that very small girls didn’t talk to me.

It was just more what I was into at the time. And I was sure that one day I would grow up and marry a woman.

At first I wanted to marry my babysitter, but she was too old, but when I was about 6, my best friend and I decided that we would get married. Only trouble was that at that time and place, which seems so archaic now, two people of the same sex could not get married, and my friend told me that this would be a problem, but that she also had a solution:

She was a believer, and while I wouldn’t call her pious, she had a very strong faith for a 6 year old, so she told me that if I would only let her pray for me, God would turn me into a boy.

Which was fine by me, so we locked ourselves into her bathroom and I sat on the toilet and watched as she knelt down by the bathtub… and then I panicked!

Because I realized that if I had left the apartment upstairs where we lived that morning as a girl, and if I were to return that evening as a boy…that although I might walk the same and talk the same and look the same, I wouldn’t feel the same, because I wouldn’t be the same, and so my mother would not recognize me, and would turn me away.

So, I asked my friend if I could think about it. And she said that she had already asked God now, and it was kind of a big deal, and that God was very busy, so she could maybe still turn it around, but it was not like I could keep going back and forth over this forever, wasting everybody’s time  (including God’s) so could I please just make up my mind?

Divine intervention
Always my intention
So I take my time
I´ve been looking for something
I’ve always wanted
But was never mine
But now I’ve seen that something
Just out of reach – glowing –
Very Holy Grail
Oh mother of pearl
I wouldn’t trade you for another world
[4]

… and since I just couldn’t orphan myself there and then at age 6 (and I was not only thinking about myself here, but also my parents who wouldn’t understand where their little girl was, even if I was standing right there upon their doorstep and this thought had me practically in tears), so I had to tell her that the deal was off, and I decided to be a girl right there and then and a woman, soon.

(And soon you will too, because regardless of how you feel about it from the inside, your gender is also layered onto you from the outside, like mother of pearl onto a grain of sand, and you will attract the eyes of so many people, because nothing attracts the eye like other people, and soon you will hear their siren’s call, or their wolf whistles:[5]

Oh mother of pearl
Lustrous lady of a sacred world…
[6]

In Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video work, If 6 was 9 the girl channels the woman and the woman the girl, until they collapse into one continuous, pearlescent layered being, but I am not here on the errand of art-criticism, I am just telling you now, that you should definitely check it out some day.[7]

Taru Elfving wrote a beautiful essay about it, titled The Girl, in which she asks the question: “Who is the girl?”

And answers it herself:

Due to her peculiar place in representation the Girl is easily passed unnoticed. I circled around the girl as if she were a black hole […] Then she suddenly emerged as a crystallization of all the questions I have been asking, but defying any attempts to define or locate her. Questions of difference, subjectivity, time and space, all were sucked into a whirl that is the girl.[8]

I love this quote, and in a sense it has become the mantra for these letters, circling around, trying to locate the mother in the girl and the girl in the mother, sussing out questions of difference, subjectivity, time and space…

My own maternal heritage is not very well documented and vanishes quickly into the mist of hear-say: My mother was an occupational therapist and mother of three. Her mother, although a sweetheart and a baby-woman, was a sometimes alcoholic and occasionally suicidal housewife and mother of five. Her mother, a farmer’s wife, sent her away to work as a farm hand at age eleven. She came to work in my grandfathers grocery store, when she was 18 and they married the following spring… they buried two of their children; The oldest, the beautiful one, a local Liz Taylor who was a whizz with a sewing machine. And number two, the ugly one with the knitting needle, who was born with a mental and physical handicap, which was maybe caused by my grandmother skinning a hare while she was pregnant and maybe not. Everybody were kind off relieved when she died at age 50, because she was still living with my grandparents who were getting really old by then, and nobody really wanted to think about what would happen to her, if they couldn’t take care of her anymore… so everybody were kind off relieved, except for my grandparents who were devastated… that’s about all I know… but I guess in looking for the girl-in-the-mother and the mother-in-the-girl I am also looking for these women in myself and you… and although it is a cliché, it is also true: we’ve come a long way. Baby… this is about a hundred years, in four lives, but it feels like light years, like sci-fi, and we are faced with so many choices now that they didn’t have, that we can almost forget that there is a legacy, that means that we can, and should, take these choices for granted…[9]

All these heroines, all these feminist icons, who will tell you that you can be whatever you choose to be… and don’t you forget that one woman’s feminist is another woman’s misogynist:[10]

Although I was a Madonna fan for many years, it was always with the disclaimer that I have never forgiven her for Papa Don’t Preach… I think it’s a bullshit song, and I was taking it personally at the time, and that’s about all that I will say about that.[11]

(No, I will also say that although I will always defend your right to choose, politically, I hope that you will never need to exercise it, personally.)

But, there is a time to be a mother, and there is a time to be a girl.

With every goddess a let down
Every idol a bring down
It gets you down
But the search for perfection
Your own predilection
Goes on and on and on and on

Oh mother of pearl
So-so semiprecious in your detached world
[12]:

It helps to remind myself of my relief when I heard that Virginia Woolf was so solidly upper class that she and her husband, with whom she spent a lifelong and poly-platonic relationship, could practically pay for their publishing business out of pocket and was persistently attacked by her contemporaries (suffragettes and critics alike), but also by literary historians later on, for not knowing the first thing about what “real” (read: working class) women went through…[13]

Or, that Simone de Beauvoir, as well as being a rebel and a provocateur and one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, moved straight out of her parents house and into a hotel (with chamber maid) and straight from there in with Satre (the big baby) whom she spent her adult life mothering, in spite of her fierce attacks on motherhood as the destiny of women, and whom she would share her female partners with, in fact bring him home one budding butt after the other, while condemning housewives for prostituting themselves…[14]

Or, the embittered disillusion of all the disappointed divorcees who discovered that Anais Nin was still married and supported by her husband, while writing her five volume coast to coast American odyssey and fictional erotic bildungsroman about her sexual and artistic coming of age…[15]

Or, when Suzanne Brøgger settled down in the Danish countryside and had a daughter and called her Luzia, and loved her to bits and wrote her a children’s book and became altogether boring, instead of practicing and preaching free sex and to hell with the bourgeoisie and their cannibal monogamy…[16]

But if all our heroes are whores, maybe whoring is heroic?[17]

Maybe it is a Cornucopian Principle, the ideal of immensity and endless availability, the mother-lode, the gift that keeps on giving, the good breast that just gets better…

Like Lady Gaga in her meat dress, all the eyes of all her little monsters feasting on her.

Like Billie Holiday singing,

All of me
Why not take all of me?[18]

Or, like Selma in Lars von Triers Dancer in the Darkwho sacrifices her eyesight (and ultimately her life) so that her child can see. She is a compelling figure, but not a new one: [19]

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Story of a Mother, she follows her baby, who is being taken away by death, in order to reclaim it:

Then she came to a great lake, on which there were neither ships nor boat. The lake was not frozen enough to carry her, nor sufficiently open to allow her to wade through, and yet she must cross it if she was to find her child. Then she laid herself down to drink the lake; and that was impossible for any one to do. But the sorrowing mother thought that maybe a miracle might be wrought.

“No, that can never succeed,” said the Lake. “Let us rather see how we can agree. I am fond of collecting pearls, and your eyes are the two clearest I have ever seen: if you will weep them out into me I will carry you over into the great green-house, where Death lives and cultivates flowers and trees; each of them a human life.”

“Oh what I would not give to get my child,” said the afflicted mother, and she wept yet more, and her eyes fell into the depths of the lake, and became two costly pearls.[20]

Oh Mother of Pearl
Submarine lover in a shrinking world[21]

This self sacrificing mother is a contested figure and has often been interpreted as a misogynist ideal, but she is so powerful also, because she turns the power structures suppressing her, not upside down, but inside out, through the self-sacrifice which in turn becomes the ultimate liberation, a re-birth!

And if your sexual persona, your womanhood is layered upon you like mother of pearl, motherhood in turn hollows out this shiny phallic object and turns it into a vessel, a grail, a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least that’s how I experienced it,

And this new experience of containing something, of carrying something, of the whole oceanic interiority of it, was a position of hope, but also a position of fear, because it could be lost, so you just had to believe it, and anyway,[22]

Even Zarathustra
Another-time-loser
Could believe in you
 [23]

It’s a lot of information, I know, so much I wanted to tell you, because

You are my Favorita
And a place in your heart dear
Makes me feel more real
 [24]

And even so, you can’t just take it from me, there is so much I have left out, and anyway, I’m not big on fact checking, so you might have to go look for you own truth, but remember:

The truth will set you free,
But first it will piss you off
 [25]

Or, as my friend said: Seeing is not believing, but it is a practice…[26]

-Go see for yourself.

Oh mother of pearl
I wouldn’t change you
for the whole world
 [27]

Amen to that!

Love,

Mom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The alternative opening paragraph to this letter, went like this:

A girl is late on account of her speed: she did too many things, crossed too many spaces in relation to the relative time of the person waiting for her. Thus her apparent slowness is transformed into the breakneck speed of our waiting.

This used to be me, but what does it mean?

Like a song lyric, I guess it means different things to different people.

In this case it would be tempting to say that whoever wrote it, since he (or they, as the case may be) is masculine, and therefore don’t know what it feels like for a girl, would identify with the person waiting for her, and I with the girl.

But that is not necessarily the case, consider this: (etc.)”

I scrapped it for two reasons, firstly, I thought it would be too long and secondly I wasn’t sure I wanted to start with a Deleuze/Guattari quote, as this might seem pretentious and (pseudo) academic. But still, I kind off like the quote and this opening, which is why I put it here, so you can read it.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guatari: A Thousand Plateaus, capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, 1987 p. 271.

[2] New Order True Faith, released as a single on Factory records in 1987, with 1963 as the B-side.

[3] If you want to find out what it meant to Bernard Sumner, you can look it up on song facts or similar. Allegedly, it was a song about heroin addiction (as if the Brits ever did a good pop song that was not allegedly about drugs) and the quoted lines originally went:

When I was a very small boy
Very small boys talked to me
Now that we’ve grown up together
They’re all taking drugs with me

but were changed by request of the bands manager. This version of the lyrics is still performed live, allegedly.

[4] Roxy Music : Mother of Pearl, from the album Stranded, Polydor Records 1973.

[5] And remember what Cixous said, that the sirens were men?, but off course femininity is not only projected by men!

[6] More Roxy Music

[7] Eija-Liisa Ahtila, If 6 was 9, YouTube video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSUQcjNvYh8

[8] Elfving continues:

The girls circulate actively, in a variety of guises, in contemporary visual culture. Sometimes these images, or imaginings, aim to challenge the stereotypes and the conventional roles given to girls, but often still end up reinforcing these very conventions. Representations of girls are coded with persistent signifiers of femininity in opposition to the masculinity of the boy, the little man –passivity, fragility, emotionality, narcissism, everything sweet and pink. At times, however, the pictured girls resist this positioning and sends tremors through the oppositional system of representation demanding new ways of looking, reading, relating. Like the girls in Ahtila’s work do.

I agree with this analysis, to a point, but I also find that the potency of Ahtila’s work is that she turns these so-called signifiers of femininity into assertive, positive traits.

Elfving,Taru: The Girl from the catalogue Eija-Liisa Ahtila,: Fantasized Persons and Taped Conversations, Kiasma Museum of Modern art, Helsinki and Tate Modern, London 2002.

[9] I am tempted to quote Monique Wittig here, although I have been told to keep my paws off her, because I am interested in mothering and she is interested in everything but, but still:

…the summer day is brilliant, but more brilliant still is the fate of the young girl. Iron plunged into ice is cold but colder still is the lot of the young girl who has given herself in marriage. The young girl in the house of her mother is like fertile ground. The woman under the roof of her husband is like a chained dog. The slave, rarely, tastes the delights of love, the woman never.

This is not my experience of marriage, although I am sure that it has been some women’s experience some time… and weather you will marry a man or a woman some day, or not at all, I guess you will come to agree with Kierkegaard at some point: "Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way."

Bearing in mind of course that you cannot regret what made you, regret is for the detail, the small stuff, as Suzanne Brøgger used to say.

And this, my dear, is the essence of my marriage counseling.

Wittig, Monique: Les Guilleres, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1969.

[10] You will find enough feminists out there who will tell you that you do not qualify as feminist, whereas the misogynists will usually tell you that they don’t qualify as mysogynists, whereas both will tell you that they really only have women’s best interests at heart!

[11] And I know there are plenty of people out there (because I have met plenty of them) that would say that I should stop being so prudish and just say the word. And to them I just wanna say: “Go get your own abortion, and then we can talk about that!

[12] More Roxy Music

[13] Rumor

[14] Hearsay

[15] Gossip

[16] Grape-wine

[17] I wonder if the whores of Babylon were multilingual? Maybe whoring is the oldest profession in the world?

And anyway, by whoring I don’t only mean in the narrowest sense of the word, as in prostitution, but more broadly doing whatever you need to do, in order to do whatever you need to do. So, I am not making this analogy in order to put my heroines or their accomplishments down, on the contrary, what I am trying to say is that a position of privilege should not become an excuse for complacency… what if Beauvoir had just spent her life debauchering and eating bon-bons brought to her by room service?  What if Virginia Woolf had said to herself: “oh dear, ain’t I just an upper class lady, with upper class problems, jolly good, let’s go and play some golf, then!”[18]

[19] Bjork who played Selma, and famously hated working with Lars von Trier, said afterwards that she believed she had been cast for the role after von Trier had watched a video of her attacking a paparazzi photographer who was trying to make pictures of her son in an airport. Her songs often reflect her experience of maternal bliss, and although I couldn’t find a way to merge this lyric into this letter, I am quoting it here, because it goes so well with it:

One breath away from mother Oceanía
Your nimble feet make prints in my sands
You have done good for yourselves
Since you left my wet embrace
And crawled ashore
Every boy, is a snake is a lily
Every pearl is a lynx, is a girl

Bjork: Oceania, from Medulla, One little Indian 2004

[20]

Full fathom five, thy father lies
Of his bones are corals made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of his that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange…

I don’t know if Hans Christian Andersen read Shakespeare, but I will say it is likely, and given it’s theme of metamorphosis it also seems likely that these lines could have inspired The Story of a Mother.

It is my favorite of his fairy tales, and the saddest. I cry my eyes out every time I read it and it reminds me of the days when my sister and I would compete who could sing the saddest song. Laughing was forbidden! We would usually end up with some variation of the Elvira Madigan theme and we loved it…

Like Suzanne Brøgger said: “Crying is good. It’s like an orgasm, just in the other end!

[21] More Roxy Music

[22] And believe you me, the Quickening, the feeling of another life inside you diverging from this point, the viability of it, is a larger-than-life experience.

[23] More Roxy Music

[24] More Roxy Music

[25] Gloria Steinem

[26] Amelia Charter

[27] More Roxy Music

Mother of Pearl - Lise Haller Baggesen
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Mother of Pearl- Footnotes - Lise Haller Baggesen
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