The Hours Under Birches

The Hours

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Oftentimes during this book I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”, where the speaker reflects on Truth of winter bending the birches rather than the fantasy of a solitary country boy swinging on them. Michael Cunningham follows a day in the life of three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn, nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, the character that connects all three lives. All three contemplate and resist the banality of their lives where even “crystal shells” are also “broken glass”; they are each trapped by the loveliness of their lives. Like the speaker in the poem, they wish to escape from Truth and a “pathless wood” to a life that is a bit more dangerous, authentic, and true, even if it’s just for a little while. The tension arises when, as in the poem, fate may “willfully misunderstand [them]/ And half grant what [they] wish and snatch [them] away/ Not to return”. Is “Earth the right place to love” for them?

This book is masterfully written, and Cunningham explores the limits that are put on women’s lives that render their lives boring and mundane, whether one be a genius or a housewife. Their lives are prescribed by men and the duties of womanhood. Virginia’s writing life chafes against that of lady of the household, where ordering afternoon tea is too binding, and Mrs. Brown need for solitude and reading chafes against her role as dutiful wife and mother. These roles are really roles as each women “performs” her duties. To contrast is Clarissa Vaughn, a feminist who lives with her female partner, and who should be liberated in almost every sense. Through her Cunningham shows how the role we have chosen for ourselves and the expectations that come with it are also limiting. Each’s life is like the birch under the ice, “once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves”.

But speaking of Truth, Cunningham portrays women honestly, and the feelings of disassociation each woman feels with their lives feels very true. I think women often find themselves wondering about how they ended up where they are in their lives, with a sense of “is this it?”. If maybe we punctured the veil of our womanhood, and reached through and past the expectations of us, there real life awaits. The puncture leaves a wound, and can we rightfully live with the knowledge of that, too?

Highly recommend.





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I Don’t Love Boobies And Here’s Why

*** WARNING!  If you like my squeaky clean and apolitical persona, you may just want to skip this one.****

My husband thinks I’m ridiculous for getting so upset over this, but I remind him that he has a penis and this skews his vision of the world.  I can also remind him that he is a white male and that group really hasn’t had to fight to be taken seriously in the workplace or demand equal pay or has ever been told to “not worry their pretty little head” over what were considered “men’s” issues.  I can also remind him of the many campaigns out there targeting women’s self-image. Women have to deal with unrealistic body images, and whether we buy  into those images or not, we have to make the conscious decision to not compare ourselves to those images.  I work with high school students and know first-hand how images of women in the media affect their self-esteem.  Hence, the Keep A Breast “I love boobies” campaign targeted at kids irks me to no end.  (Please note that I am all FOR breast cancer research and all cancer research in general.  My beef is with this campaign only, and it’s unclear where their money is going.)

I’m confused.  Is this supposed to empower me or make me feel like a piece of meat?
via zazzle.com

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking I’m jealous because I lack boobies of my own to love.  Yes, I know a ruler is more curvacious and that if I ever had a baby, it would starve, but hey, when (if) I run, nothing hits my chin.  It’s not a personal vendetta against women with actual boobs.  It deals more with other issues.  Take, for instance, cancer cells that might actually find room to grow on my chest, is it just my boobies that are worth saving or am I included in that package?  I know that I’m included in that package, but the whole phrase “I love boobies” states one (in this case, two) body part. It focuses on an object of our bodies, and the phrase disregards the rest.  In a time where we are trying to move away from objectification, we are taking a serious women’s issue and using it to objectify ourselves.  Is it worth it?  What message is being sent?  Why can’t we have pink wristbands that say “I love my mom, sister, aunt, grandma, cousin, best friend, etc.”?

Over a hundred years of fighting for respect boiled down to this.
via myspace.com

My students all wear the “I love boobies” wristbands, and I’m sure they all wear them because they care about breast cancer, just like they all care about their grades.  Since a lot of them don’t even know where Nevada is, I’m going to hazard a guess that many don’t realize the purpose behind the bands.  They wear them because it’s edgy and they can have easy license to say “boobies” at school with no real meaningful context.  The bands are especially popular among the boys, and from witnessing the probing of tonsils and other body parts in the corners of the school, they really don’t need another reminder of boobies.  I’ve never asked a boy to put their band away because I can only imagine the fall-out: “What?!  You don’t support breast cancer  research, Ms. L?   What if you get it and die because you didn’t do your part to support it?” I was really thrilled the day I asked a boy to put away his “I love pussy” wristband– that at least had no ambiguity.  He smiled sheepishly and put it away.  I also made him turn his “Hello Titty” shirt inside out.  Oddly enough, he, too, had an “I love boobies” wristband.  I wonder if he ever associated breasts with cancer.

Breast cancer fundraising asks, “How about those melons?”

All of the students of both genders wear them, and no one blinks an eye.  The bands are made specifically for teens to build awareness for breast cancer, but it shines a light on another issue, too.  It’s okay for boys to state that they love boobies– hey, they are boys after all.  Duh.  Imagine though if the shoe was on the other foot.  Imagine that somehow a wristband was created to focus on men’s genital cancers and to rival Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong version (I do not have a problem with this one and embrace it’s message).  This new wristband would be dark blue with white letters and declare, “I love cock.” (It has to be this because “I love penis” is giggle-worthy and “I love dick” is too confusing.  Who’s Dick? Or better yet, whose dick?  Hubby says that “cock” is not analogous to “boobies”; it’s too visceral and “boobies” is tame.  But really, are we going to have wristbands that say “I love pee-pees”?  “I love wee-wees”?  Maybe it could be “I love the dick-meister.”)  What boy who does not want to get beat up is going to wear that to school?  What are the repercussions for the girl who wears it?  I can tell you: she’ll be called a slut, groped, and recieve suggestive comments from boys about what she can do with theirs.  Hubby says that guys would love it if women wore bands that said “I love cock.”  I’m sure they would, but he hasn’t been a teenager for a long time and he’s mature (mostly).  High school girls?  High school boys? Frat boys?  Not so much.   It just wouldn’t fly.   But why are women’s breasts public domain when men’s pee-pees aren’t?  What is the message we’re sending?

If this were for men’s cancer awareness, would the image be <====?
via shop.cafepress.com

I realize that this is a highly successful campaign to get kids talking about breast cancer. I’m sure it’s raising oodles of money for awareness, and my irreverent sense of humor is failing me here.  But that’s the campaign’s point: to raise awareness (and money).  I also know that there are more pressing issues afoot with many states trying to gain control of women’s reproductive rights and shut down or limit the services of Planned Parenthood. But still, I take offense to a controversial campaign that derives its focus from one body part; women have worked too hard to be seen as just a pair of boobies.