Saturday, April 11, 2015

Crack the Nutshell; Enter the Lime Tree

illustration of Allerleirauh by Arthur Rackham
This blog is named after the magic nutshell found in the German tale of Allerleirauh. According to some sources, it was given to her by a fairy godmother; in other versions of the tale, it is just something she has--no explanation given. Inside the magic nutshell are feminine objects of supernatural beauty--ball gowns that shine like celestial bodies, golden jewelry and tools designed to make clothing. In some versions, Allerleirauh's father has given her these things as incestuous wedding gifts--in the first version recorded by the Grimm brothers, it was her fiancee in another kingdom. In every version and variant, she uses these items to control her own fate.

I love the magic nutshell because of all the symbolic power it holds in its small, simple form.

It symbolizes femaleness, fertility, and the seed of life. The meat inside is precious food. Crack the shell in half, and you see a heart inside. Take off the green hull, and you see ink on your hands--ink that was used by many ancient people for writing.

In folklore, there are plenty of stories of magic found or held inside a tree or a part of a tree--a branch, a fruit, a hollow trunk, or a nutshell.

I just discovered another of these stories, in the 1914 Norse collection illustrated by Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. "The Widow's Son" mirrors the story of Allerleirauh, with the genders reversed--the hero is a boy called simply "the Lad." I was delighted to find Allerleirauh's gender-twin, having believed that it must exist somewhere, because all the old tales seem to have gender-flipped variants, from "Cinderella" to "Beauty and the Beast," throughout the folklore of Europe, from the British Isles to Eastern Russia. Until I read this book, though, I had not discovered a single one for "Allerleirauh."

Instead of a bad widower father, the Lad has a bad widow mother. Allerleirauh runs away because her father wishes to marry her; the Lad's mother kicks him out on the street because she can't afford to feed him. (At least she doesn't try to eat him as some fairy tale parents do.)

Instead of a magic nutshell, the Lad keeps his impressive treasures in the phallic trunk of a magic lime tree (an odd species to be found growing in a Norse tale, but a folktale does travel and mix like a gypsy punk caravan).

Allerleirauh and the Lad both set out to work as servants for a royal household, disguised as crazy homeless people and sleeping under stairs; Allerleirauh wears a patchwork fur hood and soot, while the Lad wears a wig of fir-moss and smears of dirt.

Both are summoned to the suspicious, opposite-sex king/princess's bedroom on successive nights; Allerleirauh gets boots thrown at her face, while the Lad gets a place to sleep by the doorway.

Both appear three times in their magical garb but run away before the royals can find out their identity; Allerleirauh attends fancy balls, while the Lad engages in battle wearing shining, beautiful armor. Both are discovered while in disguise by an object placed on their bodies while they were in their magical garb--Allerleirauh by a golden ring, the Lad by a handkerchief tied around a leg wound. Both have their lovely hair forcibly uncovered by their suspecting royal; Allerleirauh's king throws off her hood, and the Lad's princess orders her maid to yank off his wig while he sleeps.

In both cases, then comes the royal wedding.

I love this story and all its densely packed symbolism. It's about growing up and leaving home, separating from one's parents to find a mate, and all the danger and indecision and vulnerability of revealing one's true nature to a romantic partner. In both gender variations, it's the vagrant (even if one is a runaway princess) who initiates contact but the royal who does the pursuing. The visual images in these stories are so evocative (even without these gorgeous illustrations), and the sensual tension runs high.

Alone, the story of Allerleirauh looks like a tale about an oppressed female character using all of her wits and resources to survive in a male-dominated world. And so it is. But if Allerleirauh shows us how bad it is to be a woman in an oppressive patriarchy, the Widow's Son shows us how much worse it is to be a man in the same context. Because in the world of folktales, filled with gender-reversed variants of every story, it becomes clear that masculinity and femininity were not defined by whether one was the hero or the prize, the brave one or the innocent, the one with the pretty hair or the one who was desperate to see it. Gender was all about tools and trades. Allerleirauh's "battles" are fought in ball gowns, and her tools are innocuous household objects. The Lad's finery is armor, and he wears it on an actual battlefield. When she is decorated with a ring, he is festooned with a bandage for his arrow wound. At first glance, it seems that Allerleirauh's love interest treats her worse than the Lad's, but it is his life that is in danger, not hers. Allerleirauh's ill-treatment is more insult than injury--certainly with the implicit threat of worse--but it would not be expected for the king to seriously injure, let alone kill her. However, when the princess brings the Lad into her bedroom to toy with him, she knows full well that her father would have him executed if he were discovered there.

If I could choose my weapons, I'd take a ball gown over a suit of armor any day--a pen over a sword, a golden trinket to trade over a spear to throw. I love prettiness, femininity, relative freedom from violence, and the emotional complexity of being a woman. I can imagine the thrill of those who enjoy wielding physical power, but I'm glad to be a lady. And so I celebrate the power of the magic nutshell.

Monday, April 6, 2015

We Are the Queens of Hysteria

We live in the safest era to raise children in all of human history. So why are middle class mothers so paranoid?

As I reflect on my own anxieties as one of those moms, I've broadened my perspective to take a careful look at major social forces at play.

It's human nature to look back on "the good old days" with our rose-colored bifocals on, harping about how "back in my day" we didn't need to lock our doors, check the Halloween candy before eating it, etc. But the truth is that kids today are even safer--that is, less likely to experience violence, trauma, or premature death--than we were as children, or than children back in the mythic mid-century. But we are more aware of dangers now (both real and fraudulent or exaggerated, thanks to the media), and we place a higher value on the minutest aspects of the well-being of our increasingly scarce children. Thus we are more fearful for their safety.

The prologue to Anita Diamant's feminist Biblical novel The Red Tent addresses the reader (that's you and me, Mama) in the voice of Dinah,
"And now you come to me--women with hands and feet as soft as a queen's, with more cooking pots than you need, so safe in child-bed and so free with your tongues."

If you need some evidence that we live in a cushy world, just 200 years ago somebody told the Grimm brothers a popular tale about a princess who was world-famous because... she didn't have lice.

That's international news, ladies!

Now we live in a society in which lice is only an occasional nuisance in elementary schools, childhood death is rare, and most people can expect to live long enough to meet their great-grandchildren.

And yet, the internet is constantly setting itself on fire with mothers' terror about many of the very privileges that have granted us a long life expectancy, including:

  • Vaccinations
  • Fluoridated tap water
  • Pasteurization
  • Modern medicine, especially in hospitals 
  • Medically supported pregnancy and childbirth
  • Dietary variety (with potential allergens!)
  • Bold physical play outdoors
  • Interactions with "strangers" outside of immediate families 
  • Public education

There are real risks and/or problems associated with everything on that list, and yet in each and every case, marketers or scam artists or attention-grabbing, alarmist journalists have successfully lured mothers from the pot into the fire by calling for wholesale rejection of these things in favor of even more dangerous (or at least more expensive) "alternatives."

It's no wonder these covert advertisers target women. Women still don't earn as much as men do, on average, but women--especially moms--spend most of a household's money.

And it is also, I believe, easier to influence women than men using internet stories and parenting manuals (such as the ones that tell you sleep training will give your child brain damage...) because women read more and have more of an emotional connection to the written word. The mommy wars are incredibly lucrative for sellers of potentially dangerous if not simply useless magic poison-sucking oils, magic invisible-medicine-leaching rocks, "educational" video games to replace schooling, baby bleach enemas, and other products of varying evilness (on top of the conventionally marketed junk filled with scientifically known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens) because we are constantly being divided into market segments (crunchy? conventional?) so our wallets can be conquered.

This is the real mommy war--the war on mommies. This contemporary wave of hysteria (yes, connotation intended--the uteri have gone crazy) is more gender-imbalanced than the average present-day workplace, gamer convention, or Congress--in the opposite direction. Even on issues that directly affect only males, such as male circumcision, it's almost exclusively mothers who are raising their pitchforks and leading the charges.

And tragically, all of this drama distracts us from pooling our enormous, vast, collective power as modern queens of the world to fight for each other, to battle real and truly serious problems such as war, childhood poverty, mass incarceration, and urban pollution.

It's helpful to remember that the primary instigators of moms' paranoia is not moms themselves. It's the yellow media and covert advertisers (the ones selling snake oil online--the commercials we see on TV remain the same old stupid scenes of perfect moms in perfect houses weeping for joy over the power of their new paper towel).

The end of the world will not be brought about by helicopter parents or moms who are "overprotective." Society will not crumble under the scathing gaze of the mean mommies. These crises, too, are exaggerated media stories. Some of our increased alertness to (real) danger has surely benefited this new generation of children. We do things that some of our parents and grandparents would never have thought about back in their Tab-guzzling, locking-us-out-of-the-house days, and our kids are better off for it. We do not smoke in our homes. We use state-of-the-art car seats, and we are diligent about buckling up. We talk to our children and interact with them more than any generation before us. And these social changes have had huge impacts on our children--they die and get sick and get molested far less often than our own cohort did, though you wouldn't know it from what's on the news.

Those rants about too-involved parents raising a generation of sissies are just as stupidly exaggerated as articles about the possibility of fluoride taking away one of your child's precious IQ points, maybe, probably not and not permanently, but still...! (Did you know that one in nine people do not have access to safe drinking water at all, and that a number of people equivalent to the population of San Francisco dies each year from water-borne disease? I bring these things up not to increase your anxiety but to reduce it by putting your issues in perspective--Mama reading this blog in the first world, this crisis does not affect your kid, so put things into perspective and carry on with gratitude! Did you also know that most unvaccinated kids in our nation are unvaccinated because of poverty and medical access barriers, not because their moms are conspiracy theorists? Maybe we should start solving problems through helping behaviors, not internet meme battles over privileged moms' personal choices...?)

Sadly, we are also taught to fear each other--we are taught in the media that not only should we be paranoid about the whole world but also that other moms are paranoid to the point of aggression--but I have never encountered any parent who would consider calling CPS because they saw a kid walking alone to the playground or school. In fact, my neighborhood sidewalks are filled with elementary students walking and biking all by themselves (amidst the friendly presence of crossing guards and police who patrol for speeding) just before and after each school day.

While I have seen plenty of (alleged) mothers behaving like poop-slinging chimpanzees on the internet, I have yet to encounter one single instance of mom-on-mom bullying in real life, face to face. THE INTERNET MAKES US CRAZY!

In my real life (and I know that I am lucky to live in a comfortable neighborhood, though it is by no means rich or predominantly liberal), I have breastfed in public for years. I have let my child play on the playground designed for an older age range--without sticking close by her, even when I knew she was likely to fall (from a non-fatal height, of course). I have laughed when she threw a hissy in a crowded restaurant. And nobody ever has come up to me to deliver a nasty comment or threat to my face. (OK, except one drunk and incoherent bum who staggered past me one day and criticized the way I was holding my baby--I'm not sure that counts.) Other parents either go about their own business or approach me in a friendly, helpful manner.

I know this might have something to do with my personal bag of privileges--even though I struggle to pay the bills, I don't look poor. I'm educated. I'm white. I'm tall and thin. Which reminds me of real problems moms face in the real world, like classism, fat shaming, and racism. I accept the kindness of strangers as a gift and use it to stay mindful of compassion for the moms I see around me whom I start to judge as not doing something "right."

These days, it is astonishingly unlikely that your child will be harmed by violence, deadly disease, starvation, or the host of other dangers that used to pick of half or more of our progeny. These days, we are more likely than ever to, as Spock said, "Live long and prosper."

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse
Today, in the first world, the thing most people end up dying of is not vaccines, allergens, GMOs, gluten, or government raids on your prop-it-y. It's heart disease. So if you want to protect yourself and your family, fill up your hearts with goodness. Instead of obsessing about some ingredient in your wholesome produce sandwich, let go of toxic stress. Don't waste the blessings of unprecedented safety, peace, and health that characterize your life. Take advantage of the joys and opportunities this life has to offer you, you queen among queens on this earth.

Don't let the baited negativity of the media, online and in the news, steal away your joy and happiness! 

Filter out the waste from your social media feeds, and engage in more real-life interaction with other beautiful, affirming humans. Replace your online shopping habit with a walking-outside habit. Reduce your news consumption to only sources with the highest journalistic integrity--like NPR--or ones that package ugly truths in humor, like The Daily Show. Only comment on forums that are mediated. (FYI, The Magic Nutshell is a chimpanzee poop-free zone.) Don't be afraid to reveal your concerns and questions to a real-life doctor or nurse, and then listen. If you feel compelled to heed the alarmist call to "educate yourself" (annoyingly pushed at highly educated moms everywhere), do it by boning up on your scientific literacy, logic, history, and critical thinking skills, not by slavishly reading every viral post or celebrity parenting book shoved in your face.

Have fun! Bond with other mommies! Most of us are--despite our flaws and mistakes--reasonable, kind, empathetic, and supportive. Especially in real life, away from our electronic devices.

Go out and help your child discover the first flowers of spring. Listen to the birds sing. Marvel at the abundance of produce laid out like a banquet of the whole earth's goodness at your local supermarket. "Detoxify" with clean, cold, safe water that flows from your tap, and cleanse your soul with adventure, awe, and laughter.

For your children, model bravery, compassion, non-anxiousness, and gratitude for the bounty of your life. Model pro-social skills and healthy living--in real life. More often than asking what should be avoided, ask yourself what good things in life should not be missed. Because the "problems" force-fed to us in the media are mostly things we don't actually need to worry about, and the real problems of the world--water shortages, climate change, economic injustice, war--are not affected by one person's daily living choices.

Here's what it comes down to: If disaster is not on your horizon, you will waste your life wringing your hands over Montessori vs. Reggio Emilia for your privileged child who doesn't even need preschool. And if a real disaster IS on the horizon--a gigantic meteor is on a collision course with the Earth, or the sun abruptly dies, or a fatal pandemic sweeps the planet--then WE ARE ALL SCREWED (as I gleefully accepted with my 2015 Word of the Year), no matter how much energy we spent fretting vs. living and loving.

Gather ye rosebuds, Queen Mamas! We have the power to raise the brightest, healthiest, most courageous and loving generation of children the world has ever seen. Let's go forth with joy!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The New Domain of the Magic Nutshell

Sounds mystical, eh? Please note that this blog has a new custom domain, and some comments made through Google+ have vanished from this site. (Sorry, it was nothing personal!)

I am no longer managing comments through Google+. Now anyone can comment directly under each post, without using Google+. I hope this makes it easier for us to discuss important matters such as twisted histories, Rammstein, dark fairy tales, cute children, and Writers' Butt.

The Magic Nutshell only opens to release its content twice a month (or a little more, if I have a special announcement like this one). You are welcome to subscribe by email or follow any of my social media profiles listed in the sidebar.

On the first Monday of each month, I present a Middle Path Mother post inspired by Devi Maya, who birthed the Buddha right out of her armpit. I believe that like Devi Maya, we can generate life beautifully in many ways beyond what is marketed to us as "right" or "natural."

At a surprise point during each month, the Magic Nutshell cracks open once more to offer up inspiration, amusement, and thought provocation for creators of art, especially writers of fiction.

Intolerance Warning: May contain posts that are nuts.

Please enjoy!