Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cisneros and Lippman - the importance of home

Although many people move from their original cities in order to make fresh starts in other locations, they must realize that they will always carry with them a piece of their past. No one is able to completely forget what has previously occurred. Past experiences shape a person’s life, even if this individual wishes to escape the environment in which they took place. Both Laura Lippman and Sandra Cisneros delve into this attempt to flee one’s surroundings in order to shake off one’s encounters, illustrating that one is never able to ignore the past forever.

In Laura Lippman’s Butchers Hill, she presents the reader with Jackie Weir, a woman who has attempted to forget her past but finds that she is haunted by its absence. Jackie has been avoiding her past since her youth, stating that she was ashamed because of her economic circumstances, her giving birth at a young age, and her residence in Baltimore. Jackie states,

Mama wanted me to keep the baby, so she could raise it, get a little extra AFDC money and food stamps every month. I almost went for it, too. But you know, I had finished high school and I had this nothing job, and I suddenly saw my future. I told myself, ‘This is it, girl. You’ve still got a chance to make something of yourself, but not if you keep this baby…And when I got a scholarship to Penn, I decided to change my name legally, sort of a symbol of my new life. In the back of my mind, I think I didn’t want my baby to come looking for me one day. You see, I figured I was going to be somebody real famous, real successful, and I didn’t want any tabloid trash reunion in my future. Lippman 80-81

Jackie only thought about herself and her future plans, instead of thinking about the impact that her actions could have had on her daughter. Jackie wanted to do anything in order to evade being associated with a child born out of wedlock to a man who “wasn’t interested in being a father” (Lippman 81). Jackie believed that the only way to ensure her success was to completely alienate herself from her past life in order to begin a fresh, new life without any visible stains, even though she adamantly states, “I don’t want to hide. I’m not ashamed of my past” (Lippman 81). She contradicts herself in that she did everything to put her past at a distance, yet assures Tess that she does not regret it. Jackie viewed her pregnancy as a blemish on her life that could haunt her in the future, and did not consider that it would haunt her because she missed her child’s presence in her life: “Once [my mother] was gone, I waited to feel bereft. Instead, I felt haunted, as if someone were following me. I found myself blowing off appointments, driving around Pigtown and looking at the young girls there. I kept thinking, Are you out there? What became of you? Do you hate me?’” (Lippman 82). Jackie soon realized that she could not forget her past and her proper home with her child because it resulted in her not having an identity: “Her mother was dead, her daughter was someone else’s daughter. Jackie Weir was about as alone as anyone could be in this world” (Lippman 163). Jackie’s attempts to distance herself from her family by changing her name, moving away, and creating a new life for herself resulted in her returning back to the child that she had abandoned. She was drawn back to the life that she had scorned because she had taken a piece of her past with her. One cannot avoid the past, even though one may try as many ways as possible.

One can see the same desire to move away from one’s present circumstances in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, in which Esperanza wishes to leave her community because she finds it to be unacceptable. Cisneros begins the novel with Esperanza’s stating, “I knew then that I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn’t it. The house on Mango Street isn’t it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go” (Cisneros 5). From the outset, Esperanza expresses her dissatisfaction with her house and her desire to escape it. She cannot accept the current conditions in which her family lives because they do not live up to the vision that she has created in her dreams. Esperanza does not want to continue with the way that her family has lived in the past, in houses that she deems as deplorable because she is not proud to point them out to those who ask about her residence. Esperanza’s family has an outing of driving along roads and looking at houses, which the little girl does not find to be proper. She states, “I don’t tell them I am ashamed—all of us staring out the window like the hungry. I am tired of looking at what we can’t have” (Cisneros 86). Esperanza believes that her humble beginnings will lead to a future of want, in which she will never be satisfied with what she has. Like Jackie, Esperanza believes that her current conditions will lead to her inability to ever escape them in order to create a new life for herself. Thus, the little girl “[begins her] own quiet war. Simple. Sure” (Cisneros 89) because she “[has] decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain to come” (Cisneros 88). Like Jackie, Esperanza believes that she is the only one on whom she can rely in order to ensure that she changes her situation. And yet, unlike Jackie, Esperanza knows from the outset that she can never completely forget her past because it has formed the way that she has grown up: “One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I’ll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house” (Cisneros 87). Instead of totally rejecting her past, Esperanza plans to use it as a spring-board for the future, yet still keeping in mind that she believes that her past situation hindered her life. She refuses to follow in the footsteps of those who came before her, who she believes did not live fruitful lives. Esperanza prepares to leave Mango Street, but will keep in mind what others have told her countless times, “When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are…You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you” (Cisneros 105), and, “No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here. You have a home, Alicia, and one day you’ll go there, to a town you remember, but me I never had a house, not even a photograph…only one I dream of. No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too” (Cisneros 106-107). Although Esperanza attempts to deny her living on Mango Street and coming from a particular past, she know that she will never leave it behind because she has to return to those who live in similar situations. She knows that she must provide a link between the outside world and Mango Street. Just as Jackie returned to visit her child, so must Esperanza come back to visit her street and her neighbors.

I hope that the youth of Baltimore recognize the need to better their lives, but not at the cost of forgetting from where they come. One needs to grow and explore in order to create a new chapter in one’s life, but this does not mean that one needs to rewrite one’s own book of experiences. One cannot forget the past because it is this past that shapes how people have matured.