Thursday, January 28, 2016

Yerma - Federico García Lorca

When I was a little kid I made myself an oath; it was three oaths really. One, that  I would never get married; two, that I would never have kids; and three that I would absolutely NEVER be the type of woman that is consumed with the desire to have a baby. " I will never get married," was my mantra, and when I met Matthew, a part of me feared that everything I had always stood for (ie. a life of celibacy and the downward spiral into cat ownership) was about to slip away. I felt momentarily untethered...but eventually I realized "crazy Dean" is much better when moderated by a good dose of "stable and serene Matthew." 

Some of the responsibility for these oaths lies with my Grandfather. He was an architect and in large part the reason I pursued architecture. I loved that we could spend an afternoon in a parking lot measuring grades and a few months later the landscape would be unrecognizable, a new building in its place. Architecture was creating life from an idea, breathing form into a dream. Sometimes as we pulled into the driveway after a day of crawling through rafters and measuring sites he would let me out of the car and call after me "None of this really matters, you're probably just going to grow up, get married and have babies." My job was to prove him wrong. I would join his club of workaholics with poor relational skills and we would laugh about how empty all those people with functional families were. 

Five years after getting married, my grandfather found out he had ALS and was doing poorly. At the same time I found out that I was pregnant, an unexpected surprise. I literally almost hoped there was a way he wouldn't have to find out...that he could die thinking that I would't let him down, that the drafting table I was about to inherit wasn't going to just lie fallow indefinitely. Someone in my family told him, and he said congratulations...but I interpreted it as “Et tu, Brute?” 

Once again I had to reevaluate everything I had stood for. At this point I was already unemployed, so it's not like I would be sacrificing a dreamy career (I had already left my dream job the year before to move back across the country...) 

Both of those moments were hard. But by far the absolute worst experience was the realization that I had in fact become a woman pining after a baby. After Dez was born I thought a) I'm pretty awesome at popping out babies and b) Go big or go let's do this thing and have us some Irish twins. Instead, things ended up being more complicated and I found myself completely obsessed with having another baby. I tried bartering with God...all the disgusting stereo types became the person I was living and breathing. People would encourage me to just "not think about it" but it literally was who I was at a cellular level: a desire, a need; I felt like someone was missing and everything in my power to make them appear was not enough. 

Yerma is the posterchild for all women pining for babies. She lives in a world where childbirth and child rearing are a woman's destiny, but for her it's more than that; it's not just destiny, it is all that she is; all that she was created for and while she waits, her impotent ineffectual life trickles down the drain one wasted day at a time.

It’s not that Yerma’s husband is unloving, he’s just oblivious and he spends way too much time taking care of his sheep or grapes or whatever he does and is kind of a jerk. He tends his crops, carefully and tenderly but from the first line of the first Act he seems exhausted by his relationship with his wife and their conjoined infertility. He also passively defies her will by refusing to take care of himself and using work as an excuse to literally never be in the same room as her. As the play opens he’s racing out the door to go to the fields and Yerma runs after him asking if he wants a glass of milk- He’s getting skinny and she’s worried about his health. In response to her loving, if somewhat naggy, monologue he asks “are you finished?” Of course she’s not finished, and the audience is let in on a blow by blow account of the frustrations the last two years of marriage have been, with the resounding chorus being: I’m still not pregnant.

In Lorca’s form of deism, God is not only absent, but also has willfully made the world filled with heartache and brokenness and the only way to survive is to give up. But Yerma is a fighter who refuses to give up, and as the years pass and she becomes more desperate, we find her consorting with a pagan woman and engaging in pagan rituals. 

Yerma: God help me!

Pagan Old Woman: Not God. I never cared for God. When are you going to realize that he doesn’t exist? It’s men whose rotten seed dams up the joys of the fields! 

At the end of Act one we meet Victor, the antithesis of Yerma’s husband, in the sense that he actually talks to her and in every other category. While Yerma’s husband is sickly and the physical embodiment of a drought, Victor exudes fecundity, he’s practically dripping with it. Yerma and Victor chat about singing and birds and such until Yerma thinks she hears the sound of a drowning baby, oh wait, it’s just her husband, who walks onto the scene and asks what Yerma is doing outside…she better get inside before people start talking. And in a nutshell that’s their relationship, she must stay indoors tending to housewifely things, but he refuses to participate in giving her the one housewife duty she craves, that of motherhood. 

Eventually five years have passed and we come upon the unhappy couple having the same argument, to what has become the soundtrack of their abysmal lives; her unmitigated desire. 

Juan: Being around you only makes me restless and uneasy. When there’s no other choice you should resign yourself.

Yerma: I came to this house so I wouldn’t have to resign myself! when I’m in my coffin with my hands tied together and a cloth wrapped around my head to keep my mouth from falling open- that’s when I’ll resign myself!

Juan: Then what do you want to do?

Yerma: I want to drink water and there’s no glass and no water! I want to walk up the hill, and I have no feet! I want to embroider my petticoats, and I can’t find the thread! 

Juan: The truth is that you’re not a real woman, and you’re trying to destroy a man that has no choice!

They obviously need a bit of marriage counseling. Instead of seeing Yerma at the end of her rope, exhausted by her desire and burdened by her flaccid ineffectuality, he’s annoyed that she can’t just get over it already…looks like the kid thing isn’t for them- now it’s time to move on. But for Yerma, moving on isn’t an option. She is lost, sleepwalking through a life without purpose and devoid of meaning. 

Yerma: I don’t think about tomorrow, I think about today! You’re old, and now you see everything like a book you’ve read before. I think I am thirsty, but I have no freedom! I want to hold my child in my arms so I can sleep peacefully! And listen carefully, and don’t be frightened by what I say: even if I knew that one day my son was going to torture me, and hate me, and drag me through the streets by the hair, I would still rejoice at his birth! It’s much better to cry over a man who is alive and stabs you with a knife, than to cry over a phantom sitting on my heart, year after year!

Juan resents Yerma because in her eyes he sees himself as a failure, unable to perform the one task required of him; every look from his wife is interpreted as daggers ripping into his insecure, mercurial heart. Eventually when Yerma begins to take long walks at night through the fields, barefoot, feeling the fecund, wet earth beneath her feet, he decides to have his two unmarried sisters come live with them to keep an eye on his wife. He is obsessed with the idea that his impotency will drive her to another man and constantly hounds her about his family’s honor, as if they have a corner on the market for this particular character trait. Again, he completely misreads Yerma. She is not without honor and while she may beg a potion or two from the traveling potion distributors, she is a far cry from jumping into bed with another man. 

Secretly Yerma suspects that her husband doesn’t want children, that although he performs his duty, that is all it is, a duty, lacking passion and vigor and intent. She carries this burden of desire alone, but the burden is beginning to be more than she can bear, and she is completely hopeless. When Juan finds her in the house of the local conjurer one morning, he is beside himself with rage, once again she has snuck out to try some magic trick or potion or something, what will the neighbors say? And as he tries to hurry her out the door and back into their house where their public shame and disgrace of being unable to procreate is forever before them, he tries to quiet her escalating despair.

Juan: Be quiet! Let’s go!

Yerma: (screaming) God damn my father for giving me his blood - the blood of the father of a hundred sons! God damn my blood that pounds on the walls looking for them!…Wanting something in your head is one thing, but it’s something else when your body - damn the body! - won’t respond. This is my fate and I’m not going to fight against the tide. That’s it. Let my lips be sealed! 

The final Act takes place at a pagan fertility shrine. The penitents make their way slowly, the desperate women in solemnity and the lucky men waiting to perform the holy act behind any statue that provides itself, with joy and frivolity. Years have passed since the opening act and it seems like our favorite dysfunctional couple joins in on the amusements more from a cultural ritual than a hope that finally their fertility problems will be solved, (although Yerma might still have the shadow of what was once hope still traceable in the caverns of her empty heart.) Yerma and her husband make their way through the crowd, just within sight of each other and when an old woman offers her son and his assured potency for her problem, Yerma is shocked and offended, and hastily defends her honor, why would she sneak out of her house to beg for what is rightfully hers? Her husband was her destiny just as her longed for son, and while fate is cruel, it is not the job of mere mortals to reconstruct the variables. 

At this moment, as Juan overhears Yerma’s dignified speech about morality, he decides now would be a good time to have that conversation he’s been putting off for the last ten years or so. 

Juan: I can no longer put up with this constant grieving over obscure things, unreal things made of thin air. 

Yerma: (dramatically) Unreal, you call it? Thin air, you call it? 

Juan: Over things that have not happened and that neither you nor I can control.

Yerma: (violently) Go on! Go on!

Juan: Over things I don’t care about! Do you hear? That I don’t care about! I finally have to tell you! All I care about is what I can hold in my hands. What I can see with my eyes! 

While Juan may have thought this speech would go over well and that Yerma would say something like “you know what? You are so right? We have each other and that’s good enough for me!” His assumption was galaxies away from the reality in front of him. When Yerma asks, so basically all you ever wanted was someone to cook, clean and a house filled with peace and quiet, you can see the look of relief pass over Juan’s face. Finally! She gets it! They can finally call a spade a spade and he can admit he has never wanted children in the first place- she has always been all that he has ever wanted. 

This does not go over well. Enraged, apoplectic, when Juan suggests they kiss and make up and enjoy the rest of their lives walking hand in hand, Yerma attacks her husband, clutching him by the throat and strangling him to death. As she slowly walks away from his prone body, there is a look of relief on her face, now she truly is and will always be barren. Finally there is closure and she can lay to rest her hopes and dreams once and for all. 

Thankfully my own journey ended far before any attempts at strangulation and even without a trip to the local conjuror. I've heard that one of the ways to cure arachnophobia is to cover yourself in spiders. Maybe the only way to be released from my childhood oaths was to be submerged in them, only to open my eyes and realize I was still alive. Each thing I swore I would never do, upon the doing, has brought with it a profound appreciation for the unknown and a greater understanding of my complete lack of omniscience. 

Eight weeks ago a little 8 lb 12 oz. girl decided to join our family, nine days overdue and ready to face her own incomprehensible destiny.

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