Did Bishop title that story “In the Village” or just “The Village”?
This was the strange question that awakened me in the middle of the night several months ago. Unusual night-time musings sometimes interrupt my sleep, but I’d never had one that involved the writer Elizabeth Bishop. The day before, I had reread her semi-autobiographical short story, about life in a Nova Scotia village seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl who lives there with her maternal grandparents. I thought immediately of Bishop’s famous poem “In the Waiting Room.”
I had taught that poem for years to high school and college students, and I was always intrigued by this “waiting room” that Bishop creates between the interior dentist’s office and Worcester, MA, where the scene takes place. Neither “in” nor “out,” but something in between. The poem’s young speaker, also named Elizabeth, is catapulted into a destabilizing world that is both foreign and familiar, with neither location offering grounding or relief.
That got me wondering. If Bishop’s story was titled “In the Village,” were there other parallels to “In the Waiting Room” that might be relevant to the “in between” space that had intrigued me for years? The next morning, I Googled the titles, and indeed, they mirrored each other. More similarities between the two came to mind. Both feature a young girl’s experience of a world outside her home. Both girls’ voices toggle between child-like language and that of an adult. Each protagonist recalls an outburst from an older female relative: a scream from the girl’s depressed mother in “In the Village,” and a cry from Elizabeth’s aunt in “In the Waiting Room.” I decided to dig deeper.
In graduate school my interest in Bishop’s metaphorical borders, particularly in “In the Waiting Room,” led me to the Chicana social critic Gloria Anzaldua and her groundbreaking Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Anzaldua’s cultural critique addresses the actual physical border between the US and Mexico, but she extends the metaphor to include psychological, sexual, and spiritual borderlands that transcend any one place. For Anzaldua, a borderland, that space between “inside” and “outside,” is one that defies the “separateness’” of regions. It diffuses polarities and celebrates the creative hybridity that results when differences converge. At once fluid and unpredictable, disorienting and exhilarating, Anzaldua’s borderland is not a space to balance contradictions. Instead, the dichotomies create a synthesis, a third element, one that is greater than the sum of its severed parts. It is in the borderland, she asserts, where we see ourselves and our place in the world in new ways.
Anzaldua’s borderland connection seemed clear in Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Young Elizabeth does tumble into an unsettling experience. She does have something of an epiphany as she waits for Aunt Consuela. And ultimately, she does see her place in the world in new ways. But what of the young girl in “In the Village”? Does she find that same synthesis?
I am sure that part of the reason Anzaldua’s borderland metaphor resonated with me at the time was because I, too, felt like I was living in my own existential borderland. I had entered the convent in 1969 at 18 years of age. For almost 20 years with the Sisters, I was committed to our community’s mission and my own prayer life. The parishioners admired me, and my students looked up to me. The Sisters and I shared community life and a common purpose. I felt that I belonged.
But during that time, I found myself drawn romantically to other women. In a few cases, I acted on those attractions and had more intimate, secret relationships, all the time plagued by guilt and self-loathing. How could I betray my vows in such a sordid way? How could I possibly stoop to the depravity of one of them, the perverted homosexuals I had heard about growing up during the 1950s. I had never really dated in high school. Boys weren’t terribly attractive to me, not I to them. I felt most comfortable with my girlfriends. Marriage was not particularly appealing, so in my mind, the Sisters were a perfect alternative. In the 60s, I had watched civil rights protests on TV and felt inspired to make a difference. Here was a community of women with purpose and values. It seemed like an ideal fit.
By the time I was in my thirties, studying Elizabeth Bishop and reading Gloria Anzaldua, it’s no wonder that the borderland ethos resonated. I found myself straddling two very different identities, as a committed nun and as a woman experiencing myself as a sexual person for the first time. Growing up overweight and self-conscious about my looks, I suddenly felt attractive and desirable, an experience I had never had before. But my exhilaration often seesawed into despondency and angst. Unlike the interconnectedness that Anzaldua’s borderland promised, my “not in/not out” status brought only emotional highs and lows, doubts about my vocation, and a determination to figure out who I was.
Like me, Elizabeth Bishop had several relationships with women that she kept private and discreet during her twenties and thirties. But beginning in her forties, she began to be more open about her lesbianism. As I researched, I realized that the publication dates for “In the Village” (1953) and “In the Waiting Room” (1971) roughly framed this period of time in Bishop’s life.
In 1949-50, Bishop served as National Poet Laureate and lived in Washington, DC. Depressed and alcoholic, she concluded her position there and left the United States for a trip around the world. While on board, Bishop befriended a woman with several female companions. One biographer suggests that this encounter offered Bishop a vision of an accomplished and successful lesbian who was open and unashamed of her relationships. At one of the cruise’s early stops in Rio de Janeiro, Bishop had a severe food-related allergic reaction. Architect Lota De Macedo Suarez, an acquaintance of Bishop’s in Brazil, invited her to convalesce at her home. Elizabeth and Lota became lovers, and the poet remained in Brazil for 16 years. During this period, “In the Village,” was published in the New Yorker.I am sure that part of the reason Anzaldua’s borderland metaphor resonated with me at the time was because I, too, felt like I was living in my own existential borderland.
Bishop wrote “In the Waiting Room” over many years, but it appeared in The New Yorker in 1971. At this point, Elizabeth and Lota’s relationship had disintegrated, and Lota had died by suicide in 1967. Bishop became involved in highly dependent, often tumultuous relationships with other women. Eager to extricate herself from these fraught entanglements, she welcomed Robert Lowell’s invitation to teach at Harvard for a one-year appointment. In Cambridge, Bishop met Alice Methfessel, with whom she shared an open and loving companionship until Bishop died in 1979.
“In the Village” presents “inside” as the home where the young protagonist lives with her mother, two aunts, and grandparents. “Outside” is the broader world beyond the village, which the girl discovers through photos of Boston and Africa that she finds among her mother’s belongings. The village becomes the borderland, a place between, where she feels a sense of belonging as well as isolation.
“Home” for the girl is hardly a comforting place. She listens as her mother is whisked away in the middle of the night to be institutionalized for mental illness; overhears her aunts speak in hushed voices about her mother’s “condition”; and watches her grandmother weep on a daily basis. The village, in contrast, offers her some refuge. The girl’s friend Nate, the blacksmith, welds a ring for her the instant she asks. She knows each neighbor by name and enjoys warm relationships with shopkeepers. But the village presents a certain disconnect for the child as well. One villager scolds her and another asks too many questions. The girl walks the family cow through the village, thwacking her with a big stick, even though she knows the cow needs no prodding. Perhaps the most poignant dissonance occurs when the girl walks to the post office each week to deliver a package from her grandmother. She hurries by Nate’s shop and ignores his call to visit. No one must see the bundle’s sanatorium address.
The village, as “space between,” presents a number of unreconciled dichotomies: the girl’s determination to control her cow versus her powerlessness with family dynamics; the mother’s illness and the daughter’s shame; the villagers’ kindness in contrast to those who irritate her; her mother’s abandonment versus her grandmother’s reliability. None of these get resolved. The story closes with Nate’s “beautiful” sound as he shapes a horseshoe. But “beautiful” is not where it ends. Shortly after, the girl hears “the almost lost scream” of her mother. Almost lost, but not entirely.
In “In the Waiting Room,” the narrator, six-year-old “Elizabeth,” accompanies her Aunt Consuela to a dentist appointment. “Inside” is the interior dentist’s area where her aunt is being treated. “Outside” is represented by Worcester, MA, where the girl and her aunt live, and beyond that, to the strange and unfamiliar worlds she reads about in the National Geographic while she waits.Unlike the interconnectedness that Anzaldua’s borderland promised, my “not in/not out” status brought only emotional highs and lows, doubts about my vocation, and a determination to figure out who I was.
In this waiting room, this borderland, young Elizabeth’s realities careen and collide. She observes the adults suspiciously while flipping through peculiar images in the National Geographic. Some photographs frighten her: Strange babies with pointed heads, women with necks “wound round and round with wire.” Their “terrifying breasts” both fascinate and upset her. Suddenly Elizabeth hears Aunt Consuela’s cry from inside the office. In that moment the girl has a disorienting realization. Her aunt’s cry is also her own, “…it was me:/my voice, in my mouth.” And she understands herself, not only in relation to her aunt, but to the random adults who surround her. She recognizes their knees, boots, a pair of hands. Just like hers! Even the magazine’s women and their “awful hanging breasts” made us “all just one,” she reflects. In that moment, Elizabeth discovers a bond with this eclectic collection of humanity. A revelation, a synthesis, emerges as she realizes: “…you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them.”
Perhaps it’s a stretch to see these two publications as a frame for Elizabeth Bishop’s reconciliation with her sexual identity. But the parallels in these works are striking. Before Lota, Bishop would be characterized as a closeted lesbian. In the 1940s and 50s, reputation, professional success, and peer approval were all on the line. Published in 1953, “In the Village” reflects this conflict, a space where the young girl also upholds an image, suppresses emotions, and seeks comfort in control. But the village offers no synthesis, no reconciliation for the girl. In contrast, “In the Waiting Room,” published nearly 20 years later in 1971, depicts a young Elizabeth who falls into an unfamiliar and dizzying world. But in this case, the destabilization leads to connection rather than fracture. In Anzaldua, that in-between space holds the promise of a third element, a place to see ourselves in the world in a new way. That certainly seems to be the case for the poem’s young Elizabeth.
And as for me? My own tumultuous “space between” ultimately brought me to a tipping point. Tired of the guilt and hypocrisy, I decided to explore my sexuality in a more honest way. I left the convent in 1991 when I was about to turn forty, the same decade of life as Bishop’s when she partnered with Lota. I, too, felt the world shift under my feet. This new life intimidated me: living on my own, finding a job, paying bills, dating women. But it also offered me the freedom to step outside the guideposts that has shaped my life, to make mistakes, to fall in love, and to discover that living by myself is really quite delightful.
Young Elizabeth’s dramatic encounter with herself in the waiting room certainly differs from my own, more gradual trial-and-error path to enlightenment. And while I relate to elements of young Elizabeth’s topsy-turvy journey, I find myself identifying more with the poet herself. I imagine that for both Elizabeth Bishop and me, the borderland’s fluid and unpredictable nature, its disorienting and exhilarating ambiguity, created just the right space to confront and accept ourselves. No room for compromise, no meeting halfway, but instead, celebrating a third element, one that is greater than the sum of all the denials and shame.