Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tori Murden McLure's A Pearl in the Storm - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads an Inspirational Book

Tori Murden McClure, the first woman to reach the South Pole by trekking overland on skis and the first woman to row a boat singlehandedly across the Atlantic, chose to write a memoir of the latter experience (  This book falls under the category “Inspirational Reading”, and I am curious about what she would inspire in us – what hope does she hold out for addressing the conundrums that life visits upon us?
The central metaphor in the book is a pearl.  Her boat is titled The American Pearl, and the book is about the storms that the boat and the author weather together.  In the dedication, the author talks about a Masai she knew who wore beads representing his friends.  She appropriated his habit, but used pearls rather than beads as symbols.  Interestingly, she adds that, in addition to friends, the pearls represent “the dreams that are shared by friends.”  She talks about the dreams as irritants and as aggravators.  The dream, like a piece of sand, works its way into the oyster and, she says, if one works at it, becomes transformed into a pearl.
I think that she is referring, at least on the surface, to the inspirational dreams – the visions, ideas, and goals that lead us to do things like trying to row solo across the Atlantic.  Her dreams are experienced, then, as alien – as something external; grains of sand that enter into us and motivate us, ultimately, to do crazy things that become beautiful in the process of doing them.  What she doesn’t say explicitly, but what is played out in the book, is the saying that a dream of one dreamer is just that, a dream, but when it is shared by more than one, the dream starts to take on the edges of reality.  And she certainly invites others into her dream: others help her build the boat, teach her the skills she needs to row it, and provide the logistical support she needs to undertake the voyage.
But she may also be referring to night dreams; dreams that we observe – that happen to us – but that, even though we don’t usually experience them that way, we also author.  Dreams are a place where we, outside of our awareness, create a world that reflects the way that we want things to be, tempered by the way things are.  We work to create a world where our wishes can be attained, our dreams (in that former sense) realized, a world where we exert the kind of control that we don’t exert in our actual waking lives.  And we frequently wake from them at the moment when we can no longer deny the reality constraints, when our fictionalization of reality stretches to a point of breaking, and we are confronted by the thing that we most want to avoid: the collapse of our dreams at the hands of what feels like a cruel and unforgiving reality.
Now I think it is also the case that, despite the author’s attempt to substitute dreams for friends in the pearl metaphor, she is also referring to friends as pearls, and thus, initially at least, as grains of sand.  Friends, as desirable as they are, are irritants.  They aggravate us.  They are, indeed, as external as grains of sand and they don’t bend to our wills – in the same way that dreams are constrained by the realities of our external lives, friends bend to meet us halfway, to support our vision, but ultimately they have their own views, their own needs, and their own agendas – which are frequently at cross purposes with ours.  That is, on the surface, this is a book about the friendships that support and sustain this woman on a solo journey.  But I think it is also a book about wanting to be able to do things alone – to be the autonomous hero on the journey that requires no (apparent) support.  
The author crosses the ocean alone.  By choice.  She is a woman who, while telling the tale of the voyage, also talks about her upbringing; about defending her developmentally disabled brother from the neighborhood bullies; about growing up a girl with athletic abilities who was excluded from sport because she was a girl – or being allowed to participate because of a boy’s intervention; about the challenges in getting the education that a person of her ability deserved.  She consistently felt herself to be an outsider battling to get what her family or she herself deserved.  Against this backdrop, in addition to being connected, there is likely a strong wish to be free of the constraints of human relationships.      
While the author would not present herself as admirable in regard to wishing that others not impinge on her – in fact she goes out of her way to represent the ways that she plays well with them – I think she articulates, perhaps by accident, a part of herself, and, I believe, a part of each of us that would just as soon not have to rely on those whimsical, careless and inconvenient others that litter our lives.   Her voyage, then, can be seen as an expression of a wish, of a dream, of a desire to autonomous.  It is one that is concretely played out.  And, interestingly, it is played out twice.  In her first attempt, she fails.  The North Atlantic hurricanes prove too much for her – they toss her boat like a cork, and she, inside it, is horribly bruised, beaten and bloodied.  I felt terrified as I read it, even though I knew, because she wrote it, that she survived; the journey was harrowing.
The second, successful attempt, one that took the easier east to west route across the Atlantic, making use of the reliable trade winds instead of the difficult to track and ride Gulf Stream from West to East is presented almost as an afterthought.  She has to get up the courage, the resources and the challenge (two other women are going to attempt it), in order to go out there again.  But the drama is in the first brave but ultimately vain attempt.  She tries, and fails, to go it alone.
This is played out in her personal life as she, for the first time, has a loving relationship with another person.  She gives up the dream of autonomy, and is repaid – not by having a tyrant move in to her life (the presumably feared solution) – but by gaining what she describes as a loving available other who can connect with her in ways that feel supportive to her.  This includes supporting her efforts to function autonomously – to become the first woman to row the Atlantic solo.  The dream is altered by a reality that proves not to be as irritating and aggravating as she had feared.  Or, if the irritations were there, they were able to be worked on, to be surrounded with a lustrous, worked surface that allows them to become a pearl.  Would that we all could emulate such an alteration in our dreams and shift from our hedonic wish to be in control of our universe and to move, instead, into a position of comfortable partnership. 

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