Tag Archives: myth




April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate, the dictionary project is hosting its first na·po·mo! Each Tuesday and Friday during the month of April, we will feature poems inspired by dictionary project words authored by visiting poets. Stay tuned!


And to whet your appetite, I leave you with “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich:


First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

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I guess "Perfection" does have a zipcode. Perfection, North Carolina. Photo by Wessel Kok

myth·i·cize (mith´i-siz´),  v.t. [MYTHICIZED  (-sizd´),  MYTHICIZING], to make into, or explain as, a myth.


myth (mith),  n. [LL. mythos; Gr. mythos, a word, speech, story, legend],  1. a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious rites, etc. of a people: myths usually involve the exploits of gods and heroes: cf. legend.  2. such stories collectively; mythology.  3. any fictitious story.  4. any imaginary person or thing spoken of as though existing.

I think it is almost impossible for us to not buy into certain cultural myths. The myth of what is beautiful. The myth that “truth” has one clear-cut meaning. And, of course, the myth of perfection. Much of the time—and much of that time without awareness of it—I live under the myth that I have to be perfect. Somewhere in my head is a stubborn part of me that believes that if I do not take the right steps, if I don’t have every aspect of my life in order, if I do not appear to be always together, the world—or at least my personal world—will crumble.

This is not a new myth in my life. I went to nationals in speech and debate my senior year of high school with an original oratory entitled “The Art of Perfectionism.” Using advertising, psychology, and personal narrative, I crafted a speech, a cautionary tale of shorts, that documented the dangers of trying to be perfect all the time, the dangers of believing that perfection was even possible. When I was a child, I was anchored in doing things right. I tried to be the model child and my desire to please others and to be perceived as strong and smart and creative has continued in my adult self.

I know this myth of perfection is inherently flawed, impossible and ultimately undesirable, and yet I tend to apply that knowledge to everyone but me. Why is it that I am able to be so generous when it comes to other people and their slip-ups and simultaneously be so hard on myself?

I think of a quote from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. She writes: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that alot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Beyond not having fun, the problem with buying into the myth of perfection is that it is just that: a myth. It is a story, a legend, a fiction. I am not perfect. No matter how hard I try to juggle all the balls in my day-to-day life, I always end up dropping one. And this week, I was reminded in very visceral and difficult ways that I am not perfect and that I have to let go of the myth and embrace the reality.

Scenario #1 or “The Scenario In Which I Beat The Crap Out Of Myself”

Wednesday. 9:30 a.m. I have just crawled out of bed and am going to get food to feed my dog. It’s April 14, the day before tax day. I have not started my taxes. I have opened my computer to tackle this task, but first I have to feed the dog. I am not quite awake yet as I have not yet made the coffee. On the way into the kitchen, I open a high kitchen cabinet and get out some napkins to blow my nose (as I have been stopped up from allergy season). Leaving the door open, I get my dog some food and put it in a bowl. On any other day, I would have looked up as I exited the kitchen, avoiding the open cabinet by stepping to the right. Or perhaps as I passed it, I would close the cabinet with my free hand, laughing at my absentmindedness. But this is not any other day. This is the day when, with Maggie’s bowl in hand, I walk directly into the cabinet, my forehead hitting the sharp metal clasp that is meant to close the cabinet. I keel over to the floor in pain, still trying to process what just happened. Maggie runs around me, fixated on her food dish, and I yell at her, “Mama’s hurt. How can you be worried about food right now?”

At first, I think I just hit my head really hard, but when I put my hand to my forehead, I feel the blood before I see it. Running into the bathroom, I pull my bangs backed and look at my forehead and see a vertical red line where the skin had broken open. Too deep to be a scratch. Too surface for the emergency room. I grab a soda out of the freezer and put it to my head with a Kleenex to catch the blood. I call my mom and dad to ask for advice. They tell me to check it out. I call some friends, but I only get voicemails.

I decide to go to urgent care. Sitting there, all I can do is chastise myself. Why hadn’t I been more careful? Why hadn’t I closed the cabinet? Why hadn’t I watched where I was going? Why was I such a klutz? I wondered whether I had messed up my face forever. I wondered whether I needed stitches. About a half an hour into my stay, my friend E called. She was just getting done with class and got my message. She was coming to meet me there. I wonder what would have happened if she would have asked what I needed.

What can I do?

Oh, it’s okay, I’m just here waiting.


I’ll be okay by myself.


Well, really, if you don’t mind too much. I mean, it would be kinda cool to have company.

It is so hard to ask for help.

She comes and the doctor puts a strip on the wound to help the skin close. He says I am young and the laceration doesn’t look bad. I still don’t know how it will heal. I don’t know if there will be a mark. I hope there won’t be, or that it will be slight if there is one, but I don’t know. And I have to accept myself regardless. I too have to accept that I am capable of great things and also of accidents, of fuck-ups, of times when I bleed and cry. And I can’t see myself reflected only in the flaw of my bumping into the cabinet or the potential flaw of the wound. I am not my flaws alone.

Scenario #2 or “The Scenario in Which I Run On Empty…Literally”

Friday. 7 p.m. Because of the difficult emotionality of the past few days, I have decided to treat myself to some Dairy Queen. I noticed the other day that I was running low on gas but I forgot about it. I put it on a list of things to do later. On the way back from the DQ, driving down a four-lane street near the university, I think about whether I should stop at the Circle K for gas on the way home. That would probably be a good idea. Then, just a block away from the Circle K, I feel the car begin to shake. The needles are pulsing up and down. The car is sputtering. Please, I think to myself, I only have a block to go. Please, please let me make it to the gas station.

But I don’t make it. I stall in the middle of the street. I put my hazards on and just sit there, beginning to panic. Headlights of other cars brighten as they swerve around me, no doubt pissed that I am in their way. What am I going to do? I can’t move the car by myself. I step out of the car.

I see two college kids walking down the sidewalk.

“Hey, I’m out of gas. Y’all think you could help me out?”

They shrug and tell me “sure.” I don’t know what to do, I tell them. This has never happened to me.

“Put it in neutral.”

We begin to push. With them in the back and I by the driver’s side, I turn the wheel to keep us moving straight. Then another girl and guy come up and ask if we need help.

“You had almost made it,” the girl said, smiling at me.

More quickly than I would have thought possible, the five of us push car to the station. They didn’t needed to help me, but they had. There was something reassuring in that.

I thank them and offer them slushies, offer them a drink, anything. But they wave off my offer, heading back down the street in direction they were headed before.

I fill the tank up all the way, telling myself I will not let it come that close again. Before the light went on, I will fill the tank up. I get in the car, still feeling grateful for help in a bad situation.

In the car, I turn the key. The engine turns over for a minute, then nothing. I try again. Again. I call my mom, on the verge of tears.

“I ruined the engine. I ran out of gas and then filled it up. Now the car won’t start. I ruined the engine.”

“You can’t ruin the engine for being out of gas. Oil, yes. Water, yes. Not gas. Let it fill up the pipes. Wait five minute and try again.”

I wait and the car did start. I move slowly back home.

Two scenarios in which I messed up and had to suffer the consequences. Two scenarios in which I was humbled. And two scenarios in which I had to ask for help. The thing about letting go of the dream of perfection is that we also have to admit that we cannot do everything ourselves. Let me remove the plural pronoun: I cannot do everything by myself. We, and I, need other people. I spend many of my days under the illusion that I have crafted for myself that I can handle all I need to handle on my own. And I am reminded almost every day that this is another fallacy. I cannot handle everything on my own. There is, however, one some trick to getting others to help you… you have to ask for help. My friend E wasn’t going to telepathically sense that I needed her to sit with me in the urgent care office. The students walking may have responded, may have realized I needed help, but they also might have easily walked on by. What I had to do in both of these situations is admit, not only to myself but to other people, that I needed help, that I was not perfect, that I was in a dilemma that I could not get out of on my own.

Mythology and legend often depicts the feats of heroes as we humans attempt to understand the planet we live on and the nature of the human spirit. These stories are useful in some ways. They are creative and exuberant. They depict both the beauty and the imperfections of gods as a way to help us understand our own beautiful and imperfect natures. And these stories, just like the people they feature, are limited. We can mythicize as long as we also understand that myths are only one part of a longer, much more complicated story.

[full disclosure: I considered chucking this whole post and rewriting it because it doesn’t feel totally done and because some of the material here makes me vulnerable. But in the interest of what this post discusses (dispelling the myth of perfection, accepting that I am not perfect), I’m letting the post stand. Thank you for accepting it as is]

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fa·ble (fa´b’l), ), n. [ME; OFr. <  L.  fibula, a story < fari, to speak; see FAME],  1. a fictitious story meant to teach a moral lesson: the characters are usually animals.  2. a myth or legend.  3. a story that is not true; false-hood.  4. [Archaic], the plot of a literary work.  v.i. & v.t. [FABLED   (-b’ld),  FABLING], to write or tell (fables, fiction, falsehoods).

When I was small, my dad used to read to me every night before bed. One of my favorite books for a time was an illustrated paperback collection of Aesop’s Fable. Although I’m sure I would remember more if I thought about it, the one that stands out most vividly to me is the story of “The Fox and the Grapes.” Maybe it was because I liked the way that the fox was drawn (or at least how I remember him begin drawn) with a bright orange in a suit and bowtie or because I liked grapes. For whatever reason, I remember requesting that story more than the others.

The Fox and the Grapes

The Fox and the Grapes (although not the same image from the book I grew up with)

I thought the story was much longer (maybe because the story was interspersed with drawings) but the fable itself is short:

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch.

“Just the thing to quench my thirst,” quoth he.

Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch.

Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

It is easy to despise what you cannot get.

Perhaps one of the reasons I loved Aesop’s fables is because I was a very serious child. I was a very serious child who was good at following rules. I liked rules and structure. For some reason, from a very young age, even though I was in a home that was stable with two parents who loved and supported me, I had a sense that the world was an instable, chaotic place. Rules and boundaries brought order. They made me feel safer.

When I was in fourth grade, I decided to run for student council representative. My parents and I spent hours coming up with a campaign and writing “For a good deal, vote Lisa O’Neill” on the edges of playing cards covered in red hearts and diamonds, black spades and clubs. But when the day came to make speeches, I was terrified. I cried. I made myself sick with worry and my parents let me stay home from school. Problem solved, I remember thinking. I was relieved that it was all over and even though I still wished to be on student council, I felt better. But when I returned to school, I found that they had postponed the election for me. Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher, asked me to come to the front and give a speech. I was stunned and completely unprepared. I said something I don’t remember for about ten seconds and then sat down. Liz Heard won (her campaign had involved something with lizards). I remember being caught off guard by having a chance to give the speech even though I wasn’t there the day the election was scheduled. Mrs. King was not following the rules, and I found it disconcerting.

I also sought out clear moral lines as a child. In my endless effort to be good, I needed more and more examples of how to be good and what to avoid so as to not be bad. Aesop’s Fables were appealing to me because there was a clear moral answer to each story:

“It is easy to despise what you cannot get.” (The Fox and the Grapes)

“It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.” (The Ant and the Grasshopper)

“Better no rule than cruel rule.” (The Frogs Desiring a King)

“We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.” (The Old Man and Death)

I took solace in the clarity of each story, the simple answers, the ease with which I could understand how Aesop arrived at each moral.

The problem is that these morals are without context. There are no tips or explanations of  how to apply them to our lives. “Better no rule than cruel rule” is a nice enough saying, but what do you do if you have no control over who the ruler is? How do we “prepare for days of necessity”? What does “days of necessity” even mean?

When I was ten years old, my parents and I traveled to the Southwest to explore the Grand Canyon. We flew from our home in New Orleans to El Paso, Texas. Because we had arrived early in the day, my dad decided it would be fun to take an impromptu trip to Mexico. This was before you needed a passport to make the passage. Neither one of my parents had been to Mexico and neither knew what to expect when we crossed over into Juarez.

Crossing the border only took a few minutes and then we were there. I had been lying down resting in the back seat. I remember sitting up and immediately being greeted with the faces of children my age, but skinnier and with brown skin, who reached their arms out, cupped hands towards our car and the cars in front of us. I don’t remember if we gave any of them change, but I think we kept driving. Ten feet later, there were more children, and then more. Their clothes were torn. Their eyes were vacant. Watching them, I began to cry. I asked my parents where their parents were. I asked them why they had to beg on the street for money. I don’t remember exactly what my parents offered up as an explanation, but I do remember that for the first time ever, my parents did not have a real answer. They couldn’t give me a good reason why these children were poor instead of me or why they didn’t have any food. They couldn’t explain my grief away.

I wish that life was as easy as “We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified” but the truth is that we often would be satisfied or healthy or happy if our wishes were gratified and we struggle when they are not. Fables are helpful only to explain values to young children who don’t yet have the level of understanding to understand that morality is complicated.

"A Portrait of Aesop"; a marble figure in the Villa Albani, Rome

Although biographies of Aesop’s life hold contradictory information, most concur that he was a slave and many reference that he was not attractive or even that suffered from physical deformity. Some mention that he had a speech impediment from early youth. Given this information, I see his fables differently. It seems possible that, for him, these moral lessons were a coping mechanism. “It is easy to despise what you cannot get” seems fitting for someone born into slavery, someone who cannot be handsome, someone who cannot speak clearly. Were the stories he created ways for him to reconcile with his own challenges and impediments? Did they serve as a way to make him feel better regardless of his limitations? Did he create moral lessons that made his individual problems feel more tolerable?

There can be beauty in simplicity, but sometimes there is real limitation. I think of people who quote a Bible verse with no regard for the verses before or after to make their argument. Sometimes, we just have to be okay with the fact that the choices that we make in this life and the way that our lives are intertwined with others are infinitely complicated.

This somewhat relates to the third definition of the word: “a falsehood.”  We have all heard of lying by omission. Although fables tell us a moral through story, they assume that our lives will play out the same as in the stories. But the truth is that there are no easy solutions for how to make decisions or how to be a good person. We do the best we can. We make mistakes. We discern given our situation what the best steps to take are. And sometimes, the fables may apply. And other times, we have to tap into our own mind and heart and write the parting lesson ourselves.

The Old Man and Death

The Old Man and Death

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Frogs Desiring a King

The Frogs Desiring a King

Aesop's Fables

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