Friday, March 26, 2010

Joan of Arc: Clear Minded?

I think part of the reason that women in particular adore Joan of Arc is that she said what she meant and did what she said she was going to do; without being too snarky and stereotypical and retro, it's true that women don't always speak their mind as truthfully as we should or want to. (Okay, maybe I'm just speaking for myself, Miz Avoid Conflict At All Costs!). This week marks the anniversary (March 22, 1429) of Joan's first letter to the English, which she dictated in a voice so strong and clear that it is one of many indications that perhaps Joan's mind was more focussed than some have assumed--and enviable at that!

Hand over to the Maiden,who is sent here by God the King of Heaven, the keys to all the towns which you have taken and violated in France. She has come here in the name of God to support the Royal family. She is quite prepared to make peace, if you are willing to do right, so long as you give up France and make amends for occupying it. And you, archers, soldiers both noble and otherwise,who are around the town of Orléans, in God's name go back to your own lands. And if you will not do so, await word of the Maiden, who will go to see you soon to your very great misfortune. King of England, if you do not do so, I am a commander, and wherever I come across your troops in France, I shall make them go, whether willingly or unwillingly; and if they will not obey, I will have them wiped out. I am sent here by God the King of Heaven - an eye for an eye - to drive you entirely out of France.

No message could be clearer. And while I have thought, and argued, that part of Joan's confidence may have come from the illusion most teenagers have of invincibility and a particular brand of narcissism, I also think that she was just one of those rare humans who lived and died by one singleminded goal. (You could say she died because of her singlemindedness, which alas, is not so enviable...)

When I was 19, the age Joan was killed, I longed for a mission, a purpose, and a goal that "burned" in me as fiercely as Joan's did. I wholeheartedly wished I had one single strong pursuit. Instead, I changed majors several times, I reluctantly lost the virginity I'd held onto for vague lofty reasons, and I lived for the first time outside of my home state. These "decisions" were not necessarily made with any sense of certainty; rather, they were made in a kind of desperate desire to create a sense of self and definition.

Luckily, I was writing a lot and taking that somewhat seriously, and I was reading even more, and taking that very seriously. One of my favorite poems, published in a collection the year after I graduated college, was "What is Possible" by Adrienne Rich:

If the mind were clear
and if the mind were simple you could take this mind
this particular state and say
This is how I would live if I could choose:
this is what is possible…

The poem goes on to explain that the mind is so rarely this clear...if only it were! What could be possible if we could only clear our minds and do what we know we "must" do.

I wish every 19 year old woman had some of Joan's forthrightness and clarity, enough so that she might move forward with her goals without fear. I wish that for men and women, of course, but it's my women friends who from age 19-25 seemed often skiddish, indecisive, self-destructive, and anxious about decisions. We are all more confident and experienced now, but that feeling of "what if" still lingers...which is why reading Joan's kick-butt letter is a fine reminder of What Is Possible.