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Being Born Again at Moo U. Being Born Again at Moo U.

Finding one's self is not without turmoil. This does not pertain to only the young. It takes some people well into old age before they reach the level of ‘knowing’ who they are. An essential element of this maturation is turbulence. Periodic turbulence gives an individual the opportunity to rise above previous deficiencies of personality and provides levels of self-awareness. There are many ways that people face maturation, and many more ways in which they do or don’t face their ‘demons’.

Let’s look at some of the characters in Jane Smiley’s novel, Moo. At Moo University there are plenty of examples of turmoil and growth process’. One of the ways that a person matures is through learning to accept themselves for who they are.

Cecelia Sanchez is the assistant professor of foreign languages. An immigrant from Mexico, Cecelia is the first in her family to make something of herself, at least in her family’s eyes. She has done all the right things yet she feels dislocated from herself. On arriving at Moo University she experiences a feeling of displacement, as if she doesn’t belong. In her first weeks there "she would have picked a different source of dislocation." (Smiley, 16).

Cecelia’s life turns upside down as she attaches herself to the chaotic world of Chairman X. She attempts to locate herself through him. She shops for "transformative items" (Smiley, 261) in an attempt to remake herself into something that Chairman X will want. It isn’t until Cecelia returns home to Los Angeles for the holidays that she feels "a fourth presence enter the room. It was her own sadness." (Smiley, 266).

Cecelia tells Tim, "I come from a family who could have LIVED somewhere, but instead just ended up." (Smiley, 378). Cecelia has decided that she does not want to ‘end up’ somewhere. Her turmoil has led her to realize that she has a choice to ‘end up’ in a place of her choosing, not someone else’s.

Other people find through turmoil that it is time to release the myths with which they have surrounded themselves. Chairman X and his lifelong companion, Beth, have made a life for themselves that does not fit into the myth they created many years before. They had never married because they originally believed that they must not "in order to subvert the capitalist tradition of marriage as a property relationship and the consequent intrusion of the corporation into private life." (Smiley, 337). As Beth raises their daughters she begins pull away from this view, she begins to realize that she needs more than what "he defined as her needs" (Smiley, 277), she comes to her own awareness of who she is.

It takes X a bit longer. While maturation stares him boldly in the face, X fights with all his will to hold on to the myth of who he once was. "He couldn’t envision what he did know, but he could see perfectly what he had never known" (Smiley, 277) and this view was a diversion from the knowing the person that he was, the person that Beth saw him as. Chairman X tumbles through turmoil before landing in a heap at the bottom of his soul. From this view he comes to the conclusion that he is this family man of whom he was so afraid. He arranges a surprise wedding with his children and he and Beth are married.

Then there are the dreamers, those people who have held on to their dreams so tightly that when the dream bites them in the rear they don’t even realize that they’ve been bitten. Marly Hellmich has locked herself up in her dreams for so long that it takes her several bites before she realizes that something is not right. Marly has "cast her lot with faith" and forgotten about "liberal education" (Smiley, 26), she worked hard and accepted "the task set by Jesus" (Smiley, 26). But Marly’s dream was to marry well and finally quit her job at the University cafeteria. When Nils proposes to Marly, she knows she does not love him, but she accepts his proposal because getting out of the cafeteria is her dream and this man can make it happen.

It takes a while for Marly to realize that Nils’ dreams do not fit with her own. She had believed that all her dreams were coming true, through Nils. But finally she has to face the truth that the dreams and beliefs she had held onto for so long are all wrong. With her new status as Nils’ fiancee, Marly finds she does not ‘fit’ anywhere anymore. Her friends at church "had pushed her out of that slot and into another one" (Smiley, 361). Marly doesn’t ‘fit’ into her dreams. When she climbs aboard the truck that will take her away from the mess her life had become, Travis asks her, "Been waiting long?" (Smiley, 362). Marly doesn’t even realize how long she has been waiting -- a lifetime of waiting for her self.

Tim Monahan liked to think of himself as eccentric. A writer, professor of English, and well known for his sexual prowess, Tim seems to have made peace with his life. Tim has set himself up for a fall. He delicately perches on a mountain of over-inflated lies. Tim has long been in the habit of "casually standing back from the edge" (Smiley, 284) but he comes tumbling down when he lays eyes on Cecelia Sanchez.

In Cecelia, Tim finds a woman not impressed by his accomplishments or his sexual prowess. Cecelia, intent on trying to ‘place’ herself, discards Tim as not fitting into her world. This stance naturally hurts and bewilders Tim, but this turmoil that he faces forces him to question why Cecelia is not interested in him. It forces him to self-assess and he ultimately finds himself lacking. Tim realizes finally that "some people do wait their whole lives for something, and it’s only when that thing arrives that they find out that they’ve been waiting rather than living." (Smiley, 308). The previously egotistical Tim has decided to "get away from the first-person point of view" (Smiley, 378) and focus on those around him. His turmoil and consequent re-assessment of self has matured him and set him in a new life direction.

Pressure from outside forces wish us to stay recognizable -- they become upset when we change. Mary, a freshman at Moo University, experiences the turmoil that comes with trying to be what others want us to be. As a young black woman, Mary is desperately searching for her identity. She vacillates between wanting to be like her white roommates and wanting to be more ‘black.' She decides to move into an all black apartment where "the women celebrated Kwanzaa and other African holidays, and two of the women had actually been to West Africa" (Smiley, 321).

Mary also struggles with the problem of her sister, who insists that Mary be the one to break the vicious circle of ignorance in their family. Everyone around her wishes her be recognizable to them and Mary cannot even "imagine herself here." She felt that at Moo University "there wasn’t even a space where a black person should be." (Smiley, 381). After many inner struggles, Mary begins to emerge from beneath the identities that others have heaped on her and she is able to make her own decisions about who she is and who she will become.

The characters in Smiley’s novel are representative of the turmoil that one faces in life, the necessary turmoil that leads towards maturation. Whether it be finally accepting oneself, letting go of myths, realigning one’s dreams, re-assessing one’s personality, or becoming recognizable to ourselves, the maturation process is always accompanied by turbulence.

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2002, 2006

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