Study Guide

My Life Characters

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My Life Summary & Study Guide Description

My Life Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on My Life by Lyn Hejinian.

Lyn Hejinianappears in My Life

Lyn Hejinian is the author of "My Life", and her voice serves to narrate the poems in this collection. As a child, the narrator fears her uncle with the wart on his nose and is shy of her aunt's deafness. She dips into and recoils from the water, but a word is a bottomless pit which becomes pregnant and splits open to give birth to a stone egg. The narrator thinks of the densely shadowed overtones as she begins a paragraph about her childhood being spent in a manner of waiting. At night, the narrator sits on the windowsill, singing. The narrator is so stubborn as a toddler that when she is crossed, she holds her breath until she loses consciousness. In the afternoons, when the shades are pulled down for her nap, the dark yellow light coming through makes the narrator thirsty. When the narrator sees fishing boats, she thinks of the sky and the banks toward the West. Nothing interrupts birthday parties when the narrator is a child, as she wears Mary Janes and sips Shirley Temples. The narrator tries the word "moth" because she cannot get the word "butterfly." She secretly vomits in the school bathroom because she misses her mother. The narrator watches her parents every night because she fears they will pack and leave her.

At age 9, the narrator is concerned when her boyfriend is sick and misses school, by virtue of their relationship that is love, and she takes his homework to him after school. As she plays alone, she imagines developing into a tree and yearns to do so so strongly that it makes her shapeless, restless and disagreeable.

The narrator says she would need to explain if it were written. When the teacher at her Christian Science Sunday School asks what she wants to be when she grows up, she says a writer or a doctor, but it is embarrassing because the words of the last to speak linger in the air. She borrows Father's typewriter and runs through the holes in her memory. The narrator does not want a tenth birthday party; she only wants her mother from whom she is separated by her friends. Recognizing that she is different from herself when with friends, the narrator withdraws in order to protect her honesty. The narrator is self-sufficient but always vulnerable to her feelings in relation to someone else. From the bus, she sees a blind woman selling carnations on Geary Street. The narrator watches Independence Day fireworks as the winter rains fall into the bay.

The narrator sees her life as a struggle against her fate and personality. Every time she enters the Metro in Paris, she reads the sign reserving the large seats nearest the door for war veterans; the writing holds it separated to see there. The narrator hopes to recreate herself, but she finds herself trapped in the very character that creates this wish. She begins painting a few months after taking a creative writing class. She still responds to the academic year. She spreads her fingers as she speaks of artifice which extends beauty beyond nature. At 8 a.m., she senses the first threat of monotony because she is tired of ideas. She avoids telephone calls as a pretense of keeping her distance from anything that appears pretentious. It seems that the narrator does not want a birthday devoid of sentimentality. The narrator uses many ideas to become intellectually concentric. The narrator wants to visit Givenny and the gardens of Monet. She writes a week's worth in one night. She rebels against worlds of her own construction and withdraws into the empirical world surrounding her. In her childhood memories, others dominate, but she dominates her more recent memories.

The narrator recalls a woman who renounces a point with good reason, but then she accepts it again. They walk on Beech Street to see the three great copper beech trees that have been built around rather than built over. The narrator does not find Death any more or less peculiar than pre-life, though the latter is never personified. The narrator occasionally transfers her restlessness to the vehicle itself. When reading a book, it makes a difference to her to know that he will read the same book, but she wonders if the difference would be altered if he was going to read a different copy. The narrator finally reaches an age where she can love her parents generously, and she comes to depend upon her children socially. The narrator's interests are much broader than those of people who have said the same thing for eight years. The narrator and her husband sit on the beach in the cold, but she is warm. There are days when busywork is satisfying. The narrator recalls the day in October 1978 when she lost her temper. She lives a few blocks from the scenes of her childhood, yet they mean nothing. In her memories of walking home alone, she recalls herself as a burgeoning personality in the schoolyard, and she feels anew its oppression which makes her dread school retrospectively though she liked it very much in reality.

The narrator will not despair; she hopes to rise daily before 7 a.m. and to avoid idleness. She is relieved as she writes down that thought because now she can forget it, but forgetfulness does not occur as other thoughts take its place. She never rids herself of the conscientiousness that existentialism taught. There are too many pieces to the narrator's idea, and she likes to move them around as she becomes obsessed with patience. As a person on paper, the narrator is androgynous. Riding with her parents toward Cheyenne years earlier, the narrator sees a farmhouse, sheds, a barn and houses, and her disembodied spirit flies to take it on. A laser beam reads the inventory digits at the checkout counter. Mothers for Modesty march against the corner store due to the magazines sold there, so the narrator shops at the corner store. The narrator walks the paths carrying Mace, whereas Grandfather carried a walking stick. The narrator takes a pen and paper with her, sure she will solve a problem, as she sets out for a walk. The narrator finds solace in her chores. She reads theory all afternoon while eating a dish of carrots, then she lays out her papers and secures the evening. The narrator wants people to understand this, but she hates to "lighten up." For years, the narrator has nightmares about a plane losing control and plummeting into the schoolroom.

We who appears in My Life

The second poem in this book is titled "We who 'love to be astonished,'" and this group of people reappears in nearly every poem hereafter; though their identities are never specified, some of the references to them suggest that they are meant to be the narrator and her husband, and perhaps, their children. Each reference to we who "love to be astonished" begins with that phrase, followed by something that occurs or that they think or feel. For them, their heartbeats shake the bed, and they see that a weasel eats twenty times as much as a lizard of the same size. She is not the maid but the mother, and mother loves. Every Sears smells the same. She pretends to be a blacksmith. A moth has more flesh than a butterfly could lift. He would say these are its ghosts, and he is a walker.

For we who "love to be astonished", all relationships move, the ear is less active than the eye, and the night is lit. McDonald's is the world's largest producer of beef eyeballs, and fences keep cyclones. We who "love to be astonished" know that every new bit of knowledge merely indicates a wider ignorance. Life is linked to man, and Marie must thicken the eggs in a bath. Money makes money, and luck creates luck. The old-fashioned branching ice cream cones could hold twin pairs of scoops or four. It is more like muggy than wooden houses. She loves these kids and was territorial at their nativity. For we who "love to be astonished," consciousness is durable in poetry, though they lead that life because it is mulish and packed. The saxophone is a diplomat. The adult son and daughter of we who "love to be astonished" resume.

Motherappears in My Life

Mother is the narrator's matriarch who moved from Alaska as a child, and her childhood is a kind of melodrama. She falls and breaks her arm while stamping down the trash. Mother watches the visible lights from the window. At the beach, she holds her children's hands and lectures them on the undertow as they try to jump the waves. The narrator secretly vomits in the school bathroom because she misses her mother. The narrator does not want a tenth birthday party; she only wants her mother from whom she is separated by her friends. Mother throws away all objects of sentiment. Mother is born ten years before Rilke dies though she never encounters him while boarding the steamers from Alaska as a child.

Fatherappears in My Life

Father returns from war four years later in a purple moment. The narrator writes her name on the first page of every one of his books. Father fills apothecary jars with sea glass from beaches. The narrator borrows Father's typewriter and runs through the holes in her memory. Father provides her with the right phrase about beauty and the wonder of books: "Individuality is animated by its sense of the infinite" (page 49). When his children are small, Father suggests that his family go camping, but the outdoors frighten him in the dark. Father says that painters are happier than writers after he switches himself. Father is able to imagine Gertrude Stein.

Grandfatherappears in My Life

Grandfather is as serious as any general before battle, though he was too young for World War I and too old for World War II. He carries a walking stick and is silent on his walks except to greet his neighbors. There is some disparity between Grandfather's reserve and his sense that a man's natural importance is characterized by his bulk. Grandfather is forced to acknowledge his age when a younger man offers his seat on the bus. When Grandfather swings his crutch in the garden and smashes a wine jug, the old woman shrieks and sucks at the pools of spilled wine in the dirt. When he is quite old, Grandfather assures the narrator that happiness is worthless which is why he never sought it out for himself or Father; happiness has nothing to do with whether life is good.

Grandmotherappears in My Life

Grandmother is a Christian Scientist. Wearing a washdress, she stands in the kitchen with her hands on her hips and states that she is waging war now as she watches a line of ants cross behind the sink faucets. At night, the narrator's grandmother pulls down the window shades. Grandmother comes upon a set of expressions that suits her perfectly, so she continues to use them long after they are out of fashion. Grandmother always complains about the children breaking the boughs of the redwood trees as they go down the hill in the afternoons. She sends one of them to fetch a specific sweater before allowing them to go downtown for Eskimo Pies. Grandmother listens to Mozart piously and prefers the weather to be seventy-two degrees with no breeze.

Auntappears in A pause, a rose, something on paper

The narrator is shy of her deaf aunt who falls into the habit of nodding agreeably.

Uncleappears in A pause, a rose, something on paper

Uncle has a wart on his nose, and the narrator fears him because of his jokes at her family's expense which are beyond her.

Tommyappears in Such displacements alter illusions, which is all-to-the-good

Tommy is the mailman when the narrator is a child. He allows the neighborhood children to join him on his route, but he sends them home when he reaches the busy streets.

Friendappears in The years pass, years in which, I take it, events were not l

The narrator's friend claims that there is no point in purchasing a large home since her children will stay in the kitchen with her while the other rooms remain empty.

Grotesquesappears in So upright, twilit quoted

The Grotesques are the narrator's downstairs neighbors when she lives in the apartment. The father is a Peruvian businessman who wears pinstripe suits, and he is married to an ancient, invalid woman who suffers epileptic seizures. Their very fat daughter also lives with them; she teaches piano lessons every afternoon and calls the narrator every evening to ask if she is disturbed by the noise. When the Grotesques invite her to tea, the narrator must accept.

Ancestorappears in I laugh as if my pots were clean

One of the narrator's early relatives becomes an ancestor after being George Washington's bodyguard.

Annaappears in A somewhat saltier, earthier tomato grows there and is more

When they get home, the narrator allows Anna to describe the rattlesnake between the big oaks because the greatest thrill is to be the one to tell.

Paullappears in There is no

Paull proposes outer space as a terminal where everything is memory in a kind of electronic water.

Larryappears in The world gives speech substance and mind (mile) stones

While resting on a quiet dirt path on the way to the cabin, Larry tells the narrator to listen to the residual noises from the city which are coming from his ears.

Susanne Langerappears in A word to guard continents of fruits and organs

Susanne Langer is the grandmother of the children that the narrator babysits at the beach one summer. Years earlier, she sits on the beach daily while working to complete her distinction between discursive and non-discursive symbols. The narrator is attracted to this image though she admits that it must have been hard on Langer's children.

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