The month before I finished my BA, a friend informed me that I had become a ghost. He said that he could no longer see me as quite present nor as quite gone. He could not continue to invest in our friendship, but my lingering presence kept him attached. I think he was just bitter that I was leaving, but now, years later, his comment has me thinking. When it comes to friendships, do we all, eventually, become ghosts?
My freshmen have just turned in an essay assignment that asks students to analyze a group to which they belong and to discover what shared activities bond them. As I’ve been reading these essays, I’ve noticed a theme. After only two months of knowing their roommates or sorority sisters or teammates, they declare that they’ve made “lifelong friendships” and are experiencing “a bond that cannot be broken.” Perhaps it’s my own bitterness at recently losing a twenty-five year friendship that makes me cringe at these platitudes. How do they know whom they’ll be friends with until the end of their lives, and how do I know either? My friendship ended over seemingly nothing, and yet, looking back, it also seems obvious that the branches of that tree would have eventually, undeniably, grown apart.
Losing friends in my 20s made more sense to me once I reached my 30s. In our 20s, we were still making deeply significant choices about how we would be adults. Habits were malleable and often remained undetermined until later. It made sense to me, in retrospect, that once the pieces of our adult personalities fell into place, some of us would no longer fit.
Losing people in my 40s is also painful, but instead of confusion and regret at what might have been, it feels more like an intense awareness of reality. I can usually see clearly now, after years of watching patterns (both other people’s and my own) how thoughts, feelings, and choices shape our lives, together and apart.
Now, I have all these memories of my former friend, an entire lifetime of them, fun ones like when we got lost in Redondo Beach, looking for the restaurant we had visited several times before. Bad memories of arguments and misunderstandings. And just the nice ones, walking along the beach, talking about our respective futures, whom we’d like to marry, whom we’d like to let go. But now it feels like I’m haunting these memories, as though I’ve regressed to a previous lifetime when I was inclined to walk with a dragon who would burn me if I was not charmingly demure enough, if I did not twist for him just right. The pleasant memories can only live in the context of who I used to be, and it’s a strange way to grieve, stacking memories in a cupboard I will no longer visit.
Today, I leave you with Cynthia Huntington’s “Ghost,” a poem that explores different phases of connection. I like the faint existence that the speaker inhabits in the poem, and the object of her interest’s distraction. Bit by bit, the ghost seeps into form until she finally states her name. The situation reminds me of how people become more of who they are, as time passes, and the unpredictable response of their loved ones to that strengthening identity.
I remember reading some dumb article in the 80s that claimed that women felt more stressed than ever because they had been “offered” more life choices. Should they stay at home with kids? Work outside the home with kids in daycare? Work outside the home, part time, with kids at home? Honestly, I don’t recall any other options but those three. I’m going to glide right over the ridiculous claim that women are happiest when most oppressed and that men cannot factor into child-rearing. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect not to admit that options can, in fact, create stress when making decisions.
Options themselves are not the problem, though. Surely, most people have more options than they realize or care to acknowledge. I think the challenge, when presented with numerous paths, is mastering the art of narrowed focus. For instance, this semester, my university has performed some pretty impressive contortions, trying to maintain funding whilst not exposing students, faculty, and staff to a potentially deadly virus. On these gymnastics, I choose not to comment publicly. I will say that, while removing the option of meeting with all students (in the same room and at the same time) has prevented much of what I normally can accomplish in my classes; in a strange way, it’s opened doors to other learning options that I hadn’t truly considered before. The details of these options may best be detailed in another forum, but I will mention that my hope is to return, one day, to regular in-person classes, but with new ideas I’ve picked up from this tip-toeing-on-slippery-riverbed-rocks semester we’ve been handed (gifted?).
Growing up in an unhealthy household proved my greatest informant regarding the preciousness of options. While I agree with the pessimists that it is annoying when optimists try to arm-wrestle people into cheerful submission (although I would argue that those optimists aren’t as happy and open-minded as they claim) the same can be said of the iron fists of the gloomy and their relentless oppression of choice. Many of my early, familial cellmates could be described as the latter. I believe that the only way I escaped their misery was to fantasize about better options.
The key to embracing options is first, to see them, and second, to narrow them down for yourself, as not to get overwhelmed. I find that the first is usually the most problematic for people. Of course, we’ve all been told what we’re allowed to expect. For instance, I always have to laugh when somebody older than me (or these days, around my own age) tells me what horrors lie ahead once I “hit” a certain age. (It’s a curious way to say it, “hit,” as though your birthday isn’t just waking up, not dead yet, but a violent act you obliviously greeted.) I’ve been told what physical and emotional changes I should dread since I was twelve. Sure, changes happen, but I find that our culture suffers from a serious lack of imagination. Beyond what one can expect at certain age-milestones in life, I hope that the current revitalization of various movements (civil rights, women’s movement, and so forth) might inspire people to imagine a healthier, more thriving world than they previously thought possible. Although probably, many people will continue to hold tightly to the “truths” they’ve been taught and, perhaps, even punished for questioning.
My friend, James Duncan, the editor of Hobo Camp Review, recently published a beautiful issue of poetry with themes of hope, opportunity, belonging, and optimism; and he graciously included my poem, “Ode on ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” In this poem, I reference John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he describes a young couple, immortalized on an urn. The two will escape old age but also will never move forward, even prevented from ever kissing each other. They are frozen in this joyous, innocent, youthful moment.
I read this poem as an undergraduate and felt moved by its romance (if not frustrated that the two could never truly be together). Now in my forties, though, their situation seems horrible. Beyond just their inability to consummate their romance, they’ll also never get to grow old. I have always been taught that growing old is a horrible event that happens, both to body and mind. Admittedly, I have always enjoyed good physical health, which I’m sure informs my optimistic notion of aging. However, the couple on the urn, while they will never face inevitable physical decline, will also never receive the honor of perspective, the awe of understanding life more deeply after having witnessed cycles repeat, their significances revealed. I wrote my poem, not as a backlash against the inexperience of youth, or as a lamentation of life past forty, but rather as a revelation of the pleasures of growth.
I’ve linked my poem below, for anyone who is interested. Also, you should read James’ guest blog post about his beautiful poem, “Last Appointment of the Day.”
I hope this blog post finds you in good health and happiness (or as close to them as possible).
My wife and I are fairly nerdy. Often we spend our days off reading together and reading to each other. She recently read to me an article called, “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both,” by Nellie Bowles, which discusses how working from home through Zoom (among other contemporary culture shifts) has supposedly created a need for group rituals in the workplace. In the article, Ezra Bookman (founder of Ritualist) poses the question “‘How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?’” Ritualist’s Instagram account suggests “‘A ritual for purchasing your domain name’” and “’A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.’”
Later in the article, Bowles claims that she is “hungry for ritual….If my boss said we would be instituting a one-minute group breathing exercise in the evenings to mark the closing of our laptops, or beginning each meeting by all smelling a clove together, would I like it? I would.”
Now, because Postmodernism and contemporary society have conspired to kill satire, and because I sometimes cannot differentiate between my wife’s sarcasm and her charming southern accent, I finally interrupted and asked: “Is this a joke?” “No,” she replied, “it’s from The New York Times.”
I won’t get into the fact that, for Gen Xers, a “good” job meant that you could afford some of what you wanted and weren’t coming home in tears every night. I won’t get into it because I’m not completely sure it’s wrong to expect more out of life and work, and I’d be hypocritical to suggest otherwise since I gave up a corporate job (that often had me in tears at night) to earn a Ph.D. in poetry and live happily lower-middle class ever after.
I do require meaning in my work for happiness, and I’m glad that I picked writing and teaching. However, the idea of sniffing cloves together with my colleagues gives me the creeps. I feel certain that they, too, would share in my discomfort. It also seems forced, and in fact, Bowles even mentions that “many workers are already devout on their own terms, on their own time, and are not at all hungry for soul-based activities between 9 and 5,” not to mention the problem with asking “workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated.” I’ll skip over my cringe at the term “soul-based” (whatever the hell that means) and just reiterate that in this sense, I am old fashioned: I believe work is work and spirituality is private.
Still, there is a place for shared rituals. In March, just as my university shut down, due to COVID-19, my mother passed away. I had not spoken to her since I had moved to Alabama in 2008. It’s a decision that I still don’t regret because I made it out of the desire to thrive and not out of anger. My mother experienced many problems in life that prevented her from living well and maintaining healthy relationships.
When I first found out she died, I didn’t know what to do with her ashes. I had no experience planning death ceremonies, and the additional obstacle of pandemic travel restriction meant that her ashes sat on my shoe shelf for four months. We ended up taking the ashes to some woods that belong to friends of ours, who also run Wild Ground, a “creative project dedicated to the cultivation of sacred spaces, joyful connections, intentional living, and earth healing.”
I wrote a eulogy and picked a poem for my wife to read, and together we made a space for the ceremony we created. I don’t want to discuss details of the ritual, which brings me back to my leanings toward privacy around such matters, but I will say that my friends were very good at listening to how I wanted to honor my mother and finding ways to make meaning through ritual.
In some ways, rituals can express creativity and healing. Perhaps the best shared rituals are, ironically, spontaneous. Although I had put thought into the scattering of my mother’s ashes, and had written, prepared, and packed important items that I wanted to include, we mostly created the ritual on the spot. It was not prescribed by an institution. No one needed permission to invent or to improvise. The ritual was uninhibited.
Alternatively, though, rituals can sometimes morph into formal, rigid expectations. I’ve often thought that my mother would have been happier if she had been born later. Contemporary times could have provided her an easier path to live the life I think she would have preferred. I picture her skipping marriage and children. I think she would have enjoyed boyfriends or lovers or maybe even a partner she didn’t have to live with. Maybe she’d have chosen a career that would have never crossed her mind as possible, as a woman in the 1970s. Maybe she would have been a writer.
I chose not to have children and didn’t even marry until my forties. These decisions provided me with the time and energy to live the life I had dreamed up since childhood. I was not the little girl who played with dolls. Oh, I had some, but even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my “play” was to leave the “kids” at home with “Dad,” so I could go to work. That was my fun. Sure, as a young adult, I still experienced aggression from people who condemned me for not marrying and having children, but at least I didn’t need a man to co-sign my apartment lease.
I’ve never been one to romanticize the past, nor do I begrudge my mother for the possibility that another life would have made her happier. Unfortunately, the tyranny of cultural demands lead her to the rituals of “traditional” family. Society convinced her that marrying young and staying home with kids equaled fulfillment, even though she clearly found no pleasure in either.
I suppose what bothers me about Bowles’ article is the thought of a person’s workplace (already greedily absorbing employees’ personal lives through their smart phones) would seek to maneuver itself even deeper by invading the spiritual realm.
Life’s situations always provide two sides: the simple and the complicated. If attentive, one can always locate both. Bigotry is simple: it’s cruel; don’t do it. Bigotry is complicated: it comprises the very root of our culture in ways so normalized that many can’t even see it, even sometimes those who directly experience it. But while working to dismantle the sicknesses of our world, one might consider the simple ritual of paying attention to day-to-day life. One need not work at creating meaning for such simplicities. There is no need to analyze, daily, what activities count as “soul-based” as though our consciousness checks out every time we forget to mindfully eat our cereal. It’s usually enough to pay attention to what our bodies tell us about the actions we’re performing. I feel that if my mother had had enough support to do the latter, she might have thrown caution to the wind, remained in her single-woman Hollywood flat, and discovered her own path to fulfillment.
I leave you today with the poem I chose for my mother’s ash-scattering ceremony.
The Laughing Heart By Charles Bukowski
your life is your life. don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission. be on the watch. there are ways out. there is light somewhere. it may not be much light but it beats the darkness. be on the watch. the gods will offer you chances. know them, take them. you can’t beat death but you can beat death in life, sometimes. and the more often you learn to do it, the more light there will be. your life is your life. know it while you have it. you are marvelous the gods wait to delight in you.
Recently, I watched Shirley, a movie that attempts to tell a story about someone writing a story, the latter of which usually proves boring to watch. I make this statement as a writer myself. Unlike a dancer, for instance, a writer’s art is what she gives you after its completion, not the act of creating the art itself. That phase usually consists of long hours of staring into space, scribbling, and talking to one’s self. The movie spices up the process by focusing the Shirley Jackson character’s twisted relationship with a boarder (a purely fictional character used as a plot device). The movie was all right, but it rekindled my interest in Jackson’s work, including one of her more famous gothic horror novels, The Haunting of Hill House. I had never read it before andenjoyed the book’s ghosts—literal and figurative—and the ending, which does not clearly resolve the mystery.
I also watched the recent television version of the book. I thought the reimagining of the story was quite interesting. The main characters are transformed into a family unit (instead of a group of strangers from the book) and the majority of the narrative takes place outside of Hill House. However, I did not care for its tear-jerker tone. The incredibly sad memorial scene stretched on for so long that I felt relief when the remaining family members finally got chased by angry ghosts again.
Horror can provide a safe environment to channel excess anxiety, and in fact, it has been scientifically proven that children who experience trauma will forever produce too much adrenal. Considering the number of children who have either experienced abuse or other traumas (such as war and poverty) one can better understand the potential healing affects of the ax-murderer through the woods scene! (Read more about the therapeutic need for horror in “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror”.) I think it’s interesting, though, that recent horror narratives seem to dial up the grief factor. There are some people who claim to benefit from the cathartic affects of the tear-jerker, but I am not one of them. I always feel manipulated by overtly sad narratives, and when I’m watching horror, intensively sad scenes hit me harder than a monster lunging from a closet, horrible grin and hatchet in hand. I’m not at a horror movie to cry.
But what is the purpose of grief in horror? Horror narratives speak to the audience’s fears, of course. Blood, guts, violence—yes, those are easy buttons to press, but what really keeps people up at night depends largely on the time period and the specific audience. Rosemary’s Baby came out at a time when people were particularly anxious about women’s reproductive rights. Us speaks to our current notion that horror is our fellow American. (I think that idea works no matter what side of the political spectrum the audience resides.) Ready or Not responds to our anxiety about the 1% and its control over the vulnerable.
But grief is sneakier than anxiety. It runs deeper in our psyche. Perhaps it’s even the root of anxiety. Grief is horror, but it is also so commonplace, one could almost miss it. The Netflix movie, Bulbbul explores grief to a backdrop of witchcraft and feminism. (Read more on horror and feminism, in “Everyday Horrors”.) Although producer Anushka Sharma claims that the movie is a drama-thriller, I’ve always found that the combination of feminist issues and revenge-murder leans more toward the horror genre. Either way, this movie struck me for its ability to weave the grief of the protagonist (an abused child bride) with a hopeful revenge scenario, fueled by Kali.
There are some parts of the movie that could use revision (like the worn and offensive “developmentally-challenged-man-as-predator” trope). Overall, though, I enjoyed the movie. The tension between the calm smirk of the protagonist and her past trauma, which is revealed, bit by bit, intrigues. Although not a tear-jerker, the grief of violation and captivity acts as an invisible monster, lurking beneath the beautiful, bright setting and lush costumes.
It will be interesting to see what horror narratives are born from our current pandemic. Covid-19 has all the makings of a horror-genre monster. It’s invisible to the naked eye, and symptoms of its presence could be the virus or just something benign, like hay fever. Even the results of catching the virus is unpredictable, from asymptomatic to painful death. Add to this fear the grief of losing our loved ones (or that potential) and the sadness of being cut off from loved ones as we quarantine. Even the connection lost from covering our faces with masks depresses. (Although the use of masks is wise and necessary).
Perhaps it’s the ordinariness of grief that makes it a fertile seed for a horror narrative. Our every day problems and sadness can sometimes add up to one hell of a demon.
Still, I prefer not to bring a tissue to a jump scare.
Today, I will leave you with a simple haiku by Clement Hoyt. I like this one because it takes an ordinary, creepy item and animates it to unsettling results.
A Hallwe’en mask,
floating face up in the ditch,
slowly shakes its head.
The following contains spoiler alerts, so if you haven’t watched Star Trek: Picard, beam out of here, immediately!
When I first heard that there would be a spinoff series of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was elated. I have long been a fan, both of the series and of Captain Picard, the character that Star Trek: Picard would revolve around. However, the more I heard about the show’s darker concepts, the more I felt my inner Counselor Troi’s uneasiness.
In an interview with Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: Picard: Patrick Stewart on Why He Returned to the Final Frontier”) the actor claims that “The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different. Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure.” Hmmm…I thought that was the point, though. I don’t think that a “secure” world has ever existed in our time; that’s why we were interested in living on the Enterprise, a place where justice stood a fighting chance. In the 90s, Stewart used to tell a story that illustrated this very point. A police officer wrote him a letter expressing appreciation for STNG’s portrayal of a “better world waiting for us.”
Perhaps, Stewart objected to the cleanliness of STNG. I do admit that the show introduces some pretty amazing advancements in mental healthcare. Picard seems fully to recover from being physically disassembled, plugged into the Borg, and forced to kill 11,000 people, after some therapy and a trip to his family’s vineyard. Still, though, I never saw STNG as a safe place. Yes, the main characters strive to better themselves, morally and professionally—admirable qualities—but they are surrounded by actual racism (of beings that are actually not human), their own sexism and racism (the latter of which they occasionally admit to), and episode after episode of torture and mind-rape.
To name a few examples of the latter, there’s the time that an Ullian mind-probing historian, rapes Deanna Troi through a fake memory to get back at his father for being a bit of an ass to him (“Violations”). In “The Mind’s Eye,” Geordi gets abducted on his way to a vacation only to get tortured and brainwashed by Romulans. In another episode (“Descent”) Geordi again gets the short end of the stick when Data, controlled by his evil twin, inserts metal probes into Geordi’s brain. Fun stuff!
Let’s not forget “Conspiracy,” where several Starfleet admirals are controlled by parasites and forced to murder people and to eat bugs. Even Data gets controlled by his father, Dr. Soong, who has implanted in him a homing device (“Brothers”). Data, against his own will, risks the lives of the entire crew by succumbing to his father’s programming that brings him home for routine maintenance. Couldn’t Dad just have called him or sent him a space communication or whatever?
Star Trek: Picard, on the other hand, makes no bones about darkness. No one’s addictions, fears, or inner demons get a clean ending, wrapped in a bow. And yet, as much as the show allows its characters grit, I still found myself scratching my head at some of their behavior and dismayed at the ways that difficult scenarios were summarily dismissed as either pure evil or shiny enough to continue, unchecked. Without further adieu, here are some of my thoughts on Star Trek: Picard.
1) Sutra, the Synth: I’m all for a bit of drama in, well, a tv drama, but honestly, they went so heavy-handed on this villainess. She slinks around like a cat or Jessica Rabbit. I can almost hear her say, “I’m not bad; I’m just programmed that way.” After she kills her own synth sister, Saga (with Saga’s own pretty, hummingbird brooch) Dr. Soong’s son kills her for it, without so much as a trial. After he presses a button, she crashes to the ground, and he tells her lifeless body “Turns out, you’re no better than we are.” Well, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, buddy. You were fine a minute ago letting her commit genocide against your own kind. This moment was so weighty, and yet, they moved on to a high-action scene without a second glance at Soong’s murder of his own android daughter. Sutra is terrible, but after this scene, I kind of can’t blame her for wanting to get rid of organics, when all they have to do is press a button to eradicate her.
2) Jurati murders an innocent, fellow scientist, but then saves the day and finds love: It does not appear, in the final scene of season one, that Jurati will be brought to trial any more than Sutra will be. This, of course, works to her advantage. What is in her favor, unlike poor Sutra, is that she’s blonde—uh…I mean—she’s turns over a new leaf and promises not to kill anymore.
The stark contrast between her situation and Sutra’s is breathtaking. Again, I don’t like Sutra, and she did try to commit genocide, but I can’t help but see her point about organics. Soong went along with mass murder but lived to tell.
Humans: can’t live ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
3) The Federation goes from a cluster-f of bureaucracy and treason to suddenly accepting synths back into the fold: The genocide of humanity almost happens; Picard gets a golem body with his consciousness implanted, and NOW the Federation lifts the synth ban? Is anyone else freaked out by the implications of transferring consciousness into a potentially immortal, mostly indestructible body (although Picard gets neither)? Who might receive this privilege? Is it a privilege? Data didn’t think so. He required technologically assisted suicide so that he’d know, “however briefly,” that his “life is finite.” He goes on to explain that “Mortality gives meaning to human life….Peace, love, friendship. These are precious because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.” Has no one thought of the repercussions of changing the very nature of humanity?
Also, do future institutions operate at warp speed, compared to now? This year, people have had to risk catching a potentially, deadly virus to protest around the country just for a few, offensive statues to come down. I can’t even imagine what it will take to dismantle the system that allowed the statues to be built in the first place, which is the ultimate goal. But ok, Federation.
The problem with infinity isn’t just manifested in Data’s desire for meaning, it’s imbedded in the way we expect Star Trek to be bold and contemporary (which, post-90s, apparently means dark) and yet, to remain faithful in its optimism. Show the darkness of the Borg but don’t let beautiful Seven of Nine die. Send Picard on one final voyage, except actually give him a healthy, golem body, with an expiration date, so that he can go on more adventures. Give Jurati some grit, but let her gleefully improve the Picard Maneuver and kiss her beau as she smiles, consequence-free, for her murderous transgression.
I don’t think anyone’s to blame. I think that, as organics ourselves, our inability to truly comprehend nonexistence collides with our understanding that we are mortals. The happiest among us allow time to pass through them and don’t cling to the past or worry about the future. It’s a big ask for any humanoid. And still, I wished for Picard to end, both the series and the man. I’m not completely sure why. Maybe I just wanted him to have one last meaningful adventure, to feel useful and like himself again. I wanted his impending extinction to ignite our understanding of what makes Picard—despite his human flaws—a great man and a great leader.
For me, the most beautiful scene was of Data’s last moments. I watched it several times. During his life, Data fought alongside his human comrades and in his free time, playfully mimicked their behavior. He had to fight for his own autonomy and for the rights bestowed on “sentient beings.” But in this quiet, last scene, his body evaporates into ephemeral mist and his wish to “be a real boy” is granted, with his Captain by his side. He finally knew what it meant to be human, and the audience gets closure after his abrupt departure in Nemesis.
Of course, I don’t know what happens after we are “extinguished.” Is that the end, and if so, the end of what? Is there something else in the future? Do we cycle back into this reality? I found this last scene to be a happy, satisfying end for Data, but really, what do any of us know, for sure, about the “after life?”
Today, I leave you with one of Emily Dickinson’s many poems that ponder life and death.
My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close by Emily Dickinson
My life closed twice before its close— It yet remains to see If Immortality unveil A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive As these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of heaven. And all we need of hell.
Recently, I OD’ed on darkness. Sometimes, I cope with life’s terrors by watching horror movies and listening to true crime podcasts. There are many theories regarding the therapeutic nature of horror, some of which I discuss in my post “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror.” But this month, I dove a little too far into the abyss (and it did not help that I had also read the beautiful but depressing books, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.) I was in desperate need of an overcorrect. I have read that type 2 diabetes can be cured with veganism, and I, too, needed an overly pure, difficult-to-sustain treatment, in order to counteract the narratives of serial killers and demonic influence that danced in my head.
Then, as though sent from above, I received a notice on Netflix that there was a new season of the Hallmark Channel’s Good Witch. A few years ago, I had watched the first two seasons of the show but figured that it had been cancelled. As it turns out, there are now SIX SEASONS!! Thank the goddess!
What is Good Witch about, you ask? Well, it’s basically the witch-version of 7th Heaven. Remember that gem? I do, because I used to watch it every time I craved outlandish optimism and the absence of long-term struggle.
Usually, I like some juice in my stories, something at stake. It need not be literal life and death, but I want a reason to continue. Recently, I watched The Great, a series loosely based on Catherine the Great, and although it is a comedy, I felt compelled to watch as the teenage spitfire fights for education, feminism, and the American dre—oh, whoops, I mean the Russian dream. (It’s ok, Russia, it hasn’t exactly worked out for America either.)
7th Heaven and Good Witch offer little to bite at, which is perhaps why they provide such a soothing balm. Both shows center around easily-resolved family issues, under the umbrella of watered down religion: The Camdens are Christian because they go to church and try to be nice to people; the Merriwick women are witches because they’re intuitive and drink tea. This dash of religion presents both stories as palpable to a mainstream audience, which traditionally opts for vanilla.
7th Heaven does confront some legitimately stressful problems such as spousal abuse, gun violence, racism, and slut-shaming. (The latter ironically co-exists with the show’s human chastity belt, eldest son, Matt, who obsesses over his younger sisters’ potentially budding sexuality. This behavior is encouraged by the father, Reverend Camden, and it makes me want to wretch every time I think of it.)
But what takes the sting out of each trouble (even the waves of nausea triggered by creepy Matt) is that the problems are more or less resolved within an hour and often times, are never seen again. If we’re being honest, true issues are rarely seen once. Most of the time, 7th Heaven problems are not actually problems. For instance, after the family doctor mixes up test results and incorrectly tells the Reverend and Mrs. Camden that Mary is pregnant (poor Mrs. Camden and her ever-fertile womb) Mary scolds her parents for thinking that she would “betray their trust” by having sex out of wedlock. But in case that’s not enough fantasy for you, there’s the episode that contains the least problem-y problem, “No Sex, Some Drugs and a Little Rock ‘N Roll,” where little Ruthie must come to terms with her gum-chewing vice. Seriously.
Nevertheless, I am unironically fond of the episode, “Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion” where the (mostly grown) kids go to great lengths to hide their tattoos. At the end of the episode, the parents— alone in their bedroom—reveal that they already know about the kids’ tattoos, as they pull down their pajama pants to reveal their own ink—mark of the beast be damned!
When I was younger, I’d fantasize that I was somehow the long, lost daughter of the Camden’s and got to be a part of their family (whilst keeping my distance from purity-ring-Matt). I can’t say how my life with the Camdens would have worked out, though, as I am uncertain of how the characters’ lives actually function. I also don’t know if they accept non-heterosexuality. In my recollection of the show, no one ever asked about it. They did accept Judaism, though, so mazel tov to progress!
Meanwhile, in Middleton, the witches experience a similar dearth of painful problems. The protagonist, Cassie, does deal with the haunting presence of her late husband and lightly mourns her troubled childhood; however, the appearance of the handsome doctor, who moves in next door, at least gives her something pretty to look at. And yes, of course, they find love. Maybe the most vexing issue for the couple is their tendency toward mild arguments regarding western medicine versus herbalism. Here’s my interpretation of such a debate between them:
Sam: No! But…SCIENCE! Cassie: Well, we’re both right, but mostly, I’m right. (knowingly smiles) Sam: (thinks: She’s so pretty in that tight dress. Too bad sex does not exist in Middleton.)
Oh, that’s the other thing, as of Season 3, sex does not exist in Middleton. Nobody’s weird about sex but nobody’s having it, either. There is sex on 7th Heaven, but everyone gets all excited about it and not in a good way.
Middleton is an entire town of people who cannot solve their own problems, without the Merriwick witches and essential oils. One can tell that they are definitely witches because they rarely charge anyone for their merchandise, and yet, Cassie maintains a beautiful, witchy shop, as well as an impeccable, mansion-sized bed and breakfast called, Grey House.
This magic apparently rubs off on everyone because the town routinely joins together to produce extremely expensive, large-scale festivals and parties, all within around three days.
I fantasize about moving to Middleton. I can easily imagine the magic of fantasy-television, bestowing on me what would be, in real life, quite a chunk of cash, and then, mostly just milling around in Cassie’s shop, drinking tea, and taking long walks in the beautiful town. But what about the people? Would Cassie be my friend? Would we brew tea together? Or would her know-it-all sorcery grate on my nerves, like the mayor’s dissonant “yoo-hoo!” that slices every conversation. But I can hover in brief daydreams, imagining the beautiful vintage clothes I’d don on my way to meet friends at Middleton Microbrewery.
Middleton has also found its way into my sleeping-dreams. The night after the peaceful protests in my city (Birmingham, AL) turned aggressive, I dreamed that a few people from Middleton and I circled a crop of beautiful, six-foot-tall flowers and gently shoveled garden soil unto their base. I could not understand what, exactly, we were doing, but it felt correct.
Nevertheless, as with any dream, one eventually wakes up. The world is a mess and always has been. Often, it’s hard to know how to change it. As I have yet to see systemic racism in Middleton (or actually any BIPOC at all) I assume that Cassie does not possess a tea remedy for four hundred years of oppression.
In Sammy Rhodes’ book, Broken and Beloved: How Jesus Loves Us into Wholeness, he laments the success of 7th Heaven, claiming that he’s “convinced that Satan loved” the show because “When there is no real sin to repent of, there is no need for a real savior.” I see what he’s saying, but as a non-Christian, it baffles me to abhor good behavior for any reason. In contrast, Diana Tourjée’s article, “‘Satan’s Favorite TV Show’: The False Moralism of 7th Heaven,”ponders the show’s legacy after the sexual abuse allegations against Stephen Collins emerged in 2014: “So what does a show like 7th Heaven sell to its consumer? We already know that faith can be a mask to religious leaders whose personal lives are wicked. The series feels desperate in its attempt to reconstruct an American life it felt was in jeopardy. While much of religious media feels like it consists of caricatures of real families, 7th Heaven felt exceptionally crude—so clean it was obscene.”
For me, the hyper-vigilant peace and community of these television shows is both what provides an escape and what eventually annoys me. It’s a tease. First, I want to live in that world of puny struggles and gorgeous homes. Then, I realize that the majority of my friends nor I could possibly live there, and even if we could, it would mean the end of growth. There is more to give the world than well-rested smiles and wholesome advice. There is also more to receive and to learn.
I am reminded of the Good Witch episode (“In Sickness and in Health”) where a grumpy painter blows into town and is given a magic brush. (Seriously, Cassie sells magic paintbrushes in her shop.) He finds inspiration and paints several pieces that predict the bland, near future of the characters on the show. He leaves feeling better, inspired by a new perspective. But the point is, he leaves picturesque Middleton for a world where chaos and pain, and yes, also love and peace, intermingle and co-exist. Middleton is no place for an artist, unless he’s able to unhook the town’s snow-white bodice and reveal the dark contrast of human existence: we only know happiness as deeply as we know grief.
Today, I leave you with a simple haiku by Hokushi about a small moment that contrasts joy and loneliness:
for that brief moment when the fire-fly went out…O the lonely darkness
UPDATE: I finished season 3 and here are a few observations.
POC siting! She buys valerian root for her sleeping problems. Hmmm…
Someone (who lives in Chicago—not Middleton) finally tells Cassie to lay off the predictions.
More mild trouble between Sam and Cassie: Sam doesn’t want to get married again; Cassie does. This conflict, expressed in near whispers, ends two tv-hours later with a horse-driven carriage ride and Sam on one knee. Huzzah!
In the 80s, no one really acknowledged child abuse unless you showed up with a black eye or an accusation of satanic worship. (Seriously, that was a thing. Google “Satanic Panic.” People served prison time for that nonsense.) It was not until my 30s that I realized how common it is to grow up in an abusive household, with drug addictions present. Consequently, I grew up feeling much different and alienated from other people. However, I was fortunate to have access to books, especially poetry, toward which I naturally gravitated.
In college, I read Li-Young Lee’s poem, “This Room and Everything in It,” and felt, not so much satisfied, but enlivened. The speaker describes his failure to tether the ephemeral to the concrete:
useless, useless . . . your cries are song, my body’s not me . . . no good . . . my idea has evaporated . . . your hair is time, your thighs are song . . . it had something to do with death . . . it had something to do with love.
As a young writer, this poem showed me how language can comfort and how it disappoints. I felt less alone, more rooted.
Joy Harjo’s description of the “horses who licked razor blades,” in her poem, “She Had Some Horses,” eased me into the understanding that, at least in the privacy of my reading time, my darkness had a safe home in which to tear up the furniture and scream out the window. The last three lines of the poem make room for contrast and the inability to reconcile.
She had some horses she loved. She had some horses she hated.
These were the same horses.
In a world where I was expected (and often times still am) to remain stable and affable, even during my deepest grief, these words comforted. I could own my complexities. I did not have to beam with resilience or cut myself down in lament, as so often are the roles offered to women, sometimes, in oscillating fashion.
At this point in my life, I’m in the role of teacher, sharing literature with my college students. My students are wonderful. I love having a job where I get to hear about everything in the world that is new: the latest ideas and shifts in our culture at the very beginning, from brand, new adults. Some of my students have already experienced deep conflicts in life and some have not. For the latter group, I have found it helpful to contextually frame particularly dark poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” so that students are not turned off immediately, citing Prufrock’s “problem” as “just some low self-esteem.” Sigh.
But this semester was different. This semester ended with all of us scattered across the country and communicating online. People are afraid. My students, not surprisingly to me, have remained kind, in their correspondence, and have done amazing jobs completing their work during a time when focus eludes. For their final assignment, they wrote a reflection on the text they most appreciated during the semester. I did not have any concrete notion as to what to expect from this assignment.
When I read the essays, I was moved to find that many of my students found comfort in these texts, especially during this global pandemic. One student wrote that since the “immortal feel” of his college experience has been “ripped” away from him, he relates more to Gilgamesh, and the grief he felt, when Gilgamesh loses his best friend, Enkidu. Another student had, before the pandemic, experienced Petrarch’s “Sonnet 189” as simply “morose,” but now that he has witnessed illness and isolation, reads the poem from a new perspective. Sappho’s poetry resonated with a student who wrote that she now understands how it feels to want to be near someone, knowing that she cannot.
Of course, I don’t want my students to suffer; I just know that they inevitably will (or are) and that books can provide a balm.
The week that our university went online, I learned that my mother had passed away. The weather was beautiful that day, and I sat on my red swing in the backyard and played fetch with my puppy until night came. I have always felt better outside. Maybe it’s because nature never asks you to change or to conceal your emotions. It will just sit with you.
I came upon the poem, “In Perpetual Growth,” by Amy Gerstler, that week. She describes the “human desire for peace” and the hope that “for every hurt / there is a leaf to cure it.”
I hope that, especially during this time, you find a “cure” that soothes you.
There is much for people to worry about lately: namely the physical and financial health of themselves and their loved ones. Many have been writing about these stresses already, so I am going to excuse myself from adding to the topic. Instead, I’ll write about another aspect of social distancing, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: attention to detail.
Over the weekend, a couple neighbors played live music from their front porch, and our neighborhood all came out and sat six feet away from each other to hear music and to connect with one another. I am fortunate to live in a friendly neighborhood where it is likely that people will learn the names of your dogs before they recall yours. When we first learned of the spread of the Coronavirus, people slowly began to work from home and stopped driving as much, unless they needed to forage for food. Little by little, a calm settled over our block. It is not unusual to see people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, and waving at one another is just the southern thing to do. But as we made peace with the situation, I started to see it: people’s smiles appeared effortlessly; adults giggled with their children, as they chased them around in their yards; grandparents taught the kids how to ride bikes. Neighbors made an even bigger point to check in with one another, and they began to notice and discuss their surroundings: the warm weather, the birds’ songs, the early spring-blooms.
As a writer, observing is my job. Honestly, what I’ve observed more and more, in recent years, is the tops of people’s heads. I won’t drone on about cell phone use. I believe technology keeps us just as connected as it does disconnected from one another. However, it seems pretty obvious that technology definitely stands between our senses and our surroundings.
Is connection to nature really important to anyone but poets and artists? Based on the collective sigh of relief I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks, in my neighborhood, I think it is. And whether we accept it or not, our bodies are part of nature, and paying attention to our surroundings paves the way to sensing what it feels like to inhabit a body and how that body interacts with its surroundings.
Our culture revolves around work and status. We all get caught up in it sometimes, wondering if our achievements are good enough, if we’re good enough. But for many people today, those achievements are on hold for a while. What does this time-out mean for our psyches?
I am no economist or scientist; I cannot predict how our country will soon change in terms of money and physical health, but I hope that, since most of us are sitting at home right now, we might take this opportunity to begin to notice our surroundings more. Perhaps this quieter time might heal some of the wounds our fast-paced culture has imposed on our notion of self-worth. Humans are social animals, but there is something to be said for self-reflection, a pastime not just reserved for poets.
Today, I leave you with Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991,” which describes the speaker feeling like a “secretary to the morning,” as he writes down all the details of his surroundings. The ending of this poem includes my favorite description of dawn that I’ve read in a poem.
I hope that you are all hanging in there. I know many people cannot stay at home and are directly confronted by this virus, either as healthcare workers or as employees at grocery stores and such. We appreciate you, and I hope that you, too, can find time in the future to rest and reflect.
By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left the house to take her botany final and the painter has arrived in his van and is already painting the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.
It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.
I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls, all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.
This is what stenographers do in courtrooms, too, alert at their miniature machines taking down every word. When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting and listening, fingers resting lightly on the keys.
This is also what Samuel Pepys did, jotting down in private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise slipped into the dark amnesiac waters of the Thames. His vigilance finally paid off when London caught fire
as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee and says how much he likes this slow vocal rendition of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.
Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix, hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out a running record of this particular June Tuesday
as it unrolls before my eyes, a long intricate carpet that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.
If I look up, I see out the window the white stars of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile, a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs, things you would expect to find outside a window,
all written down now and placed in the setting of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world. Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,
an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys, whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves, and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle
and the piano at the other end of this room with its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench. So convinced am I that I have found my vocation, tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,
a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing, when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back. It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eros or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,
not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun, her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim, her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky. But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor. She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.
I’ll be honest, it’s been a trying academic year. My classes are going well—no complaints there. But it’s been a year of changes and painful realizations. It has become impossible to deny that some people, whom I love (and who sometimes love me back) are also moody and unpredictable, and that there’s nothing I can do better except to stop internalizing their bad behavior.
Usually, my optimism (which comes by way of nature or by outside grooming—I can no longer tell) benefits me. When I focus on what I want, I see more of it. However, there are times that optimism feels like a snake eating its own tail, renewing itself so quickly that I forget to stop and remember why I needed it in the first place. Its swiftness saws off the top, obscuring the root of the problem: in this case, that sometimes people just suck.
But as my friend recently told me, “better” doesn’t mean good, and I don’t have to find a bright side. Last night, my wife asked me what was wrong and was surprised when I said that I don’t want to teach Arabian Nights this week. “But you love Arabian Nights,” she said. She’s right, and when a book about a smart woman who subdues a sociopathic misogynist with storytelling can’t cheer me up, I know it’s been a long winter. My wife suggested that I embrace my sadness, and I think she’s right. Maybe happiness is a cork in water: if you want it, you have to remove control and let it float.
For now, the days are getting warmer, and the sunlight stays out late. The physical manifestation of renewal will arrive soon, in the form of springtime, and will remind me, again, how to grow.
Today, I offer you a poem about the beginning of spring, by Philip Larkin:
On longer evenings, Light, chill and yellow, Bathes the serene Foreheads of houses. A thrush sings, Laurel-surrounded In the deep bare garden, Its fresh-peeled voice Astonishing the brickwork. It will be spring soon, It will be spring soon — And I, whose childhood Is a forgotten boredom, Feel like a child Who comes on a scene Of adult reconciling, And can understand nothing But the unusual laughter, And starts to be happy.
Recently, my neighbor, Rhonda, and I were discussing how much easier life has gotten since we’ve stopped going “home” for the holidays, but also how annoying it is when people pity us for our refusal to do what the “holiday season” culturally dictates.
“You know, just because it’s Thanksgiving does not mean I have to eat turkey with family,” Rhonda opined. I concurred. Later that day, she texted me, “I just read that it’s National Bacon Day,” complete with an eye-rolling emoji.
“Where are you going to eat your bacon today?” I jokingly replied.
Valentine’s Day is the next holiday on the calendar that asks folks to adhere to cultural norms. For this holiday, though, it’s not that we must break bread with our toxic families, it’s that we must express coupledom in the bright-eyed tone of new love’s infatuation.
I sense that Rhonda will not be passing out heart-shaped chocolate boxes this year.
Valentine’s Day has the distinct ability to tap into people’s singlehood-sensitivities. I’m lucky. I liked being single. There were times when I was unhappy, but there are times I am unhappy now, as a married person. I’ve never completely correlated emotions with relationship status. However, some people feel a deficit, when single, and who can blame them? The world is built for two.
Also, as a woman, it’s difficult to enjoy alone time in public without the interference of strange men who find your independence unsettling. Saturday Night Live addressed this problem in the brilliantly “funny-because-it’s-true” skit “Leave me Alurn.”
Yet, despite our contemporary version of “the couple’s holiday,” the origin of Valentine’s Day is unclear. There is apparently enough debate about St. Valentine himself, (namely, whether or not our version of him is actually a combination of two different people) that the Catholic church ceased liturgical veneration of him in 1969. However, all of the stories about Valentine include religious persecution. One common narrative is that he performed weddings for Christians, which was not allowed under the emperor, Claudius Gothicus. Apparently, getting married could exempt a man from conscription, and Claudius was low on soldiers. Ah, politics. Under the umbrella of this story, one version has Valentine curing a blind woman in jail before he is led to his execution. He leaves the woman a note signed, “Your Valentine.”
It’d be interesting to celebrate Valentine’s Day in this manner, comforting someone in need. I don’t think it’d garner many marketing strategies, though. Who knows? Capitalism is a flexible beast.
But for today, I offer you three love poems that deviate from the rush of new romance. The first, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” by Galway Kinnell, is a slightly awkward moment between a couple who has been “long-married.” The second, “the cat’s song,” by Marge Piercy, is a love poem from the cat’s perspective, and the third, “[you fit into me],” by Margaret Atwood, is probably a very common take on love.