Winter is coming…possibly. It’s been a hot year. Despite the fact that it’s December, and I’m still wearing short- sleeved shirts and light sweaters, winter feels like a quiet, reflective time to me. Perhaps it’s my reaction to the relentless holiday music and advertising, or the ridiculous push for the “Christmas Miracle”—family members who have been locked in emotional, mortal combat, all year, suddenly toast eggnog before a roaring fire. Personally, I’d rather take walks in the crisp morning and contemplate the hibernating trees. I guess I’m not much of a Christmas person.
So, in the spirit of self-reflection, I offer you this dark tale of cosmic entanglement, aggravated, I’m sure, by my upbringing in a church that explained enlightenment as blissful omniscience and oneness with all. We were taught that this lens is the highest and most desirable. However, on a lazy afternoon, at a shopping mall, I learned that there’s a dark side to melding into my fellow humankind.
Picture this: I am shopping for dresses with a friend of mine. We cheerfully pull a few off the rack and head into the dressing room area. Down the hallway is a large, full-length mirror. We step into our respective dressing rooms. I slip on a v-necked, long-sleeved, red dress, and consider my reflection in the dressing room’s smaller mirror. I decide that I need to see the dress from farther away, so I step out of the dressing room and into the hallway with the bigger mirror. I look down at the dress and see my light, brown hair, sitting below my collar bone, as usual, and my pale skin, with pink undertones, yellowish under florescent lights. However—and my brain cannot understand this image in any way—I am no longer wearing the red dress that I had donned just moments ago. Instead, I am wearing a black dress, with a scoop neck and spaghetti straps. I panic, befuddled that I am suddenly wearing a different dress. My eyes widen, and I freeze. Slowly, I lift my head from the dress, to the collar bone, and then, to a face I do not recognize. For a moment, I don’t know who I am or what reality I inhabit. Everything I thought I knew about this mundane moment in a department store dressing room flies out the window, and I can’t breathe. Another second passes, and my vision clears. I recognize that I am staring into my friend’s face, who, at the exact moment that I stepped out of my dressing room, to look in the full-length mirror, stepped out of hers, facing me in a black dress.
We laughed, of course, when I explained my confusion. Our appearances favor each other—same hair and skin color, similar body size and facial structure. But something in me changed that day. The terror of not knowing where I ended and my friend began did not resemble the blissed-out, hippie version of nirvana that belonged to my church’s narrative. It unsettled me.
Dear Reader, Halloween is over, and now, the true horror begins. There are no masks on Christmas, except for the emotional ones we’ve carved out of fear and necessity. Winter is here, and when the distractions of bright wreathes and holiday cheer subside, when we remove the twinkling lights that help us forget the grey sky, we are left with nothing but our identities…or lack thereof.
Today, I leave you with Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” which is about a little girl who experiences a disorienting moment where she cannot discern her identity from her aunt’s or even the people in National Geographic.
(By the way, as I wrote this blog, I couldn’t get the theme song of the podcast Spooked out of my head. If you like scary stories, of the ghost and demon variety, you should check it out! “And remember…never, ever, never, never, never, never, ever…turn out…the light.”)
Outside my dorm window, in the mid-1990s, the walnut trees lined Russell Blvd, the main drag in Davis, California. When I had an early class, I would watch hundreds of crows expand and stretch their wings at sunrise. Clumped on trees, they looked like large, dark flowers blossoming before they elegantly glided into pink sky or congregated on the sidewalk to squawk at each other. At sunset, they would gather again on the trees and curl into tight balls.
Depending on the folklore, crows have been described as good luck, bad luck, harbingers of death, helpful on the battlefield, or even gossipy. While I like a good animal lore story, one of the most interesting things I’ve heard about crows is scientific: they apparently remember faces really well and can hold a grudge! (There are many articles and studies that can be found on this topic just by Googling “crows remember.”) Also, they apparently feel attracted to shiny things, even if it’s garbage. I once saw a crow pinch a bit of glinting aluminum foil in its beak.
Having grown up near Los Angeles, I could tell you much about artificial shine. I’ve never looked it up, but I sometimes wonder if LA is where tooth whitener was invented. I heard someone from Europe say once that, in America, people look at you funny if you don’t smile at them, and in Europe, they look at you funny if you do. I don’t know if I’ve met a fellow, American woman who has not, in fact, been told to “smile” by some random man or expected to grin through pain, lest she be labeled “bitchy.” Even recently, I was told by a co-worker that she could not imagine that I could ever get angry about anything. I honestly can’t even picture that scenario. Even Mickey Mouse got pissed off sometimes. I believe that demanding cheer, and that a fellow human being shrink to a flat character, is a form of objectification. It indicates the objectifier’s belief that it is another person’s purpose to delight, with smiles and joy, even when she’s just trying to find a ripe avocado at the supermarket.
Of course, on the flip side, some believe that cheerful people are as such because they lack awareness of the horrible things that happen in the world. People who wear rose-colored glasses cannot see the whole picture because they’ve filtered out the darkness. While I agree with the latter, I’d add that true happiness shifts and actually requires great focus on the light, as well as an understanding of darkness. After all, it is just as shortsighted to look at life through a darkly-clouded lens. Just as much truth is obscured.
Maybe that’s why I like the image of the intelligent, dark crow, hunting for glitter where ever it may be. I’m not sure anyone can truly appreciate the bright points of life without knowing something of its opposite, and I’ve never minded my darkness: it’s where creation begins. While the benefits of light are fairly obvious, darkness can evoke empathy, self-reflection, compassion, and appreciation.
Today, I’m including Joy Harjo’s “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles,” a poem that contrasts nature (and perhaps, the nature of existence) with the emptiness of city life. I think Tinseltown is an easy target when it comes to exposing shallowness, but I’ve always seen Los Angeles in this poem as a symbol of humanity’s growing pains. We’ve expanded technologically but have not caught up emotionally. We have so many options for ways to live out our physical lives, but we’ve lost touch with our important animal instincts and spiritual intuition.
My favorite line in the poem is “The shimmer of gods.” I’ve been a big fan of Harjo since graduate school, and in this poem, I particularly like how she plays with tone at the end:
“So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that hangs over this precarious city?
Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing anything, not just yet.
But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.”
If she had ended with “I am waiting and not seeing anything,” the tone would feel as lost and empty as Los Angeles. If she had ended with “not just yet,” there would have been some hope that the speaker may possibly find the meaning of existence. But I like that she ended with the image of the speaker mimicking the crow and collecting “the shine of anything beautiful” she can find. This ending marries the hope of finding life’s meaning with one optimistic way to cope in the meantime.
(Note: Word Press is not cooperating with the line lengths of this poem, so I have included an image of it below. If you cannot read it, the poem can also be found on Genius; although they, too, appear to have had formatting issues!)
Spoiler alerts for the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and Black Swan below!
A graduate school poetry professor, DC Berry, once told me that narratives are either comedies wrapped in tragedies or tragedies wrapped in comedies. The movies I’m going to discuss are probably neither, but for some reason, the older I get, the more I recognize horror in places I never thought to look, or at least, I am more affected by it. For instance, I recently watched Hereditary, a horror film that involves dark witchcraft, possession, and a terrible family tragedy. It was the latter that struck me, though. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blood sacrifices…beheadings…but I spent the majority of the movie wiping tears off my face because I couldn’t stand how cruelly and dysfunctionally the family treated each other at the dinner table. I felt similarly about the horrors of family when I watched The Witch. At the end of the film, I wasn’t scared; I was just really bummed out.
When I was a little girl, I watched the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and was transfixed. Victoria Page, a young ballerina, must choose between dancing in the company that will most nurture her art or her egotistical husband, whom she loves for some reason. I recently watched it again because I wanted to know if I had remembered it correctly. I only recall a few movies that I watched when I was little, and this one stuck with me. In fact, it informed many of the decisions I made as an adult, regarding career and relationships. What I recall thinking, as a kid, and as I re-watched it last week, is that a woman should never give up her career or her art or anything that serves as the anchor of her happiness. If she would like to marry, she should maintain this anchor at all costs, and not trade it for (as, Boris, the dance company’s impresario puts it) “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Don’t get me wrong, there can be room for both; a balanced life is often healthier (for any sex). However, Boris will not allow his dancers to fall in love with anything but art. Victoria Page sees it differently, and when told that Boris has fired Julian because of their romantic involvement, she replies, quite reasonably: “I shall dance somewhere else.” However, Boris’s company is where she grows most as an artist, and thus, the true conflict begins.
To be clear, the only reason for the conflict she feels is that her men are tearing her apart. Her husband’s ego cannot withstand her need to dance in the company that has fired him, and Boris’ ego cannot withstand the thought that her attention should sway to anything but his artistic direction. At the end of the movie, right before she dramatically flings herself off a building and onto the train tracks below, I recall thinking (both as a child and now, as an adult) that she should have just divorced her lousy husband, who is so controlling that he abandons his opening night (and a pivotal moment in his career) just to dominate his wife and remove the one thing in this world, besides him, that she loves. That scene was exactly how I remembered it, and my feelings about it haven’t changed.
I have read some contemporary reviews of The Red Shoes that claim it is a movie about artistic obsession. However, if the protagonist were male, I wonder if this so-called “obsession” would be viewed in the same way. Usually, when men are single-minded, regarding profession, we just call them “successful.” To me, the horror of this narrative is how commonplace and easy it is for a woman to marry someone who seduces her out of her light. Yes, the same can happen to men, but for women, there’s the added trap of cultural pressure not to outshine men, lest she be considered egotistical. “Selfishness” is one of the worst cultural sins a woman can commit, even if it is just for the short duration of a ballerina’s career. In the movie, Boris is, of course, also an asshole, but at least he uses his assholery for the promotion of her art, which she describes as wanting as much as she desires to live.
Black Swan, a more contemporary, but still tragic, ballet story, dons more overt elements of horror: bloody stabbings, doppelgängers, and surrealistic bird transformations. And yet, the underlying darkness again appears as a woman pulled apart by the demands made of her femininity. In this film, the virgin/whore motif manifests through the opposing forces of her controlling mother, who insists on infantilizing her grown daughter; and her creepy boss, Thomas, who sexualizes her during late night rehearsals in an attempt to awaken the darkness she needs for the Black Swan role.
I’ll admit, one of the most horrifying elements of the film is what ballet dancers do to their bodies. O their feet! O their spines! O the horror! (I’ll spare you a photo.)
I digress. I love this film. Natalie Portman is fantastic playing the role of a scared, little girl in a grown woman’s body, as well as the confident adult in touch with the primal need for lust and conquest. I’m also a big fan of surrealism and coming of age stories. This movie especially intrigues me because I am unsure what to make of the ending.
First, there’s the fact that Nina’s death, at the end of the ballet, makes no scientific sense. Many people have pointed out that a stab wound doesn’t just start to bleed, randomly, at the end of a dance performance. True, but then why does her friend gasp when she sees Nina’s bloody midsection? There appears to be something literal in her death. My impression was that she did (or was about to) physically die at the end of the ballet. I’ve often wondered if simply having Nina wait to pull out the glass shard until the end of the performance, would have resolved this practical issue. I’m no scientist, though. Perhaps, she could not have performed those dance moves with glass in her abdomen.
Natalie Portman has apparently stated that she doesn’t believe that Nina dies at the end of the film but that she symbolically kills her inner child in order to mature as a woman. I like that idea, but I’m still confused by what appears to be literal blood, that other people can see, spreading down her tutu.
No matter. I liked the movie so much that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in this form of human anatomy! What interests me most, assuming she’s about to die of a stab wound, is whether or not she truly finds her power at the end of the movie. My first thought, when I saw it in the theater, was yes; she attained her deepest desire: perfection that marries technique with the experience of losing herself in the moment. However, the price of this perfection is mental illness and death. As Thomas holds her hand and calls Nina his “little princess,” a name he had previously reserved for the last prima ballerina (who did not take his rejection or her retirement well) I couldn’t help but notice how puny he looked in the face of Nina’s artistic triumph.
Again, though, I can’t help but to imagine this story with gender roles reversed: what if Nina were a man and Thomas, a woman? I just have the sneaking suspicion that, not only would Thomas (in this case, the star of the ballet) get to live, but he’d also be endowed with some sort of sexual power over Nina, despite her new role as his superior, in this imagined scenario.
Gender roles aside, I do not think America has mastered the art of balance. There seems to be quite a bit of the “do or die” mentality: overworking and indulging in ways that mask a deep fear of unworthiness. If we’re not perfect (read: popular, beautiful, talented—“the best”) then maybe we’re nothing. In that sense, I think that the end of Black Swan is a happy one. She has achieved her greatest performance and will never have to cope with inevitable decline, if not tomorrow, then in a few years time.
This month, I offer you Nikki Giovanni’s “Balances,” a poem about the push and pull of life’s contrast.
In life one is always balancing
like we juggle our mothers against our fathers
or one teacher against another (only to balance our grade average)
3 grains of salt to one ounce truth
our sweet black essence or the funky honkies down the street
and lately i’ve begun wondering if you’re trying to tell me something
we used to talk all night and do things alone together
and i’ve begun
(as a reaction to a feeling) to balance the pleasure of loneliness against the pain of loving you
I first started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when it aired in 1987. I’ll admit it: back then, I just wasn’t that into Klingons. I didn’t mind them, per se, but I was not particularly intrigued by their aggression or their snarling politics. I was more interested in Picard’s eloquent speeches, such as in The Drumheadwhere he denounces witch hunts. (Incidentally, Klingon Worf gets swept into the drama of the episode only to apologize later for not knowing tyranny when he sees it.) I also enjoyed the cool elegance of Vulcans. (Fun fact about Vulcans: they’re actually not so cool after all, or at least, they’ve learned self-discipline so that they don’t lose their shit like they used to, back when they let their intense emotions run wild.)
Recently, though, I’ve gained a new outlook on Klingons, in general, and Worf, in particular. In this age of “alternative facts” and celebrated bullies, I long for Worf just to bust into Congress and announce that “This is not honorable!” Right now, I need a hero with a bat’leth and a firm grasp on ethics and transparency.
I used to see Captain Picard as the main hero of STNG. He always seemed to know what to do, and he rarely broke a sweat. Lately, though, Worf and Picard seem to me like two sides of the same coin. Worf’s allegiance to honor and duty mimics Picard’s values, and Picard knows how to curse in Klingon like…well, a sailor. But lately, when I see Worf standing helplessly at his post, witnessing the dishonorable with his warrior mane safely bound, I identify.
Last week, I was summoned to jury duty, which I have never done before. I sat in a room that looked like a fairly nice bus station, with around 400 other people. Oof. Next to me on one side were two older women who complained incessantly about everything from the job market and family strife, to the supposedly disorganized jury duty process. (I actually thought it was well-run.)
The person on the other side of me got angry when I allowed two elderly women to exit a row in front of me during the slow, crowded walk out of the room and off to lunch. Of course, I channeled my inner Vulcan, but it was right then that I really wanted to bare my teeth and challenge her to a B’aht Qul.
After lunch, I found a new location, hoping to be left alone. Instead, I was greeted by a new chatterbox with a bloodlust for child rapists. I mean, I get it; I do, but damn, was I the only one who brought a book?
The next day (and blessedly my last on jury duty) I walked past Chatterbox and sat several seats away, used my long hair as a cloaking device, and fastened my earbuds like a teenager on family va-cay. Every once in a while, I’d tune into the garrulous public, complaining all around me. The mutterings, the wide-eyed guy who never stopped smiling in his workout shorts (even though he spoke to no one), the side glances, the snickering. I wondered what Worf—out of uniform—would have done to maintain his boundaries. Grimaced in his sharp armor? Cussed in Klingon? Bitten off the head of a raw meat slab that he had carefully packed for lunch the night before?
As for me, like an average, 21st-century human, I just bowed my head and turned up my podcast, until they finally called my name and sent me home.
This month, I’ve included Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” a poem about a woman who leaves her husband in romantic pursuit of a bear who finds her embarrassing. If you know of any good poems about maintaining authenticity in a rigid world, or if you just have some crazy jury duty stories, please let us know in the comments below!
Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.
In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each othercommit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).
I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together?
It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.
A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.
I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly flails in the face of chronic alienation. Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is the worst one.
Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”
Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.
Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.
In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Ah, Alabama’s hot and humid summer is here. It’s the kind of weather that makes me hiss, whilst ducking under a cloak, as I run to pull in the garbage can.
O, I love vampires. I never really joined the whole zombie craze. Perhaps zombies hit a bit too close to home for me, what with everyone’s head in a phone these days. But I like vampires for their complexities and their troubles with immortality. (See further explanation in “Vampire Connoisseur.”)
I don’t have much to discuss this month nor can I offer cohesion. It’s hot outside, and I’ve been often in a dark room, my hands and feet corpse-cold from the air conditioner, reading and writing by myself like a weirdo recluse. So, here are some thoughts on vampires to cool you down this summer:
Most people think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the forerunner of vampire narratives; however, there have been many vampire stories before Stoker’s. For whatever reason, his novel stuck and provided a blueprint for future vampire tales. Before Dracula, though, there was Lord Byron’s 1813 The Giaour; the short story, “The Vampyre,”by Lord Byron’s ex-friend, John Polidori (who based his main character, Lord Ruthven, on old LB himself); and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla in 1872, from which Stoker heavily “borrows” for his Dracula.
Here’s poor, delicate Lucy from the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula movie. She is both a vampire victim as well as a fashion victim. I’ll tell you, I know she was about to eat a child, but that weird headdress alone would have spooked the hell out of me.
I recently listened to Dracula on Audible and could not help but picture the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode,“Buffy vs. Dracula.” Best line: “A guy like you should think about going electric.”
My VampireTurn Ons:
Ironic lust for life
Black lace and bustles
Black leather jackets
My Vampire Turn Offs:
Vampire narratives that ask the audience to believe that male vampires abusing women is sexy/true love/romantic/all you could ask for in life.
Women who buy the above stated narrative.
The patriarch that warped the above women into bogus, self-loathing thoughts in the first place.
Recently, a television series emerged from the mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, and it is hilarious. The vampires Nadja and Laszlo crack me up the most. They are married, which really means something if you never die, and Nadja’s eye rolls are priceless.
Here are a few vampire movies that I’ve enjoyed in recent years:
Let the Right One In: A Swedish film about a child vampire, with a subtle but quite disturbing final scene.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: A female vampire targets misogynists in a small Iranian town. Favorite scene: The vampire skateboarding alone at night, chador floating behind her.
Only Lovers Left Alive: A slow, moody, beautifully shot movie about the loneliness and the magic of immortality.Best line: “It’s a full moon. Did you know that there’s a diamond up there the size of a planet? It’s a white dwarf; it’s the compressed heart of a star, and it’s not only a radiant diamond, but it also emits the music of a gigantic gong.” (Side note: I HEART Tilda Swinton! When I was writing my book, Sister Nun, I pictured her as the main character, and this was before she was cast as a bald, nun-type in Dr. Strange. I thought of her first, dang it!)
I will leave you with the 1859 poem Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, which is a tale of vampire-esque creatures who suck the life and youth out of easily-seduced Laura. Although there are several valid interpretations of the work, I can’t help but focus on the seduction and addiction motifs, which are common in vampire narratives. A recent example of vampire addiction struggles can be found in the character Angel (in the television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). Angel struggles to maintain his humanity by abstaining completely from human blood, to mixed results. The Angel universe does not provide the benefit of “True Blood,” the synthetic human blood drink offered in the TV show by the same name, and Angel lives off rats’ blood…when he’s good, that is.
Another vampire-y thing about Goblin Market is that it seems ripe (no pun intended) with the fluidity of the vampire’s life: slipping in and out of society, as well as sexual identities.
All right, I blogged. I’ve linked a performance of Goblin Market below. Now, back to my summer antics…
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DEADWOOD MOVIE AND THE SERIES FINALE OF GAME OF THRONES
This past weekend, the Deadwood movie came out on HBO. My wife had invited our friend over to see the movie, so I watched a few episodes beforehand and read a summary of the three seasons. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in the west, I’ve just never been into westerns. Nevertheless, I thought the series was well-written and provided complex characters.
When the movie ended, I was interested to hear what my wife and our friend thought of it. The sentiment from both was that they enjoyed it, but that the movie, which takes place ten years after the series ends, pretty much left everyone and everything the way it had been. There were no surprises. “I’m not sure we needed the movie,” my wife said, thoughtfully.
Initially, I believed that I didn’t care about Deadwood, butas the weekend progressed, I found myself bothered by its ending. I remember when the series first came out, a female friend of mine proclaimed that no one should be upset by the way women are treated in Deadwood because “that’s the way it was back then.” I’ve always thought that response is far more complicated than its simplistic facade. Why do we want to watch a show where women are treated in a way that supposedly ended long ago? I propose it’s because it actually hasn’t ended. We often identify with characters. But with whom are women identifying when they watch abused hookers from the 1800s (or the lovable, yet miserable, alcoholic, Calamity Jane)? Even more disturbing, with whom are contemporary men identifying? Of course, one doesn’t need to identify with characters to enjoy a story, but that still leaves me with the question: then why are we watching men abuse women in television shows meant to entertain?
Good storytelling is powerful, though. Even I felt myself sympathizing with the brothel’s pimp, and main character, Al Swearengen, played by the talented Ian McShane. Swearengen is dying of alcoholism, in the movie, and wills his establishment to his favorite prostitute, Trixie. However, the first episode of the tv series was still fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t help but recall that Al beats Trixie for shooting a customer, who wouldn’t stop beating her. He tells Trixie she’s “bad for…business” and then steps on her throat until she squeaks out “I’ll be good.” At the end of the movie, though, due to convincing writing and good acting, I felt as though Al loved her and that Trixie (who earlier urges a young prostitute to consider that she’s been gaslighted into turning tricks) has just won by inheriting an establishment that will no longer “run girls,” as Al puts it.
I had similar feminist issues with Game of Thrones, although I was heavily invested in that storyline. Season 8 aside, I felt that most abused female characters (main characters, anyway) eventually found inner strength and exacted terribly satisfying revenge on their antagonists. Here are a few classics:
Daenerys Resolves Some Family Issues:
Arya: The North Remembers
Dracarys for Stealing My Babies
Dracarys Down the Patriarch
And my personal favorite: Doggone, Ms. Sansa!
Although these women’s situations are worse than I’ve experienced, I can still identify with having to deal with abusive men and the society that enables their behavior. The women on Game of Thrones find justice that the rest of us can only dream of. That’s the appeal of watching them suffer: my inevitable relief when they become empowered and take revenge.
Similarly, Sansa’s own repeated marital rapes are implied as necessary for her character development and for her own empowerment, as if we’re supposed to forget that, often times, victims of sexual assault become depressed, anxious, and suicidal. Of course, I was relieved when she escapes by jumping off a castle roof, runs through an icy river, and returns home to mobilize troops and win the north’s independence, but I cannot get on board with the sentiment that her strength could not have manifested but for her husband’s abuse. She makes such a comment to the Hound, implying that she would never have grown up without the rapes. To correct the suggestion that the audience should believe that rape, for women, can be good for their personal growth would have been easy. The writers could have had the Hound reply to Sansa’s statement that she had found her strength despite her husband’s abuse. Again, I can’t blame Sansa for trying to make meaning out of her trauma, but I resent the writers for asking me to do it, too.
I guess that’s how I felt about Trixie in the Deadwood movie. Who can blame her for her response to an abuser, especially when “that’s the way it was back then”? But why end the movie with the focus on comforting the abuser with yet another dominated woman rubbing his feet? I guess the scene’s comedy and sentimentality somehow eases our resistance?
I don’t need all abusive characters to die by dogs or dragons, but I can’t help observing that, many times, there’s an awful lot of sympathy and comforting and, in the case of Daenerys’ husband, reward for misogynistic violence. I also don’t need sexual assault narratives erased completely. These stories are valid. I’d just like more thought put into the narrative and an acknowledgement that women are not that different from men: we don’t flourish from rape.
For this month’s post, I’ve chosen Rita Dove’s “Persephone, Falling” for its use of timeless mythology and contemporary sarcasm to illuminate the patriarch’s method for maintaining female captivity.
Until next month: Dracarys Down Misogyny!
One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.
Well, I’m itching to start my summer writing, reading, and porch-sitting. In the next few months, I will be working on my Star Trek: The Next Generation poetry book, as well as my novel; sitting on my red swing, under my backyard’s rose canopy; swimming with my sweetheart, at the Y; and playing with our dogs and cat. I have much to do! So this month, I’ll just leave you with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” along with her discussion of the poem’s inspiration and the potential aphrodisiac,jazz. Saucy!
Emotions are their own entity. I don’t believe that anyone can control them. Sure, if we’re “functioning members of society,” we’ve learned to control our reactions to emotions, but as for emotions themselves, one can only accept them, deny them, or distract from them. The latter of which can either further oppress the feelings or ironically provide enough space to accept them. I don’t mind riding out grief or anger; I don’t even mind the occasional moments of jealousy. However, there are two emotions that I will do practically anything to spit out as quickly as possible: guilt and the need to forgive.
Guilt can be a good tool…sometimes. It can help us make decisions: “Why do I feel guilty about not completing (fill in the blank)? Well then, maybe I should move forward with (fill in the blank).” However, most of the time, guilt is merely the favored tool of manipulators. It works as a quick poison, filling the body with a sick warmth. Often, guilt is used to persuade people (usually women) to forgive those who have harmed them. “But you’ve forgiven him right? If you haven’t, then you’re only hurting yourself.” That’s one way to add salt to a person’s wound. Anyway, what does forgiveness even mean, exactly? I’ve heard many definitions, none of them satisfying enough to mention. Guilting someone into “forgiving”accomplishes nothing healthy. Usually, it just aggravates the person’s bad feelings, by requiring suppression, and perpetuates more guilt by contrasting their actual feelings with the cultural demand that we be “nice girls.” Guilt is only healthy if used as a quick and dirty tool. Use it to snake the drain and then forget about it immediately!
Growing up, I often felt guilty about possessing objects. I worried that I had too many. My mother was a hoarder, and the physical disaster that surrounded me ignited a resistant response: I cleaned to the point of obsession. I recently found an old copy of Slab, which published my creative nonfiction piece “Order,” back in 2008. I had forgotten how much pain I had experienced in my 20s, regarding my physical surroundings and drive for perfection. As I read the essay, it felt strange to be reminded of old emotions. I felt as though I were reading about a close friend, rather than myself fifteen years ago. Over time, I have eased up on myself by entertaining the idea that my belongings did not need be in perfect order or in small quantity.
I still have a thing for cleaning and organizing, though. Over winter break, I binge-watched the Netflix show called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. It’s a series that follows Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and arguably the most delightful human on planet Earth) as she helps folks reduce clutter and organize. What is unique about Marie Kondo’s method is that, instead of feeling guilty about the clutter and focusing on eliminating it, one focuses on keeping only the objects that “spark joy” (or have a practical function).
I like this attitude toward belongings. Marie Kondo says that you should thank items before you give them away or throw them out. I like that method, too; although, I admit I still sometimes enjoy rage-cleaning, the kind of de-cluttering method that involves interrogation: “What are you still doing in my closet? You remind me an unpleasant time, don’t you?” Slams item into garbage bin. After all, I think if we are to believe that items have life in them, then we must admit that some objects are ornery. Yet at other times, it’s not the item’s fault. For instance, when a perfectly good song reminds you of a failed romance, sometimes, you just have to say goodbye.
Deep de-cluttering tends to wipe me out, and I believe it’s because memories easily weigh me down. I’m never quite sure what to think of memory, either. There’s the imprint of the moment, lodged in my brain. Then, there’s the frame of mind I was in at the time of the past moment, and my memory of that frame of mind, in my present mind. Just to complicate matters, there’s my current frame of mind, remembering the moment and the frame of mind I occupied during the past moment. Adding to these complexities is the fact that people often misremember or conflate moments and even people. I remember (or do I?) hearing a detective on television describe the memory of a crime as a penny, sinking into a body of water. She said that she wants to speak towitnesses before anyone can “create waves,” which influence what ideas attach to the memory, causing it to morph into inaccuracy.
My wife enjoys the podcast called, Mortified, which features adults reading their teenage journals aloud to an audience. It’s funny to hear silly and shallow narratives coming out of the mouths of cognizant 30-somethings. I listened to a couple episodes and decided to dig up my old journals. (I’ve been keeping them since I was 13.) I was surprised to read, among the obligatory teenage dreaminess and misunderstandings, that I actually had some pretty legitimate and well-thought out concerns about life and family.
On the other hand, I was leafing through an old photo album recently and saw myself at 21, standing next to a stupid boy that I was completely batty about and whom I had endowed with an unreasonable level of faith (and faithfulness). I felt the urge to swat at the photo, move my old, young self away from that bozo.
I think the lesson of memory’s vagaries is not to worry about the past. Even pleasant memories seem to tug a bit at my energy levels. Almost always, I prefer my current self to my past self anyway, which I suppose is fortunate. Often, I’m either not sure what I remember, or I’m not sure that, if I went back in time and witnessed it all over again, I’d remember it in the same context, and if the context is different than the original memory, doesn’t that mean that the memory is different and, ultimately, themoment itself?
For today’s poem, I have included James Tate’s “Long-Term Memory,” which I remember him reading, years ago, when he visited Southern Miss!
I was sitting in the park feeding pigeons
when a man came over to me and scrutinized my
face right up close. “There’s a statue of you
over there,” he said. “You should be dead. What
did you do to deserve a statue?” “I’ve never seen
a statue of me,” I said. “There can’t be a statue
of me. I’ve never done anything to deserve a
statue. And I’m definitely not dead.” “Well,
go look for yourself. It’s you alright, there’s
no mistaking that,” he said. I got up and walked
over where it was. It was me alright. I looked
like I was gazing off into the distance, or the
future, like those statues of pioneers. It didn’t
have my name on it or anything, but it was me.
A lady came up to me and said, “You’re looking at
your own statue. Isn’t that against the law, or
something?” “It should be,” I said, “but this is
my first offense. Maybe they’ll let me off light.”
“It’s against nature, too,” she said, “and bad
manners, I think.” “I couldn’t agree with you
more,” I said. “I’m walking away right now, sorry.”
I went back to my bench. The man was sitting there.
“Maybe you’re a war hero. Maybe you died in the
war,” he said. “Never been a soldier,” I said.
“Maybe you founded this town three hundred years
ago,” he said. “Well, if I did, I don’t remember
it now,” I said. “That’s a long time ago,” he
said, “you coulda forgot.” I went back to feeding
the pigeons. Oh, yes, founding the town. It was
coming back to me now. It was on a Wednesday.
A light rain, my horse slowed…
from James Tate’s return to the city of white donkeys
Harper Collins Publisher, 2004
Earlier this year, I was in bed with the creeping crud. I didn’t feel well enough to read or even to stay awake for a whole movie, so I started watching YouTube videos. I don’t know why, but YouTube suggested that I watch a rich, young woman’s 5AM routine. Here’s the rundown: She gets up (with make up on and her hair brushed), gets out of bed and does a bunch of stuff to her face, dresses in expensive workout gear, and drinks lemon water before heading to the gym. After her workout, she showers, does more stuff to her face, and gets ready to work from home in cozy slippers. I watched it twice.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of getting up before everyone else. There’s something both romantic and satisfyingly productive about it. In practice, though, I have never wanted to get up before 7AM. Truth be told, I’d rather rise at 8. When I hear of people I know getting up at 5AM, it’s either because they have kids (and need a moment to themselves before the offspring awaken) or because they’re high-strung lawyers who like to brag about how hard they work. Despite the fact that I neither have children or a desire for early bird smugness, I continued to scroll, and seeing that I was interested in “early rise” accounts, YouTube suggested more “early morning routine” videos. One woman after another set her alarm to rise before the sun, with the grace of a forest nymph, and to wander into her pastel kitchen for lemon water.
Also, because organized people wake at 5AM, apparently, YouTube offered me more suggested videos: calendar blocking, Sunday re-set, “clean with me” videos, and “night time routines.” I watched them all. I don’t know why, but they made me feel less lonely, as I lay in my sickbed. I thought about how nice it would be, once I felt better, to clean my house and to get my to-do list back on track. I’ll admit, I did feel renewed when I recovered. I cleaned my house; I diffused lavender oil; I wore make up. It felt so great to check off my tasks, so great that I decided to watch more YouTube videos. I think that’s where the vision began to curdle.
I started to notice the number of YouTube channels that focus mostly on “organization.” There are so many of them out there. But the problem seems to me that there’s only so much organizing that one can accomplish without life becoming as bland as a YouTube star’s beige wardrobe. Sometimes, I found myself talking back to the screen: “Aren’t you just kind of making up work for yourself to organize, though?” and “I thought you did all this last week.” As a child of a hoarder, I completely understand the need to clean and organize more than the average, but over time, I’ve also realized that organizing can become an addiction. Nothing can ever be or stay organized, unless the person dies after cleaning, and her home is immediately transformed into a museum.
Recently over lunch, I confided to a friend my conflict between wanting life to tick like a perfect clock, with my need for spontaneity (and eight hours of sleep).
“I don’t want to get up at 5AM,” I told her.
“You just want to watch other people do it on YouTube?” she laughed.
I think what is missing from YouTube, though, is the every day magic of an early rise. In these videos, everyone’s running on treadmills and doing “mind dumps” in their journals. They’ve videoed themselves “waking up” and pose-stretching. But I don’t see anyone who wakes to wipe sand from her eyes and stare dreamily at her cat, who meows for wet food. No one rushes for pen and paper to write down a dream that has answered the philosophical question that they had asked their subconscious years ago. No one even seems surprised to wake up in a room or in a human body; no one reaches around wondering where the hell they are, what this planet is, only eventually to nod and remember corporeal life.
Of course, these women are just making videos and (who can tell from videos?) seem to live happy lives, with the one exception of the nagging emptiness that dogs us all, no matter how much has gone our way!
Ok, that got intense.
But for today, I offer you a poem about rising in the morning that marries the desire for creativity with the mystery of the sun. Sleep well, y’all!
The Sun woke me this morning loud
and clear, saying “Hey! I’ve been
trying to wake you up for fifteen
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen
to speak to personally
aren’t you more attentive? If I could
burn you through the window I would
to wake you up. I can’t hang around
here all day.”
“Sorry, Sun, I stayed
up late last night talking to Hal.”
“When I woke up Mayakovsky he was
a lot more prompt” the Sun said
petulantly. “Most people are up
already waiting to see if I’m going
to put in an appearance.”
to apologize “I missed you yesterday.”
“That’s better” he said. “I didn’t
know you’d come out.” “You may be
wondering why I’ve come so close?”
“Yes” I said beginning to feel hot
wondering if maybe he wasn’t burning me
“Frankly I wanted to tell you
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may
not be the greatest thing on earth, but
you’re different. Now, I’ve heard some
say you’re crazy, they being excessively
calm themselves to my mind, and other
crazy poets think that you’re a boring
reactionary. Not me.
Just keep on
like I do and pay no attention. You’ll
find that people always will complain
about the atmosphere, either too hot
or too cold too bright or too dark, days
too short or too long.
If you don’t appear
at all one day they think you’re lazy
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.
And don’t worry about your lineage
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on
the jungle, you know, on the tundra
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting
for you to get to work.
And now that you
are making your own days, so to speak,
even if no one reads you but me
you won’t be depressed. Not
everyone can look up, even at me. It
hurts their eyes.”
“Oh Sun, I’m so grateful to you!”
“Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s
easier for me to speak to you out
here. I don’t have to slide down
between buildings to get your ear.
I know you love Manhattan, but
you ought to look up more often.
always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.
speak again in Africa, of which I too
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”
“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
“Who are they?”
Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.