Morning Magic and the Tyranny of Planning

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.

“Yes!”

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!

A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On Fire Island

by Frank O’Hara

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

so why
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.”

I tried
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 
anyway.

“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.

And
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.

Maybe we’ll 
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
me.”
“Who are they?”

Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept. 

 

 

Photo from https://everwideningcircles.com/2016/03/04/olafur-eliasson-art-that-challenges-us/

 

Eat Your Heart Out: True Love Ain’t for the Weak

There is a story of a saint in India named Mirabai, who lived in the 16th century. As a child, she saw a wedding procession outside her window and asked her mother who would be her bridegroom. Her mother humored the girl, pointing to a small statue of Krishna. “There is your husband! Gopala himself. Love him and serve him as a good wife would her husband.” Mirabai took her mother seriously and devoted all her time to singing and dancing for Krishna. At night, she meditated in front of his image. 

When she grew older, she was married to a prince, and although she did perform her wifely duties, she spent her evenings worshiping Krishna, whom she considered to be her true husband. Her in-laws did not approve of her love for Krishna and told her that she had better fall in line with their goddess, Durga. However, Mirabai refused, citing that she had already committed herself to Krishna. One day, her sister-in-law told the prince that Mirabai was making a fool of him and had taken a lover that she meets in the temple. Enraged, he drew his sword, ready to slaughter his wife’s lover. Instead, he found Mirabai in a state of spiritual ecstasy, pleading to her Krishna statue for love. Figuring that his wife was mentally ill, he decided to humor her, and he built her a small temple of her own. 

News of Mirabai’s beautiful voice and dancing spread far and wide, and people began to visit her, enthralled by her ecstasy. One of her husband’s enemies decided to visit Mirabai, but knowing that his presence would cause problems, he disguised himself in beggar’s clothes. After hearing her sing, he was so moved that he offered Krishna a necklace, and he touched Mirabai’s feet, a sign of respect. Unfortunately, news of this exchange reached her husband, and he was so incensed that he told Mirabai to go jump in the lake—literally. As she was a (somewhat) obedient hindu wife, she tearfully said goodbye to her friends and prepared to commit suicide. However, just as she was about to jump, Krishna appeared to her and intimated that she should not kill herself. 

Meanwhile, the moodiest man on Earth began to feel bad about overreacting to Mirabai’s…well, she didn’t really do anything, did she? When he finds that she is still alive, and living in a different city, he goes to her and begs for her forgiveness. She takes him back and lives without too much drama until his death, a few years later.

At this point, her in-laws really started twisting the screws. First, they demanded that she commit Sati, the absurdly gruesome and misogynistic practice of a woman throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Luckily, Krishna had already told her not to kill herself. Her refusal to die infuriated her in-laws, and they proceeded to try to assassinate her on three separate occasions. 

Attempt 1: “Oh, here’s a basket with a garland in it for your Krishna. I hope you like it.” (Just kidding, it’s a cobra.) However, when Mirabai opens the basket, it damn well is a garland. You know someone got fired that day. 

Attempt 2: “Let’s see how Mirabai likes sleeping on poisonous needs. I’ll just cover them up with these luxurious rose petals.” Mirabai sleeps like the dead but isn’t. 

Attempt 3: “Here’s some poison…uh nectar…” Mirabai gulps it down, no problem. 

Finally, she gets tired of all the distractions and goes to live with her uncle, who leaves her alone. 

The first time I heard this story (and there are many variations of this narrative) it was through a comic book that my parents bought me from our church’s book store.

 It was my favorite “book,” and my mom would often try to talk me out of choosing it as a bedtime story because it was so long. I think I was particularly attracted to the idea that a deity could protect a person, even from snakes and volatile family members. Self-preservation is strongest in the young. Also, I liked that Krishna is depicted as having blue skin and a kind face. He is often drawn as feminine: soft features, long eyelashes. In fact, for part of my childhood, I thought Krishna was a woman. 

In graduate school, I was assigned a world literature class to teach and was excited to find Mirabai’s poetry in the Norton Anthology. Actually, very little can be confirmed about Mirabai’s life. It appears that she did experience a troubled marriage and the worst in-laws on Earth. There may have been attempts on her life. What I found most surprising, though, was the poetry itself. There are some poems that mostly focus on praising Krishna and describing Mirabai’s devotion and sacrifices:

I’m steeped.
steeped
in the dark one’s color.

I dressed up in my finery,
put on my dancing anklets,
abandoned all shame, and danced in public.

Gave up reason, went crazy,
kept the company of holy men,
found the true form of a devotee.

Sang and sang the praises 
of Hari’s virtues, night and day—
so saved myself from the serpent of mortality.

Without my lord, the whole world’s brackish—
merely a mouthful of salt.
Apart from him, everything’s disposable.

Mira asks her lord who lifts mountains
to give her the kind of devotion
that seeps with sweetness—that’s luscious, flavorful.

(NOTE: The poems I have provided in this post are not indented properly. While I am very disappointed in how ridiculously difficult WordPress makes the simplest of formatting, I have also submitted to its tyranny. #corporatehatespoets #theman)

As a child, I recognized that Mirabai was rebellious; however, I did not realize the extent of her conflict with society. I was unaware, at that age, of the seriousness of India’s caste system, as well as the general history of misogyny. Also, my child’s comic book was riddled with mixed messages. For instance, Mirabai refuses to worship the goddess of her husband’s house. However, when her husband tells her to commit suicide she (according to this particular narrative) dutifully visits the river. The caption above the image of her bidding her friends a tearful goodbye reads, “Mira, the true Hindu wife, did not protest. She fondly took leave of her tearful companions…” (Fondly? She cries in three images leading up to her attempted suicide and looks miserable as she prepares to jump. I suppose she could be fond of her friends, but the word feels flippant, considering the heavy circumstances.) However, moments later in the text, she directly disobeys her husband by agreeing to listen to another man’s order. At least Krishna doesn’t want her to drown herself.  

Yet again, though, the text contradicts when her husband asks her for forgiveness. In the image, it is Mirabai who bows to him and says, “Has Mira ever gone against the wishes of her husband? Yes, I will come to Chittor!” Yes, Mira has gone against her husband’s wishes—repeatedly. 

There is an interesting short program from BBC (“Mirabai: I Go the Other Way” from Incarnations: India in 50 Lives) that discusses how Mirabai’s narrative is used in modern times. One of the conclusions is that, while Mirabai is used to protest the caste system, India is not ready to see her as an inspiration for women’s autonomy.

I find that inability disturbing. Such a large part of her rebellion (and her sacrifices) were based on the fact that she was a woman. Her experience would have been different, if she had been a man. The danger she willingly faced would not have existed, or at least, not to the same extent. The same imbalance exists today as does society’s need to suppress progress and not just in India. In most parts of the world, including the U.S., women’s “honor” is fragile, mostly controlled by men, and when shattered, results in the woman’s destruction or, in the very least, abuse. 

The cowherd who carries mountains
is the one for me—
I want no one else.

I’ve looked and looked 
all over the world—
I have no other savior.

I’ve left my brothers,
left my bondsmen,
left my blood relations.

I’ve been hanging out 
with the likes of roaming holy men—
I’ve lost my honor in the world.

I’m delighted to see 
my fellow devotees,
but I weep and weep when I see the world.

I’ve sown love’s vine—
I water it 
with my flowing tears.

I’ve garnered the butter
from the curds,
and thrown away the whey.

The chieftain sent me a poison cup—
lost in love,
I gulped it down, straight. 

Just to complicate love and feminist matters even more,  Mirabai often proclaims such devotion to Krishna that she doesn’t even mind if he enslaves her.

My lord who lifts mountains—
I’m off to his home.

He’s my one true love.
The moment I see his form,
I’m entranced.

When night falls, I get up and go to him—
when day breaks,
I get up and return.

Night and day, I play with him.
I keep him happy
any which way I can.

I wear whatever he asks me to wear—
I eat whatever 
he gives me to eat. 

Our love’s an ancient love,
I can’t survive
a single moment without him.

I sit wherever he tells me to sit—
if he were ever to sell me,
I’d be willing to be sold. 

Mira’s master is the lord
who lifts mountains—
again and again, she sacrifices herself to him.

Somehow, though, the poem I find darkest (and the poem that most appalled my students) is when she becomes violently angry at a bird for singing happily, while she’s miserably awaiting Krishna to take away the pain of this mortal coil:

Hey love bird, crying cuckoo,
don’t make your crying coos,
for I who am crying, cut off from my love,
will cut off your crying beak
and twist off your flying wings
and pour black salt in the wounds.

Hey, I am my love’s and my love is mine.
How do you dare cry love?
But if my love were restored today
your love call would be a joy.
I would gild your crying beak with gold
and you would be my crown.

Hey, I’ll write my love a note,
crying crow, now take it away
and tell him that his separated love
can’t eat a single grain.
His servant Mira’s mind’s in a mess.
She wastes her time crying coos.

Come quick, my Lord,
the one who sees inside;
without you nothing remains.

The violence in this poem always surprises. Clearly, the bird can’t win, but it’s the honesty and rawness of her feelings that impress. Can true love justify destruction? In Mirabai’s poem, it does. The bird’s happiness belongs to her, either to snuff out, if her love does not return; or to wear as a crown, if he does. Although problematic, there is something pure about her emotions. Despite the complications and dangers with which the world tries to encumber her, she feels that her love is simple. 

What I like most about Mirabai’s work is her determination to buck the current. Although she shrouds each poem with the notion that she wears her “dancing anklets” and abandons “all shame” only to please Krishna, she still succeeds in making her own way, while negotiating abuse from her family and a violent, patriarchal system. 

It’s hard to say if Mirabai was indeed sincere in her love for Krishna or if she invoked his image as a cultural shield to combat the relentless oppression that followed her. As a powerless woman of that time and place, I wonder if her love for Krishna was more so a defiant declaration of self-respect. Perhaps, Krishna was a symbol of freedom, for which she gladly, and ironically, welcomed bondage. 

* * *

Dear Reader,

As Valentine’s Day approaches, whether you are giddy because you have picked the most perfectly cheese-tasctic card for your wife (as I have) or if you are prepared to twist the beak off an offensively cheerful bird, I hope you find love, respect, and satisfaction!

xoxo,

Shanti

P.S. Please check out Online Enlightenment, which is accepting new music, art, and poetry submissions!

Lieutenant Yar on Vacay: Secret Longings and Writing the Death Scene

My mother used to go to a particularly woo-woo chiropractor in Malibu, CA. I tagged along one evening, and as we wound cliffs that overlooked the Pacific and into his long, gravel driveway, huge amethyst geodes glinting across his lawn. I never forgot this scene, not because of its beauty or because of the chiropractor’s eccentric personality; rather, I remember it clearly because it is where, a week earlier, my mother met Denise Crosby, the actress who played Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. She had gotten Crosby’s autograph for us kids, and my fourteen-year-old heart could have burst.

I recently wrote about my childhood affinity for Tasha Yar in “Well It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives.” When my mother met Denise Crosby, Tasha Yar’s character had already been killed off in an episode where some sludge monster offed her in the first twelve minutes (“Skin of Evil”). Later, they brought her back (“Yesterday’s Enterprise”) only to kill her again in a more guns-blazing fashion. The latter was a better move since they were able to write Denise Crosby a role as Tasha Yar’s part Romulan daughter (long story) who is the same age as Tasha would have been, in the “current” Enterprise’s timeline (temporal rift + math = headaches). 

I have been writing a book of poems about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not surprisingly, I’ve written several poems about Tasha Yar. Recently, Cahoodaloodaling published my poem, “Tasha Yar At Her Best” for their “Joy Sticks” issue. As I was looking for poems that express finding joy without using the word “joy” (which was the requirement of that issue) I thought of this poem’s take on Tasha’s true desires. 

I thought Tasha was usually portrayed as either particularly hard or particularly vulnerable. When not flipping around men and telling off Q, she’s crying in the penalty box and catching the sexy disease that makes her hot for Data. In my poem, I wanted to write her character as more complex, which in my mind, means “normal.” I gave her mundane life challenges:  unreasonable family expectations, a difficult daughter, and a father-figure she could never quite please. In the show, Tasha Yar wanted to die in battle, to lose her life for the protection of others, but I wanted her to harbor a secret wish to die by the pool, while in the midst of a pleasant holiday. I wanted her to relish the idea of peace and pleasure, to soften her without diminishing her strength. I also wanted her afterlife to be exciting instead of assigning her the usual “rest in peace” trope.

Writing about death is challenging since most of us have no proof of anything. My favorite life after death poem is Langston Hughes’ “Sylvester’s Dying Bed.” During most of the poem, the last of Sylvester’s life is filled with “moanin’,” “cryin’,” and “beggin’” (mostly done by all his “pretty mamas”) until the very end “When the Lawd put out the light. // Then everything was darkness / In a great…big…night.” I love the contrast between noise and silence, chaos and calmness, and the way he slows the poem with ellipses after Sylvester’s death.

Instead of slowing Tasha’s afterlife and illustrating a dark calmness, I gave her “colored panels, / indigo and reds, the fire-pink / of cherry blossoms,” and let her slip “into the deep / and changing sea.” 

Considering Tasha’s various incarnations, coupled with the strict regime of Starfleet, I think a colorful, flexible afterlife would begin a proper adventure, hopefully, immune to sludge-monsters and defeating time loops!

To  read “Tasha Yar At Her Best,” click here.

Or listen to it here…

 

To read “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” click here.

To hear an awesome jazz version of “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” click below!

Victorian Bad Boys and the Satisfying Murder of the Angel in Your House

I first read Mrs. Dalloway in my late twenties, after the idealistic phase of early adulthood and before I had much perspective on life. Virginia Woolf’s novel follows an older woman, as she prepares for a party she’s throwing that night. Through stream of consciousness, the reader learns of her early interactions with some of the guests at her party. As a youth, she had three love options. (Well, if we’re being honest, she only had two.) The person she seemed to feel most affection toward was her friend, Sally Seton. As a woman in the late 1800s, of course, this match would have brought her poverty and ruin. Her other two options were male: Peter Walsh, a passionate man whose neediness would have driven any woman up the wall by year-two of marriage; and Richard Dalloway, a nice—although a bit boring—man who was kind and had the means to support a wife. The latter was particularly important to women of that era, as it was unusual for them to secure financial independence.

As a woman in the 21st century, who had the privilege of earning a Ph.D., living on my own, and owning a car, I recognized Mrs. Dalloway’s plight but did not directly relate to it. I felt bad that she could not marry Sally. Peter just reminded me of bass players I used to date. I can understand the initial appeal of that archetype: broody, dark, artistic. In my experience, though, those traits eventually morph into whininess and immaturity. That type of man becomes tedious and a relationship with him, laborious. 

Given that new same-sex marriage laws were over a century away, I think that Clarissa made the right choice. Not only did she make a good business deal (an aspect of marriage that we oft forget in contemporary times) she chose someone who gave her space and respected her independence, which Clarissa deeply cherished.

However, when I taught Mrs. Dalloway, a few years later in an intro to lit class, my 20-year-old students had a very different reaction. They glossed over the whole bisexual aspect of Clarissa’s narrative and zeroed in on what they considered a crime. In their words, she had chosen money over love, and for that act, they could feel only disdain. I couldn’t figure how they could not appreciate Clarissa’s decision. From my point of view, she saw beyond her moment of passion for Peter (which she admits, years later, still burns) for a relationship that made her happy with a man whom she also loved (although perhaps not as hotly as for Peter). What I understood, then, was the limited perspective of the very young. It’s definitely not due to a lack of intelligence. I think that, only with time, does one truly begin to understand happiness. Clarissa played the long game. She found a man who loved her, and, perhaps more importantly, gave her space to love herself. Had I read Mrs. Dalloway earlier, I don’t think that I would have understood the finer nuances of love and happiness. I, too, would have lamented the loss of the bass player…uh, I mean, Peter Walsh. 

Recently, I taught Woolf’s “Professions for Women” (taken from a speech she delivered to The National Society of Women’s Service in 1931) which is another work I haven’t read since grad school. I remember liking it and experiencing some kind of “girl power” reaction to the notion that women need space (see her essay, “A Room of One’s Own”) and independence (in the form of a salary) in order to truly reach their creative potential. I read it now at 43 years old, six years shy of the age that Woolf wrote it. The first thing that struck me about the speech is that she begins the way women often begin now: she justifies her work. Don’t get me wrong; I think she does so in order to shine a light on the patriarch’s misgivings regarding the expansion of “women’s work” beyond the domestic realm. Even so, it rattled me. I could hear my own voice in her sentiment, how many times I had to prove I was doing no harm in my work. I was just going through grad school. I like poetry; I’m good at teaching. I can make a living at the latter. I also had to prove that I was intelligent—more so than the men around me, just to break even—but also appear that I was somehow not intimidating in that respect. I had to show deference without presenting as “available” to some of my male professors, while at the same time, not “act like a bitch.” (I confess that I often chose to disregard the latter, when pressed for time.)

What struck me the most was Woolf’s description of the “Angel in the House.” In Victorian times, the poet Coventry Patmore, dreamed up the Angel in the House image as the perfect woman who essentially sacrifices everything for her man, while maintaining her beautiful smile. Damn, I would bet money that if I told a group of intro to lit students that the Angel in the House was created five years ago, they’d believe me (at least the women would, and I’ll bet, many of the men). 

Virginia Woolf suffers with this bitch’s…uh…angel’s voice in her head claiming backwards garbage like “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” One thousand memories come to mind of times when that voice was not only in my head but speaking right in front of me. I remember one male student claiming that I was not “being very nice” when I told him that his thesis statement lacked an argument. My former female boss once told me that, despite the clear policy allowing me simply to decline an administrator’s unreasonable request on behalf of a student, I should, instead, play email tennis for days until the other party “believed that they’re the ones who are telling you it’s a bad idea.” Virginia Woolf states that “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Although sometimes the Angel in the House is impossible to ignore (especially when they are your flesh and blood boss) I agree that the ghost of any such angel needs killing, even in 2018.

Near the end of her speech, she addresses the women in the audience, telling them that she has stressed her professional experiences because “they are, though in different forms, yours also.” In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which warned of the harmful affects of (now banned) DDT. The onslaught of criticism often included “rebuttals” that claimed that a woman without children couldn’t possibly care about humanity’s future, and therefore, her study is bunk.

Now, we live in a time that is moving very quickly. Women are standing together more often, and the world is propelling forward. Nevertheless, I feel disappointed that Woolf’s speech resonates with me now, nearly 90 years after she gave it. However, I am heartened that the closing of her speech expresses the same hope that I feel for the future of my female students: “But this freedom is only a beginning—the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are able to ask them; for the first time you are able to decide for yourselves what the answers should be.” 

After the 2008 election, Oprah Winfrey asked prominent feminist, Gloria Steinem what she thought about republican party’s questionable vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. Steinem’s response reminded me of why I so admire her intelligence and thoughtfulness. I expected her to criticize Palin, but instead, she said that it will be interesting to see if Palin recognizes all the different ways that she had been used during that election. I never forgot that response and have often thought about the different ways that women are used on a daily basis. Sure, everyone gets used, but for women, it cuts down to the bone of our existence. The heart of the argument that excuses the mistreatment and manipulation of women claims that we’re not as human as men. We don’t deserve the same rights and privileges because, by nature, we are less worthy. It’s taken me into my 40s to get a clearer picture of the verbal gymnastics I had once mastered just to get my foot in the door, the physical agility it’s taken to maneuver around men’s wandering hands, and the alertness to outwit their stalkings. I honestly cannot imagine spending my energy toward those life-draining tasks any more. Age is a privilege. I’m a bit more tired, physically, but as a consequence, it affects my willingness to shoulder other people’s crap. I have too much writing to do to justify managing both.

Of course, at times I still do shoulder the nonsense. I’m still deciding how to furnish my room and with whom to share it and under what terms. And I’m living in an exhilarating time of rapid change, just as Virginia Woolf was. I wonder what she would think of us now.  

Samhain and The Art of Being Weird

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday for two reasons: costumes and the fact that it in no way involves my family. Back when I used to go home for the holidays, I lamented November 1st as I packed away my wigs or wings and ate the last of the pumpkin seeds. Soon, I knew, would come the descent into family conflict and inevitable loneliness. However, I felt much better once I simply stopped going “home” for the holidays. I began enjoying Friendsgivings, Christmas potlucks, even holidays I spent alone. One of my favorite Christmas days was during the first year of my Ph.D. program in Mississippi. I spent the day merrily hanging pictures in my new apartment, eating stuffing out of a mug (sorry, Southern Californians call it “stuffing”), and watching movies on my comfy futon. I didn’t even mind the gloomy winter weather.

During the last few years, I’ve paid more attention to seasonal changes and my physical environment. I moved to Birmingham, AL in 2014, and although I now live in the middle of the city, I find myself surrounded by more wildlife than I ever experienced in the rural town of Northport, AL. I have enjoyed the turn of each season and walking around my yard to see what has bloomed, or in the winter, what has hidden itself away till spring.

After studying the seasons and the nature around me, for a couple years, I recently felt inspired to read about Pagan holidays, which very much revolve around seasons and, more to the point, farming. In addition to farming rituals, such as canning what one will need for winter, celebrating Samhain involves honoring one’s ancestors on October 31st. It is believed that the “veil between worlds” is thinner on that day, and therefore, it is easier to hear messages from the beyond. This holiday is rather internal: remembering the past and preparing for the scarcity of winter.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it was like to live off the land. Most of us don’t need to can food (nor would most of us even know how) because we can drive to a grocery store that supplies nearly all types of food year-round. As for ancestors, I originally liked the idea of observing a day that honors them. However, as the 31st grew near, I felt a stressful gloom. I decided, finally, that I have enough trouble with my corporeal family. I honestly don’t even want to know what my ancestors think of me.

So, Samhain came and went. I dressed as Mother Nature for Halloween and my wife as a woodland creature. We went with some of our neighbors to take their kids trick or treating. I love the street we live on. It feels like the good kind of familial, a healthy family that knows one another but gives them space to be who they are and grow, as they will.

I think part of the problem with ancestors is that they’re not here, moving forward with us in the same way. As in winter, they’re living the part of the cycle that’s invisible to us. Perhaps their spirits are still here, but we can’t hear them anymore than we can see the green grass, hibernating until warmer weather. For instance, my grandmother and I were very close. She died when I was in my late twenties, several years before I started dating women. In my mind, our relationship remains where it physically ended. I never disappointed her by marrying a woman, and I know that, at least when she was alive in the flesh, she would have been disappointed. There is so much about my grandmother that I love. She taught me how to crochet. We read poetry together. Most importantly, she knew how to make me laugh, especially when I was overwhelmed with the grief of home life.

Who knows? Maybe she would have evolved with the times. Maybe not. It makes me feel a little weird sometimes, having two relationships with the same person—one in my memory and one that I currently cannot prove I’m having. The latter I experience when I feel my grandmother’s presence or the delight I used to know when I visited her Hollywood apartment or when a hummingbird flies so close to me that I can see the glint of its feathers.

However, I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t feel weird, especially when it comes to family. The School of Life recently released a good video that explains one reason that everybody feels weird and disconnected from others. (To watch, click here.) They hypothesize that, because no one ever fully reveals themselves, people think they are the only ones who feel or think “weird things.”

That most people feel weirder than others is perhaps the weirdest part of weirdness, especially when family, friends, and society do everything they can to trim us down to what can be considered “normal” (by weirdos). And, back to Paganism, as much as nature helps ease my own feelings of disconnect, I see no evidence that societies of old did much better in connecting, loving, and honoring one another. Maybe that’s why it is easier to honor the dead: they are no longer around to disagree or to disrupt the image you’ve assigned them, be it benevolent or otherwise.

I don’t really know if there’s an art to being weird, but there certainly is art about weirdness. Today, I will leave you with two poems. The first is Lucille Clifton’s “i was born with twelve fingers.” The second is a poem that probably everyone can relate to: Philip Larkins’ “This Be the Verse.”

Blessed be, y’all!

Click here to listen to “i was born with twelve fingers”

Click here to listen to “This Be the Verse”

Historical Persona Poetry and the Challenge of Authority

This month, I am pleased to introduce guest blogger, Kwoya Fagin Maples, author of the new poetry collection, Mend, which I just pre-ordered on Amazon. You should, too! 

Historical persona poetry is poetry written in the voice of someone or something else other than the writer. It is unique in that the voice recalls a particular history. The scenes and situations may be imagined by the writer, but they are based on real people and events.

In Turn Me Loose: the Unghosting of Medgar Evers, Frank X Walker writes in the voice of Medgar Evers’ murderer, (Byron De La Beckwith), De La Beckwith’s wife, Medgar Ever’s wife and even the bullet that killed Medgar Evers. In Brutal Imagination, a poetry collection by Cornelius Eady, Eady writes in the voice of an imagined black man who was created by Susan Smith to cover up the murder of her own children. In this case, Eady uses an imaginary person/character who never existed to reveal the real story of Susan Smith, and to highlight the injustice and effects of the accusation. More recently, Jeanie Thompson explores the rich life of Helen Keller in The Myth of Water.  I could list others, but these books were my chief companions for my own collection of historical persona poetry.

My own collection, Mend, tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. It is based on a case of medical experimentation that occurred in Mt. Meigs, Alabama, between 1845 and 1849. I didn’t set out to write such a collection. I was simply intensely stunned by the story when I encountered it. More than anything, the lack of information and records about the women is what compelled me to write about them. The first poem I wrote for Mend came in the voice of a traditional “speaker” of a poem. It was suitably titled “The Door,” and later, my editor chose it to be the prefatory poem for the book.

Doubt was my loudest enemy the entire time I wrote this collection, particularly because it was historical persona poetry. I wasn’t writing in my own voice. I was trying to imagine the experience of people who existed in a different time and circumstance than myself.  I couldn’t help asking, who was I to write this story? Did my blackness and my gender alone authorize me to tell it? The answer I gave myself was no. After writing “The Door,” I stopped writing and conducted research. It was a year before I would begin writing poems again. I poured through hundreds of slave narratives and read several books surrounding the case, including Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, which related several cases of medical experimentation conducted on people of color in the United States. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other unnamed women of Mt. Meigs were not alone. I found that medical experimentation was commonly practiced by doctors and slave holders. In her book, Washington uses the term “medical plantations,” arguing that what yielded for these doctors (instead of a traditional crop) was advancement and wealth in their respective fields. (The poem I wrote in direct response to this idea is “What Yields,” an eleven-sectioned sonnet corona.)

After spending so much time in research, when the poems came again for the book, they came in the voices of the women themselves. I still had doubt to fight—at every turn— but the unfairness of the story and it needing to be told pushed me forward. Some poems I wrote came in scenes that surprised me— tender scenes of catching lightning bugs and nursing newborns. There were also poems where the women pointedly held the doctor accountable and criticized his actions. Ultimately, the poems don’t just reveal the devastation of what happened to the women. I wanted to explore who they were as humans, and it became my purpose to display an array of human emotion. We are all complex beings.

Ultimately, I made a decision, not about who I was as a writer, but about who these women were to me. They were my elders. They wanted to tell me a story to remember. Like my own family members who make me still my body and listen, they called for my attention.  I made an effort to give it.

Mend is available for purchase at all major book sellers including Amazon. To purchase directly from the University Press of Kentucky, click here: bit.ly/MaplesMend.

Kwoya Fagin

KWOYA FAGIN MAPLES is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow. In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours(2010) her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend, was finalist for the AWP Prize and is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky. Edited by Lisa Williams, Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

Maples teaches creative writing and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.

 

 

 

 

Conjuring Autumn

This summer, my wife and I took our belated honeymoon to Iceland. (In the above photo, a group of us left our kayaks to climb a glacier.) The weather was in blissful contrast to late July in Alabama. We giggled as we packed our thermals, which neither of us had ever owned. (She is from Mobile, AL, and I am from Southern California. Even when I lived in Flagstaff, AZ, the snow storms, which are actually significant, usually melted within a few days. Despite the cold weather, the Arizona sun kept the place from looking like the midwest and me, from Seasonal Affective Disorder.) 

Visiting Iceland felt like going to a different planet, in the best way possible. During the first week, after we returned to the south, I dreamed every night of volcanic rock and steam, glaciers, black sand, and the Blue Lagoon. By and by, the south’s version of hell (also known as August) crept in, and I began to feel dull and antsy. I recall when I first moved to Mississippi, and my fellow grad student and I were walking across campus in late August. My skin felt like it was on fire but somehow, also wet. “What’s wrong?” asked my southern friend. “I feel like I’m in a little, jar of mayonnaise,” said I. 

Needless to say, I am looking forward to autumn, and I believe that if you really want to banish something, like August in Alabama, you should praise it first. Here is a poem from a wonderful anthology, that I bought in Iceland, called Icelandic Poetry, translated by Bernard Scudder.

I have taken a picture of the poet’s name so that I won’t mess it up! I was unable to find much information, so if anyone knows more about this poet, please tell me.

In the Love of the Sun

IMG_2902

You
with the fingerprints of the wind
on your skin
and the love of the sun
on your forehead

upon her touch
the roses burst into bloom
like red kisses
in the garden

you bring me one
I feel it touch my soul
eyes and hands

hot 
so hot 
like your presence

The next poem is my favorite by James Wright, “Beginning.” For a long time, I had thought of this poem as taking place in autumn, which shows you how much I know about farming. The darkness and peace always made me think of the weather getting cooler. However, I now know that wheat is harvested in August, at the latest. I do not relate as much to this poem as I used to, for I would never voluntarily leave the air-conditioning in August. Regardless, I’ll never get over the line “The moon drops one or two feathers into the field,” nor will I ever recover from the last two lines, which knock me over every time I read it.

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
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
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

And now, let us invite autumn to arrive as soon as possible! Below are the poems “Autumn” by Rainer Maria Rilke and “Eating Alone,” one of my favorite Li-Young Lee poems, which isn’t specifically about autumn but satisfies in its cozy, lonely tone.

Autumn 

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Eating Alone

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions. 
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold, 
brown and old. What is left of the day flames 
in the maples at the corner of my 
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes. 
By the cellar door, I wash the onions, 
then drink from the icy metal spigot. 

Once, years back, I walked beside my father 
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall 
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But 
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced 
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my 
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet 
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice. 

It was my father I saw this morning 
waving to me from the trees. I almost 
called to him, until I came close enough 
to see the shovel, leaning where I had 
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade. 

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas 
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame 
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness. 
What more could I, a young man, want.

—Li-Young Lee

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this month, folks! If you are a lover of hot weather, don’t worry, the fire shall return! I’m indifferent regarding the whole pumpkin spice phenomenon, but for pumpkin spice-lovers—cheers! And a happy upcoming Mabon to all!

P.S. If you are interested in more Iceland photos, my wife has included many of them, including some delightful short videos, on her blog, Notoriously Episcopalian.