The Problem with Infinity–Star Trek: Picard Grapples with Life’s Meaning

The following contains spoiler alerts, so if you haven’t watched Star Trek: Picard, beam out of here, immediately!

When I first heard that there would be a spinoff series of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was elated. I have long been a fan, both of the series and of Captain Picard, the character that Star Trek: Picard would revolve around. However, the more I heard about the show’s darker concepts, the more I felt my inner Counselor Troi’s uneasiness.

In an interview with Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: Picard: Patrick Stewart on Why He Returned to the Final Frontier”) the actor claims that “The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different. Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure.” Hmmm…I thought that was the point, though. I don’t think that a “secure” world has ever existed in our time; that’s why we were interested in living on the Enterprise, a place where justice stood a fighting chance. In the 90s, Stewart used to tell a story that illustrated this very point. A police officer wrote him a letter expressing appreciation for STNG’s portrayal of a “better world waiting for us.” 

Perhaps, Stewart objected to the cleanliness of STNG. I do admit that the show introduces some pretty amazing advancements in mental healthcare. Picard seems fully to recover from being physically disassembled, plugged into the Borg, and forced to kill 11,000 people, after some therapy and a trip to his family’s vineyard. Still, though, I never saw STNG as a safe place. Yes, the main characters strive to better themselves, morally and professionally—admirable qualities—but they are surrounded by actual racism (of beings that are actually not human), their own sexism and racism (the latter of which they occasionally admit to), and episode after episode of torture and mind-rape.

To name a few examples of the latter, there’s the time that an Ullian mind-probing historian, rapes Deanna Troi through a fake memory to get back at his father for being a bit of an ass to him (“Violations”). In “The Mind’s Eye,” Geordi gets abducted on his way to a vacation only to get tortured and brainwashed by Romulans. In another episode (“Descent”) Geordi again gets the short end of the stick when Data, controlled by his evil twin, inserts metal probes into Geordi’s brain. Fun stuff!

Let’s not forget “Conspiracy,” where several Starfleet admirals are controlled by parasites and forced to murder people and to eat bugs. Even Data gets controlled by his father, Dr. Soong, who has implanted in him a homing device (“Brothers”). Data, against his own will, risks the lives of the entire crew by succumbing to his father’s programming that brings him home for routine maintenance. Couldn’t Dad just have called him or sent him a space communication or whatever?

Star Trek: Picard, on the other hand, makes no bones about darkness. No one’s addictions, fears, or inner demons get a clean ending, wrapped in a bow. And yet, as much as the show allows its characters grit, I still found myself scratching my head at some of their behavior and dismayed at the ways that difficult scenarios were summarily dismissed as either pure evil or shiny enough to continue, unchecked. Without further adieu, here are some of my thoughts on Star Trek: Picard. 

1) Sutra, the Synth: I’m all for a bit of drama in, well, a tv drama, but honestly, they went so heavy-handed on this villainess. She slinks around like a cat or Jessica Rabbit. I can almost hear her say, “I’m not bad; I’m just programmed that way.” After she kills her own synth sister, Saga (with Saga’s own pretty, hummingbird brooch) Dr. Soong’s son kills her for it, without so much as a trial. After he presses a button, she crashes to the ground, and he tells her lifeless body “Turns out, you’re no better than we are.” Well, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, buddy. You were fine a minute ago letting her commit genocide against your own kind. This moment was so weighty, and yet, they moved on to a high-action scene without a second glance at Soong’s murder of his own android daughter. Sutra is terrible, but after this scene, I kind of can’t blame her for wanting to get rid of organics, when all they have to do is press a button to eradicate her.

2) Jurati murders an innocent, fellow scientist, but then saves the day and finds love: It does not appear, in the final scene of season one, that Jurati will be brought to trial any more than Sutra will be. This, of course, works to her advantage. What is in her favor, unlike poor Sutra, is that she’s blonde—uh…I mean—she’s turns over a new leaf and promises not to kill anymore.

The stark contrast between her situation and Sutra’s is breathtaking. Again, I don’t like Sutra, and she did try to commit genocide, but I can’t help but see her point about organics. Soong went along with mass murder but lived to tell.

Humans: can’t live ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.   

3) The Federation goes from a cluster-f of bureaucracy and treason to suddenly accepting synths back into the fold: The genocide of humanity almost happens; Picard gets a golem body with his consciousness implanted, and NOW the Federation lifts the synth ban? Is anyone else freaked out by the implications of transferring consciousness into a potentially immortal, mostly indestructible body (although Picard gets neither)? Who might receive this privilege? Is it a privilege? Data didn’t think so. He required technologically assisted suicide so that he’d know, “however briefly,” that his “life is finite.” He goes on to explain that “Mortality gives meaning to human life….Peace, love, friendship. These are precious because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.” Has no one thought of the repercussions of changing the very nature of humanity?

Also, do future institutions operate at warp speed, compared to now? This year, people have had to risk catching a potentially, deadly virus to protest around the country just for a few, offensive statues to come down. I can’t even imagine what it will take to dismantle the system that allowed the statues to be built in the first place, which is the ultimate goal. But ok, Federation.

The problem with infinity isn’t just manifested in Data’s desire for meaning, it’s imbedded in the way we expect Star Trek to be bold and contemporary (which, post-90s, apparently means dark) and yet, to remain faithful in its optimism. Show the darkness of the Borg but don’t let beautiful Seven of Nine die. Send Picard on one final voyage, except actually give him a healthy, golem body, with an expiration date, so that he can go on more adventures. Give Jiradi some grit, but let her gleefully improve the Picard Maneuver and kiss her beau as she smiles, consequence-free, for her murderous transgression.

I don’t think anyone’s to blame. I think that, as organics ourselves, our inability to truly comprehend nonexistence collides with our understanding that we are mortals. The happiest among us allow time to pass through them and don’t cling to the past or worry about the future. It’s a big ask for any humanoid. And still, I wished for Picard to end, both the series and the man. I’m not completely sure why. Maybe I just wanted him to have one last meaningful adventure, to feel useful and like himself again. I wanted his impending extinction to ignite our understanding of what makes Picard—despite his human flaws—a great man and a great leader. 

For me, the most beautiful scene was of Data’s last moments. I watched it several times. During his life, Data fought alongside his human comrades and in his free time, playfully mimicked their behavior. He had to fight for his own autonomy and for the rights bestowed on “sentient beings.” But in this quiet, last scene, his body evaporates into ephemeral mist and his wish to “be a real boy” is granted, with his Captain by his side. He finally knew what it meant to be human, and the audience gets closure after his abrupt departure in Nemesis.

Of course, I don’t know what happens after we are “extinguished.” Is that the end, and if so, the end of what? Is there somehting else in the future? Do we cycle back into this reality? I found this last scene to be a happy, satisfying end for Data, but really, what do any of us know, for sure, about the “after life?”

Today, I leave you with one of Emily Dickinson’s many poems that ponder life and death. 

My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close
by Emily Dickinson

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven.
And all we need of hell.

P.S. One last thought on Star Trek: Picard: A cloned Spot? Hooray!!!! The cat I have now is only my third, but if I could clone my deceased cats, I would totally have three cats! I know! I know! Cloning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Ralph and Sandra Fisher, whose beloved bull-clone didn’t work out so great. I don’t care!

To infinity!!!!!!

The Comfort of Bad TV

Recently, I OD’ed on darkness. Sometimes, I cope with life’s terrors by watching horror movies and listening to true crime podcasts. There are many theories regarding the therapeutic nature of horror, some of which I discuss in my post “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror.” But this month, I dove a little too far into the abyss (and it did not help that I had also read the beautiful but depressing books, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.) I was in desperate need of an overcorrect. I have read that type 2 diabetes can be cured with veganism, and I, too, needed an overly pure, difficult-to-sustain treatment, in order to counteract the narratives of serial killers and demonic influence that danced in my head. 

Then, as though sent from above, I received a notice on Netflix that there was a new season of the Hallmark Channel’s Good Witch. A few years ago, I had watched the first two seasons of the show but figured that it had been cancelled. As it turns out, there are now SIX SEASONS!! Thank the goddess!

Cassie, in her beautiful, twinkling shop, advising a customer.
Cassie, working in her shop, Bell, Book and Candle

What is Good Witch about, you ask? Well, it’s basically the witch-version of 7th Heaven. Remember that gem? I do, because I used to watch it every time I craved outlandish optimism and the absence of long-term struggle.

Usually, I like some juice in my stories, something at stake. It need not be literal life and death, but I want a reason to continue. Recently, I watched The Great, a series loosely based on Catherine the Great, and although it is a comedy, I felt compelled to watch as the teenage spitfire fights for education, feminism, and the American dre—oh, whoops, I mean the Russian dream. (It’s ok, Russia, it hasn’t exactly worked out for America either.)

Catherine the Great and her lover, in bed looking as though they've been deep in conversation.
Catherine the Great and her cute lover.

7th Heaven and Good Witch offer little to bite at, which is perhaps why they provide such a soothing balm. Both shows center around easily-resolved family issues, under the umbrella of watered down religion: The Camdens are Christian because they go to church and try to be nice to people; the Merriwick women are witches because they’re intuitive and drink tea. This dash of religion presents both stories as palpable to a mainstream audience, which traditionally opts for vanilla. 

7th Heaven does confront some legitimately stressful problems such as spousal abuse, gun violence, racism, and slut-shaming. (The latter ironically co-exists with the show’s human chastity belt, eldest son, Matt, who obsesses over his younger sisters’ potentially budding sexuality. This behavior is encouraged by the father, Reverend Camden, and it makes me want to wretch every time I think of it.)

Mary and Lucy looking off camera with frustrated, "I'm not having it" expressions.
Mary and Lucy: “What now, patriarch?”

But what takes the sting out of each trouble (even the waves of nausea triggered by creepy Matt) is that the problems are more or less resolved within an hour and often times, are never seen again. If we’re being honest, true issues are  rarely seen once. Most of the time, 7th Heaven problems are not actually problems. For instance, after the family doctor mixes up test results and incorrectly tells the Reverend and Mrs. Camden that Mary is pregnant (poor Mrs. Camden and her ever-fertile womb) Mary scolds her parents for thinking that she would “betray their trust” by having sex out of wedlock. But in case that’s not enough fantasy for you, there’s the episode that contains the least problem-y problem, “No Sex, Some Drugs and a Little Rock ‘N Roll,” where little Ruthie must come to terms with her gum-chewing vice. Seriously. 

Little Ruthie, looking seriously into the camera while drinking from a pink, toy tea cup and wearing a pink boa.
Little Ruthie: Trouble

Nevertheless, I am unironically fond of the episode, “Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion” where the (mostly grown) kids go to great lengths to hide their tattoos. At the end of the episode, the parents— alone in their bedroom—reveal that they already know about the kids’ tattoos, as they pull down their pajama pants to reveal their own ink—mark of the beast be damned!

When I was younger, I’d fantasize that I was somehow the long, lost daughter of the Camden’s and got to be a part of their family (whilst keeping my distance from purity-ring-Matt). I can’t say how my life with the Camdens would have worked out, though, as I am uncertain of how the characters’ lives actually function. I also don’t know if they accept non-heterosexuality. In my recollection of the show, no one ever asked about it. They did accept Judaism, though, so mazel tov to progress!

Matt and Sarah on their wedding day.
Here’s ol’ chastity belt himself, marrying a Jewish woman— officially—after secretly marrying her 24 hours after they met. Seriously. 

Meanwhile, in Middleton, the witches experience a similar dearth of painful problems. The protagonist, Cassie, does deal with the haunting presence of her late husband and lightly mourns her troubled childhood; however, the appearance of the handsome doctor, who moves in next door, at least gives her something pretty to look at. And yes, of course, they find love. Maybe the most vexing issue for the couple is their tendency toward mild arguments regarding western medicine versus herbalism. Here’s my interpretation of such a debate between them:

Sam: No! But…SCIENCE!
Cassie: Well, we’re both right, but mostly, I’m right. (knowingly smiles)
Sam: (thinks: She’s so pretty in that tight dress. Too bad sex does not exist in Middleton.)

Cassie and Sam, with jars of herbs in the foreground.
Cassie and Sam

Oh, that’s the other thing, as of Season 3, sex does not exist in Middleton. Nobody’s weird about sex but nobody’s having it, either. There is sex on 7th Heaven, but everyone gets all excited about it and not in a good way. 

Middleton is an entire town of people who cannot solve their own problems, without the Merriwick witches and essential oils. One can tell that they are definitely witches because they rarely charge anyone for their merchandise, and yet, Cassie maintains a beautiful, witchy shop, as well as an impeccable, mansion-sized bed and breakfast called, Grey House. 

This magic apparently rubs off on everyone because the town routinely joins together to produce extremely expensive, large-scale festivals and parties, all within around three days.

The carousel during the light festival.
Middleton organizes an ornate, expensive light festival within a couple days.

I fantasize about moving to Middleton. I can easily imagine the magic of fantasy-television, bestowing on me what would be, in real life, quite a chunk of cash, and then, mostly just milling around in Cassie’s shop, drinking tea, and taking long walks in the beautiful town. But what about the people? Would Cassie be my friend? Would we brew tea together? Or would her know-it-all sorcery grate on my nerves, like the mayor’s dissonant “yoo-hoo!” that slices every conversation. But I can hover in brief daydreams, imagining the beautiful vintage clothes I’d don on my way to meet friends at Middleton Microbrewery.

Mayor Martha Tinsdale, arms outstretched.
Mayor Martha Tinsdale

Middleton has also found its way into my sleeping-dreams. The night after the peaceful protests in my city (Birmingham, AL) turned aggressive, I dreamed that a few people from Middleton and I circled a crop of beautiful, six-foot-tall flowers and gently shoveled garden soil unto their base. I could not understand what, exactly, we were doing, but it felt correct. 

Cassie, holding an old book and gazing lovingly at the Middleton Merriwick flower.
Cassie, observing the famous Middleton Merriwick flower.

Nevertheless, as with any dream, one eventually wakes up. The world is a mess and always has been. Often, it’s hard to know how to change it. As I have yet to see systemic racism in Middleton (or actually any BIPOC at all) I assume that Cassie does not possess a tea remedy for four hundred years of oppression.

In Sammy Rhodes’ book, Broken and Beloved: How Jesus Loves Us into Wholeness, he laments the success of 7th Heaven, claiming that he’s “convinced that Satan loved” the show because “When there is no real sin to repent of, there is no need for a real savior.” I see what he’s saying, but as a non-Christian, it baffles me to abhor good behavior for any reason. In contrast, Diana Tourjée’s article, “‘Satan’s Favorite TV Show’: The False Moralism of 7th Heaven,” ponders the show’s legacy after the sexual abuse allegations against Stephen Collins emerged in 2014: “So what does a show like 7th Heaven sell to its consumer? We already know that faith can be a mask to religious leaders whose personal lives are wicked. The series feels desperate in its attempt to reconstruct an American life it felt was in jeopardy. While much of religious media feels like it consists of caricatures of real families, 7th Heaven felt exceptionally crude—so clean it was obscene.”

For me, the hyper-vigilant peace and community of these television shows is both what provides an escape and what eventually annoys me. It’s a tease. First, I want to live in that world of puny struggles and gorgeous homes. Then, I realize that the majority of my friends nor I could possibly live there, and even if we could, it would mean the end of growth. There is more to give the world than well-rested smiles and wholesome advice. There is also more to receive and to learn.

I am reminded of the Good Witch episode (“In Sickness and in Health”) where a grumpy painter blows into town and is given a magic brush. (Seriously, Cassie sells magic paintbrushes in her shop.) He finds inspiration and paints several pieces that predict the bland, near future of the characters on the show. He leaves feeling better, inspired by a new perspective. But the point is, he leaves picturesque Middleton for a world where chaos and pain, and yes, also love and peace, intermingle and co-exist. Middleton is no place for an artist, unless he’s able to unhook the town’s snow-white bodice and reveal the dark contrast of human existence: we only know happiness as deeply as we know grief.

Today, I leave you with a simple haiku by Hokushi about a small moment that contrasts joy and loneliness:

for that brief moment
when the fire-fly went out…O
the lonely darkness

UPDATE: I finished season 3 and here are a few observations.

  1. POC siting! She buys valerian root for her sleeping problems. Hmmm…
  2. Someone (who lives in Chicago—not Middleton) finally tells Cassie to lay off the predictions.
  3. More mild trouble between Sam and Cassie: Sam doesn’t want to get married again; Cassie does. This conflict, expressed in near whispers, ends two tv-hours later with a horse-driven carriage ride and Sam on one knee. Huzzah! 

Dark Spring and the Comfort of Books

In the 80s, no one really acknowledged child abuse unless you showed up with a black eye or an accusation of satanic worship. (Seriously, that was a thing. Google “Satanic Panic.” People served prison time for that nonsense.) It was not until my 30s that I realized how common it is to grow up in an abusive household, with drug addictions present. Consequently, I grew up feeling much different and alienated from other people. However, I was fortunate to have access to books, especially poetry, toward which I naturally gravitated.

Glatz Oszkár (1872-1958): “Reading Girl,” 1918

In college, I read Li-Young Lee’s poem, “This Room and Everything in It,” and felt, not so much satisfied, but enlivened. The speaker describes his failure to tether the ephemeral to the concrete:

useless, useless . . .
your cries are song, my body’s not me . . .
no good . . . my idea
has evaporated . . . your hair is time, your thighs are song . . . 
it had something to do
with death . . . it had something
to do with love.

As a young writer, this poem showed me how language can comfort and how it disappoints. I felt less alone, more rooted. 

Joy Harjo’s description of the “horses who licked razor blades,” in her poem, “She Had Some Horses,” eased me into the understanding that, at least in the privacy of my reading time, my darkness had a safe home in which to tear up the furniture and scream out the window. The last three lines of the poem make room for contrast and the inability to reconcile.

She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

In a world where I was expected (and often times still am) to remain stable and affable, even during my deepest grief, these words comforted. I could own my complexities. I did not have to beam with resilience or cut myself down in lament, as so often are the roles offered to women, sometimes, in oscillating fashion. 

Dora Maar: “The Conversation”

At this point in my life, I’m in the role of teacher, sharing literature with my college students. My students are wonderful. I love having a job where I get to hear about everything in the world that is new: the latest ideas and shifts in our culture at the very beginning, from brand, new adults. Some of my students have already experienced deep conflicts in life and some have not. For the latter group, I have found it helpful to contextually frame particularly dark poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” so that students are not turned off immediately, citing Prufrock’s “problem” as “just some low self-esteem.” Sigh. 

But this semester was different. This semester ended with all of us scattered across the country and communicating online. People are afraid. My students, not surprisingly to me, have remained kind, in their correspondence, and have done amazing jobs completing their work during a time when focus eludes. For their final assignment, they wrote a reflection on the text they most appreciated during the semester. I did not have any concrete notion as to what to expect from this assignment.

When I read the essays, I was moved to find that many of my students found comfort in these texts, especially during this global pandemic. One student wrote that since the “immortal feel” of his college experience has been “ripped” away from him, he relates more to Gilgamesh, and the grief he felt, when Gilgamesh loses his best friend, Enkidu. Another student had, before the pandemic, experienced Petrarch’s “Sonnet 189” as simply “morose,” but now that he has witnessed illness and isolation, reads the poem from a new perspective. Sappho’s poetry resonated with a student who wrote that she now understands how it feels to want to be near someone, knowing that she cannot.

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”

Of course, I don’t want my students to suffer; I just know that they inevitably will (or are) and that books can provide a balm. 

The week that our university went online, I learned that my mother had passed away. The weather was beautiful that day, and I sat on my red swing in the backyard and played fetch with my puppy until night came. I have always felt better outside. Maybe it’s because nature never asks you to change or to conceal your emotions. It will just sit with you. 

Shen Zhou, “Poet on a Mountaintop,” ca. 1490-1500

I came upon the poem, “In Perpetual Growth,” by Amy Gerstler, that week. She describes the “human desire for peace” and the hope that “for every hurt / there is a leaf to cure it.” 

I hope that, especially during this time, you find a “cure” that soothes you. 

Click here to read “In Perpetual Spring” and stay safe out there.

The Details of Quarantine

There is much for people to worry about lately: namely the physical and financial health of themselves and their loved ones. Many have been writing about these stresses already, so I am going to excuse myself from adding to the topic. Instead, I’ll write about another aspect of social distancing, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: attention to detail.

Over the weekend, a couple neighbors played live music from their front porch, and our neighborhood all came out and sat six feet away from each other to hear music and to connect with one another. I am fortunate to live in a friendly neighborhood where it is likely that people will learn the names of your dogs before they recall yours. When we first learned of the spread of the Coronavirus, people slowly began to work from home and stopped driving as much, unless they needed to forage for food. Little by little, a calm settled over our block. It is not unusual to see people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, and waving at one another is just the southern thing to do. But as we made peace with the situation, I started to see it: people’s smiles appeared effortlessly; adults giggled with their children, as they chased them around in their yards; grandparents taught the kids how to ride bikes. Neighbors made an even bigger point to check in with one another, and they began to notice and discuss their surroundings: the warm weather, the birds’ songs, the early spring-blooms.

Red-orange flower opening

As a writer, observing is my job. Honestly, what I’ve observed more and more, in recent years, is the tops of people’s heads. I won’t drone on about cell phone use. I believe technology keeps us just as connected as it does disconnected from one another. However, it seems pretty obvious that technology definitely stands between our senses and our surroundings. 

Is connection to nature really important to anyone but poets and artists? Based on the collective sigh of relief I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks, in my neighborhood, I think it is. And whether we accept it or not, our bodies are part of nature, and paying attention to our surroundings paves the way to sensing what it feels like to inhabit a body and how that body interacts with its surroundings. 

Our culture revolves around work and status. We all get caught up in it sometimes, wondering if our achievements are good enough, if we’re good enough. But for many people today, those achievements are on hold for a while. What does this time-out mean for our psyches? 

city intersection at night in fast-motion

I am no economist or scientist; I cannot predict how our country will soon change in terms of money and physical health, but I hope that, since most of us are sitting at home right now, we might take this opportunity to begin to notice our surroundings more. Perhaps this quieter time might heal some of the wounds our fast-paced culture has imposed on our notion of self-worth. Humans are social animals, but there is something to be said for self-reflection, a pastime not just reserved for poets.

huge Earth marble between two tall buildings, with people looking up at it
Sebastian Errazuriz’s rendering of blu Marble, which is to be showcased at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on March 13, 2019.

Today, I leave you with Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991,” which describes the speaker feeling like a “secretary to the morning,” as he writes down all the details of his surroundings. The ending of this poem includes my favorite description of dawn that I’ve read in a poem.

I hope that you are all hanging in there. I know many people cannot stay at home and are directly confronted by this virus, either as healthcare workers or as employees at grocery stores and such. We appreciate you, and I hope that you, too, can find time in the future to rest and reflect.

Tuesday, June 4, 1991 

By Billy Collins

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.

It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.

I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation
until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls,
all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.

This is what stenographers do in courtrooms, too,
alert at their miniature machines taking down every word.
When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting
and listening, fingers resting lightly on the keys.

This is also what Samuel Pepys did, jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise
slipped into the dark amnesiac waters of the Thames.
His vigilance finally paid off when London caught fire

as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee
and says how much he likes this slow vocal rendition
of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will
make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks
on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,
hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out
a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eyes, a long intricate carpet
that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed
knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine
of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.

If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,

all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,

an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands
are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys,
whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves,
and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle

and the piano at the other end of this room with
its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench.
So convinced am I that I have found my vocation,
tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,

a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing,
when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back.
It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eros
or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,

not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun,
her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim,
her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky.
But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

Featured Photo

Sebastian Errazuriz’s “blu Marble”

Spring

I’ll be honest, it’s been a trying academic year. My classes are going well—no complaints there. But it’s been a year of changes and painful realizations. It has become impossible to deny that some people, whom I love (and who sometimes love me back) are also moody and unpredictable, and that there’s nothing I can do better except to stop internalizing their bad behavior.

Usually, my optimism (which comes by way of nature or by outside grooming—I can no longer tell) benefits me. When I focus on what I want, I see more of it. However, there are times that optimism feels like a snake eating its own tail, renewing itself so quickly that I forget to stop and remember why I needed it in the first place. Its swiftness saws off the top, obscuring the root of the problem: in this case, that sometimes people just suck.

But as my friend recently told me, “better” doesn’t mean good, and I don’t have to find a bright side. Last night, my wife asked me what was wrong and was surprised when I said that I don’t want to teach Arabian Nights this week. “But you love Arabian Nights,” she said. She’s right, and when a book about a smart woman who subdues a sociopathic misogynist with storytelling can’t cheer me up, I know it’s been a long winter. My wife suggested that I embrace my sadness, and I think she’s right. Maybe happiness is a cork in water: if you want it, you have to remove control and let it float.

For now, the days are getting warmer, and the sunlight stays out late. The physical manifestation of renewal will arrive soon, in the form of springtime, and will remind me, again, how to grow.

Today, I offer you a poem about the beginning of spring, by Philip Larkin:

Coming

On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
Laurel-surrounded
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon —
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.

—Philip Larkin

Photo Credit: Nika Akin

Rules of the Holiday

Recently, my neighbor, Rhonda, and I were discussing how much easier life has gotten since we’ve stopped going “home” for the holidays, but also how annoying it is when people pity us for our refusal to do what the “holiday season” culturally dictates. 

“You know, just because it’s Thanksgiving does not mean I have to eat turkey with family,” Rhonda opined. I concurred. Later that day, she texted me, “I just read that it’s National Bacon Day,” complete with an eye-rolling emoji.

“Where are you going to eat your bacon today?” I jokingly replied. 

Valentine’s Day is the next holiday on the calendar that asks folks to adhere to cultural norms. For this holiday, though, it’s not that we must break bread with our toxic families, it’s that we must express coupledom in the bright-eyed tone of new love’s infatuation. 

I sense that Rhonda will not be passing out heart-shaped chocolate boxes this year.

Valentine’s Day has the distinct ability to tap into people’s singlehood-sensitivities. I’m lucky. I liked being single. There were times when I was unhappy, but there are times I am unhappy now, as a married person. I’ve never completely correlated emotions with relationship status. However, some people feel a deficit, when single, and who can blame them? The world is built for two. 

Also, as a woman, it’s difficult to enjoy alone time in public without the interference of strange men who find your independence unsettling. Saturday Night Live addressed this problem in the brilliantly “funny-because-it’s-true” skit “Leave me Alurn.”

Yet, despite our contemporary version of “the couple’s holiday,” the origin of Valentine’s Day is unclear. There is apparently enough debate about St. Valentine himself, (namely, whether or not our version of him is actually a combination of two different people) that the Catholic church ceased liturgical veneration of him in 1969. However, all of the stories about Valentine include religious persecution. One common narrative is that he performed weddings for Christians, which was not allowed under the emperor, Claudius Gothicus. Apparently, getting married could exempt a man from conscription, and Claudius was low on soldiers. Ah, politics. Under the umbrella of this story, one version has Valentine curing a blind woman in jail before he is led to his execution. He leaves the woman a note signed, “Your Valentine.” 

It’d be interesting to celebrate Valentine’s Day in this manner, comforting someone in need. I don’t think it’d garner many marketing strategies, though. Who knows? Capitalism is a flexible beast.

Young woman eating chocolates out of a box by herself in bed.

But for today, I offer you three love poems that deviate from the rush of new romance. The first, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” by Galway Kinnell, is a slightly awkward moment between a couple who has been “long-married.” The second, “the cat’s song,” by Marge Piercy, is a love poem from the cat’s perspective, and the third, “[you fit into me],” by Margaret Atwood, is probably a very common take on love.

Enjoy!

After Making Love We Hear Footsteps

The cat’s song

[you fit into me]

The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror

I have my sister to thank for getting me hooked on horror in my adult life. However, my first memories of horror movies were cringing at friends’ houses, while we watched movies like When a Stranger Calls and Black Christmas. I was too proud at that time (I was 14) to admit that I hated them. I knew I would spend the next several weeks worried that I would somehow make the inconceivable mistake of heading back upstairs after the heart-stopping “the call is coming from inside the house” twist.

However, in my 20s, my little sister revealed to me that she loved I Know What You Did Last Summer, and for some reason, it was then that horror movies clicked with me. I started watching the oldies: Carrie, The Exorcist, Amityville Horror. I loved them. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the psychological aspect of horror. My two favorite horror movies of 2019 are Midsommar and Us. I like Midsommar because I am interested in cults, and for weeks after watching it, found myself wondering if Dani will reconsider her final choices after the dust settles. Us was so creepy that I actually felt unnerved by my own reflection for a whole weekend. Also, I could not get out of my mind, the movie’s slowed-down, spooky version of “I’ve Got Five on It”!

There are many theories regarding why people like horror. Some say it’s an outlet for anxieties or a way to cohabitate safely with our inner monsters. (The Babadook handles the latter in an interesting, literal way.) Game of Thrones, although not a proper horror narrative, definitely exhibits horror elements. I admit that, during the “crown of gold” scene in season one, I found myself cheering for the grisly demise of Daenerys’ abuser, although it was unnecessarily vicious. Despite Daenery’s coldness, a trait I normally find unsettling, I felt relief for the end of that particular torment and for the way she embraces her unique gift and personal power.

I think one of the main draws of horror is an acknowledgement of exaggerated (for many of us) true-life suffering. When watching horror, we don’t need to deconstruct the nuances of our ennui: Pain is barreling through the woods in the form of a blunt man with a chainsaw. 

There is also a shared experience when watching horror. A community outcry, a “Don’t go in the basement” moment. We watch people bungle down narrow hallways and trip over rocks, knowing we’d have done it differently. There’s a comfort in believing we’d survive to be the final girl.

I credit this same survivor-desire for true crime’s rise in popularity. Yes, the abnormality of violent, human behavior fascinates people, but I think the real draw to true crime stems from anxiety. It’s no surprise that women are the primary consumers of true crime stories. Humans are hard-wired to scan and prepare for danger, and most domestic and sexually-related murders are committed against women. The “sleeping with the enemy” motif is popular in true crime narratives. These stories uncover the telltale signs of future violence, missed or ignored by the victims. Women are too often groomed to dismiss their intuition, which leaves them vulnerable, but true crime stories not only validate our instincts but encourage us to use them.

True crime narratives offer inside information about potential, domestic horror; however, the stories that end with the perpetrator in prison, also provide relief. Although, just as in most horror movies, the danger is never really over. There have always been violent criminals on the loose, no matter the number that get locked away.

Today I will leave you with a murder ballad called “Twa Sisters” (Two Sisters), which is believed to have first appeared on a Scottish broadside in 1656. The ballad chronicles the tale of a woman who drowns her younger sister over the love of a man. There have been many versions of the tale. In some versions, a man finds her body and uses her bones and hair to create a harp; in other versions, it’s a fiddle. Sometimes, the elder sister is exposed as a murderer, and the younger sister is portrayed as completely innocent. Other times, she has taunted the elder sister with the fact that she has won the beloved’s affections.

This ballad points to another reason people are interested in such horrific acts. These narratives sometimes ask us to consider how “monsters” are made. Whether the younger sister taunts or not, she surely does not deserve to be murdered, and yet, we can all relate to jealousy and the desire for revenge. These narratives beg a question: under the right circumstances, might we be the monster?

My favorite version of “Two Sisters” is Gillian Welch’s “Wind and Rain.” I love the refrain, “Oh the dreadful wind and rain,” and the way it illuminates the degrees of this horror. In the end, when the younger sister’s body has been crafted into a fiddle, it does not explicitly expose her murderer nor mention the man she loves. It will only play “Oh the dreadful wind and rain.” The ending does not provide any true justice or quick healing but rather suggests that art’s transformative power lies not in transcendence, but in accepting the present, dark as it may be. 

Empathy and Enlightenment—or—This Is My Dance Space; That Is Yours

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.

Woman looking in mirror, confused

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.

Alice walking through the looking glass

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

Click here to read the poem.

Click here to hear the poem.

(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.”)

Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay

The Marriage of Light and Dark

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.

Crows congregating on tree against blue sky with white clouds.

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.

Artwork of woman with pink roses in her eyes.
Concentration #11: “rose-colored”

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. 

Two women face each other, shrouded (one in black, one in white) wearing minimalist, pointy crowns by the ocean..
Daniel Vazquez “Sirens” Photo series

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!)

from: A Map to the Next World, Norton. 2000

Featured Image: Jane Cameron Photography

Everyday Horrors

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.

The Witch

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.

The Red Shoes

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.

Nina, becoming the Black Swan…literally.

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. 

Balances 

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