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”

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. 

Belong

Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.

In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each other  commit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols in the role of Lt. Uruha.

I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together? 

It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.

Hale-Bopp Comet
Hale-Bopp Comet

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.

Flat Earth

I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly flails in the face of chronic alienation. Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is the worst one.

Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”

old ad

Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.  

Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.

In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.

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

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

—James Wright

Banner Photo Credit:

https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/cult-classics-irina-shayk-joan-smalls#8

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/