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/

 

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”

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. 

 

Women and Demons

A few months ago, I wrote about the way I’ve been remembering Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Security Chief, Tasha Yar (“Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives”) as a much stronger character than she was actually written. I’m glad to look back and see how narratives about women have improved. Even in the year between the release of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, I see a shift from using women’s strength as a punchline (Wonder Woman) to expressing it as a simple fact (Black Panther). 

The other day, I watched the first episode of Picnic at Hanging Rock, an Amazon Prime series based on a novel that, I admit, I have never read. The show seems ripe for drama, with a seemingly overstrict all-girls finishing school in 1900, run by a mysterious widow, played by Natalie Dormer. 

SPOILER ALERT FOR EPISODE ONE AHEAD:

In the first episode, I felt creeping dread as I watched the young women get sexually harassed, assaulted, and generally treated like a decorative side dish. (Although I didn’t mind that one of the girls stuck a pitch fork in that jerk’s foot.) It’s not that I’ve never seen or read this type of narrative (and it is, indeed, a valid narrative that is lived by many women, even in 2018) but I’m tired of it. 

I believe that words cast spells. While I do think it’s important to recognize the wrong direction, it is equally important to steer the ship toward the desired destination. So, imagine my relief, when I learned that the true villain in Picnic at Hanging Rock appears to be just some sort of demon. Somehow, it was a great relief to me that the dark and drunken force that lures the vulnerable teenage girls into…well, wherever they are…was not another misbehaved dude who needs anything from sensitivity training to a prison sentence. Demons, I can handle. Maybe, later in the series, the demons will reveal their misogyny. I don’t know. I may or may not finish the series; I’ve recently gotten into Samurai Jack. I’m a bit TV flaky, these days.

This month, I offer you two performance pieces: Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution” and Joy Harjo’s “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear.” Both poems describe moving forward in a new and improved direction. Enjoy!

UPDATE: I finished Picnic at Hanging Rock last night. Apparently, it was inner demons and the relentless patriarch and corsets. Fair enough.

 

Cats!

I suppose most people long to be where they aren’t. I grew up in Glendale, CA, which is about twenty minutes from Hollywood. However, what I really wanted was to live in the woods. The picture below is of the first apartment building that I remember living in (although those blue panels were brown in the 70s). Our apartment unit was the one in the very back, on the second floor. At the time, it was the only apartment building on the block. 

Screenshot 2018-04-21 21.03.14

Those were the days when “free range kids” were just called, “kids,” and I roamed the neighborhood by myself, when I was four or five years old. Being the smallest kid in the neighborhood meant that either the kids took care of me, or they picked on me. Usually, though, I was content to play alone. There was a parameter that I was allowed to play within unless my mom let me go around the corner to the liquor store to buy a root beer and a 3 Muskateers candy bar. Our neighbor, Helen (her house is on the left in this photo) an elderly woman who wore an old-Hollywood-style turban, graciously allowed me to play in her front yard, since my family did not have one.

One summer, my mom and dad and I flew to Indiana to visit my mother’s side of the family. I was dropped off at my Aunt Doris’ house for the weekend, while my parents visited friends. My aunt had a small farm and a barn. One morning, she said, “Ok, go outside and play.” I asked where I was allowed to play outside, and she looked puzzled and said, “Anywhere outside.” I took off running and weaved through the corn fields. The world seemed limitless. 

At some point, it started to rain, and I headed for the barn. All the while, my aunt’s cats had been following me. In the barn, we hung out together on some hay. Earlier that weekend, one of my older cousins had taken me up a ladder to the barn’s loft and had guided me over the wooden planks, that had huge missing pieces in them, so that I could see the newborn kittens. They were wiggling and crawling over each other in a box. I have a vague memory of being allowed to gently pick up one and hold it, as long as the mama didn’t get upset. They looked like little hamsters. 

As the rain fell outside, I crept up the ladder by myself and carefully stepped over the child-sized holes of the loft to watch the kittens nurse. After it stopped raining, I returned to the house, and my aunt and I sat at the kitchen table, snapping peas with my cousins. My magical cat-friends remained outdoors, which to me, felt like the wild.

I had met cats before, of course. I loved my Hollywood grandma’s tuxedo cat, Muffin. I had been charmed by my grandparents’ neighbor cat, a Siamese who bit everyone but me. However, there was something magical about being released into the country with them, speeding through fields and cuddling them in the barn.                 

I have had two cats of my own, Mouse and Iggy, both of whom performed magic daily. They apparated around the house, edited my poetry, and slinked in and out of my dreams. I still believe that, at least one of them, maintained a secret blog. 

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Iggy and me, earlier this year.
IMG_6724
Mouse Cat Weiland and me, early in our adventure together. (Circa 2004)

As it is finals week, and I am busy herding metaphorical cats, I will simply leave you with a website that features cat poems; photos of Ernest Hemingway with his babies; and a somewhat disturbing Cats number, which is based on T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Naming of Cats.” If you have a favorite cat poem or a picture of you with your little fluffball, please share them in the comments! 

http://www.mustlovecats.net/Cat-Poems.html