Rituals for Meaning: Community Bliss or Groupthink Tyranny?

My wife and I are fairly nerdy. Often we spend our days off reading together and reading to each other. She recently read to me an article called, “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both,” by Nellie Bowles, which discusses how working from home through Zoom (among other contemporary culture shifts) has supposedly created a need for group rituals in the workplace. In the article, Ezra Bookman (founder of Ritualist) poses the question “‘How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?’” Ritualist’s Instagram account suggests “‘A ritual for purchasing your domain name’” and “’A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.’” 

Later in the article, Bowles claims that she is “hungry for ritual….If my boss said we would be instituting a one-minute group breathing exercise in the evenings to mark the closing of our laptops, or beginning each meeting by all smelling a clove together, would I like it? I would.”

Four people fist-bumping above a work station/desk.

Now, because Postmodernism and contemporary society have conspired to kill satire, and because I sometimes cannot differentiate between my wife’s sarcasm and her charming southern accent, I finally interrupted and asked: “Is this a joke?” “No,” she replied, “it’s from The New York Times.”

I won’t get into the fact that, for Gen Xers, a “good” job meant that you could afford some of what you wanted and weren’t coming home in tears every night. I won’t get into it because I’m not completely sure it’s wrong to expect more out of life and work, and I’d be hypocritical to suggest otherwise since I gave up a corporate job (that often had me in tears at night) to earn a Ph.D. in poetry and live happily lower-middle class ever after. 

I do require meaning in my work for happiness, and I’m glad that I picked writing and teaching. However, the idea of sniffing cloves together with my colleagues gives me the creeps. I feel certain that they, too, would share in my discomfort. It also seems forced, and in fact, Bowles even mentions that “many workers are already devout on their own terms, on their own time, and are not at all hungry for soul-based activities between 9 and 5,” not to mention the problem with asking “workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated.” I’ll skip over my cringe at the term “soul-based” (whatever the hell that means) and just reiterate that in this sense, I am old fashioned: I believe work is work and spirituality is private.

Still, there is a place for shared rituals. In March, just as my university shut down, due to COVID-19, my mother passed away. I had not spoken to her since I had moved to Alabama in 2008. It’s a decision that I still don’t regret because I made it out of the desire to thrive and not out of anger. My mother experienced many problems in life that prevented her from living well and maintaining healthy relationships. 

When I first found out she died, I didn’t know what to do with her ashes. I had no experience planning death ceremonies, and the additional obstacle of pandemic travel restriction meant that her ashes sat on my shoe shelf for four months. We ended up taking the ashes to some woods that belong to friends of ours,  who also run Wild Ground, a “creative project dedicated to the cultivation of sacred spaces, joyful connections, intentional living, and earth healing.” 

I wrote a eulogy and picked a poem for my wife to read, and together we made a space for the ceremony we created. I don’t want to discuss details of the ritual, which brings me back to my leanings toward privacy around such matters, but I will say that my friends were very good at listening to how I wanted to honor my mother and finding ways to make meaning through ritual.

In some ways, rituals can express creativity and healing. Perhaps the best shared rituals are, ironically, spontaneous. Although I had put thought into the scattering of my mother’s ashes, and had written, prepared, and packed important items that I wanted to include, we mostly created the ritual on the spot. It was not prescribed by an institution. No one needed permission to invent or to improvise. The ritual was uninhibited.

Trees in forest with

Alternatively, though, rituals can sometimes morph into formal, rigid expectations. I’ve often thought that my mother would have been happier if she had been born later. Contemporary times could have provided her an easier path to live the life I think she would have preferred. I picture her skipping marriage and children. I think she would have enjoyed boyfriends or lovers or maybe even a partner she didn’t have to live with. Maybe she’d have chosen a career that would have never crossed her mind as possible, as a woman in the 1970s. Maybe she would have been a writer.

I chose not to have children and didn’t even marry until my forties. These decisions provided me with the time and energy to live the life I had dreamed up since childhood. I was not the little girl who played with dolls. Oh, I had some, but even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my “play” was to leave the “kids” at home with “Dad,” so I could go to work. That was my fun. Sure, as a young adult, I still experienced aggression from people who condemned me for not marrying and having children, but at least I didn’t need a man to co-sign my apartment lease.

Black and white photo of young woman in 1970s, on phone at work desk.

I’ve never been one to romanticize the past, nor do I begrudge my mother for the possibility that another life would have made her happier. Unfortunately, the tyranny of cultural demands lead her to the rituals of “traditional” family. Society convinced her that marrying young and staying home with kids equaled fulfillment, even though she  clearly found no pleasure in either. 

I suppose what bothers me about Bowles’ article is the thought of a person’s workplace (already greedily absorbing employees’ personal lives through their smart phones) would seek to maneuver itself even deeper by invading the spiritual realm. 

Life’s situations always provide two sides: the simple and the complicated. If attentive, one can always locate both. Bigotry is simple: it’s cruel; don’t do it. Bigotry is complicated: it comprises the very root of our culture in ways so normalized that many can’t even see it, even sometimes those who directly experience it. But while working to dismantle the sicknesses of our world, one might consider the simple ritual of paying attention to day-to-day life. One need not work at creating meaning for such simplicities. There is no need to analyze, daily, what activities count as “soul-based” as though our consciousness checks out every time we forget to mindfully eat our cereal. It’s usually enough to pay attention to what our bodies tell us about the actions we’re performing. I feel that if my mother had had enough support to do the latter, she might have thrown caution to the wind, remained in her single-woman Hollywood flat, and discovered her own path to fulfillment.

Photo of my mother in the 70s,
Janice Weiland 1950-2020

I leave you today with the poem I chose for my mother’s ash-scattering ceremony.

The Laughing Heart
By Charles Bukowski

your life is your life.
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
darkness.
be on the watch. 
the gods will offer you
chances.
know them, take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
sometimes.
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will 
be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have
it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in 
you.

Would You Like Some Tears with Your Terror? What Horror Narratives Gain from Grief

Recently, I watched Shirley, a movie that attempts to tell a story about someone writing a story, the latter of which usually proves boring to watch. I make this statement as a writer myself. Unlike a dancer, for instance, a writer’s art is what she gives you after its completion, not the act of creating the art itself. That phase usually consists of long hours of staring into space, scribbling, and talking to one’s self. The movie spices up the process by focusing the Shirley Jackson character’s twisted relationship with a boarder (a purely fictional character used as a plot device). The movie was all right, but it rekindled my interest in Jackson’s work, including one of her more famous gothic horror novels, The Haunting of Hill House. I had never read it before and  enjoyed the book’s ghosts—literal and figurative—and the ending, which does not clearly resolve the mystery.

I also watched the recent television version of the book.  I thought the reimagining of the story was quite interesting. The main characters are transformed into a family unit (instead of a group of strangers from the book) and the majority of the narrative takes place outside of Hill House. However, I did not care for its tear-jerker tone. The incredibly sad memorial scene stretched on for so long that I felt relief when the remaining family members finally got chased by angry ghosts again.

Ghost with bent neck, standing next to her open casket.

Horror can provide a safe environment to channel excess anxiety, and in fact, it has been scientifically proven that children who experience trauma will forever produce too much adrenal. Considering the number of children who have either experienced abuse or other traumas (such as war and poverty) one can better understand the potential healing affects of the ax-murderer through the woods scene! (Read more about the therapeutic need for horror in “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror”.) I think it’s interesting, though, that recent horror narratives seem to dial up the grief factor. There are some people who claim to benefit from the cathartic affects of the tear-jerker, but I am not one of them. I always feel manipulated by overtly sad narratives, and when I’m watching horror, intensively sad scenes hit me harder than a monster lunging from a closet, horrible grin and hatchet in hand. I’m not at a horror movie to cry.

But what is the purpose of grief in horror? Horror narratives speak to the audience’s fears, of course. Blood, guts, violence—yes, those are easy buttons to press, but what really keeps people up at night depends largely on the time period and the specific audience. Rosemary’s Baby came out at a time when people were particularly anxious about women’s reproductive rights. Us speaks to our current notion that horror is our fellow American. (I think that idea works no matter what side of the political spectrum the audience resides.) Ready or Not responds to our anxiety about the 1% and its control over the vulnerable.

Woman with blood on face, hiding behind door, with rich people on the other side, covering hteir eyes.

But grief is sneakier than anxiety. It runs deeper in our psyche. Perhaps it’s even the root of anxiety. Grief is horror, but it is also so commonplace, one could almost miss it. The Netflix movie, Bulbbul explores grief to a backdrop of witchcraft and feminism. (Read more on horror and feminism, in “Everyday Horrors”.) Although producer Anushka Sharma claims that the movie is a drama-thriller, I’ve always found that the combination of feminist issues and revenge-murder leans more toward the horror genre. Either way, this movie struck me for its ability to weave the grief of the protagonist (an abused child bride) with a hopeful revenge scenario, fueled by Kali.

Kali facing audience in seated position, her many arms holding weapons, a genie lamp, and a decapitated head.
The Goddess, Kali

There are some parts of the movie that could use revision (like the worn and offensive “developmentally-challenged-man-as-predator” trope). Overall, though, I enjoyed the movie. The tension between the calm smirk of the protagonist and her past trauma, which is revealed, bit by bit, intrigues. Although not a tear-jerker, the grief of violation and captivity acts as an invisible monster, lurking beneath the beautiful, bright setting and lush costumes.

Bulbbul fanning herself as an attendant brushes her hair.

It will be interesting to see what horror narratives are born from our current pandemic. Covid-19 has all the makings of a horror-genre monster. It’s invisible to the naked eye, and symptoms of its presence could be the virus or just something benign, like hay fever. Even the results of catching the virus is unpredictable, from asymptomatic to painful death. Add to this fear the grief of losing our loved ones (or that potential) and the sadness of being cut off from loved ones as we quarantine. Even the connection lost from covering our faces with masks depresses. (Although the use of masks is wise and necessary).

Perhaps it’s the ordinariness of grief that makes it a fertile seed for a horror narrative. Our every day problems and sadness can sometimes add up to one hell of a demon.

Still, I prefer not to bring a tissue to a jump scare.

Today, I will leave you with a simple haiku by Clement Hoyt. I like this one because it takes an ordinary, creepy item and animates it to unsettling results.

A Hallwe’en mask,
floating face up in the ditch,
slowly shakes its head.

 

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 Jurati 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 something 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!!!!!!

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.

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

Confrontation: Klingon-Style

I first started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when it aired in 1987. I’ll admit it: back then, I just wasn’t that into Klingons. I didn’t mind them, per se, but I was not particularly intrigued by their aggression or their snarling politics. I was more interested in Picard’s eloquent speeches, such as in The Drumhead where he denounces witch hunts.  (Incidentally, Klingon Worf gets swept into the drama of the episode only to apologize later for not knowing tyranny when he sees it.) I also enjoyed the cool elegance of Vulcans. (Fun fact about Vulcans: they’re actually not so cool after all, or at least, they’ve learned self-discipline so that they don’t lose their shit like they used to, back when they let their intense emotions run wild.)

Vulcan Harp

Recently, though, I’ve gained a new outlook on Klingons, in general, and Worf, in particular. In this age of “alternative facts” and celebrated bullies, I long for Worf just to bust into Congress and announce that “This is not honorable!” Right now, I need a hero with a bat’leth and a firm grasp on ethics and transparency.

Screenshot 2019-09-01 20.22.16

I used to see Captain Picard as the main hero of STNG. He always seemed to know what to do, and he rarely broke a sweat. Lately, though, Worf and Picard seem to me like two sides of the same coin. Worf’s allegiance to honor and duty mimics Picard’s values, and Picard knows how to curse in Klingon like…well, a sailor. But lately, when I see Worf standing helplessly at his post, witnessing the dishonorable with his warrior mane safely bound, I identify.

Last week, I was summoned to jury duty, which I have never done before. I sat in a room that looked like a fairly nice bus station, with around 400 other people. Oof. Next to me on one side were two older women who complained incessantly about everything from the job market and family strife, to the supposedly disorganized jury duty process. (I actually thought it was well-run.)

Worf's had enough

The person on the other side of me got angry when I allowed two elderly women to exit a row in front of me during the slow, crowded walk out of the room and off to lunch. Of course, I channeled my inner Vulcan, but it was right then that I really wanted to bare my teeth and challenge her to a B’aht Qul.

Screenshot 2019-09-01 21.08.09

After lunch, I found a new location, hoping to be left alone. Instead, I was greeted by a new chatterbox with a bloodlust for child rapists. I mean, I get it; I do, but damn, was I the only one who brought a book?

Screenshot 2019-09-01 21.17.22

The next day (and blessedly my last on jury duty) I walked past Chatterbox and sat several seats away, used my long hair as a cloaking device, and fastened my earbuds like a teenager on family va-cay. Every once in a while, I’d tune into the garrulous public, complaining all around me. The mutterings, the wide-eyed guy who never stopped smiling in his workout shorts (even though he spoke to no one), the side glances, the snickering. I wondered what Worf—out of uniform—would have done to maintain his boundaries. Grimaced in his sharp armor? Cussed in Klingon? Bitten off the head of a raw meat slab that he had carefully packed for lunch the night before?

I am not a merry man

As for me, like an average, 21st-century human, I just bowed my head and turned up my podcast, until they finally called my name and sent me home.

This month, I’ve included Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” a poem about a woman who leaves her husband in romantic pursuit of a bear who finds her embarrassing. If you know of any good poems about maintaining authenticity in a rigid world, or if you just have some crazy jury duty stories, please let us know in the comments below! 

To read Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” click here.