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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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 Drumheadwhere 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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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?
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!
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 othercommit 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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
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
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
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