Belong

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

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

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

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

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

Hale-Bopp Comet
Hale-Bopp Comet

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

Flat Earth

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

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

old ad

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

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

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

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

A Blessing

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

—James Wright

Banner Photo Credit:

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

Eat Your Heart Out: True Love Ain’t for the Weak

There is a story of a saint in India named Mirabai, who lived in the 16th century. As a child, she saw a wedding procession outside her window and asked her mother who would be her bridegroom. Her mother humored the girl, pointing to a small statue of Krishna. “There is your husband! Gopala himself. Love him and serve him as a good wife would her husband.” Mirabai took her mother seriously and devoted all her time to singing and dancing for Krishna. At night, she meditated in front of his image. 

When she grew older, she was married to a prince, and although she did perform her wifely duties, she spent her evenings worshiping Krishna, whom she considered to be her true husband. Her in-laws did not approve of her love for Krishna and told her that she had better fall in line with their goddess, Durga. However, Mirabai refused, citing that she had already committed herself to Krishna. One day, her sister-in-law told the prince that Mirabai was making a fool of him and had taken a lover that she meets in the temple. Enraged, he drew his sword, ready to slaughter his wife’s lover. Instead, he found Mirabai in a state of spiritual ecstasy, pleading to her Krishna statue for love. Figuring that his wife was mentally ill, he decided to humor her, and he built her a small temple of her own. 

News of Mirabai’s beautiful voice and dancing spread far and wide, and people began to visit her, enthralled by her ecstasy. One of her husband’s enemies decided to visit Mirabai, but knowing that his presence would cause problems, he disguised himself in beggar’s clothes. After hearing her sing, he was so moved that he offered Krishna a necklace, and he touched Mirabai’s feet, a sign of respect. Unfortunately, news of this exchange reached her husband, and he was so incensed that he told Mirabai to go jump in the lake—literally. As she was a (somewhat) obedient hindu wife, she tearfully said goodbye to her friends and prepared to commit suicide. However, just as she was about to jump, Krishna appeared to her and intimated that she should not kill herself. 

Meanwhile, the moodiest man on Earth began to feel bad about overreacting to Mirabai’s…well, she didn’t really do anything, did she? When he finds that she is still alive, and living in a different city, he goes to her and begs for her forgiveness. She takes him back and lives without too much drama until his death, a few years later.

At this point, her in-laws really started twisting the screws. First, they demanded that she commit Sati, the absurdly gruesome and misogynistic practice of a woman throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Luckily, Krishna had already told her not to kill herself. Her refusal to die infuriated her in-laws, and they proceeded to try to assassinate her on three separate occasions. 

Attempt 1: “Oh, here’s a basket with a garland in it for your Krishna. I hope you like it.” (Just kidding, it’s a cobra.) However, when Mirabai opens the basket, it damn well is a garland. You know someone got fired that day. 

Attempt 2: “Let’s see how Mirabai likes sleeping on poisonous needs. I’ll just cover them up with these luxurious rose petals.” Mirabai sleeps like the dead but isn’t. 

Attempt 3: “Here’s some poison…uh nectar…” Mirabai gulps it down, no problem. 

Finally, she gets tired of all the distractions and goes to live with her uncle, who leaves her alone. 

The first time I heard this story (and there are many variations of this narrative) it was through a comic book that my parents bought me from our church’s book store.

 It was my favorite “book,” and my mom would often try to talk me out of choosing it as a bedtime story because it was so long. I think I was particularly attracted to the idea that a deity could protect a person, even from snakes and volatile family members. Self-preservation is strongest in the young. Also, I liked that Krishna is depicted as having blue skin and a kind face. He is often drawn as feminine: soft features, long eyelashes. In fact, for part of my childhood, I thought Krishna was a woman. 

In graduate school, I was assigned a world literature class to teach and was excited to find Mirabai’s poetry in the Norton Anthology. Actually, very little can be confirmed about Mirabai’s life. It appears that she did experience a troubled marriage and the worst in-laws on Earth. There may have been attempts on her life. What I found most surprising, though, was the poetry itself. There are some poems that mostly focus on praising Krishna and describing Mirabai’s devotion and sacrifices:

I’m steeped.
steeped
in the dark one’s color.

I dressed up in my finery,
put on my dancing anklets,
abandoned all shame, and danced in public.

Gave up reason, went crazy,
kept the company of holy men,
found the true form of a devotee.

Sang and sang the praises 
of Hari’s virtues, night and day—
so saved myself from the serpent of mortality.

Without my lord, the whole world’s brackish—
merely a mouthful of salt.
Apart from him, everything’s disposable.

Mira asks her lord who lifts mountains
to give her the kind of devotion
that seeps with sweetness—that’s luscious, flavorful.

(NOTE: The poems I have provided in this post are not indented properly. While I am very disappointed in how ridiculously difficult WordPress makes the simplest of formatting, I have also submitted to its tyranny. #corporatehatespoets #theman)

As a child, I recognized that Mirabai was rebellious; however, I did not realize the extent of her conflict with society. I was unaware, at that age, of the seriousness of India’s caste system, as well as the general history of misogyny. Also, my child’s comic book was riddled with mixed messages. For instance, Mirabai refuses to worship the goddess of her husband’s house. However, when her husband tells her to commit suicide she (according to this particular narrative) dutifully visits the river. The caption above the image of her bidding her friends a tearful goodbye reads, “Mira, the true Hindu wife, did not protest. She fondly took leave of her tearful companions…” (Fondly? She cries in three images leading up to her attempted suicide and looks miserable as she prepares to jump. I suppose she could be fond of her friends, but the word feels flippant, considering the heavy circumstances.) However, moments later in the text, she directly disobeys her husband by agreeing to listen to another man’s order. At least Krishna doesn’t want her to drown herself.  

Yet again, though, the text contradicts when her husband asks her for forgiveness. In the image, it is Mirabai who bows to him and says, “Has Mira ever gone against the wishes of her husband? Yes, I will come to Chittor!” Yes, Mira has gone against her husband’s wishes—repeatedly. 

There is an interesting short program from BBC (“Mirabai: I Go the Other Way” from Incarnations: India in 50 Lives) that discusses how Mirabai’s narrative is used in modern times. One of the conclusions is that, while Mirabai is used to protest the caste system, India is not ready to see her as an inspiration for women’s autonomy.

I find that inability disturbing. Such a large part of her rebellion (and her sacrifices) were based on the fact that she was a woman. Her experience would have been different, if she had been a man. The danger she willingly faced would not have existed, or at least, not to the same extent. The same imbalance exists today as does society’s need to suppress progress and not just in India. In most parts of the world, including the U.S., women’s “honor” is fragile, mostly controlled by men, and when shattered, results in the woman’s destruction or, in the very least, abuse. 

The cowherd who carries mountains
is the one for me—
I want no one else.

I’ve looked and looked 
all over the world—
I have no other savior.

I’ve left my brothers,
left my bondsmen,
left my blood relations.

I’ve been hanging out 
with the likes of roaming holy men—
I’ve lost my honor in the world.

I’m delighted to see 
my fellow devotees,
but I weep and weep when I see the world.

I’ve sown love’s vine—
I water it 
with my flowing tears.

I’ve garnered the butter
from the curds,
and thrown away the whey.

The chieftain sent me a poison cup—
lost in love,
I gulped it down, straight. 

Just to complicate love and feminist matters even more,  Mirabai often proclaims such devotion to Krishna that she doesn’t even mind if he enslaves her.

My lord who lifts mountains—
I’m off to his home.

He’s my one true love.
The moment I see his form,
I’m entranced.

When night falls, I get up and go to him—
when day breaks,
I get up and return.

Night and day, I play with him.
I keep him happy
any which way I can.

I wear whatever he asks me to wear—
I eat whatever 
he gives me to eat. 

Our love’s an ancient love,
I can’t survive
a single moment without him.

I sit wherever he tells me to sit—
if he were ever to sell me,
I’d be willing to be sold. 

Mira’s master is the lord
who lifts mountains—
again and again, she sacrifices herself to him.

Somehow, though, the poem I find darkest (and the poem that most appalled my students) is when she becomes violently angry at a bird for singing happily, while she’s miserably awaiting Krishna to take away the pain of this mortal coil:

Hey love bird, crying cuckoo,
don’t make your crying coos,
for I who am crying, cut off from my love,
will cut off your crying beak
and twist off your flying wings
and pour black salt in the wounds.

Hey, I am my love’s and my love is mine.
How do you dare cry love?
But if my love were restored today
your love call would be a joy.
I would gild your crying beak with gold
and you would be my crown.

Hey, I’ll write my love a note,
crying crow, now take it away
and tell him that his separated love
can’t eat a single grain.
His servant Mira’s mind’s in a mess.
She wastes her time crying coos.

Come quick, my Lord,
the one who sees inside;
without you nothing remains.

The violence in this poem always surprises. Clearly, the bird can’t win, but it’s the honesty and rawness of her feelings that impress. Can true love justify destruction? In Mirabai’s poem, it does. The bird’s happiness belongs to her, either to snuff out, if her love does not return; or to wear as a crown, if he does. Although problematic, there is something pure about her emotions. Despite the complications and dangers with which the world tries to encumber her, she feels that her love is simple. 

What I like most about Mirabai’s work is her determination to buck the current. Although she shrouds each poem with the notion that she wears her “dancing anklets” and abandons “all shame” only to please Krishna, she still succeeds in making her own way, while negotiating abuse from her family and a violent, patriarchal system. 

It’s hard to say if Mirabai was indeed sincere in her love for Krishna or if she invoked his image as a cultural shield to combat the relentless oppression that followed her. As a powerless woman of that time and place, I wonder if her love for Krishna was more so a defiant declaration of self-respect. Perhaps, Krishna was a symbol of freedom, for which she gladly, and ironically, welcomed bondage. 

* * *

Dear Reader,

As Valentine’s Day approaches, whether you are giddy because you have picked the most perfectly cheese-tasctic card for your wife (as I have) or if you are prepared to twist the beak off an offensively cheerful bird, I hope you find love, respect, and satisfaction!

xoxo,

Shanti

P.S. Please check out Online Enlightenment, which is accepting new music, art, and poetry submissions!

Light or Dark, Depending

At 4AM in Mississippi, I woke from a disturbing dream. An old man, whose wife had died years before, had never stopped grieving for her. A group of us young people came to drop off some items that he was going to give to a charity, and when we went up to his apartment, we were met with a shrine to his late wife. Photos of her littered countertops, the coffee table, the walls. I knew that he would feel utterly depressed and empty until the day he died. The dream left me feeling deeply sad and anxious, and I decided to get out of bed, even though it was early.

I’ve never been a great sleeper. My partner kids that the buzz from a mosquito could wake me, and actually, it’s true. I once woke up when a mosquito flew past my head! I suffered many nightmares, when I was in my twenties, but this dream really shook me. It was summer, and even at such an early hour, it was already muggy and warm in Mississippi, where I was in graduate school at the time. I got out of bed, wrote this poem, and waited for my neighbors to wake up.

In the first stanza of “Earth,” the speaker establishes an unsettling situation: No one is perfectly good or perfectly bad, and this scenario has somehow been agreed upon. There is a lack of an authority figure, and the waters are muddy: “There’s no one in Heaven / who’s that bad. / There’s no one in Hell / who’s that good. / That’s the deal.”

In the second stanza, the speaker describes human lives as needing enthusiasm or to “rally.” The speaker claims that humanity is small and insignificant, like microbes that fit in a petri dish: “Here on Earth, / we rally. / It’s a petri dish.” Further, the humans have desires that can either be light (optimistic, healthy) or dark (destructive). The speaker describes humans as “microbes / bumping and worming” who want “dark or light, / depending.” The last word in this stanza, “depending,” points to their actions as a compass to either the light or to the dark. However, because “bumping and worming” also sounds rather haphazard, and because humans are described as somewhat of a science project, their desires could depend on something that is outside of themselves and out of their control.

The last stanza is inspired by my nightmare but is not a retelling of it. I wanted to continue with the narrative of life on Earth. In this stanza, the speaker describes humans, when they are old. The old humans suffer from the past. They wake from bad dreams before dawn. In the line, “We think that we forgot / to kill our tormentor, / but we didn’t,” the speaker describes the haziness we’ve all experienced when we wake from a dream but are unsure which part of our memory is reality. Even though, when the old wake and realize that their tormentor is long gone, they also remember that their family is gone. There is a sense of loneliness and uncertainty. The family is waiting on the other side but possibly in darkness. The last word “depending” lets the reader decide on what the location of the family depends. Did their actions lead them to light or to dark? Do they have volition? Or is it a decision made by forces unknown?

To read this poem, check out Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009, and for the audio verison, click here or below.

First published in Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009 

Featured Image: http://shushi168.com/earth-wallpaper/36939229.html

There Are No Lawn Mowers In Heaven

I based my poem, “Abundance,” on a story that a man once told me about his father, an immigrant from Indian who worked as a physicist. He told me that his father was religious and frugal and wouldn’t even turn on the heat because he thought it was exorbitant. He warmed his baths with boiled water from a tea kettle.

Many people think of scientists as atheists, which is one reason I found his story compelling. Also, the father had plenty of money, so his decision to live without (what most people would consider) basic necessities was certainly not a “sour grapes” response to his financial circumstances. The other fascinating part of the story is that the father felt that, as an American, he should be free not to mow his grass. He had even gone to court to defend his American right to a natural lawn. The man told me that this belief particularly bothered his mother, who had since divorced his father.

In the first stanza of the poem, I discuss the speaker’s frugal background and his desire to please God: “Using the heater, / offends God, he claims, / we have enough.” In the second stanza, I describe his lawn that “spirals / upward,” which is literal but also foreshadows his artistic homage to heaven, in the last stanza.

In the third stanza, we can see that the speaker’s desire to connect with God keeps him up at night: “he worries if God / can touch the grass from / space.” (I chose the word “space” instead of “heaven” because its tone is more scientific than religious, and it also provides a better rhythm.) I also connect his actions to the people around him: “He hears his neighbor / shuffling under the moon. / Just keep it off my porch!

In the fourth stanza, he misunderstands his ex-wife’s voice message, “For God’s sake, grow / up!” with an answer to his anxiety that the grass is too far away from God. In the last stanza, he ties the ends of his long blades of grass to helium balloons so that the grass reaches up toward the heavens. I liked the idea that God could get a closer look at the grass, if it were extended further, but that it had to remain earthbound. I played with the contrast between the ephemeral (God and sky) and the concrete (humans and the earth).

To read this poem, please check out Verdad Magazine,  and for the audio version, click here or below.

Featured Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/mood-balloons-bulbs-color-grass-green-nature-sky-background-wallpaper-widescreen-full-screen-widescreen-hd-wallpapers-background-wallpaper/id/347917/