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

Lieutenant Yar on Vacay: Secret Longings and Writing the Death Scene

My mother used to go to a particularly woo-woo chiropractor in Malibu, CA. I tagged along one evening, and as we wound cliffs that overlooked the Pacific and into his long, gravel driveway, huge amethyst geodes glinting across his lawn. I never forgot this scene, not because of its beauty or because of the chiropractor’s eccentric personality; rather, I remember it clearly because it is where, a week earlier, my mother met Denise Crosby, the actress who played Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. She had gotten Crosby’s autograph for us kids, and my fourteen-year-old heart could have burst.

I recently wrote about my childhood affinity for Tasha Yar in “Well It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives.” When my mother met Denise Crosby, Tasha Yar’s character had already been killed off in an episode where some sludge monster offed her in the first twelve minutes (“Skin of Evil”). Later, they brought her back (“Yesterday’s Enterprise”) only to kill her again in a more guns-blazing fashion. The latter was a better move since they were able to write Denise Crosby a role as Tasha Yar’s part Romulan daughter (long story) who is the same age as Tasha would have been, in the “current” Enterprise’s timeline (temporal rift + math = headaches). 

I have been writing a book of poems about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and not surprisingly, I’ve written several poems about Tasha Yar. Recently, Cahoodaloodaling published my poem, “Tasha Yar At Her Best” for their “Joy Sticks” issue. As I was looking for poems that express finding joy without using the word “joy” (which was the requirement of that issue) I thought of this poem’s take on Tasha’s true desires. 

I thought Tasha was usually portrayed as either particularly hard or particularly vulnerable. When not flipping around men and telling off Q, she’s crying in the penalty box and catching the sexy disease that makes her hot for Data. In my poem, I wanted to write her character as more complex, which in my mind, means “normal.” I gave her mundane life challenges:  unreasonable family expectations, a difficult daughter, and a father-figure she could never quite please. In the show, Tasha Yar wanted to die in battle, to lose her life for the protection of others, but I wanted her to harbor a secret wish to die by the pool, while in the midst of a pleasant holiday. I wanted her to relish the idea of peace and pleasure, to soften her without diminishing her strength. I also wanted her afterlife to be exciting instead of assigning her the usual “rest in peace” trope.

Writing about death is challenging since most of us have no proof of anything. My favorite life after death poem is Langston Hughes’ “Sylvester’s Dying Bed.” During most of the poem, the last of Sylvester’s life is filled with “moanin’,” “cryin’,” and “beggin’” (mostly done by all his “pretty mamas”) until the very end “When the Lawd put out the light. // Then everything was darkness / In a great…big…night.” I love the contrast between noise and silence, chaos and calmness, and the way he slows the poem with ellipses after Sylvester’s death.

Instead of slowing Tasha’s afterlife and illustrating a dark calmness, I gave her “colored panels, / indigo and reds, the fire-pink / of cherry blossoms,” and let her slip “into the deep / and changing sea.” 

Considering Tasha’s various incarnations, coupled with the strict regime of Starfleet, I think a colorful, flexible afterlife would begin a proper adventure, hopefully, immune to sludge-monsters and defeating time loops!

To  read “Tasha Yar At Her Best,” click here.

Or listen to it here…

 

To read “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” click here.

To hear an awesome jazz version of “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” click below!

But That’s Not My Name

Growing up, the only other people I knew with the name “Shanti” went to my church (which I wrote about in “Christians and Buddhists and Pagans, O My!”). People always pronounced my name correctly there, but everywhere else, it was touch and go. For some reason, many people want to call me “Shanty,” which is an actual word that means “poorly built shack.” I’ve always found it strange that someone would assume that’s what my parents named me; however, we do live in a country that allowed a teenage boy to legally change his name to “Trout Fishing in America.” Meanwhile, in France, the law does not allow anyone to bestow names on children that may result in mockery. For instance, the names “Nutella” and “Strawberry” were nixed in 2015. Go France!

The mispronunciation of my name got more complex, as I got older. Once a man asked my name, and when I replied, “Shanti,” he clarified, “Shanita?” 

At a previous job, a co-worker called me a record-breaking number of variations of my name, over the course of several weeks. “Shantaqua,” “Shantell,” “Chantal,” and then, one day, “Shania!” I had grown accustom to responding to any “Shh” sound that came out of this guy’s mouth, and so I turned around. He proceeded to ask Shania on a date. 

This year, I started working on a book of poems about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wrote “What’s in a Name: Picard Calls Lt. Barclay ‘Broccoli,’” (first published in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, V18, N1) after watching the episode “Hollow Pursuits.” Lt. Barclay, a nervous, annoying Starfleet officer, secretly nicknamed “Broccoli” by the annoying Wesley Crusher, has no friends and bad holodeck manners. 

On a side note, I don’t think anyone should have been allowed to conjure images of people already alive, while on the holodeck. I always found it interesting how STNG managed to thoroughly disinfect holodeck indiscretion plots. No amount of sanitation makes it less creepy to me, though. And to my recollection, only the dudes did it, and I thank the TV gods that holodecks don’t exist in other sci-fi shows, like the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, because that would have gotten nnnaaaasssty! 

Anyway, in my poem, I wanted, first, to identify with Lt. Barclay’s name issue, by sharing my own struggles with interpretative pronunciations. However, I also wanted to address the creepy way he used the holodeck to fulfill fantasies regarding the ship’s crew. In “Hollow Pursuits,” Barclay’s addiction to his holodeck storylines are further exasperated every time he clashes with Commander Riker or shies away from the attractive Counselor Troi. To make matters worse, after Picard does his darnedest to stop people from disrespecting Barclay, he slips and calls him “Broccoli.” 

In the last stanza of my poem, I wanted to focus on the darker aspect of the episode: how he dehumanizes his fellow crew members by rewriting them as flat characters who can never evolve or leave the parameters of his narrative invention. I also wanted to tie that idea to the way women, in our time, are similarly dehumanized to harmful and troubling effect. Women are often first considered sexual objects, but then, if any further dimensions are added to the woman, she soon becomes stereotyped as evil or undeserving, despite any reasonable notion of reality. In the poem, I liked the idea of entwining simple name mistakes with the much bigger problem of removing someone’s depth, which leaves them an easy target, and easily subjugated, at least in the mind of the objectifier.   

If you have any good mistaken name stories, anything cool to say about STNG, or anything generally cool to say, please reply in the comments!

To hear the audio version, click here:

 

What’s in a Name: Picard Calls Lt. Barclay “Broccoli”

I tell them my last 
name is pronounced 
“Why-land,” as in, why
is it pronounced that way?
But my first name stumps. 
They want to call me 
a broken house, some old
lady by the riverfront. They claim 
that some say it 
pahs-ta, some pass-ta, 
but I say, think 
of your favorite 
Sean or Shawn,
that man or woman 
who held you close, 
told you how clever 
you were the day you fixed
the water heater.
Now, give that person 
a cup of tea. “Shawn-tea.”

It’s different 
for Broccoli.
Even Picard 
screws that up.
Barclay’s nickname,
and creepy holodeck
programs, left us
zipping up our tops
higher than ever,
but I get it. Suspicion 
makes sense until they need you 
on the bridge.
Trust’s a virtue until they call you 
“Broccoli.” 

But your holodeck fantasies 
were blunt. Deanna’s your babe; 
Riker’s your bitch.
In my day, a poet named
Lucille Clifton once claimed
it’s only a matter
of time before a discussion
about women turns 
to witchcraft. You can see 
it, right? How my clear plans, 
in a world of men, well-lit
streets where all 
red riding hoods make it
safely to grandma’s, 
seemed dark to them?