Favorite Authors 20 Years Later: Vonnegut

This November, I turned 35. A few days later the election happened. A few days later, my daughter turned 4. And so on.

On my birthday, I suddenly remembered a passage in a Kurt Vonnegut book I read when I was probably 15 or 16. I couldn’t remember the book, I couldn’t remember really much of the details except that the character Kilgore Trout ends up talking directly to the author, who is, of course, Kurt Vonnegut. Trout is imploring his creator, he howls his one request into the void: ” Make me young again!”

I looked it up and the book is Breakfast of Champions, by the way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my life, how I’ve grown and how I haven’t. Vonnegut was the first adult author I read that really spoke to me. I adored pretty much everything he wrote, and more than anything I wanted to write like him. Though now, I only have vague recollections of what he wrote, so I thought it would be instructive to go back and re-read his books. Would they still resonate today?

So far so good, I think:

And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity. … so they [human beings] were doomed.”

Breakfast of Champions

The Dead Will Bury Their Own, Don’t Worry

Happy October! It’s my favorite season, and I wanted to write about something timely. Here in the Pacific Northwest, this is when we see spiders everywhere. In my house, there’s always a week or two when the giant house spiders emerge from wherever the hell, wandering around presumably in search of a mate. They come out of the woodwork. I’m always really edgy during that time.

I’m both fascinated and frightened by spiders.

I recognize my fear as somewhat overblown and irrational. Still it persists. And so it was a strange turn of events when, a few weeks ago, it dawned on me: I had become accustomed to, even fond of, one particular spider that had taken up residence outside my bedroom window.

I had just started rewriting my novel-in-progress, just recommitted to my daily writing schedule. So every morning, I’d wake up and see her and I’d watch her as I struggled to think of a natural line of dialogue, the perfect word, etc. I’d think about what her life must be like: doing the same thing each day, sitting on the same web in the same place, just waiting for food, just living. I’d think about how her life wasn’t too different from mine. Then, one day I woke up and she was gone. It had been very windy and stormy that night and I was sure she had just blown away. And I was inexplicably disappointed. That night she came back (I’ve since learned that orb weavers eat their web and rebuild it daily). It felt like a blessing.

Every day, I watch her weave her web and she reminds me that we are all the center of our own worlds. I watch her move in the dark and it reminds me of deep creativity and of moving into the dark and inaccessible corners of my own life. Yesterday, I watched her immobilize a yellow jacket. Her large body moved with a vicious, devastating speed. Within seconds she had wrapped the wasp in silk and was dragging its heavy body back to the center of the web. As she was eating it, I couldn’t look away. It was menacing, disquieting, vaguely disgusting. It reminds me of death.

It reminds me of one of my favorite James Wright poems, “The Journey.” It’s about a spider, and death, and, by association, life. It ends:

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found   
What I found there, the heart of the light   
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing   
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind   
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

Intently, I watch this spider step lightly, lightly through her web. Her long limbs thrum the threads and they vibrate wildly. A beautiful, brutal display. Even behind a pane of glass, I won’t get too close. I don’t quite have the stomach for it, not yet. Still, it’s a kind of love, isn’t it?

Though love can be scarcely imaginable Hell,
By God, it is not a lie.

James Wright, “The Art of Fugue: A Prayer”

(Very) Belated Mother Day Thoughts

It recently occurred to me: I have no photos of myself during my pregnancy or the first year of my daughter’s life. This strikes me as so sad, not because I missed out on the photo opportunity, but because it’s evidence of the self loathing I felt at the time.

Motherhood for me has always been a sort of a struggle. It’s not something that I would say comes easily. Most of the time, it isn’t that easy for me to enjoy. Motherhood, for me, came with a sense of loss. And a sense of obligation. With that came anxiety. Sometimes I feel like I am incapable of loving my daughter fully, because that would require a capacity for loss that I just don’t have. Love and loss being two sides of the same coin. Maybe that’s because I run towards pessimism. I think about these things too much.

When my daughter was born, it was awful. The experience of being in the hospital, plied with drugs, reeling from the complications of those drugs, being plied with more drugs to address those complications, all the while being treated like a problem and a liability by the medical professionals whose job, I thought, was to protect me. . . I’m not trying to rant about how the medical profession treats women (though I’ve got plenty to say about it), but rather how this experience was a telling frame for how motherhood would start for me. A lonely, wild sort of feeling. One marked by a painful awareness of how fragile everything is.

I say all this because I don’t think women talk about it enough. It’s just joy and blessings, and I-wouldn’t-change-it-for-anything-in-the-world generalizations and glosses. Maybe the occasional complaint about lack of sleep or free time. But it’s almost sacrilege to discuss pain and loss in regards to motherhood. You can’t even say that sometimes the world feels like an unsafe place and it feels almost stupid to bring another kid into that. You can’t speak of the heavy, heavy weight of all that responsibility.

Without the platitudes, can we just talk about it? Just to sit honestly with our fears for a little while?

After my daughter was born, I tried to speak about my experiences of fear, anxiety, terror. All these little griefs. And I was told just to be grateful, that “all’s well that ends well,” as if speaking of my pain would … what? Tempt fate? Anger god? Make people uncomfortable, most likely. But result of this silence was only to feel more isolated and shamed for feeling complicated feelings. To any other mothers out there dealing with their feelings: This life is not a box that you need to neatly fit yourself in. There’s much more space in this world than that.

Me in a Nutshell, part 1

I’m a stay-at-home mom. I used to be a lawyer, though not a particularly good one, and not for very long. I quit because I found it to be an intolerable combination of boring and stressful. I’ve experienced some side eye and, a few times, outright judgment for leaving my “career,” and I never know how to answer questions about when I’m going back to work. Truth is, I don’t want to go back. I’ve never felt like the workforce, that monolithic, sinister entity, did me any favors. Its frequent attempts to thicken my skin never really took. I’m still too sensitive. I don’t bounce back. All it ever did was wear me down, fuel my depression and anxiety. I don’t know how to explain my experience adaquately, so that you would understand. It felt like choking. Even when the work itself was meaningful, even perhaps important, I was always, essentially, separate from it. It was never, ever about me, and if I wasn’t there, someone else would do it. It was a powerless, impotent feeling. I think this is by design. If you’re broken down and tired, you’re less likely to fight back.

So, I bowed out as soon as I could, or rather, after I felt I had a good enough reason. I had a baby. Yet I still feel weird about cashing in on our gendered institutions to procure my freedom. Now, if I were a man, I could stay at home easily, without judgment or regret. In fact, I’d be a trendsetter, I’d be sticking it to the Capital-M Man. As it stands, I sort of work for him instead. I’m fulfilling the dismal promise of the 1950s, taking care of children and shiny appliances. Still, I try to be subversive when I can.

One of my main goals as a mother is to shield my daughter from the destructive influence of gender essentialism. Our society has a vested interest in accentuating any inherent differences between men and women to reinforce the gender binary. I think many people underestimate how deeply and tightly held these sorts of gendered beliefs are. Gendered gifts, gendered comments and observations, started for my daughter in her infancy. Well-intentioned (I suppose?) strangers continue to comment on her cute clothes, call her princess, tell her to smile. It’s inundating. From her earliest moments, she’s received these not-so-subtle hints from society about how she should be and what she should focus on. I try to balance the scales by giving her options and alternatives. And I try to create the space for her to forge her own path. This feels, to me, productive and powerful, even in its small scope.

But sometimes I wonder, will my daughter think less of me, when she grows up? Because of the decisions I’ve made? Because of how I spent my life?

Why I Hate This Blog

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I wanted to write an update about what’s been going on for me.

I’ve been struggling lately with the direction in which I want to take this blog. I’ve often felt like it’s disjointed, that it lacks a cohesive subject matter or at least a unifying voice. This makes it more difficult to come up with content, in addition to the blog being, I think, a less useful resource. And I get very frustrated when I write those fluffy, straightforward posts (10 tips for whatever, How to Reach Your Ultimate Potential.) It just feels unnatural to write, somehow inauthentic. . . I think maybe the positive, self-help sort of moralizing is not a good fit for me. I don’t even know why I do it. Is that what I think people want to hear? (Maybe they actually do, but you wouldn’t know it based on my number of blog subscribers! *waves*)

Many, many times I’ve thought about quitting blogging. Maybe it’s not for me, maybe I don’t understand how this works. Most of the blogs I find on WordPress are pretty formulaic and uninteresting, even the really popular ones. I especially hate the Creative Commons images that I continually put on each and every post because I’ve read over and over again that YOU MUST INCLUDE PICTURES ON YOUR POSTS. Seriously, who is clicking on my blog to see a generic picture of a latte and a laptop?!!? Thinking about it, it’s definitely possible that blogging is just not for me.

This coronavirus period has been a useful excuse to step back and reflect on my priorities, research new directions, and plan for the future. I’ve decided, for starters, that I’m not quite ready to quit this blog yet. Even though I haven’t found my niche. I think it’s a useful exercise to experiment with form, and it gives me a good reason to write regularly. I like having a digital home for my unpublished writing. And somewhere deep down I feel like this blog has the potential to be interesting, useful, and whole. Something that more accurately reflects who I am.

So that’s the goal, in a nutshell. I have no concrete plans for where I’m going to take this yet. I just wanted to verbalize some things I’ve been thinking about.

Social Media Eats Away at Your Soul

Does someone really exist in today’s world without a social media presence?

When I deleted my facebook a few years ago, it felt like a tiny death. A insignificant, somewhat gleeful death, but a death nonetheless. Connections were severed: all those people I knew–or had known, once–disappeared. And I missed out. On invitations, updates, information. Who knows what else.

Still, I was glad to do it. I have a hard time with social media. It makes me cynical: everyone’s selling something. An image, a lifestyle, whatever. I guess it’s not too much different from “real life,” except its inundating and constant. And my participation in it makes me complicit. On social media, we are all our own ad execs pushing a sanitized version of our lives for public consumption and approval.

I have yet to find a truly authentic way of engaging online. Technology, and therefore social media, is in bed with consumerism and the bottom line is profit. And I am so sick of being sold to.

I don’t mean to be completely negative. Social media absolutely has value–in connection, idea sharing, creative exposure. It’s not all bad. But sometimes, most times, I think it’s not for me.

I just want to exist. Actually exist. Live a life unencumbered by products. A life that’s not predicated on cultivating an image. A life that’s peopled with, well, people instead of their avatars.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself: What if I consumed less? What if I focused less on the image and more on the substance?

2020: Halfway Through

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking about how 2020 turned out much differently than I expected. So much of 2020 has been challenging, disheartening, depressing. There’s so much fear in the world right now, and I spend so much energy trying to keep it at bay. And yet the isolation has also provided time to reflect on my priorities and the space for important truths to emerge. It’s my hope that we can move through 2020 and become better for it.

Every year I do a weekend retreat where I think through my goals and plans for the upcoming year. These were my big goals for 2020, written in the obvliousness of January:

  • Attend a writer’s residency (I applied to 2 and was rejected by both; I’m not even sure many residencies are moving forward right now.)
  • Finish the second draft of my novel (I’ve started this, then abandoned it in disgust, over and over again. I think I will pick this up in the future, but it seems so overwhelming right now! )
  • Write three poems to publish (I’ve written two! Publication pending.)
  • Revise my play script (I have not even looked at it, I doubt I’ll get to it this year)
  • Go on a new hike every month (This is the one thing I’ve pretty much done consistently!)
  • Attend my first yoga retreat (Probably not possible in the current climate anyway)

Some of the plans I made at the beginning of 2020 seem outmoded or impossible. Or maybe even silly and shortsighted in the face of all the suffering happening in the world. But halfway through the year is a great time to take stock and refine these goals. I like my goals to be concrete and tangible, so I know when I’ve accomplished them, but I think I missed the mark in not including a few esoteric goals. These are a little more uncomfortable, because they’re more personal and there’s no fixed endpoint. But I’d like to add:

  • Commit further to anti-racism work, starting with self education and focusing on the local community.
  • Cultivate my own authenticity. This is an ongoing focus of mine, but rarely do I put it into words. For me this means developing radical self acceptance and opening myself up to the world in a way that’s in keeping with my values.

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”

― Pema Chödrön

Anne Sexton’s Grave

Last summer, I visited Anne Sexton’s grave. I touched the cold stone, traced my fingers along the etching. Bore witness to the offerings others had left behind: coins, ink pens, jewelry. I hadn’t expected to be in New England, hadn’t quite wanted to go to New England in the first place, but, since I was in New England, I went to Forest Hills Cemetery to see Anne Sexton.

The last time I was in New England, life was very different. Supposedly, it was a happier time: It was the first plane trip I took with my family after my daughter was born. She was about 6 months old. It was the first time I had ever been to Rhode Island or Cape Cod. I remember thinking that everything was so outlandishly beautiful–the Breakers, for example–but I couldn’t quite feel the excitement that I usually experienced traveling. Instead, I felt a mix of anxious, worn down, muted. The entire trip felt like a dream, something I only have a vague recollection of.

Of course, I couldn’t put it to words at the time. I was still breastfeeding and was thick in in the midst of postpartum delirium. I don’t think I even knew that I was struggling–with my body, with motherhood, with the changing circumstances of my life. It was only two years later, when I came back to New England, that I was confronted with the memory of how detached I had felt. The bewilderment. The strange sense of loss. I came back two years later, feeling suddenly like I saw my life more clearly. And I began to take some small solace–in this truth and the expression of it, in poetry and those of women who came before me, like Sexton, whose unflinching gaze towards suffering and loss continues to inspire me.

I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good. I will forget
how we bumped away from each other like marionettes
on strings. It wasn’t the same
as love, letting weekends contain
us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name,
wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying.
You call me mother and I remember my mother again,
somewhere in greater Boston, dying.

I remember we named you Joyce
so we could call you Joy.
You came like an awkward guest
that first time, all wrapped and moist
and strange at my heavy breast.
I needed you. I didn’t want a boy,
only a girl, a small milky mouse
of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house
of herself. We you Joy.
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.

From “The Double Image”

The Mistresses of Minos: Misplaced Rage in Mythology

This week, I registered for a writing class at the Hugo House in Seattle. Because of Coronavirus, they’ve moved all their classes online, which is great because now they’re more accessible to people like me, who live further away and/or prefer not to leave the house.

The class is “Phantasmagoria: Writing Monsters & Myths.” I’m so excited! I’ve been working on a few poems inspired by Greek mythology, but I’ve been having a hard time pulling them together, so I hope this class will be a good motivator.

One myth I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is Theseus and the Minotaur.

Actually, let’s forget about Theseus: A garden-variety “hero,” who only escapes the labyrinth by lying to Ariadne–promising to marry her in return for her help, only to leave her stranded and brokenhearted on the next remote island as he continues his victorious voyage home. No thanks.

Instead, I want to talk about the Minotaur’s mother, Pasiphaë. She was daughter of Helios, the sun god, worshipped by some as a full-fledged lunar goddess herself. She was also the queen of Crete, married to King Minos. Now, the Minotaur was created because Minos offended Poseidon by keeping a special bull that he was instead suppose to sacrifice. As punishment, Poseidon made Pasiphaë fall in love with that very bull … and the result of that unholy union was the Minotaur.

First off, can we recognize how supremely unfair this curse was for Pasiphaë? How she was forced to bear the brunt of the humiliation, not to mention the considerable physical pain of birthing a bull, because of her husband’s greed?

An example of the larger male drama at stake in Greek mythology.

And greed wasn’t the only vice Minos had. Hence, the curse of Pasiphaë (who in addition to near-divinity was also a master herbalist): She placed a fidelity charm on Minos, which caused him to ejaculate serpents, scorpions, and centipedes whenever he was unfaithful. Unfortunately, the effect of that was to kill the mistress (another spectacular instance of misplaced aggression), but still it’s a pretty badass curse.

Mythology is full of stories like this: Misplaced rage and women who primarily act as receptacles to the larger male drama. Many times, they aren’t even named (e.g., the many stung and snake-bitten mistresses of King Minos). Clearly, these stories reflect a particular male-oriented (and often downright misogynistic) lens. But, luckily, they’re also ripe for refocusing, reinvention, and maybe even a little revenge.