In the Dark

“Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light”

“Darkness,” Lord Byron

This is probably one of my favorite poems. Dark and gruesome (deceptively so at first), “Darkness” embodies a tormented soul. All the horror and confusion of a sun snuffed out spills itself through the pen of Lord Byron.

But Byron’s real trick, and the reason I’ve always found myself drawn to the Romantics (who are not nearly as lovey-dovey as their name might sound to the uninitiated), is his grasp of human nature. Humans are a tangled bunch who, despite our many differences, share some fundamental similarities. Take away the sun, and it doesn’t matter how much money you have. Dry up all the water, and it doesn’t matter how many community service hours you logged in high school. Suck the air from our lungs, and we all collapse gasping.

“Darkness,” when read in its entirety, has very little to do with the sun. But you’ll have to read the whole poem to find out why. Maybe, when you revive yourself and leave the darkness, you’ll have found a new appreciation for the light.

Advertisements

Unfamiliar

“You don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”

Kindred, Octavia Butler

For those of you who have never heard of Kindred, let me give you a short genre overview. This is a sci-fi leaning book that deals with slavery head on. It’s written by a black female author from the perspective of a similar woman. It is also a book that I hadn’t heard of until I specifically looked for authors I wouldn’t normally read. I had to dig for this gem, and I’m not exactly sure why.

Without giving too much away, Kindred takes a beloved sci-fi trope and uses it to explore territory more familiar than foreign. Every American child knows that slavery existed. But I would venture to say that very few privileged children (or adults) have felt slavery this viscerally. From my tentative attempts at listening, I imagine many marginalized people relate much more naturally to this narrative of slavery. They recognize it and its aftereffects in ways that I, as a white woman, had not. Which makes this novel even more important.

Kindred deserves an important place in our educational system. High schoolers should be reading Kindred. College students should be discussing the themes Butler brings up. This book, written in the late 70s, is still very much relevant.  Full of rich characters, Kindred brings alive a sense of humanity and rights that is so easily lost in my own privileged experience. And it’s a great reminder that, whatever our situation in life, we should be reading things that seem unfamiliar at first glance. We might find that the emotions and truths are closer to us than we ever dreamed.

A Place Called Home

“I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”

–“The Cat that Walked by Himself,” Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling

I’m a sucker for all things poetic, and the rhythm of this line has been ringing in my ears for a few weeks now (though perhaps that has something to do with the child who has been repeating it to me virtually nonstop since we read the story). Regardless of the why, I’ve been murmuring Kipling’s line over and over, mulling over the beauty and simplicity of the language.

And then, as I was turning this quote over in the back of my mind, I realized: the Cat is telling a lie. Of course, this should be obvious. If all places are alike to him, why does he continue to return to the cave with the man? Perhaps, the Cat reasons, there are benefits to certain places that he cannot receive elsewhere. So he devises a game. Because–you must not forget, O Best Beloved–the Cat is the most wild of all beasts and will not stand to be kept like the Dog or the Horse or the Cow.

The Cat’s struggle is our struggle. We want the comfort and security of a place that is different from all others. Yet, we are stubbornly independent and defy our own desire by claiming, “All places are alike to me.” We want all the benefit with none of the responsibility. And so the wild Cat–the clever Cat–makes his own way. He is helpful when he wants to be, only insofar as it creates the different place the other creatures call home. But he demands his right to disappear, to abandon the family he has grafted himself into, and to return to the wild places at any time. It is quite a feline scheme–and also a very human one.

“I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me,” and thus I remain independent. But that one place–that place made different and called ‘home’–I will treat with the sacredness and flippancy of the Cat, so that it is mine and under my control. Though I wonder if someday the Cat–and perhaps we too–will find that the different place cannot truly be home until we give up control and shoulder the burden along with the benefit.

Underneath

Vivian Mitchell: Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.

Dorothy Vaughan: I know. I know you probably believe that.

Hidden Figures

This, I think, is the most succinct summation of non-institutionalized racism I’ve encountered. For those of you who haven’t read or seen Hidden Figures, Vivian Mitchell is white. Dorothy Vaughan is not. Mrs. Vaughan is one of the three African-American women featured in this film. She is one of the dozens of black women who worked at NASA in the 60s. She is one of the dozens who were not permitted to use the same bathroom as their counterparts. She is one of the dozens who worked without proper recognition to get our space program off the ground–literally. And while I really wanted to use Katherine Johnson’s coffee pot monologue, it was long and beautiful and better listened to than read. So go buy the movie ticket and enjoy.

In the meantime, I’ll direct your attention back to racism and the above quote. Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) pauses just after her first “I know.” I felt the audience around me hold their breath, shocked by the statement. Then Vaughan continues. “I know you probably believe that.” Collective gut punch.

It’s so easy to think of racism as somebody else’s problem, as something that I don’t have to deal with. Surely I‘m not racist. I’m a good person. And therein lies the danger. Maybe I’m not racist. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take a serious look at what I might be doing, saying, or merely implying that is in fact racist, though I believe it not to be so.

At the close of this year’s Black History Month, I hope you’ll do the same.

 

Happily Ever After

“You think I’m not serious?”

“That’s what’s scaring me. We’re too old for fairy tales.”

–Terry McMillan, I Almost Forgot About You

We have forgotten how to live fairy tales. Not the ones that are only light and sunshine, but the dark, gritty fairy tales. We have decided that we are too old for that nonsense. But I don’t think it’s nonsense at all.

Sure, not everybody gets their happily ever after. Yet it seems to me that most people do. It might not be the one we envision as children, but that doesn’t stop people from creating happiness in their lives. Besides, if we think about the history of those fairy tales, we would do well to remember that the heroes and heroines find themselves in light-less times long before they ever reach their happy endings. Rapunzel? Locked up in a tower for the entirety of her life, only to watch her savior be thrown into thorns and blinded. Sleeping Beauty (or rather, Aurora)? She’s actually denied access to a part of the world–spinning wheels and anything similar–in an attempt to shelter her from her destiny. And then her destiny becomes to fall into a deep sleep. Snow White? Her stepmother actually tried to kill her, and she’s forced into the woods to fend for herself as a result. Cinderella? Enslaved by the woman entrusted with her care.

Fairy tales are dark things, full of suffering. Many stories are. What makes fairy tales unique, in part, is that they never lose hope. No matter how dark the story gets, the reader can be assured that things will end with hope and joy. It might not be the happiness the characters hoped for, but it is a thing of beauty nevertheless.

So, as McMillan eventually assures us, we’re never too old for fairy tales.

A Little Self-Love

“Hi, Leslie. It’s Leslie. Hang in there. I love you. Bye.”

–Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

Caught up in all the excitement or anxiety of Valentine’s Day, it can be easy to forget to love ourselves. Maybe it feels too selfish or too cheesy. Maybe we want to focus on the other lovely people in our lives. Today is about the people we love, definitely. But have you ever though that maybe one of the people you should love is yourself?

We don’t need to be Narcissus to show ourselves a little love. For those of you who watch Parks and Rec, you know that Leslie Knope is pretty much the opposite of selfishness (99.8% of the time). Her little voicemail to herself is no exception. We all need those little encouragements from time to time.

So this Valentine’s Day, go out with your significant other. Spend time with your best friends. Hug your children. Send a card to somebody you haven’t seen in a while. And on your way out to dinner, buy yourself a flower or some chocolates (or whatever else you might be craving). Write yourself a note, reminding yourself that there is light even when things look dark. Love the people around you, but don’t forget to love yourself along the way.

Dramatic Exposure

“There are no curses, only mirrors
held up to the souls of gods and mortals.”

–“Demeter’s Prayer to Hades,” Rita Dove

The turning of the seasons, the tension of life and death. A myth where the goddess that grows seeks her daughter back from the god of death. Okay, fine the god of the underworld. But death sounds so much more dramatic.

And that is what Dove’s poem (which you can read in its entirety here) focuses on–the dramatic. Not the dramatic for drama’s sake though. “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades” pulls on the mythos that lies behind it. This is drama with a purpose. The Greeks explain the seasons; Dove faces intentions and reality. A goddess’s daughter is traded between Olympus and the Underworld; a human being explores belief and knowledge.

To be honest, I don’t entirely understand what Dove is saying in her poem. I feel the tension–the sorrow and the beauty mixed–nevertheless. I can’t help but thinking that this poem-prayer knows something about myself, and I look forward to turning its melancholic curse into a mirror.

The Silent Confessional

“Once you’ve opened your heart, you can’t close it again.”

–Culverton Smith, Sherlock, “The Lying Detective”

I wonder if the frightening thing about murderers–about serial killers and kidnappers and dictators–is that they are not so different from each of us. They are motivated by the same things, or similar things, that motivate us all. The king who wanted to share prosperity. The victim who couldn’t stand one more minute of injustice. The businessman who feared vulnerability. We call them generous, survivors, human.

Of course, when the deed is done and the culprit is on trial, we refuse to see them as human. They are monsters, despicable, hardly human. But I have to wonder if the most terrifying thing about villains like Culverton Smith is that they are just like us, if we’re honest.

Culverton Smith has a dark secret–a secret despicable enough that he knows he ought not share it. Perhaps our secrets are not like his, but we hold keys to our own skeleton-filled closets. We’ve heard the relief of the confessional, of admitting the darkness inside of us. Is it any wonder that Smith feels the same?

But the Sherlockian villain faces a dilemma common to humanity: who to trust with our most vulnerable moments? The main difference between him and the rest of us (other than, admittedly, the depravity of his secret) is his means to create a confessional in which the priest cannot remember.

He gathers his friends, the people he can most trust, and confesses his sins. But he puts in a fail safe. Shortly after the meeting, not one of them can remember what he was said, or even the meeting itself. The lure of this concept is what makes Smith so compelling. We want what he was–not the villainy, but the security. The certainty that our secrets remain our own combined with the release of admitting our brokenness.

Different

SPOILER ALERT.

Sorry. I can’t seem to write anymore without giving away the ending. Well, that’s not entirely true, but definitely in this case. So if you haven’t watched Moana yet, DO NOT read this post. If you read thepricklypoetess’s post earlier this week, you were already encouraged to watch Moana. This is your final warning: watch Moana or have it spoiled.

Continue reading “Different”

Jack in the Room

“When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

–Emma Donoghue, Room

There are a lot of things I could say about Room. It’s a hard book to read. It is, after all, a book about a young woman kidnapped and kept captive. It’s a dark book of desperation, fear, and struggle. But it’s strangely altered by the narrator’s voice, which is really what interests me about the book.

Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, the son of the kidnapped woman and her kidnapper. Jack, who has never met anyone other than his parents (and only really knows his mother). Jack, whose world is confined to the tiny shed in which his father imprisoned his mother years ago. This is a little boy who has never truly seen the sky. The sounds of the outside world are kept out by the same soundproofing that keeps Jack and his mother’s noise hidden. Jack’s entire understanding of language comes from four limited sources: his mother, the TV with three channels, a handful of children’s books, and conversations he overhears between his parents when he’s supposed to be asleep.

From the outset, Jack is a bit difficult to understand. He is a child, and an unusual child at that. He is unreliable and distracted, and his understanding of the world is very different from a normalized adult. He might as well be speaking a different language in the beginning of the story.

Slowly, as Jack describes his routine, it dawns on the reader. Jack and his mother are captives. Jack’s father comes in every night to violate Jack’s mother. The man’s only other place in Jack’s life is making the trash disappear and making “Sunday treat” appear, along with basic groceries to keep the pair of victims alive. This is a horror story seen through the eyes of a little, misunderstanding child. He literally believes that he, his mother, and the man he never sees are the only real people on the planet. Room is the world, and he cannot fathom what Outside means. But we, the readers, know.

Something about Jack’s voice as the narrator is both horrific and comforting. On the one hand, Jack’s innocence in tragedy is heartbreaking. There were stomach-turning moments as Jack’s mother fought to keep him safe while he hated her decisions for lack of understanding. On the other hand, Jack’s complete ignorance of his situation allows the reader to detach at moments, to take a breath. His light tone and strong, sudden emotions unwind the tension, if only for a moment.

Using Jack as the narrator is a surprising choice on the writer’s part, and it’s hard to get used to. Jack talks like a child and yet not. He understands many things yet nothing directly. If you don’t feel like struggling through the ins and outs of Jack-dialect, that’s understandable. But I think the narrative choice was the best for the novel and actually makes the story much more poignant than it would have been with any other narrator.