AFTER FULDA

AFTER FULDA

 

Ik gehorta đat seggen. Tell me what you hear/d.

°

The first sentence is the first line of a poem I’m dabbling in these days, from the Old High German, the Hildebrandslied, but the second sentence, the one in the English I know, isn’t the translation, just my response. Just the reading turned inward. The dead language asked for and responded to. Hildebrand, you see, he meets his son Hadubrand at the field of battle, but Hadubrand doesn’t recognize his father, who has been living in exile. Hildebrand finds himself honor-bound to fight, regardless of any fatherly connection he may feel toward his opponent, and the poem breaks off in line 68 with the two clashing shields. But we can reasonably guess that Hildebrand kills Hadubrand because of the endings of other tales in the Indo-European tradition with the same father/son/opponent set-up. I guess the moral of the story is: honor is a stupid reason. Honor shouldn’t be thicker than blood.

°

But if you never recognize what or whom you’re fighting, what then? Although I guess I did figure out the face of my opponent and then I killed it, but I still don’t know the name of my shield, and even now my sword stings in my hand. A breaking is hard to face, even when seams are sewn, when the rupture is made whole once more.

°

Ik gehorta đat seggen that a woman, that’s me, lived for an entire month in a terrible place. Two challengers stood against each other before assemblies. The assemblies were passersby, gathered armies, honor being striven for, not wanting to shit my pants from my irritable bowel, what have you. The psychotic episode proved to be bad for my stomach. One man clutched a newspaper while waiting for the train but he wasn’t reading it. No, the clutching took place between the vortex of his elbow and side as he fiddled with his phone. Another listened to music on headphones. There were women present as well, of course. But there was also the voice. Not one connected to any body I could see, but I new instinctively that it belonged to a man. Ik gehorta the voice telling me the meaning of the story he wanted me to believe as a way into the canal of his tongue speaking my messed up birth in his eyes. Nothing made sense, his wasn’t a language I spoke or even read until much later in offices, being interpreted, you understand, but I kenned the meanings all the same. Maybe that doesn’t make sense either. Regardless, I was my own epic. Not written down in dead words in some monastery or other, not in the 830s, no, rather a woman scratching her fingernails into wood, holding on, my hard-scrabble fight. Continue existing. That was the other voice, mine, the one I recognized as my own flesh. Then my guts started mumbling again, so I tightened my sphincter. Concentrate on keeping in, that’s the trick. This is the opposite of exploding, but necessary, because believe me, the ass is the final frontier of what people can handle. You do not want to be the crazy lady who shits her pants in public, because the world we live in does not have room for that. This was a deep fear I had for the entirety of the episode, and the entirety of falling down into it, and then later, climbing out.

°

Maybe to tell a fresh story, you have to find an old tongue to make sense of it, a language you never learn but instead cling to tiny portions. Phrases, pairs of words, subjects-verbs. Maybe this is reading psychotically, or reading as a brain that was once split into pieces by lightning but no longer is but needs, all the same, to show how divided, how splintered it has been. I was so apart from myself that I have to introduce my story to you in a language none of us speak. That’s the thing. I heard a number of voices, by that point belonging to flesh, discussing my case. I had been disorganized. I had believed things that weren’t true. Things that couldn’t possibly be true. There was no spaceship in that painting and no one lived in it with a brain connected to mine with invisible tentacles and maybe that’s not the whole story, just the part I feel most comfortable telling. But it is true that was the worst day, the day my cheek wouldn’t come unstuck from the bed. Me pawing the quilt. My epic breaking down, me coming undone.

°

Brief aside. Dead languages equal graduate school, at least in my mind, but after barely making it through my MFA program in poetry I quickly realized the unstructured boundaryless-ness of academia was exactly the kind of stress that counted as a stress factor in my illness profile. Therefore, instead of even thinking about applying to PhD programs, where I could have bathed in all the old, but maybe in the end, not-so-dead-after-all languages I wanted, I ended up with a series of shitty jobs in the retail industry. There were brief forays into other sectors, but never for long. But I snapped up all sorts of books, teach yourself CDs, DVDs, what have you, approaching anything to do with dead languages that I could find at the bookstore I worked at for a while. The CDs (Teach Yourself Anglo-Saxon in this case) were the most fun. I listened and repeated. I listened and repeated. I made an old tongue into a living being. Nothing I learned to say was particularly important but I was importantly waking up. Around the same time, I started getting into Beowulf for real. There are a few lines, I can’t remember exactly where in the poem, but Beowulf tells someone, Hrothgar, I think, that when he was younger, his kinsman never thought much would become of him. But look at him now, see. I held onto that. My failure didn’t matter. I was a hero, not a monster shitting my pants. No, I conquered monsters, including the one from the train platform. Maybe it didn’t matter if no one ever knew. I knew.

°

Get it? Ik gehorta đat seggen there was a woman who figured stuff out and lived to see another day.

°

Or, Hwæt, if you prefer. Just, it’s always a story I’m telling.

°

Who was the poet whispering in my ear, telling me which part to play? Now I’m all like, some part of me faced the host, the assembly, the opponent, what have you, on the train platform, held onto the bench, looked away from the train, stopped going to the station at all when the voice got too loud, said Fuck you, Hildebrand, I’m not letting you kill me, even though maybe stepping back feels partly like failure. And where’s the honor in that? But figuring out how to fail is the most probable end to this story, even if it does mean—well, what it meant was needing help. Was looking in faces and seeing their mirrors and there was one face, the most important face at that time, that wore a seed of disgust and fear, confusion and helplessness, even though I’d managed to avoid the unthinkable and never once shit my pants. Not in public or private. My bowels remained an impregnable fortress. The battle took place on all the meadows surrounding the fortress but the drawbridge didn’t fall. Lucky for that. Again, again, how many marks can one person have against her? I already was only combing my hair with my fingers and thus developed several matted snarls that could only be removed by the cutting blades of a sharp pair of scissors. Ik gehorta it’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re sick and it is. It’s the effort in the face of the sick that makes up the epic. Not that the Hildebrandslied is an epic or anything. Like I said, it’s only 68 lines. But it’s a poem about heroes all the same, or some estimation of heroes acting foolishly, and that’s what I was, a fool, continuing on my own to face the beast, my opponent, the voice of freezing cold intensity, the one who came welling up whenever I waited for the train.

°

Then comes recovery, the rest of your life. The rest of my life. Mucking about on Sunday mornings, years later, with old poems over coffee. Wanting to leave traces of yourself, myself, on everything, a mark that I have been here, there, in all the places of the back-and-forth and in-between, now, and ten minutes from now, and for hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years after now. Because why not? Why ever not? The battle has left the meadow and I’ve walked across the drawbridge to a different beginning. The trick is: what words should I use to describe what defies description? Don’t answer. There is no answer. Instead, it’s a question, continuous.

MY SELF-CARE PROBLEM

It’s a cycle. Terms get appropriated and take on wider use, and in the process, I think, almost always broader meaning. But also in the process, I think, these terms can lose the meat of their meaning. And then, the question is, how do people who need to convey the original meaning of the term make their needs known?

 ‘Triggered’ is a perfect example. I think about this a lot. How do people with PTSD express these days that they are actually triggered when everyone on the internet throws this word around, makes fun of this word, overuses this word to describe mild discomfort, you name it.

 I think a lot about this in terms of self-care too. Back in the day, my various therapists and psychiatrists, as well as any other mental health workers involved in my care, used this term to describe non-pharmaceutical interventions that I could effect on my own to help manage what has been diagnosed differently over the years (mostly because the symptoms have changed over time), first called bipolar disorder, then schizoaffective disorder, and now happily back to bipolar disorder. (There was a big helping of PTSD in there at one point too.)

 Basically, my self-care involves stuff like eating healthfully, consuming as little added sugar and caffeine as possible, steering clear of alcohol and street drugs, exercising regularly, keeping morning pages, and living one day as much like the next as possible. (This basically means doing stuff at roughly the same time every day. Having a schedule creates regularity. Regularity, in turn, can do a lot to create stability. LOL though, because my current job makes this impossible and I am struggling a lot as a result.)

(10 Jan 2019 UPDATE (happy, happy): My job no longer makes self-care impossible. Turns out all I had to do was write a firm email outlining my scheduling needs. Turns out Germans really respond to firmness. It’s not even a problem…and life is better already. Thank goodness.)

 During times of crisis, my self-care might look different. Time to amp up the self-care, I might say to myself when I first notice symptoms. At this point of my life, my biggest challenge is fighting off the manics so these days, increased self-care might look like doing a lot of (relaxing) yoga, totally cutting out caffeine, added sugar, and alcohol, going swimming, spending some time with my mandala coloring books, listening to relaxing podcasts. Getting depressed self-care involves some of these things as well, but also revolves a lot around curling up with steaming mugs of tea while reading Neil Gaiman. Suffice it to say, I know what works for me.

 It also strikes me that a lot of these things on my list could be construed as generally healthy and good for anyone. And in fact, the term self-care has really taken off among everyone and their cousin and I see it mentioned all the time on the internet, and on the one hand, in this cruel, confusing world we all live in, I think it’s excellent that people are focusing on taking care of themselves to live and fight another day. On the other hand, I no longer know how to explain that I have to engage in self-care. For me, it’s not any kind of optional. It’s not, I will feel a lot of unpleasant discomfort if I do not engage in regular bubble bathing. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, I don’t actually have anything against baths, in fact I enjoy taking them, it’s just that…they seem to take up a lot of oxygen in the most obvious, overdone, mass-market conceptions of what self-care is.) But substitute bath for any number of things and the result is the same.

 No. Unpleasant discomfort is not what I’m talking about. Without self-care, I’m talking about a descent into potentially life-altering illness, and thanks to the suicidal feelings that sometimes accompany episodes of mental illness, death, or at least some harrowing hours/minutes/days grappling with the idea of it.

 And that’s a big, super-important difference. Living with unpleasant discomfort versus living with the specter of illness and/or death.

(If you ask me, anyone dealing with any kind of chronic health condition who engages in self-care to manage their symptoms is working along similar lines. In other words, it’s not just about feeling good, it’s about avoiding falling ill, or at least being able to live with illness.)

 So here’s my problem. I have to do self-care. For example, I have to work out as close to every day as is humanly possible. It’s not a luxury. It keeps me functioning at a basic human level and does a lot to keep my mood stable and anxiety at bay. It’s also true that most people feel better when they exercise regularly. How could this be a problem?

 My job sucks and if I can’t figure out a way to even out my schedule, I’m in deep shit. I can’t go three days in a row without exercising because I have a ridiculous schedule that has me arriving at work at 8 am and leaving first at 7:30 or 8 pm a few days a week. But that was my life for a few months. And, unsurprisingly, I started to get manic.

 But I also can’t explain the situation. Nor can I so much as voice a concern, because then I’m told that we’re all in the same boat, even though this is almost assuredly not true because we almost assuredly do not all have bipolar disorder.  

Brief aside. Being told to toughen up is the worst when it comes from someone who has possibly never faced what you’ve faced or vanquished what you’ve vanquished. That is the one big drawback, I think, of life with a hidden condition. It’s a struggle unseen, and therefore a strength, even a tremendous strength at that, also unseen. And largely erased.

I don’t feel comfortable talking too much about my job online, but suffice it to say that my one non-resolution resolution for 2019 is to maybe be a bit more of an asshole and not give a shit what other people think about me and put myself first, because if I don’t, no one else will. And not because I’m a super magical princess who deserves to live a super magical life, but rather because I don’t want to get sick. And I think that’s an acceptable thing to want.

And maybe do some other stuff I really enjoy more often. Like drink more smoothies and golden milk and stuff. Try to read thirty-five novels instead of twenty-six. (I read a lot of poetry too last year, and some nonfiction and other stuff too. But I want to make 2019 my year of the novel.)

That is all. Thanks for reading.

BOOKS! BOOKS! BOOKS!

Holiday shopping is upon us, so these are organized as gift suggestions, but this list is intended also as an enthusiastic round-up of some books I am most excited about right now. With apologies to my Jewish friends, as this comes a bit late for Hanukkah this year. The reality is, if Christmas weren’t an awfully secular holiday that falls on the same day every year, it would probably sneak up on me too. (As you may imagine, I find Easter somewhat mysterious.)

 

For readers who love YA, adult literary fiction, experimental fiction:

Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough is a YA novel about the teenage Artemisia Gentileschi and it is fantastic. (Brief aside: The author deals with the issue of the sexual assault that Gentileschi experienced in a manner appropriate for teen girls. That being said, I will probably wait a few years before I give this one to my 10-year-old niece.) The novel is gorgeously written and formally inventive, alternating between prose and poetry, and includes some really interesting shifts in POV. I highly recommend this novel for adult fans of literary fiction as well, not to mention for any fans of Gentileschi’s work, or who are interested in experimental fiction. You can read my Goodreads review here, , where I go into a bit more detail about why I love this book so much. Probably my favorite book of the year.

 

For readers who love literary fiction, mainstream fiction, and multiple-POV novels:

I was super stoked to see Tommy Orange’s There There listed by the NYT as one of the best books of 2018. The novel follows multiple characters, all of whom plan to attend a Pow Wow in the Oakland Coliseum, in the days leading up to the event. I didn’t keep careful notes when I read this book, but what I do remember is that it sucked me right in and that I read it fairly quickly. You can read Colm Toibin’s NYT review of the novel here for more details.

 

For the Greek tragedians among you:

Speaking of Colm Toibin, House of Names, which revolves around the story of Clytemnestra and her children. The prose is chilling and translucent and the novel worked on me like a page turner, in part because I wanted to know what happened next, in part because I wanted to know what word came next. I also thought a lot about women’s anger when I read this, both the kind that shows up on the surface and the kind that gets suppressed. You can read the Washington Post review here to find out more.

 

For those who love retellings, literary fiction, feminist fiction, Beowulf, etc.:

Speaking of women’s anger…Maria Dhavana Headley’s retelling of the Beowulf epic, The Mere Wife, is set in the suburbs, confronts shifting versions of what we behold to be monstrous via an exploration of white responses to brown bodies, and includes an unrelenting chorus of wives who demonstrate with Plathian perfectitude the failure of mothers to help their daughters break free from the trappings of patriarchy. The novel follows both the titular mere wife, a homeless veteran, and the Wealhtheow character, a wealthy suburbanite. You can read my review at Anomaly here for my more detailed take on it.

 

For anyone who likes mainstream fiction, literary fiction, mystery, or suspense:

Tana French’s The Witch Elm grabbed my attention from the get-go and took me places I don’t usually expect to be taken when I read a crime novel. The prose is lucid and compelling, the characters and situations intriguing, but I’m not going to say much more than that. Instead I’ll let Steven King do the talking, as he does here in his NYT review of the book. (For those who see the name Steven King and think horror: I can’t read horror. This book is not that. The book revolves around a murder and the main character suffers a physical assault right at the beginning of the book that has long-lasting consequences on his life. There is some violence later on as well.)

 

For Zadie Smith fans, general readership, and those who love essays:

Feel Free, Smith’s second essay collection, manages to come across as both learned and conversational, and the author’s unique, idiosyncratic voice is present throughout, regardless of the subject she happens to be addressing. They are essays in the truest sense, at least in my understanding of what an essay should be, in that they detail the history of a thought process, and in lucid, highly readable prose at that. (I doubt anyone who has ever read Zadie Smith would expect anything less.) You can read a review here.

 

For poetry lovers:

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, by Terrence Hayes is one of the rare English-language poetry titles that I found simply by browsing at my favorite bookstore in Bonn. My memory of  reading this book is that I got sucked into it on the train ride from Bonn to home in Dortmund. You can read a poem from the book here, selected by Rita Dove and published in the NYT.

Virgin, by Analicia Sotelo was a favorite read of mine in 2018 and is one of the books reviewed in the NYT column here. I especially admired the richness of the language and the depth with which the poet addressed her subject matter. I remember spending a very engrossed weekend morning on the couch with this title.

Eye Level, by Jenny Xie was pretty stunning and therefore I wasn’t surprised that the book was a 2018 National Book Award Finalist. You can read blurbs and excerpts from various reviews at the poet’s website here.

 The Undressing, by Li-Young Lee was a breathtaking read. One of my favorite reads of 2018. You can read about the book in The New Yorker here.

 I’m pretty sure that most of these books came out in 2018, or pretty close to it, which was one of the parameters I gave myself as I decided what to include here.

 Some titles I’ve read this year that are a bit older, but which I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already.

What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons

Americanah, Chimamande Ngozi Adichie

The Round House, Louise Erdrich (I’ve come into a few of her novels since I’ve moved to Germany, and whoever buys English-language books at Dortmund’s main library is clearly a fan, so I am currently making my way through her work and really enjoying it.)

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

 

And poets, if you haven’t already, consider purchasing the books of the three poets plagiarized by AO. Rachel McKibbens, blud, which is currently out of stock at all the best places, but which is being reprinted. Brenna Twohy, Forgive Me My Salt. Sarah Eliza Johnson, Bone Map. Just because.

BODY SHOCK!! (WITH SOCKS!!!)

Socks make a real difference.

Socks make a real difference.

I haven’t written all that much about my Euro-life on this blog (excepting the last post), but there’s one thing I feel the ladies may find amusing, so here goes.

Germans are in general much more comfortable with nudity than Americans. There’s your average beach, for example, where women frequently sunbathe topless, and there’s also FKK (freie Körper Kultur/’free body culture’), which is skinny dipping. (There may be other applications, but mostly I’ve seen the signs describing beaches.) German saunas are also nude experiences, and as far as I know, they’re mostly coed.

This seems to me to be a healthy and good thing and I’ve definitely adapted for the most part. For example, if someone accidentally saw me naked, I would not feel like my privacy had been violated. And instead of rushing to cover up (as if I had done something wrong), I honestly think I would just be like, “OK bye.” This is a very liberating feeling.

All the same, I did not land in Germany and adjust immediately. That doesn’t mean my adjustment didn’t have to happen in a big hurry.

Ladies, the ultimate in American-to-German culture shock is your first trip to the German gynecologist. Why, you might be asking. I will tell you. There is no privacy robe! Also, there is this weird thing about socks.

Basically, the almost always female nurse practitioner or doctor does your breast exam and your pelvic exam in two phases. For the breast exam, you’ll be topless, and for the pelvic exam, you’ll be bottomless.

Except for your socks.

Why are socks so important? Basically, when I realized there would be no privacy robe, American me was like oooo-kay, but then I took a deep breath and told myself, you know, when in Rome. That sort of thing. Also, what else would I have done? So I followed the nurse practitioner’s instructions and removed my pants and underwear, but left my socks and top on like she told me to. (Socks, probably because they don't want people spreading their foot fungus and stuff.)

Here’s the thing. Total nudity would have been better. There is no world in which wearing nothing but a shirt and socks in front of a human being you hardly know feels okay. It is just really weird. I felt like a baby who was running around the house having escaped from a diaper change.

Also, doctors don’t leave the room while you undress. This was also true when I had my cancer screening at the dermatologist. I basically just stripped down in front of her. However, in this case, I was also required to remove my socks, so that helped.

All in all, I’m really grateful to live in a country that isn’t so knotted up inside about human bodies. Probably we’ve all heard horror stories about some random guy who whipped it out to pee in a public place and ended up on a sex offender registry. However, this just means re-entry is going to mean reverse culture shock. Fun times!

That is all. Thanks for reading.

 

 

LOVE AND EXHAUSTION: LIFE IN A SECOND LANGUAGE

Foreign languages are fun! Sure they are. Figuring them out, attaining fluency, recognizing what people are actually saying when you overhear a conversation. Russian and Dutch would be good examples of foreign languages in my life. I had two solid years of Russian as an undergraduate, and it’s enough that I recognize plenty of words and expressions when watching The Americans. Fun!

Dutch is definitely foreign but also fun (again, fun is the operative word here). I finished reading a graphic novel the other day and started in on some comics and really enjoy that dream-language quality Dutch holds for me. It’s often quite recognizable once you figure out how the words are pronounced, as long as you know both English and German.

Like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle.

I feel the same way about Middle English, Old English, and Middle High German, which I approach with much enthusiasm but with the time commitment of a dilettante.

German is different. It’s not really foreign anymore. I live in it. It’s on my skin and in my head and rolls off my tongue with varying degrees of fluency depending on everything from how shy I’m feeling to how much German I’ve been reading to maybe the weather. I really don’t know.

I would call it a second language. And I would maintain that a person can have multiple second languages. It’s the relationship that matters.

Foreign languages can be tried on and taken off. But when you live in a country where the language spoken is not your mother tongue, I’d suggest a different dynamic starts to take place. Maybe it’s an I love you I hate you kind of thing.

Living in a Western European social democracy is a privilege, but being an immigrant can still be challenging. Most of my friends are non-German women married to German men and I sometimes envy that they have someone to explain to them how things work. I’m pretty sure, most of the time, that I haven’t necessarily figured out how things work. Lately I’ve been bringing all my feelings about this—and there are many—to how I feel about the language. Sometimes the sound of German spoken by Germans irritates me. That’s really dumb. Believe me, I know that.

There’s also the matter of me getting the language out of my mouth.

I used to think that German was a gorgeous language. I got in a mild spat with a professor in my MFA program over this and he was all like prove it so I read Paul Celan’s beautiful poem, “Nachtstrahl,” and then he admitted I was right.

The funny thing about that is when I read the poem in front of the class, I probably had little to no accent.

The funny thing about accents is that when we got to our hotel in Bonn after our arrival in Germany in February 2015, the desk clerk marveled over the fact that I had no accent. I recall the situation precisely. I was asking her where I could go to buy cat food and kitty litter.

That’s right. No accent. But now I have a huge accent, though not necessarily the crassest. I can keep my r’s at the back of my throat and I roll my r’s that come after a consonant at the beginning of a syllable because I learned German in Bavaria and that’s that. And I can even say all my umlauts no problem.

This leads me to believe, since I already know I’m capable of moving my mouth muscles in ways that diminish my accent, that my accent is mostly psychological.

I guess that’s where exhaustion comes in.

Add this for good measure: the accent gets worse around native Germans or other people I suspect will quietly judge my German skills.

This is all nuts.

I want to love German again. I don’t necessarily love spoken German right now, but I read a lot of German-language poetry and I do love written German.

Anyways, here is something I wrote:

 

bei bewusstsein

 große salatteller bestellen

mit brotstange jetzt kommen

gleitende bruchstücke

eingepackt im gehirnwald

geschenk oder missverständnis

ob ich das wissen könnte

autobiographie war ja

immer zu eng

verwildete kinder haben

immer hunger ich

habe hunger

ich fresse wintervögel

nur lauwarmes licht

schlucke satzzeichen herrunter

 

That is all.

AIRPORTING WHILE ANXIOUS

Looking towards the main market square, our first night in Krakow.

Looking towards the main market square, our first night in Krakow.

My husband and I moved to Germany in February 2015 for his job and since then we’ve been taking the occasional trip around Europe. We often drive, but sometimes an airplane journey is more expedient. So far we’ve traveled to Italy, Greece, Austria, Croatia, and Poland by plane. Planes mean spending time in airports. Airports are my Achilles’ heel.

A while ago I figured out that I have pretty much healed from the more serious aspects of my mental health issues. (Lol knock on wood.) Anxiety though. Nope, not so much. Still here in spades. I have, however, figured out how to cause the level to plummet. Sticking to routines (especially in the morning), healthy eating, and regular exercise have gone a hell of a long way to turn me into Ms. Calm.

All that pretty much goes out the window on airport travel days. Historically, traveling by plane has brought me to near panic attack levels of anxiety. It doesn’t help that, these days, flying economy has been reduced to a near hellish experience of automated everything. You just kind of have to figure out how the process works and hope you do everything right. Not so much my thing! (Especially when I’m already feeling nervous because the terminal is loud, loud, loud and full of people.)

Yet this year was different. We took our customary pre-Christmas trip, this year to Krakow. And though the travel days were tiring (especially the trip back which was full of delays and a missed train connection), I felt about as much like Ms. Calm as I think I possibly ever could in any block of time that involves an airport at a very high level. I think I know why everything went so smoothly. Because I’ve gained a clearer understanding about when and how my travel anxiety gets triggered, I was able to plan in such a way that could lessen the strain.

I figure I’d share how I kept my shit together.

·         Time: We gave ourselves plenty of time. Sure, this sometimes meant waiting around, but I’d rather wait than have to rush. Rushing is hell. A good book helps here and so does some type of device that plays music and headphones or earbuds.

·         Packing light: Not having to check luggage cuts down on time waiting in line and means not having to manage heavy bags. For this trip, I had only my backpack. It’s a camera bag at the bottom, and then the top half has room for books, wallet, etc. It felt amazing and mobile to have free hands. My husband managed his backpack and our small, shared roller carry-on. On the other hand, for longer trips, checking luggage is often necessary. It’s just important to budget that time in and to weigh luggage ahead of time at home so there are no last minute surprises at the airport.

·         Dressing for security: I wore pants that fit perfectly without a belt and took off my winter hat, gloves, and scarf and placed them in my backpack as soon as we got to the airport. Less stuff to worry about while going through security. I also packed my watch in the outer pocket of my backpack (before security) for the same reason.

·         Know where everything is: In Europe, security is slightly different depending on what country you’re in. You always have to take out your toiletries and electronic devices (including tablets and sometimes cameras), remove your outerwear, and (rarely) remove your shoes. In Krakow, I paid extra attention to the instructions outside of the security area so I knew what would be expected of me. (For example, I had to remove my camera from my bag.) I also made sure that I knew exactly where in my backpack the items were that I would need to take out, that they were handy, and that they could quickly and easily be put back in.

·         Documents: This has been my weak spot in the past. I’ve kept documents in the outer flap of my backpack and then had to swing it around and kind of dig in the pocket to get at them. This year I made sure to have only what I needed at any one time, and I kept that in the pocket of my winter coat, which has a zipper so everything was secure. This alone cut my stress level down an immense amount. Obviously, the pocket of my winter coat isn’t a solution for air travel during warmer weather, but that’s what those little document holders that go around the neck are for. Do they look a bit dumb? Maybe. But stressing out because documents are hard to get to and hard to put away feels dumb. I really don’t mind looking like an unaccompanied minor or Paddington Bear if that allows my heart to beat at a reasonable pace.

·         Have snacks available and eat when hungry: Hangriness does not help even the best of situations and hangriness at the airport has the potential to become somewhat drastic. Biting the bullet and eating a prepackaged sandwich from an airport shop, or even just a pack of nuts or a granola bar can actually save the day.

There was probably more stuff that I did that I can’t think of now. I’m writing this on Christmas Day, taking a break from some of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, which were under the tree for me this morning. All in all, I feel pretty good about our trip to Krakow and am hoping I can figure out ways to make the next trip work as well. Anxiety sucks and this last trip proved to me that a little prep work and forethought can do an awful lot to make airports more tolerable.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and, as they say in Germany, a good slide into the New Year!

ALL THE STUFF

Recently, in history...

Recently, in history...

I am not sure how I would define myself, or even if I want to. Like most people, I contain multitudes, sometimes all at once, sometimes sequentially. I recently tried to define myself by way of some personal essay writing, based on my experience of living with mental illness. The goal was to submit to paying markets, and hopefully earn some cash. All in all, the result left me feeling kind of icky. This could be for a lot of reasons, the most important among them being that although I’ve enjoyed reading plenty an essay in my day, the form doesn’t feel right to me as a writer. I certainly didn’t enjoy the process.

This seems perfectly understandable. We all have our affinities.

I like to make things up, and that’s okay, and if you like to tell the truth about your life as you see it, that’s okay too. You might even like the way I make things up and I might like the way you tell the truth about your life. What I am trying to say: If you’re a fiction writer who condemns memoir or a memoirist who condemns fiction…I don’t have a lot of time for you. Please get over yourself. Thank you. If you can’t do this, consider working on your spirit of generosity.

I find that when I write short stories with characters who have mental illness, I can imaginatively (but, key here, also accurately and matter-of-factly) relay their experiences. For example, if a character hears a voice or experiences a delusional thought, I can tell the reader what the voice says or describe the delusion in detail. In other words, I can create rich, vivid description and texture surrounding these elements. But if I wrote a personal essay about my own experience living with those same symptoms, I’d run across one of two problems. Either my essay would have to describe how I experience those symptoms, or possibly at the very least describe what symptoms I experience from time to time. Or, conversely, my personal essay would be devoid of some elements that would endow it with richer texture, thus making it seem somewhat, well, impersonal.

One of the things I’ve realized over time is that I don’t want to share  the nitty, gritty details of my own experience of mental illness (in writing for an audience of strangers) because when I do I feel simultaneously overly confronted by and distanced from my own life. Maybe that’s weird. I don’t know. But it’s a very real feeling that I have.

I have, however, found some comfort in embracing other aspects of who I am and writing about that in a way that readers can consume.

Along those lines, The History Worker, my third collection of poetry, recently came out from Black Lawrence Press. (You can check that out here.) The book definitely contains some of my multitudes.

The whole book was inspired by a visit to Hearst Castle, which included some George Hearst Is Great propaganda. But at the time, I was watching Deadwood, which portrays him in a very unflattering (and murderous) light. I started thinking about all the complexities and vagaries of human character.

This, in turn, led me to explore my childhood fascination with Richard III. Maybe you’re thinking: She was probably wondering if he killed his nephews. Nope! I was always pretty sure he did. It seems like the likeliest explanation.  I was more fascinated by people who couldn’t fathom that Richard III probably contained multitudes himself, and that a medieval king’s multitudes might have been different than our current ones. In other words, yes, yes, sure he was pious, and gave us tort law (good thing, that), and also caused the deaths of his young nephews. Kind of like how Barack Obama is the hero who gave us healthcare but also, you know, killed people with drones.

Hearst Castle is on the Chumash Highway, and this also led me to explore the idea that land, like all the artifacts in Hearst Castle, has provenance and that those of us of primarily European ancestry exist because land has been taken from Natives. Think about it. Maybe your family, like mine, has roots all over Europe, but at some point, a bunch of our different ancestors left those places (that were far away from each other) and settled in the US and somehow converged all their DNA in such a way that you, we, I have come to be. In other words, if the massive immigration enabled by land-theft had never taken place, a nation’s worth of those of us with a bit of Heinz 57 ancestry wouldn’t be taking place either. That’s something I think more white people should think about. (However, I also try to consider that there are some very good reasons that people want to leave their countries of origin.)

Along those lines, I also take a brief look at my fascination with alien-human interaction and how that’s played out in the science fiction of our day. My take is, historically, when foreigners show up on one’s shores, that hasn’t boded well for the natives. But yet we have these narratives where plucky Earthlings throw off their technologically-superior overlords through, you know, pluck. (My husband, however, claims that any society who could gain the technology to travel even from the nearest star to Earth without first blowing themselves up would have to be so evolved that we might be okay. I think we should all hope he’s right.)

Plus there’s a lot more. So that’s my book.

Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly dabbling in writing some poetry that takes mental illness into consideration. This feels safer to me than the personal essay as a form for this subject matter. These poems involve fairy tales at a high level, and as we all know, fairy tales make everything better.

Signing off for now. Thanks for reading.

 

ON WRITING/READING WITHIN LIMITED POSSIBILITIES

The book-reading, movie-watching nook of my apartment.

The book-reading, movie-watching nook of my apartment.

(The following post includes spoilers for the movie Samurai Rebellion and the novel The Underground Railroad. Neither of them are new, but if you care about not knowing the ending before you begin, you are hereby warned…)

I recently finished reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, and long before I got to the end, I found myself rooting for some sort of enduring romance to realize itself between Cora, who I think it would be fair to call the story’s protagonist, and Royal, a free black man who rescued her from a runaway slave patrol. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Royal is murdered by white racists and Cora has to make her way without him. I found his murder sad, and heartbreaking, but came to realize that it was also incredibly honest, because for every living body who made it out of slavery, who escaped that evil, tyrannical, racist system, there must have been almost countless others who fell victim to it. Also, the number of almost countless others is colossal, and exponentially greater than the ones who made it out. And the ones who made it out must have borne deep and wrenching psychic (and physical) scars not only from living through their own pain, pain caused in the case of slavery by the colonialism and racism of others, but from sharing time, and space, and hopes, and dreams with those who didn’t escape.

It occurs to me that one of the effects of writing/reading truly unhappy stories of people caught up in history, in the lash of events caused by malignant humans and governments (which are made up of humans), is that when we write/read the scenes in which these people live, we are not just living with the success stories, if you will, by which I suppose I simply mean that staying alive in the face of odds counts as a success story, we are also looking into the lives of the people who have, in other, nonfictional, official history book terms, been swallowed whole. (Swallowed whole, I mean, in the sense that we don’t know their names or the details of their lives.)

I love a ‘happy’ ending, but accept the honesty of Royal’s death, and that, speaking historically, there have been a lot of Royals.

Classifying The Underground Railroad as historical fiction would be incorrect, mostly because of the contemporary feel of how the railroad itself is treated. Whitehead’s creation is just that, an actual railroad that traverses dug-out underground passageways. To my knowledge, the existence of certain government structures described in the novel is also fictional, but nonetheless grounded in the very real history of racism and in real events with racist motivations.

Jump to another piece of art, my favorite film, Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion, released in 1967. The story takes place in Japan in 1725 and revolves a lifelong loyal swordsman who, for the love of his son, daughter-in-law, and infant granddaughter, defies his feudal lord. The story is such: Kiku is a courtesan who gets kicked out of court after a fit of postpartum jealousy. She’s shunted off to the swordsman’s son. They fall in love against the odds. The lord’s heir dies and he demands to have Kiku back, because she is the mother of the new heir. The swordsman (played to great effect by Toshiro Mifune, by the way) refuses. The film is based on a true story. In the film, everybody who is disobedient is killed in the end (although there’s a ray of hope at the end when we see a servant rescuing the baby granddaughter). Maybe anything else would be a lie. Maybe anything else would lie outside of strict historical possibility.

Samurai Rebellion differs from The Underground Railroad in that it is based on a single, historical incident, whereas perhaps we could say that The Underground Railroad is based on an entire history, even as the story insists we realize that the history in question is made up of individual people with separate and unique hearts and minds. However, both stories serve as examples of how writing/making art within/about the past comes with responsibility. As writers create characters within the possibilities of the timeframes in which their characters exist, readers should accept that the tragedy embedded in some of these stories comes from the very real friction between the striving of warm, beating human hearts against the virtual and sometimes literal prisons of a brutal world. What furthers the tragedy? That world isn’t cold or impersonal. No. It’s full of the warm, beating hearts of antagonists who work actively against the humanity of the protagonists. In The Underground Railroad, the motivation of the antagonists is racism (and the ‘beneficial’ economics behind the ‘free’ labor enabled by chattel slavery, no doubt). In Samurai Rebellion, the antagonists’ motivations seem to be linked to the authoritarianism inherent in upholding strict feudal structures.

That’s all I’ve got. Just something I’ve been thinking about.

ON LOSING AND REGAINING PERSPECTIVE

Despite the bemused smile, I had a somewhat craptacular weekend.

Despite the bemused smile, I had a somewhat craptacular weekend.

CW: I briefly talk about suicide here, but no specifics.

 

I guess it was Suicide Prevention Week 10-16 September. I noticed a lot of social media posts about that and gave myself an occasional pat on the back for having successfully navigated through all that awful terrain to come out on the other side, not really even all that worse for the wear. But then…

At some point last year, I read an awful essay online in which a clear narcissist claimed that her “friend’s” suicide was a blessing in disguise because, really, the “friend’s” life was such a train wreck. I had some feelings about that (and my diagnosis was the same as the “friend’s”), and I wrote a response that you can read here. Basically, I made a list of experiences I was glad to have had (stuff like “sex,” “being an aunt,” and “coming from behind to win a relay”) and pointed out that those incredibly good things always exist in the history of my life. I then pointed out that one of the big problems with mental illness is that it can cause a person to lose perspective in a big enough way that all the good things seem unimportant. They seem like nothing at all.

Perspective is everything, or at least it’s a lot. Perspective can’t make us not poor, or not sick, or not whatever, but it is a way to see past whatever terrible moment the present might be dangling in front of our eyes. You know, in order to see into a possibly better future. This past weekend I was reminded that perspective is also really, really easy to lose.

Thanks to an organizational fail, I missed almost half my meds last week. Just the morning dose of the mood stabilizer, so the physical withdrawal wasn’t immediately apparent. (If I miss a dose of my night meds, there’s some genuine agony involved.) I guess I thought my extremely irritable bladder, 4 am wake ups over a period of several days, and bizarrely intensified sex drive were merely examples of my body being weird. Nope though.

I finally figured out what happened when I caught sight of my am meds tray sometime this past Sunday. For some bad reason, I had stuck it in the kitchen cabinet, which is never ever the right place for it. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately. By that time, my mood was also in the toilet. By Sunday afternoon, I found myself hunkered in front of the computer, slouched over, unable to move, feeling overwhelmed because I was supposed to go out to dinner that night. I understood in that moment how great I’ve always been at faking that everything is alright and look, isn’t my life a splendid adventure, let me prove it to you with these photos I’ve just posted to Facebook. There’s the added matter of living in Europe and getting to do things like travel and have a somewhat better quality of life that if I were in the US and not having to worry about health insurance. It becomes hard to say that, no, in fact, everything is not always grand. Suffice it to say, in that moment on Sunday, I knew I didn’t have what it took to fake anything. The thought of sitting in silence in a restaurant, pushing food around on my plate, or worse, coming up with inane small talk, kind of devastated me.

Maybe that’s the exact moment I started to lose perspective because I started imagining scenarios. You know, methods. Out of exhaustion, I think. Out of bewildering doubt. It all felt pretty awful in an almost all-consuming manner.

I posted something stupid and vague to Facebook that was really my way of saying: Someone please rescue me from the emotional hell I currently find myself in. Basically, I always want to be pulled away from the brink though sometimes it’s hard to get to a better place on my own. But the post itself was about something else.

Then I thought some more about being over and about how drastically tired I felt and also how unused I was (and am) to feeling despair. I’m a pretty even-keeled person on any given day. Analytical, cheerful, and if anything is ever wrong, maybe sometimes a little bit detached. There’s a bit of a sanguine thing I have going on.  A tiny bit of Spock mixed in, though unlike Spock, I’m not usually confused by emotion. Not this past Sunday though. Nopity nope nope.

What I realize about perspective, now, and maybe even did on Sunday, is that the practice of not losing it entirely is quite possibly in some part a function of experience. In that, I’m forty-two, not twenty-seven. In that, I’ve been through this before and come out all right, so somewhere inside me I know I’ll probably come out all right this time too. But the thing about suicide is, once you’ve explored the option, you always kind of know it’s there. Probably the only thing to do is to teach yourself that it’s a bad option.

I don’t know. I felt like utter shit. But at that point I walked into the living room, explained to my husband about the missing meds, again, that I felt like utter shit, and that I had no desire to go to dinner. He was very sympathetic. I still felt like my mood was in the toilet, but much less overwhelmed all the same. I wasn’t going to have to fake anything in a restaurant that evening. A tiny bit of pressure, off. Faking being okay is a special kind of depleting and can make everything much worse, in my experience.

Then a close friend, a local, sent me a Facebook message regarding my post (which was about how I felt my Facebook self was awfully curated and how overwhelming that sometimes feels) and about how, yeah, she felt that way too sometimes. Anyways, we got to chatting, and I explained the entirety of the actual situation, and her response was really cool.

Over half a week later, I’m back on my regular dose, and yes, yes, I feel like myself again. (I know everybody has feelings about meds, and I certainly have mine. Hint: it’s a complex issue and sometimes I think one thing rather than another thing only to change my mind. However, I’ve definitely encountered people who act like meds are mostly a negative because they somehow diminish the true person. What I have to say about that: I enjoy living life as a sanguine Mr. Spock more than as anyone else I’ve ever been. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel passion, because I actually do. I just don’t experience self-destructive fits of it.)

I don’t have too much else to say other than another word about experience. I’m pretty big into practicing self-care and I think this is ultimately what pulled me far away from the brink this past Sunday. As in, self-care is enough a part of my life that when I finally hit an actual crisis, it became kind of automatic. As in, my mind caught itself engaging in a pretty destructive mode of thinking and shunted over to: You feel like shit. Shrug off a responsibility [dinner at the restaurant], go make a cup of tea, and climb into bed to read some Neil Gaiman. That is actually how I spent the rest of the day, at least until I took a much-needed nap.

Again, my essay from last year included a list detailing a number of experiences I’d had that I felt were important, but again, easy enough to forget during a crisis. I figure I’d end this with a list of comfortable things that, at the very least, help me pass the time when I feel like shit. Friends aren’t always nearby. There’s something to be said for self-soothing.

Without further ado:

·         The writing of Neil Gaiman—He is my go-to author when life gets weird, or I’m feeling excessively neurodivergent, kind of like I don’t fit in this world, or I just plain old can’t concentrate on anything else.

·         Graphic novels and comics in general—Again, pretty easy on the brain, but often intelligent and worth some genuine mulling over. I also have a growing collection of Dutch-language graphic novels and comics, and the process of figuring out the Dutch is kind of my version of putting together a jigsaw puzzle. (For a native speaker of English who is fluent in German, reading Dutch is not much of a stretch.)

·         Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—Please don’t make me explain this one to you. Instead, if you don’t already understand, just watch for yourself. I think you will come to agree that Phryne Fisher is the bee’s knees. In general, occasional marathoning through selections on Netflix or through my DVD collection can provide a place to be and a way to pass time during especially troubling hours or days.

·         Geo Epoche—This is a German-language popular history magazine that puts out themed issues, with stunning illustrations. I’ve acquired quite a stack. Paging through an issue can be hypnotic and a way to engage with curiosity, even if all I’m doing is reading captions.

·         Physical activity—Even if it’s just stretching, going for a walk, or a few sets of push-ups, moving often makes me feel at least a little bit better. In general, I try to do cardio every day and weights every other day, which seems to be doing a lot to keep me at a baseline level, where even “I feel terrible” is not as bad as it could be.

·         Mandala coloring books—If for no other reason, a really nice adult coloring book is a reason to splurge on high-quality colored pencils. Anyways, psych wards have crayons and pictures to color in for a reason. Coloring is genuinely relaxing and a good way to create some mental space but not quite as strenuous as those dreaded (in my book)…da da da dum…mindfulness meditation exercises.

·         Hanging out with my cat—My cat is actually a tiny, furry psychiatric nurse. Enough said. Okay, this is not technically self-soothing. This is being soothed by an adorable little beast who purrs constantly whenever I pet him. But, I mean…

That is all.

MY BEOWULF, HILDEBURH EDITION

Two of my favorite things: Megan Purvis' Beowulf and my cat, Stanley.

Two of my favorite things: Megan Purvis' Beowulf and my cat, Stanley.

I’ve had some fun pointing out the quibbles I’ve had with some Beowulf adaptations. To offer a quick refresher, to date my quibbles have been: 1) the creators of a recent graphic novel taking out the women in the story but putting in a female sex buddy for Beowulf, who of course doesn’t have any dialogue of her own but rather kind of floats around in the background; and 2) whatever fiery lake of misogyny is going on in The 13th Warrior, the weird subtext of which is truly marvelous to behold. (The earth-dwelling cannibals, for example, who are clearly the bad guys in the film, tote around Venus of Willendorf-esque figurines on their belts, plus lots of other good stuff. It’s really not subtle at all.)

There are other Beowulfs, of course, and the different adaptations/translations concentrate on/bring into focus different aspects of the story, but Meghan Purvis’ Stephen Spender Prize winning translation is hands down one of my favorites. It’s certainly a non-traditional translation, as it’s constructed as a series of individual but obviously linked poems rather than one continuous epic poem, but the effect is not onlystunning in terms of language—Purvis can write—but a useful reminder that Beowulf is not just a rip-roaring adventure story of monsters defeated yada yada heroism yada but actually a high-level tragedy. Without Beowulf, who dies at the end of the poem after insisting on fighting a dragon alone (because ill-advised Germanic machismo and pride??), the Geats are swallowed up by history. So the story goes. But there are other sad stories woven into the text of the poem and Hildeburh’s story belongs to these. Purvis’ translation gives Hildeburh a voice in a way that no other Beowulf adaptation/translation that I’ve ever seen has.

To be brief, Hildeburh isn’t so much a character in the poem but a figure referenced. She’s sung about in Hrothgar’s hall and it’s truly a tale of woe. Hildeburh gets caught up in the struggle between Finn and Hengest and loses both her husband (Finn) and her son, before being taken back to her people in Denmark. Purvis’ poem, “Hildeburh,” tells the story in two voices. The first voice is that of one of Hengest’s men, who tells the story of settling scores in a matter-of-fact tone, but the second voice belongs to Hildeburh herself, a queen figure who has essentially failed to keep the peace in her hall, in the parlance of Anglo-Saxon expectations of queens. (I used to relate to Hildeburh a lot on this matter, as for a while my biggest fear was that I was going to fail at certain aspects of adulting with regards to cohabitational romantic relationships and have to live in my parents basement until I got back on my feet. I suppose this could still happen although, thankfully, it would no longer feel like such a terrible failure.)

It’s hard to pick out a single quote to convey the almost eerie, heavy weariness and sense of the kind of regret and displacement that a person can probably feel in their bones that lingers in Hildeburh’s voice, but here’s a try anyways:

“They waited to burn our dead / until we were back in Denmark. / I sat in the boat, till they came for me / with welcoming garlands. My hair / smells of smoke. That long winter / and the smell of pine on the fire-- / my husband smiling at me, my smile / and its stupidity, a mead-carrying fool, / my son in the flames.”

Anyways, it’s a great poem, with a cold, stone-like rhythm to underscore the heavy emotional burden being carried.

Hildeburh, by the way, was one of the women left out in the recent graphic novel addition that I’ve already had my fun lambasting. (Instead, the scop tells the tale of Siegfried and the dragon, which of course has its roots in the story of Sigurd, which we also get in Beowulf if my entire memory isn’t failing me and playing awful tricks on me right now, but Siegfried, as a name, takes me out of Beowulf and straight to the Nibelungenlied. I can’t help it. That’s just where I go.) But Hildeburh’s story adds something important to the arc of Beowulf as work of literature. There’s a sort of foreshadowing here about the devastation of feuding and vengeance-seeking, which is going to spell out the end of the Geats after Beowulf’s death (because the Swedes are coming, unfortunately, and there’s nothing a leaderless people can do to stop them, or so we are led to believe by the language of the poem, for example in the words spoken by the anonymous woman at the end who laments the fate of the Geats going forward). And this ties into what some scholars argue may be a central theme of this poem, written for a Christian audience by a Christian poet about a pagan ancestral homeland. Namely, all that pagan Germanic feuding and the like is really destabilizing.

So. Hildeburh isn’t just a sideshow. She’s an integral part of the epic and should never be erased, although some have tried, and we all know that women are often erased from history in general. For comfort on that last point, I find myself turning to Purvis’ poem.

That is all. Thanks for reading.

ROUTINE, WITH UNICORNS

Unicorns make everything better. They really do.

Unicorns make everything better. They really do.

Esmé Weijun Wang is a writer I follow on Twitter and whose newsletter I subscribe to. You can check out her website here. I read and admired her 2016 novel, The Border of Paradise, which is full of juicy, gothic goodness, and started paying attention. After learning that we have the same mental health diagnosis and that she also writes for people who are specifically dealing with balancing ambition with having limitations, I really started paying attention. Her eBook about productivity journaling, available here, came into my life at a time when I really needed it. I’ve been doing it for five weeks and five days, counting this morning,--this is the longest I’ve kept up a routine like this--and I’ve noticed a difference in my stress-level and in my attitude toward getting things done.

I’m not going to say much about the actual process of productivity journaling here, mostly because you can read Esmé Weijun Wang’s excellent instructions, but I will say that I’m keeping the process fun for myself by using different colored pens for each section of the journal and by marking each day’s date with a cute animal sticky note. (So far, I’ve used owls, foxes, and cats.) I also keep all of my productivity journaling materials in my unicorn rucksack.

Yes. I said that. I have a unicorn rucksack. It is basically a black sack with a screen-printed white unicorn on one side. Very classy. I also have a beige tote bag that says in big pink letters: “Komm Einhorn, wir gehen…”

This literally translates to: “Come on, unicorn, we’re going…” but I choose to see the situation as such: My unicorn and I are at a party, but we are done socializing, so I turn to my unicorn and say, “Come on, unicorn, let’s go,” which is kind of code for: “Come on, unicorn, let’s blow this pop stand and go home to watch Netflix with the cat because as we both know, that is where true happiness lies.” Obviously, what I am saying here is that my unicorn and I are one hundred percent simpatico, and though I don’t know if that’s a word in English, I think you know what it means. (A French lady used it in a conversation we were having once, and I liked it.)

Anyways, unicorns aside, I am the kind of person who really, really thrives on routine and structure. Even when on vacation, I try to impose some structure and on the occasions I don’t, I find myself getting weird and anxious. But it is possible. However, too much structure, or better said, boring structure, inspires rebellion. Too often in the past, I have thrown off the tyrannical chains of self-imposed structure, basically because I wanted a little breathing room, only to find myself desperately in need of that structure all over again. Suffice it to say that colored pens, animal sticky notes, and unicorns are keeping this particular try at structure fresh and fun. Hopefully, I’m not jinxing myself by writing about this.

(Another thing that is keeping my morning routine fresh is the Daily Guidance section of my productivity journal, which, again, you can learn more about here. Basically, I read some poetry and follow this with some deep breathing exercises. Right now, I am working my way through Emily Dickinson’s oeuvre.)

I also schedule fun stuff, relaxing stuff, as part of my daily tasks. Because I am ambitious. But I do have limitations. I cannot keep up with my peers in the sense that I’ve always noticed I need a bit more down time than they generally do. So scheduling tasks great and small as well as more relaxing type of activities is helping me stay balanced and focused.

Also, since I’ve brought up mental illness, please read this op-ed by Rebecca Chamaa in Teen Vogue to find out what was actually offensive about Anthony Scaramucci’s bizarre on-the-record rant to a New Yorker reporter.

Later. Until we meet again, I’ll be riding my unicorn through the streets of Bonn (and following my morning routine, of course).

LEARNING TO SEE

A shot from the opening scene of  Samurai Rebellion.

A shot from the opening scene of Samurai Rebellion.

Well. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m ready to query agents for my Beowulf novel. It’s been some time since the first word of the (totally different) ur-draft of this thing, and there have been other things that have happened in between then and now. But it has recently struck me that it took me so long to find my fiction-writing stride because I was trying to write into received form.

By which I simply mean: tab over for the first line of a paragraph.

I started breaking out of this when I started dabbling in short fiction last year. Instead of an initial tab, I started each paragraph at the left-hand margin. I wrote blocks of text with section breaks. (I like to write in sections, so this suited my personal narrative style.)

Meanwhile, I was struggling with an earlier draft of my Beowulf novel. I had the characters, the plot, but I couldn’t get the language right. This frustrated me to no end. I’m a poet. I can do language. So, what was going on? Why were paragraphs so difficult for me?

Then I read Max Porter’s Grief Is This Thing With Feathers and the proverbial light went on. (Seriously, if you have not read his book, check it out.) Suffice it to say, Porter finds a way to marry form and story in his short tale of a recently widowed Ted Hughes scholar and his two sons, who are all mourning the loss of their wife and mother.

I started a new draft of my Beowulf novel and started writing with hanging indents so that the language scrolled across the page, and this made me feel more connected with my subject matter (which, after all, is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem) and more able to plug into rhythm.

Fast forward to yesterday. Yesterday, I watched this short film, Skateboard Confessional from Mitch Mitchell, and loved it because it is funny, and tender, and sweet, but I also noted the way the cinematography interacts with everything else that is happening here. And I was reminded that film, like poetry, tells a story (or gets its point across, if you don’t want to think of a poem as a story) in more than one way. There’s what people do and say. There’s the plot of a film, or what happens in a poem, but there’s also always the form of the telling.

(For years I didn’t realize that this could be true in fiction as well, to my detriment. But reading authors like Han Kang and Ali Smith has cured me of that.)

What strikes me about Skateboard Confessional is the (I think) almost self-mocking art film quality of it all (black-and-white, some edgy music, the camera angles) coupled and contrasted with the incredible personable-ness of the actor making the confessions and the weird, yet familiar quality of these mundane, but pressing, admissions. (Whether these confessions are real or imagined hardly matters in my mind.) The effect is again, incredibly sweet and feels funny and awfully honest.

And then, after thinking about all of this, I sort of had to sit around and mourn for a few moments that I haven’t spent nearly enough time watching good film recently, and that good film, in which the cinematography plays a vital role in telling story, can be just as inspiring to me as poetry, where everything from space on the page, to line breaks, to syntax helps explain to me just what is going on.

And then this all takes me back to my college film class and the stern talk the professor, whose first name was Art, gave us—many of us were English majors—about how a film wasn’t exactly like a book and we had to learn to see differently, to look at color, angle, space, and shot in order to understand the story being told. In other words, a film is more than people talking to each other.

And then (a lot of and then here, I know) I thought about the opening shots in Samurai Rebellion, my favorite film of all time. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, the film stars Toshiro Mifune as an aging samurai who defies his feudal lord out of love for his eldest son and daughter-in-law. The story takes place in 1725 and because of historical reality, there’s not going to be a happy end. And I think we know this from the minute the film starts, when we get a series of (in my mind somewhat claustrophobic) shots of rock wall and rooftops as the opening credits roll. The effect is very foreboding. The accompanying music and the fact that the rooftop is shown in a series of shots that increase in close-up, and delve further and further into details, and blot out the surrounding sky definitely add to this. But then I felt myself lulled somewhat away from the sense of the foreboding by the domesticity of the story. I found myself rooting for the son and his wife, a former mistress of the daimyo, who were married at the daimyo’s orders, and have fallen in love, and don’t want to separate when the daimyo demands that his former mistress return to the palace. And Toshiro Mifune gives a wonderful, understated performance—well, understated in comparison to his turns in some Kurosawa films I’ve seen—as a man who has been loyal for his entire life, but who is inspired by love to fight against injustice. But then, you know, the end comes. And I remember those rooftops and the music from the opening. Almost as if those rooftops were telling me: You thought you could get away from reality, but you couldn’t. There is no escape. And so those rooftops are telling one of the stories of the film. (You can watch the opening credits on YouTube here.)

I think this is all rather poetic.

That is all for now. Thanks for reading.

 

 

THE 2:30 RULE

Feeling prepared.

Feeling prepared.

If you are a swimmer, you may immediately understand what I’m talking about when I tell you that being forced to swim the 200yd freestyle in competition was an important early lesson in the temporality of human suffering. (In the sense that, yes, this is awful, but, you know, this too shall pass.)

If you’re not a swimmer, or have never swum competitively, let me break this down for you.

Sprinters swim as fast as they can for the whole race.

That means for a 50yd sprint, two lengths of a 25yd pool, as fast as you can. (One breath at the 5yd mark before the flip turn, one breath at the 5yd mark after the flip turn. That is all the air you get. To prepare, swimmers practice with breath control sets.)

For a 100yd sprint, that’s four lengths of the same pool, again, swimming your little tush off, but probably an extra breath per lane in there.

The 200yd race, though, that’s eight (hellish, in my view) lengths of the pool, again, as fast as you possibly can. You’re going to need to breathe a little more often for this one, or you will die. That being said, even with the extra air, your lungs are probably burning and your quads will feel like jelly by the time you’re done. At least that’s how it always seemed to go for me.

So what does this have to do with the rest of my life?

I will tell you.

For all this unpleasantness, this discomfort and physical pain, this strenuous oh-my-fucking-god-I-want-to-die exertion, at my absolute slowest, this awful experience of the long-ass (not really) 200yd sprint still took up less than two-and-a-half minutes of my entire life.

Yup. Only two-and-a-half minutes. Well, less than that. Two minutes and fifteen seconds. Two minutes and seven seconds. The latter was probably my best time. The 200 was not my event.

So. There’s this horrible thing that I can’t get out of. It’s staring me down. I do it, and it hurts. And then, it’s over. There seems to be an important life lesson in here somewhere. Call it the 2:30 Rule.

I swear, sports has prepared me for everything from weathering some of the effects of mental illness to enduring some of the pitfalls of novel writing. (Finding the gumption to sit down and do it, being big in the latter case.)

Some of these resulting experiences in suffering, specifically those resulting from mental illness, have been a lot harsher and a lot more enduring than swimming some stupid race, but I don’t think it’s an untrue thing to say that the discipline that entered my life with competitive sports, or that remains in my current daily athletic practice, has played a role in weathering some of the losses in perspective I’ve experienced over the years. And it’s definitely playing a role in maintaining balance.

So. Sports can’t cure mental illness.

But everyone has their things they look to, for sanity, for perspective, for staying alive, and this is one of mine.

MY BEOWULF: SUBTEXT EDITION

A crude drawing? Yes, but the subtext it describes is also crude.

A crude drawing? Yes, but the subtext it describes is also crude.

I suppose we all have our burdens, right?

I would be willing to suggest that one of the burdens of being an English major (besides having to come up with creative answers to the inevitable “What are you going to do with that major?” questions) is that those of us who have been drilled in hardcore textual analysis often lose the ability to lose ourselves in mindless entertainment. Nope. We are too busy reading the subtext of whatever media we’re consuming.

(For a really humorous example of reading subtext, check out one English major’s take on James Comey’s resignation letter here.)

Merriam-Webster online defines subtext as “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text).”

Naturally, a movie or television show can also have a subtext. There’s the main story, and then there’s all the other stuff going on under the surface. Take the BBC’s Luther. Great show! What a performance from Idris Elba, right?? Such interesting characters! Look at these relationships forming, and breaking, and reforming, and rebreaking. (And on, and on.) But wait. What if we dig a little deeper? There’s…something else here. Oh my god, yes, WTF IS THIS SHOW’S PROBLEM WITH MENTAL ILLNESS??!! In the Luther universe, having a mental illness seems to mean that you are going to murder a lot of people in interesting, gruesome, and I dare say innovative ways.

Or take the subtext of almost every cop show ever: Your damned civil liberties are preventing us cops from doing our job! The fact is, in our show, episode after countless episode, it is our disregard for your pesky civil liberties that ultimately allows us to snag the (truly) guilty party. So stop complaining!

But I digress. Because really, there is a Beowulf tie-in here.

Here it is: I watched The 13th Warrior. The thing is, I watched it again. The embarrassing fact is I’ve seen this movie many times, and I am always left feeling somewhat entertained. That being said, part of the entertainment factor, for me, is imagining what Michael Crichton & Co.—Michael Crichton wrote The Eaters of the Dead, which the movie is based on and had a big role in the film’s production, even taking over directorial duties at one point—were ever thinking in their ever living minds. Like, did they think their gross, misogynistic subtext would go unnoticed?? Because it didn’t. I am on the case.

Let me lay this out for you, reader.

The 13th Warrior has a few things going for it. In a nice twist on the white savior film, an Arab man goes north and plays a pretty big role in saving Hrothgar’s kingdom from the evil that plagues it. Antonio Banderas (okay, not an Arab, a Spaniard) plays a version of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (a real life diplomat and chronicler who met up with some Vikings in the tenth century and wrote about both their hygiene practices and gruesome funeral rites), and this 13th Warrior Ibn Fadlan brings his wits along. In fact, it’s this character’s smarts that save the day, in the end. In The 13th Warrior, Ibn Fadlan is constantly figuring things out first, things that save other people’s lives. So, the Northmen may have one up on him in terms of pure brawn, but Ibn Fadlan is the one who actually gets shit done.

Also, Beowulf. And the Wealhtheow character is pretty fierce.

Buuuuuut…the movie kind of goes full-throttle misogyny after that.

So. Hrothgar’s kingdom is under attack. There are these somewhat mythical life forms who come and kill people and gnaw on their dead bodies. Get it? They are cannibals. Gross! Well, it turns out, their whole society is organized around some sort of worship and/or adoration of a female figure. How do we know this? I will tell you. The Northmen are checking out the aftermath of one of these grisly murder scenes. The cannibalism is established. Again, yuck. But just who are these folks who are doing these awful things?? Ibn Fadlan finds an important clue. This is where it all begins to go wrong for me.

Turns out that one of the people-eating marauders has inadvertently left something behind. What might that be, you are probably asking. Okay. It is a figurine that happens to look just like the Venus of Willendorf figurine (except maybe without the head, it’s hard to see…also the figurine in the movie appears to be made of darker stone). But it’s basically the same shape. You know. The roundedness. The breasts. Okay, I am thinking by now. Sweet Jesus, I am also thinking. Because because. But no, my eyes are not deceiving me. The film is really doing this. They are going there.

Yada yada yada. A lot happens. Turns out the people-eaters are just normal human men who live in a big cave under the earth. (EARTH!! My god, the femininity of this. The subtext continues its subtextual horror show. And yes, I know, Beowulf went down into the mere. Still. This is all really too much.) The Northmen, and Ibn Fadlan, go in those caves, and find, among other things, a HUGE version of the female figurine, as well as a murderous high priestess or something who leads the cannibalistic mother-worshiping evil-doers all in their people-eating perversion and must be killed!! Also, just in case I, the hapless viewer, am somehow unaware that this character is BAD and EVIL, she is wearing a snake. I guess snakes are bad. I guess because Eve, in our Western imagination. But have no fear, the Beowulf character does indeed dispatch her. But not without being scratched with poison first, which will ultimately lead to his death. (Poison. Such a woman’s way to murder.) In the end, the über-male Northmen, along with Ibn Fadlan, save the day, although not without losing some comrades.

Hmmm.

Okay. Maybe you are like, calm down, Jenny Drai. Because you are all like, in the original Beowulf, our hero goes and fights Grendel’s dam, and she’s female. So there’s some basis for this in the poem. Why do you have to read so much into everything?

Aaaaaaaargh because I was an English major, I would respond. Again, with those super heavy burdens making my life super-difficult.

Besides, I wouldn’t say that the dam is the brains behind the operation in the poem, whereas this mother-type figure in The 13th Warrior really is. In fact, as Jane Chance points out in Woman as Hero in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Grendel’s dam is portrayed as weaker and more cowardly than Grendel. Her real monstrousness, to an Anglo-Saxon audience, may have also had a lot to do with her usurpation of traditionally masculine roles. (Again, I’m getting this from Jane Chance.) Instead of keeping the peace, Grendel’s mother runs off and avenges her son’s death. Tsk. Tsk.

But whatever.

Okay. So, basically, my eyes are burning holes into my head the whole time I am watching this movie, but I am also really having a good chuckle. Again, this weird subtext is all too much. Like, it is not really a subtext, is it? On the other hand, maybe subtlety would be more dangerous.

Later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I AM TIRED OF EXPLAINING THAT I MATTER, AND, ALSO, WHAT BEOWULF HAS TO DO WITH THE AHCA

Brought to you by healthcare.

Brought to you by healthcare.

I was excited yesterday. I have only three chapters to go, and then I’m finished with the first draft of my Beowulf novel. Since I’ve approached this project a little differently, and have been writing multiple drafts simultaneously, I am already caught up on the second draft. So. Three chapters. This feels awesome. Super exciting. I am so close to finishing that I can almost taste that Aperol Spritz I’ve been telling myself I’ll partake of from my drinking horn, to celebrate completion.

Today, though, I find myself thinking about other things.

About Republicans, or, Rethuglicans, if you will. About how I am stable, and healthy, and about how these two facts rely on my access to healthcare.

Being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder is not the worst thing that could happen to a person. Definitely not. But it can be a real bitch sometimes, and there is hurt and pain involved.

My worst episode involved me living through a month of being gripped by a belief that I could be controlled. (Literally, there was a shadowy figure dressed in a long dark coat involved. I know. Kind of cliché. But that’s what happened.) The symptoms were bad, and frightening enough that I also developed some genuine post-traumatic stress, directly related to the episode. Because, why not? Life is just not hard enough.

Largely, I am okay these days. (That episode happened when I was 30.) Largely, access to medication, and maybe even more importantly, to a year of the kind of weekly therapy where I talked not just about the here, or the now, but about deep-seeded psychological issues has saved my life. (Literally, because, you know, suicide.)

But, you know. Without healthcare…

And I am doing stuff with my life. I write, and I read, and I help people, and sometimes I don’t because I’m also a jerk. Basically, I’m a human being.

In my mind, and in the minds of many, there seems to be an intrinsic value attached to being human, but more and more, I have to accept that this value is nothing approaching universal.

I’m tempted to declare that of this moment, I will no longer share space with anyone who believes they should not have to pay for the healthcare of others. With anyone who does not understand that they too may become vulnerable. With anyone who does not believe that we are all in this together. Tempted. Very tempted.

Strangely enough, all of this has a Beowulf tie-in. Yes, I swear to god, it does. (I’m talking, for the most part, about this strange idea AHCA supporters seem to have about their own good health.) Stay with me, because I am going to explain this, albeit as briefly as I can.

 There is a part of this very old epic poem that is sometimes referred to as “Hrothgar’s Sermon,” delivered, yup, you guessed it, by Hrothgar, in his hall after Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother. (If you need a refresher, Hrothgar is the Danish king whose hall, Heorot, has been plagued by Grendel. It is to Hrothgar’s aid that our hero, Beowulf, comes.)

Since I’m feeling a little lazy, and don’t feel like searching through Heaneywulf to find this gem, I am going to quote the Gareth Hinds’ version. It’s a pretty good paraphrase of the sermon, and also, I just poured over this graphic novel version yesterday, so the book happens to be conveniently at hand.

Here goes (and again, I am quoting the Gareth Hinds version, and this is only part of it):

“Take thou, therefore, good heed, O Beowulf, against pride and arrogance. Choose the better path: profit eternal. Now, indeed, thou art in the pride of thy strength and the power of thy youth; but there will come of a surety, sooner or later, either sickness or the sword; fire shall consume thee or the floods swallow thee up. Be it bite of blade or brandished spear, or odious age, or the eyes’ clear beam grown dull and leaden.”

“Come in what shape it may, death will subdue even thee, thou hero of war.”

Truth.

(To paraphrase: Maybe your life is great now, but bad times will come. Because that’s how life works.)

Why don’t Republicans understand this? I know it. I gather that most of you know it. The anonymous poet knew it. To me, this shows just what outliers the Republicans are, with their truly awful vision of what can conceivably  be called “healthcare.” Their values don’t fall within normal human bounds.

But just in case you are even mildly okay with the AHCA, let me lay this out for you. You are probably going to get sick someday, or suffer injury or accident, or need elder care, or at least this will happen to someone you love. Your illness (or their illness) may make you poor, or it might not, but you may still need help paying for healthcare. And, even though you are sick, or injured, or old, your life will still matter. But so did all of our lives, all along, that you couldn’t be bothered with. Because we do matter. Just because we’re human.

Hmmm. Beowulf. Maybe I’ll work on my novel some after all.

Till next week.

PS. Slightly tempted to spam Paul Ryan with highlighted versions of Beowulf, but is he even accepting mail???