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.

BEOWULF, AGAIN

 Missing from this sea of Beowulfs: Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife. (But only because I read it on Kindle.)

Missing from this sea of Beowulfs: Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife. (But only because I read it on Kindle.)

So. I decided to take a break from the fourth (yes, fourth, but ultimately final) draft of my Wulf and Eadwacer/Beowulf novel to expand a wee bit on my Twitter thread from a few days ago, inspired by the NYT review of The Mere Wife, about why Beowulf, the epic, is so, so relevant today. And also to reaffirm why the original poem means so much to me.

But first, the elephant in the room.

Because, yes, I also have a Beowulf novel (though it also draws heavily on the eighth century Anglo-Saxon poem, “Wulf and Eadwacer,” and is a parallel novel rather than a retelling). Therefore, believe me when I tell you that my feelings about The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley’s retelling, have been complicated. When I first heard about the book coming out, I honestly felt a bit of dread.

I imagined submitting my query packet to agents who would look upon my project and declare, into the confines of their offices, full-Highlander style: NO! THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE! Only one Beowulf novel, and certainly, only one by a woman.

(Although there have been countless film, television, and print Beowulf adaptations over the years, I sometimes get a horrible feeling in my stomach that women’s creative output isn’t always afforded the benefit of multiplicity. Case in point: the rise and fall of every Hollywood It Girl ever.)

But The Mere Wife itself is fantastic. (And to my great relief, very different from my own novel.) Ultimately, I think, it’s high time for more women-centered takes on this poem, which sometimes does indeed feel very bound up in masculinity. Along those lines, Meghan Purvis’ award-winning, but ultimately somewhat nontraditional translation, is also a great read. And in my opinion it’s pretty interesting that both the Purvis translation and Headley’s novel tell the tale from multiple points of view. There might be a whole world worth exploring in that observation, but I’m going to leave it here for now.

So. Elephant dealt with. Which means I can move on to my take on the poem itself.

I’ve loved the poem since the moment I first cracked open the Heaney translation on a Christmas years ago that I was forced to spend alone because I was working retail, half a continent away from family. But I also really came to identify with its titular hero.

There are a few lines in the poem, and I think Beowulf is talking to Hrothgar when he says them, but don’t quote me on that. Something about his kinsmen not thinking much of him when he was younger, but, well, look at him now. (I’m totally paraphrasing here.) And I dug into those words, and soaked them up, and told myself: Well, maybe there’s hope for you too.

Which leads to a brief aside about my psychiatric diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder: I rarely think about it anymore. I feel almost wholly recovered. I’ve had the benefit of the kind of therapy that suited my specific needs and have been able to address and work through all the underlying trauma. These days I mostly think of myself as neurodivergent: brain maybe not made quite for this world, and because of this, I respect my limits and do a lot to maintain balance. I try not to be always busy. (The fact that I have the heart of a true slacker really helps.) But suffice it to say, there have been deeply ruinous episodes in my past where shit got extremely frightening and weird and in their wake, my life collapsed. It was kind of cyclical for a decade or so. Collapse. Build life back together again. Collapse. With lots of hurt and pain along the way and the feeling that, though I might have had potential, I was never able to capitalize on any of it. (On top of all that, it’s not necessarily possible to do your best writing when your mind feels like it’s breaking all the time.)

So I found comfort in those lines from the poem. I mean, I was kind of a hero in my own story, fighting a pretty epic monster, wasn’t I. And who knew? Maybe I would win in the end.

But that didn’t mean I thought Beowulf was any sort of great guy, and I still don’t. Because (enter relevance, stage right) the poem is practically dripping with what we now refer to as toxic masculinity and the hero himself is the poem’s worst offender.

The sheer masculinity of the poem comes into play most obviously in its final third, in my opinion, because Beowulf, now King of the Geats, doesn’t ever bother to get himself a queen. And lest one would think, oh, she was there, the poet just didn’t mention her—oh no, I would say, if she were there, she would have been written about. Because the poem has plenty of other queens in it.

No. Beowulf’s queen can’t exist because he has to die without issue so the Geats, his people, can be enslaved by the neighbors, with which, predictably, there’s a (toxically masculine) feud. (And it’s also probably worth pointing out that for Beowulf to become king in the first place, various other men have to die, for ultimately stupid reasons.)

And there’s another matter: Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon alone, out of stubbornness and pride, and thus ends up getting himself killed. As for his last wish? He wants to look upon the dragon’s gold. No thought at all for his people. In this sense, the poem can also be seen as a critique on the sort of rampant individualism currently informing our most toxic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rhetoric, not to mention the perils of seeking glory, which could be seen here as a very selfish aim, not to mention shirking one’s responsibilities as leader. And I get it, I get it. The Christian poet is probably making a point: our ancestors were glorious, but it’s better that we’ve left their pagan, feuding ways behind. But again, the poem feels quite relevant, and I dare say, at the moment of the current political situation in the US, painfully so.

And yet, life is complex, and so are feelings, and here I still am, listening to Beowulf say: I used to be nothing but look at me now.

That is all. Thanks for reading.

 

POMPEII! POMPEII!

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Lately I’ve been wondering if I might be a terrible person because my response to reading both fictional and nonfictional accounts in which either the protagonist or essayist responds with profound grief in cases where they haven’t gotten what they want out of life has pretty much been: Get over it, I had to.

And I really did have to!

(What does any of this have to do with Pompeii? I swear I will get to that eventually.)

Objectively speaking, I think my curmudgeonly response to other people’s despair might be awful. It’s definitely a kneejerk reaction at this point, but after thinking a lot about it (and jerking a lot of knees), I’ve come to the conclusion that my response is coming less from a place of: Pull yourself up by your damn emotional bootstraps, why don’t you, and more from the rather large degree of discomfort with which I view my own past grief over having to weather serious disappointments and lost opportunities.

Believe me, I understand that grief is necessary in order to move forwards, but it can also be really messy. I was really messy, and maybe not so great to be around, and yes, a bit self-involved, and yeeeees, unable in those moments to understand that, no, actually the world was not ending, and maybe even a bit boring and uninteresting in my despair. In the end, it’s the awful messiness of grief that I don’t like being reminded of because, ultimately, I haven’t quite forgiven myself for being human.

Human. I read all the time, I am always #amreading, at least not when I’m not working, writing, exercising, or watching the occasional show on Netflix. It’s my favorite thing to do. Mostly, I think, I read because engaging with characters and ideas makes me feel human, and I like to feel human, and I also want to figure out what it means to be human.

So why am I not soaking up these grief stories in a different light? After all, grief is definitely part of the human experience.

So. I look at my own life, and I see cycles.

Grief, certainly, and also trauma, and the pain associated with that, and sometimes, unfortunately, the losses that can accompany trauma and pain, because trauma and pain can change us in the eyes of those we love. And more than once, I’ve found myself stuck in some kind of valley, looking up at the point from where I’ve fallen, and despaired because how could I be stuck here, in this pit, again?

Serious mental illness has been episodic in my life, and episodes, by nature, come and they go, and to me the coming has often arrived as a great interruption, as a crashing and burning of all the hopes I held for some weird ideal I held in my head of what I thought might be something approaching a normal life.

(There actually is such a thing as normal, I think, at least in the sense of how powerfully it exists as a concept—and that counts as existence in my book. I’ve been writing a lot of poems about this, and various other feelings related to psychosis and healing, and some of them have been published here and here.)

And I guess this is how I get to Pompeii.

I sometimes think that history is made up of humans wishing. Over time, through time, above and beyond time.

When I was a kid (and even well into my teens), I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up, and obviously that’s not what happened, and I suppose there has even been some odd grief and disappointment about that along the way because of the many reasons I didn’t pursue that path.

I was reminded of all that as I stood among the ruins of houses and temples in Pompeii, which might objectively be called a would-be archaeologist’s wet dream. I got to see intricately tiled floors, colorful murals, and even a very blackened (and very old) loaf of bread.

A long time ago, people walked across those floors with thoughts in their heads, with plans and hopes for their day, or the next week, or maybe even for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about that made it easy to reflect on the tragedy of Pompeii, how everything ended. I thought of how the inhabitants fled in terror from erupting Vesuvius. Plaster casts of the inhabitants of Pompeii show us men, women, children, even dogs in their death throes. And weren’t they all just people (or dogs) who wanted things for themselves? People making wishes, large and small, for their futures which were all then suddenly cut short when Vesuvius started erupting around noon on August 24 (estimated date) in the year 79 of the common era. All those wishes, gone astray, blinked out.

But then, here I am again, yelling in my head at people sad about their own wishes gone astray, convinced that they should get over missed opportunities, that their sadness makes them ickily unattractive to me, stop sobbing down your metaphorical shirt front please.

Ultimately, there’s a rule (I think) about approaching personal pain. In order to get over it, I mean. We each have to take our own pain seriously, but it also helps to acknowledge that, often, thinks could be worse. In other words, in most cases, Vesuvius is not erupting.

But: And this is a big but, I think. It can take a while to gain that perspective, and it’s probably also a true thing that everybody has to gain that perspective for themselves. Maybe that whole journey, that getting from the point of this is the worst to this is survivable and, in fact, could be worse is a large part of what healing might be about.

Like I said, I’m pretty sure that I know what my other-people’s-grief-centered grumpiness is about. I spent a lot of time sobbing down my shirt front. (Ugly crying, keep in mind. How embarrassing.) A lot of time stuck in this is the worst.

Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t the worst. Not even close. I just have to learn that it was okay that, for a while at least, I couldn’t see past that. That I was really sad when my hopes weren’t realized or goals I wanted to achieve remained out of reach.

And once I do that, I think I will stop being such a curmudgeon.

Ultimately, I think, part of being human is being sad.

And yeah, sometimes I even do still feel sad about never becoming an archaeologist, despite all the other interesting turns my life has taken.

But I’ve found ways to comfort myself over that. I haunt museums and look at really old stuff. And magically, somehow, I got to go to Pompeii.

 

Pompeii plaster.jpg

THE INVENTION OF THE FACE

Since moving to Germany, I’ve had the opportunity to look at quite a bit of medieval art, and I do mean quite. It’s sort of nice at first…all that gilt and holiness and sometimes some small bit of weirdness will make its way into the painting. But in all honesty, saints, and Holy Mary Mother of God, and Madonna with Child, and JESUS JESUS JESUS all begin to blend into each other after a while. At some point, it occurred to me that one reason this might be true is because all the people in all these paintings I’ve been looking at all have the same face. Or just about the same face. At any rate, close enough.

At some point in art though, this changed. (Obviously.) But bear with me.

 I was at the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum in Munich, Germany. (There’s also a Neue Pinakothek and a Pinakothek der Moderne.) Since you probably know what alt and neu mean (hint: it’s old and new) and moderne doesn’t really need translating, you can probably guess what sort of artwork hangs on the walls of the particular museum in question. Old Masters, that sort of thing. They’ve got Da Vinci, Tintoretto, Brueghel, Rubens, Raphael, and Rembrandt and the like.

However, my visit didn’t begin with Rembrandt or Rubens. Instead, I walked through the rooms according to the Rundgang, so that I could view the art in chronological order. This means that medieval art was up first. And yeah, kind of cool at first and quite a lot of the aforementioned gilt. I also noticed how saints were often painted with a device linked to their stories. (For example, you can always spot a Barbara because she comes with a tower. Catherine, on the other hand, can be recognized because she’s painted with a sword.)

I started to get bored though, looking at the flat, round faces of the women in the paintings. The male faces didn’t leave much of an impression on me either. It’s like every painter ever the world over used the same model. Or who knows, maybe they didn’t use models at all and therein lies the problem.

But then I finished that room and walked into another room, and maybe another room after that, and found the work of Albrecht Dürer. Most arresting of all was his 1500 self-portrait, Selbstbildnis im Pelzrock. That’s the one where’s looking straight ahead, displaying his head of long, curly hair. Suddenly, I realized, I was no longer looking at people in theory but at specific persons with unique traits and possibly even unique personalities. Maybe someone has a furrowed brow or a querulous expression on his face. That sort of thing.

And over time, the same thing happened to me at other museums. At some point, I would notice, the faces became real. My husband and I recently went to Dresden, and in a museum there, it was a Holbein portrait that signaled the change. Up to the point when I stumbled upon the portrait it had been human-looking shapes I’d been perceiving. But here was a man, with an almost soft expression on his face to boot. There’s a searching look in his eyes as well.

And so I’ve come to look for this turn, from generic painted figure to representation of individual human being. It’s fun, because even though I expect it, it always comes as a surprise.

 

 

 

LIFE LESSONS FROM MEISTER ECKHART (SORT OF)

 Externsteine in Nordrhein-Westfalen. There was a monastery here in the middle ages and Meister Eckhart was a Dominican, so that makes sense, right?

Externsteine in Nordrhein-Westfalen. There was a monastery here in the middle ages and Meister Eckhart was a Dominican, so that makes sense, right?

There’s nothing good about spending half a month stuck in a book I’m not into, but because of some weird tick, finding myself unable to put it down and move on. But I finally did, and move on I have. Monday was some sort of holy Jesus holiday in Germany and I spent all day reading.

I started the day with a few essay’s in Zadie Smith’s marvelous collection Feel Free, then finished Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, and read another chapter from Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Somewhere in there I also found time to read Meister Eckhart’s Talks of Instruction, which comprise the first part of the Penguin Classics editions of his Selected Writings, edited and translated by Oliver Davies.

I found the latter (when taken out of context, though not in the free-wheeling, anything- goes religious way in which he is sometimes taken out of context) to be oddly bolstering in my current circumstances, which involve a week where I have felt rather disappointed by human nature. Not by all human nature, but by one example, but the disappointment has been large and I’ve ended up feeling a bit ill-used.

I did ask myself, though, what an atheist like me was doing reading the work of a medieval Dominican friar. Because I really am an atheist, not an agnostic at all, though I avoid any association with any sort of atheist movement.

The best way to describe my stance on this comes from the mouth of Palinor, a character in Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and involves a feral child, so of course I read it, and the Inquisition to boot.

When describing his own lack of belief to Benedtix, the cleric who has been taxed with convincing Palinor of the existence of God, Palinor explains that, no, he is not an agnostic at all.

“Not in the sense you defined—that an agnostic is one who thinks that one day or if something happened he might be convinced. For I think that it is in principle impossible to know whether there is a God or not. I know therefore that with immovable certainty that I shall never know that God exists. Likewise I shall never know that he does not. Such knowledge is always, and in principle, out of reach.”

However, I did not let Meister Eckhart’s very obvious belief in a supreme being get in the way of my enjoyment of his writing and managed to even find ways in which said writing could be given a secular twist and applied, again, to my current situation of feeling disappointed and let down.

The Talks of Instruction start out full-on with a peon to obedience (to God, of course). In general, the whole notion of obedience is something I find off-putting, but as I read on I began to consider that the notion of obedience in Eckhart might well be likened not to our contemporary notion of bowing down to some authoritarian like presence, but rather could signify, I think, in our current parlance, an absence of an overabundance of ego. Indeed, Eckhart writes of “self-will” from time to time, and this only serves to bolster my view that I might find something useful here if I only ignore all the God shit and replace God with the idea of being in service to some more general ideal. (I suppose, this week, that ideal would be maintaining optimism about human nature, and that redemption and forgiveness are possible.)

(I’m being deliberately vague about the actual circumstances behind the reasons for my current state of mind. It’s a long story and mildly tiring.)

I read on. As I do, and as I continue to twist Eckhart’s writing into some sort of secular answer for my current feelings, I start to get the feeling that his work is teaching me how to read it.

For example, he quotes Matthew 16:24 in “On the most powerful prayer of all and the finest work.”: “If anyone would follow me, he must first deny himself.” This he elucidates by adding, “This is the point which counts. Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, then take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.”

Of course, he’s pretty much talking about giving in to God, but I decide this is really a casual message telegraphing itself to me across a wide gap of centuries, reminding me not to take myself too seriously, which is almost always useful advice. Sometimes it’s possible to feel like a chump, but this bit of Eckhart reminds me that often my aversion to feeling like a chump might have something to do with not wanting to appear like a chump. This, I think, is essentially an egotistical concern, and therefore best left to one side.

But since Eckhart is bringing the Bible into this, I dig a little further and start asking myself what the central tenet of Christianity is. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, put simply, I think. Put another way, and described by a word we often place special emphasis on nowadays…kindness.

Following kindness as a life philosophy strikes me as one way of taking leave of the self, as long as the practice comes from a place of humility and not from any sort of self-promotional, “Look at me. See how good I am.” (In fact, there’s another Bible quote, one I can’t find right now, where Jesus explains how we should pray and do good works in secret. Pretty much for the reason I’ve outlined above.)

Moving on.

We’re currently in an era, by which I’m talking about Me Too, that begs a question about kindness (not to mention redemption and forgiveness). Where is the balance between kindness and self-protection? When does an instinct for self-protection cross into cynicism about human behavior? Because it’s hard not to be cynical sometimes, but I don’t necessarily want to be. And ultimately, occasional disappointment feels better than cutting myself off from some depth of human feeling that could lead to some more positive experience or emotion.

Eckhart goes on to write all sorts of things about the relationship of humans to God, as well as all sorts of other things that make a different sort of contemporary sense. For example, in “On detachment and possessing God,” he writes: “That person who is in the right state of mind, is so regardless of where they are and who they are with, while those who are in the wrong state of mind will find this to be the case wherever they are and whoever they are with.”

In context, Eckhart is writing about how/when a person is able to “[possess] God in the right way.” But take out God, and what he has written is something we say all the time—we can’t escape ourselves. The conventional wisdom is that our deep-seeded issues remain with us, regardless of whether we stay put or move to a new town or city, or who we happen to be hanging out with at the time. This feels true, to an extant, but might not be the whole story.

Our milieu probably can have a deep impact upon us, if we’re open to change. When we surround ourselves with supportive people, we’re in a different place than when we find ourselves surrounded by people actively working against us for whatever reason. Internal work, and a lot of it, is still required, and no, that’s never easy.

I suppose it’s also true that one may bruise others along the way, and I suppose everyone else has the right to determine how often, if it all, they are prepared to be bruised.

I feel a bit foolish right now, but I’m not sure that should matter. Astrology is bunk, I think, but sometimes it feels useful to explain to others that I’m a Leo, because this quickly paints for others a picture of how massive my ego might be. (And it is. It really is.) But there’s something else going on here, and that, at its foundation, is a useful struggle about ideals.

Eckhart writes of the difference between experiencing God as an internal force as opposed to an external one. And here I am, excising God, and plunking in ideal. (Who knows. Maybe that’s partly what secular humanism does, a movement I know far too little about.) But where do our ideals come from? I can’t even pretend to know the answer to that, though I expect life experiences and circumstances have something to do with both the building up and beating down of them. At some point, I suppose, ideals are also at least partly decisions.

And I suppose hope (in my case, with regards to human nature) is always also at least partly a decision and that redemption is always possible, and I suppose I should let go of egotistical concerns and forgive people who have acted in ways that have left me feeling foolish or like I haven’t fully grasped the whole picture, and I suppose, in the end, I probably do. I suppose, also, that I should admit how confusing people can be and that confusion isn’t necessarily cloudy or benign.

Ultimately, reading Eckhart has been a good reminder to yours truly to let go of ego, and pride to boot, the cardinal sin of all Leos. Sometimes, I think, when I let go of my pride, I can admit to deeper feelings layered underneath, ones that are ickier, yuckier, less palatable, and, when they pop up, leave me feeling much, much more vulnerable. I don’t like to feel sad, but at the moment, it feels like the most honest emotion. I’m naturally ebullient and indefatigable, so I won’t feel sad for long, but I suppose one should admit where one is, at least for a moment.

Off to enjoy more Meister Eckhart. Thanks for reading.

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???