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???

ON WHAT IS THERE

Some of the books I've picked up in English-language sections of the bookstores in Bonn.

Some of the books I've picked up in English-language sections of the bookstores in Bonn.

I think it is a true thing to say that book lovers, readers all, love to browse the shelves of bookstores. No doubt we all make online purchases now and then, and some of us, self included, may read on electronic devices, but there’s still something uniquely special about going to the store, standing among the aisles, browsing the spines. Of course, we may have goals for our shopping experience (if indeed we intend to make purchases). Maybe there’s a book we’re dying to read, or, maybe not. Maybe we just want to see what we can find.

Enter me. I live in Bonn, Germany, which, because it is in Germany, where the day-to-day language is, yes, you guessed it, German, there is simply a smaller selection of English-language books available for browsing. That being said, most major bookstores do have an English-language section, and indeed I’ve come to know the ins-and-outs of these sections at the two bookstores I most often frequent near my apartment in Bonn, Germany. Enter my browsing habits.

Don’t get me wrong. I still buy both paper and e-books online. Sometimes there is a specific book I want and the stores, which tend to have mostly newer stuff, or classics, just don’t have it. But I also browse.

And about that browsing habit…

What blows my mind (truly) is that having far less selection to choose from has actually greatly expanded my reading habits. Before Germany, I read poetry, novels, history (mostly medieval studies), and some other nonfiction. Now I’ve added essays, graphic novels, and short stories to the list. For some reason, I have found a lot of short story collections in the bookstores of Bonn. (The books are coming from the UK. Do British people especially like short stories? I find myself asking this question.)

Brief aside: The short stories entry is a big deal because now I also write them, and that’s hugely satisfying. When you only write novels, or novellas, a lot of your ideas are going to go unwritten. Short stories help heal the rift between that list of ideas we all have in our heads and the sheer possibility of getting some, or most, of those ideas down onto paper. In one way or another. (Also, it is and shall ever remain a fatal flaw to write in a genre that one isn’t widely reading. Thanks to the bookstores of Bonn, I am reading widely.)

The bookstores here also tend to be heavy on the big award winners and the authors that end up on the short lists for those awards. In the US, though, there was also a ton of other stuff to read, so I didn’t always manage to keep abreast. Not here. Nope. I’m all up in that. I am a truly informed reader. (Probably my favorite writers so far in this category have been Han Kang and Paul Beatty.)

I could go on, and on, and sometimes I do. Suffice it to say, that if I were living in the US, I would not be reading the books, or genres, I am reading now.

Here’s another example of how this works. One writer I am fairly certain I would have unceremoniously and completely ignored if his books weren’t so ubiquitous here is Neil Gaiman. I just would never have read him! (Even though I loved that movie, Stardust.) Yet in the last few days of neuro-my-brain-rubbed-all-the-wrong-ways-eyes-on-fire kind of feelings, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane has proven to be the best escape. Ever. So there’s also that.

More on this in the future, but that’s all for now. Till next week.

FORESTS, AND CASHEWS, AND MEDS, (AND LOBOTOMIES), OH MY

There's a person in here, somewhere.

There's a person in here, somewhere.

Play along.

Imagine you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Then live, for a while, in the world. Hang out online. Be present for social media. Facebook, Twitter, what have you. It’s hard to avoid those platforms these days. Especially if you are involved in any sort of field where you have to put yourself out there.

What I think you will find, dear play-actor, is that there exists a wealth of people, some wholly unrelated to you, who would like to tell you what to do.

There are the people that insist that all mental illness is exactly like a physical illness, with roots in biology and genetics, and that, therefore, psychotropic medication is the only appropriate treatment.

On the other side of the spectrum—actually, not quite, because I’m skipping Scientologists—are the people who can’t open their mouths without screaming: BIG PHARMA!!

In between are the people who maybe are not totally opposed to meds, you know, in the case of people who really need them, but who nonetheless like to post memes about how the reason so many people are depressed is because, I don’t know, they aren’t spending enough time in forests. Or, maybe a daily portion of cashews would help.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these. Perhaps you’ve shared them.

When you do, I kind of roll my eyes. On the other hand, I see your point.

Here’s me: at some point in my twenties, and into my thirties, my personal world experienced a series of rather terrifying collapses.

Bring on the string of diagnoses: first bipolar disorder, which was in vogue at the time, then temporal lobe epilepsy, then, d’oh, not epilepsy, rather PTSD, but, nope, not that either, let’s go with schizoaffective disorder. (Schizoaffective disorder is kind of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, meeting somewhere in the middle). I spent about a decade in various forms of therapy (though never the kind of intense weekly therapy where I could actually talk about my deep-seeded issues), in different support groups, and on all kinds of meds. Mostly mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. I remained a mess. A messy mess.

I have a lot of feelings about all of this. Of course, there were all kinds of people telling me what to do. Sometimes, I even listened.

Later I ended up on different health insurance, and had regular therapy sessions, a whole year’s worth, with a Jungian-influenced depth psychologist. We talked, week after week, about the real stuff. The stuff that was breaking me. The stuff, that if I stared down, might stop breaking me. More than anything, I guess, this is how I became a bit more whole.

It’s not like my life is perfect now, because whose is, but I consider myself mostly recovered. (I’m not even in therapy.) I take a minimal amount of medication, which my body is dependent on (more on this in another post), and practice self-care. You know, the basics. Exercise, healthy diet, the occasional adult coloring book. I safeguard my personal time and always make sure I have an hour or two, once in a while, to do nothing.

By which I mean absolutely nothing. Maybe I’ll lie face down on the sofa and daydream. Okay. Technically, daydreaming is something. But, hopefully, you see my point. I put no stock in being busy. To my mind, busy is a luxury.

Onward.

As I’ve gotten better, I’ve become rather curious about the system that shaped so many years of my life. I have a lot of questions, and I’ve read a few books. My interests include the history of the system itself. Psychiatry. How, I want to know, have we gotten to the present point?

First I read Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. I would say it counts as a polemic. Definitely more anti-meds than I think a lot of people who take meds might find comfortable. What I remember most about the book is the rather convincing case he made that the rise of bipolar disorder diagnoses in youth was linked to the prevalence of Ritalin prescriptions (or other drugs like it) in cases of ADD/ADHD. Put a kid on speed, I guess, and see where that takes you. Or, at least, that seemed to be his point.

I next spent some time with Richard Bentall (who I’ve recently come back to). This guy is kind of a hero of mine, and I’ll spend at least an entire future post talking about him. For now I’ll say that his basic argument seems to be that mental health professionals should focus on treating symptoms, not diagnoses. He also argues for what he terms judicious use of medication. (He started making these arguments years ago, and I’m happy to report, that at least in some quarters, his ideas have been adapted.)

In February of this year, I read Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity. What became clear to me after reading this book, in rather stark terms, was this: viewed through the perspective of history (whole centuries of it), those who have taken on the role of treating the mentally ill have rarely gotten it right. But, and this is important, what they’re doing often seems right at the time, or at least is the best they can do. Sometimes, what’s not right is even celebrated as innovative and groundbreaking. It’s probably worth mentioning that Egas Moniz received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949 for developing prefrontal leucotomy. In other words, a form of lobotomy. So, maybe in the end, not so great. (In what may be one of the biggest cases of karma coming round, Egas Moniz was later shot in the leg by a patient.)

Suffice it to say, I view mental health professionals (and their advice) with a dose of what I think is very healthy skepticism. Kind of like, okay, maybe meds, for now. Until the next better thing. Whatever that might be. Hmmm. Can’t wait to find out. (A big part of me hopes this might involve high quality, affordable therapy available for whoever needs it, when they need it, but you won’t catch me holding my breath.)

Essentially, my take on mental health treatment revolves around the idea that no one can put themselves into anyone else’s shoes, so we should all do what feels right for us. (And I’ve met enough people who really seem to experience life a bit better on meds. Better enough that the cashew/forest walk people should maybe hush up. Why? Because some people are allergic to nuts, and none of us can really live in the forest.) This may mean accepting that mental health and/or illness need not be all one thing, or have one cause. Widespread, overarching theories, perhaps, need not apply. One-size-fits-all ideas could take a flying leap out of the nearest window. Those who struggle with mental illness might, for a change, be regarded as unique individuals, with their own vastly different, but highly relevant personal histories, and treatments tailored specifically for them.

I think that would be nice.

Till next week.

 

MY BEOWULF, PART TWO…OKAY TWO DUDES, WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN THE LADIES????? (YES, THERE ARE LADIES IN BEOWULF)

Aaaaugh!! Why, two dudes, whyyyyyyyyy?

Aaaaugh!! Why, two dudes, whyyyyyyyyy?

I read, and write, a lot, to the point that my vision starts to blur, and I get migraines. The actual pain isn’t terrible, but the headaches are draining all the same.

So. I just have these days.

On one such afternoon, I decided to spend some time in my recliner with Beowulf, the  graphic novel by Santiago García and David Rubín, published in late 2016 by Image Comics. The book is a big hardcover, with glossy color pages, and I had just received it, per post, earlier that day.

What better way, I thought, to unwind, than to look at some pictures? To sink into what may be my favorite story of all time, told, this time, in highly sensory, saturated drawings instead of in the usual blocks of black text crawling across a white page.

I will give this to the two dudes who created this particular version of the Anglo-Saxon epic. The artwork is pretty cool. But then I started to notice a peculiar absence of anything female.

Here’s the thing.

Hrothgar, King of the Danes and lord of Heorot, has a queen. Her name is Wealhtheow. (As a reminder, it is to Hrothgar’s aid that Beowulf comes when he kills Grendel.) Wealhtheow doesn’t have the biggest role to play, but she serves mead in the hall, in her capacity as a queen. According to my understanding (and I’m nothing close to an Anglo-Saxonist, so hopefully I’m getting this right), this is an important, vital role. A queen, after all, was a peace-weaver in Anglo-Saxon society. The order in which she served the mead, to the thanes in the hall, served a purpose. Just the fact of her marriage cemented a bond between tribes. (Peace, in other words, or, at least the hope of peace.)

But there’s no Wealhtheow in this version.

Uh-oh, wait, my bad. There’s a very young looking blonde lady in a few frames, standing next to Hrothgar. She says nothing. Does nothing. Go figure.

This erasure wasn’t exactly helping my headache. But I kept turning the pages.

(Later, in the poem, after Beowulf and his men return home triumphantly, it’s Hygd’s turn to shine. Hygd is Hygelac’s queen. Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hygd also fails to make an appearance in this graphic novel, created by two individuals who I, I think, I am going to keep referring to as the two dudes.)

Okay. Where was I? Right. I had a headache, and at this point, I was also feeling slightly annoyed. But, whatever, right?

Not whatever, as it turns out.

The erasure gets really real, really fast, when everybody is hanging out in Heorot, drinking and celebrating the demise of Grendel. Again, the artwork is pretty cool. The two dudes had me hooked, at least in this manner.

Here comes the scop! (A sort of poet/bard in Anglo-Saxon culture.) Great, I’m thinking. I figured the scop was going to tell the story of Hildeburh. That's what the scop does in the poem. This is one of my favorite, albeit saddest, parts of the original text. (Hildeburh is, I guess, a failed queen. Her marriage didn’t create any sort of lasting peace, and her brother, son, and husband all die.)

Meghan Purvis, whose creative and highly original translation of Beowulf won the Times Stephen Spender Prize in 2011, does the best job out there, I think, of portraying Hildeburh’s story. (I’ll spend an entire future post discussing the Purvis translation. In the meantime, you can look it up here.)

Soooo…no Hildeburh. But there is a scop in the 2016 graphic novel, and that scop does tell the story….of….wait for it….Siegfried and the Dragon.

By this time, my temples were kind of throbbing. Being erased is bad for the soul.

Okay, you might be wondering. What’s so terrible about bringing in Siegfried? After all, you might point out, isn’t there a dragon in Beowulf?

Yeah, there’s a dragon. Sure, there’s a dragon. (BUT THERE ARE ALSO LADIES!!)

All the same, Siegfried feels kind of random to me. And though I’m no linguist, the name ‘Siegfried’ itself feels too medieval German for this Anglo-Saxon poem.

Siegfried, you see, is one of the stars of the Nibelung poem, a poem, I might add, that was first written down in the thirteenth century. (So, a few centuries after Beowulf.) The Nibelung poem is also associated mostly with the Burgundian tribe, who, sure, were some sort of Germanic people, but…I don’t know. It all seems so far-fetched to me. I mean, are women so terrible, or so meaningless, that all traces of their lives, and their concerns, have to be taken out of an epic poem and replaced with allusions to a completely separate literary work?

(Speaking of those Burgundians. I’ll write more about them in a future post. I had a manic episode that revolved heavily around my reading of the Lex Gundobada, their law code. And, I don’t know. Stories about manic episodes that involve dark age legal tracts are probably worth telling.)

Okay. Back to the lady-effacing graphic novel in question. At this point, my eyebrows were raised, despite the physical pain this was causing me. I just could not with the two dudes. Could. Not.

Onward.

The final (missing) lady I will discuss (and I'm skipping over a number of ladies mentioned in the poem, for sake of space) is the anonymous Geat woman at the end of the poem.

In the poem, Beowulf dies after defeating a dragon, leaving the Geats defenseless to outsiders. It is the anonymous woman in the poem who voices their fears. The fears of an entire people. The fear, among others, of being enslaved.

The two dudes could not possibly have changed the ending, right? Oh, well, they kind of did. Sure, the sentiments are expressed, but Wiglaf (a male kinsman of Beowulf) gets to say them. You know, instead of having a human woman in the adaptation.

Wow, you might be thinking. Impressive. Considering that women make up half the world’s population, getting through a whole story without any must be quite a feat.

It must have been. It must have been.

OH BUT WAIT I AM TOTALLY JOKING BECAUSE THERE IS A LADY IN THE TWO DUDES’ BEOWULF. HOW COULD I HAVE FAILED TO MENTION HER?? IT IS THE LADY, WHO IS NOT IN THE POEM, THAT BEOWULF HAS SEX WITH. SHE DOESN’T SAY ANY WORDS THOUGH.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that Beowulf, had he lived, would have been sexually active. And in the poem, he spends a night away from Heorot. In fact, the two dudes’ Beowulf would not be the first Beowulf adaptation that has turned that little fact into sex for my favorite epic hero.

But here’s the thing.

It’s not the sex that bothers me. Sex is great!

It’s this. No way ever ever should two dudes cut out pretty much all traces of the many female presences from an original work of literature, while at the same time inserting into their adaptation a little bedroom fun in the form of a dark age one-night stand for the (male) main character.

With a faceless, nameless woman, no less.

(Whoops. Perhaps I misspoke earlier. Looks like we have an anonymous woman here after all!)

By crafting their (admittedly very well-drawn) story this way, the two dudes are promoting the narrative that providing bedroom fun for brawny heroes is the tippy-top purpose that a lady can serve.

Guess what? It’s not!!!!

Seriously, male earthlings. Please don’t do stuff like this. Please help my headaches go away. Or, at least don’t make them worse.

Thank you. That is all. See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY BEOWULF, PART ONE OF PROBABLY A GAZILLION

The Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf has a cool cover. A chainmail hood. This Beowulf has no face. Maybe that’s why I snapped up the book shortly after it came out in hard cover in 2000. I was working at a Barnes and Noble, having returned from a two year post-collegiate adventure in Germany, and was feeling massively depressed about living with my mother.

Faceless, I probably thought. I got that. I put the book on my bookshelf and promptly neglected to read it.

I read, and write, about the same things, over and over, and though Beowulf has become one of those things, I came slowly to the poem itself. At some point, I read a pretty listless prose translation—maybe I thought the Heaney translation, which I owned by this time, would be difficult to comprehend? I was preparing for some sort of literature subject test, and feeling panicked about closing the massive gaps in my knowledge. I was reading a lot of canonical stuff, and quickly, and the Beowulf prose translation, for its part, was boring me to tears. Around the same time, I read the Cliff Notes for the poem, and was bored by them as well. From the Cliff Notes, I learned the usual basic stuff. The poem can be divided neatly into three parts, blah blah blah. The poem was written by an anonymous Christian poet about a pagan society, blah blah blah. Stuff like that.

Meanwhile, I had no real life. No real face. I did not understand how to come back from the unusual, how to reinsert myself into the humdrum of everyday life.

Years passed, as they do. I ended up living halfway across the country in Oakland, California, in a cheap rented room, after two failed relationships and lots of insanity. I was on a number of meds, and I honestly cannot say they were helping all that much.

Again, I was working at a bookstore. On one particular year, the high strung, whirlwind retail Christmas season came upon me, and I thus found myself alone on the day itself. With only the one day off, it was impossible to travel back to Illinois to see family. Quite honestly, I was okay with that.

I like being alone. I made coffee. I curled up in bed, under my knitted afghans, with my cat at my side. He’s a very trusty sidekick.

That morning, I started reading Beowulf, the Heaney version, with the chainmail hood cover shining dull, cool silver against a plain, black, depthless background.

So. That’s how the Heaney’s version starts. I was sold. Somehow, along the way, I must have picked up that hwæt, the first word of the poem, is often translated as lo, and that harkening never worked for me. Lo is intricate, and ornate. Very lofty, at least to my ear. So, on the other hand, spills over with flesh, and blood, and bone. So is living and breathing.

So is how people actually talk.

So. A talking, faceless man, written down into posterity by an unknown poet. (I decided this conundrum was part of the epic.)

For a long time, I had no face, or, I did, but I didn’t like that face, at all, so facelessness appealed to me. Like I said, the meds weren’t really helping. I was battling a lot of my own monsters, and I was losing those battles, in spectacular, often highly-destructive ways.

So.

With that one word, I embarked on a journey to find a new face, although I didn’t know, at the time, that this was what I was doing. I didn’t know that my engagement with what is essentially the ur-epic of English literature was going to become, among other things, kind of therapeutic. (More on this at some future date.)

More years pass, many of them. I’ve slain some monsters along the way. By this point, I’ve reached a certain level of geekiness when it comes to this poem. I now collect translations, versions, graphic novels, and movie adaptations. I’ll unpack my various reactions to some of these in future blog posts.

What I also know is that I am not the only person who feels drawn to Beowulf. The April 2017 online issue of The Atlantic features an article entitled “Beowulf Is Back!” The subtitle, however, does a better job of describing the actual content of the article. “What’s behind the running pop-culture engagement with the epic poem?” the subtitle asks, which, I think, belies the title. The truth is, Beowulf has not come back from anywhere. No. The truth is, Beowulf never left.

 

 

ABOUT A BLOG...

I used to keep a blog. I wrote on it almost every day. It was called I Was A Feral Child: That’s Why I Act This Way. I started it to impress a guy. He was impressed. So I guess there was that. But I mean, c’mon. This was years (and years) ago. My life was miserable but the blog was mostly intended to elicit laughs. I told my readers that my cat’s name was Gerard Butler, and this resulted in some die-hard Gerard Butler fans really liking my blog. Gerard Butler had just appeared in 300, along with a number of other bare-chested, attractive male actors, but I was really crushing on his portrayal of Beowulf in the oft-panned, but in my opinion somewhat underrated film, Beowulf and Grendel. I really loved the poem on which the film was based. There were a lot of references to Beowulf on my blog. At one point, if memory serves, I kind of worked in some sort of Beowulf-Encino Man angle and imagined Beowulf arriving in my back yard through a time portal to rescue me from my awful life.

Here we come, swinging back to misery.

Mental illness is hard. There’s a steep learning curve to figuring out how to deal with this particular bit of awful. I remember drinking a lot during this time, way more than was good for me. That was my number one, super-duper, top-notch coping strategy. No doubt, you will not be surprised to learn that the drinking only made things worse.

But, I kept blogging. Long after that guy I was trying to impress moved on to someone else (and on to someone else after that). I figured, make people laugh. This is how you will prove that you are human. I did not feel particularly human. I felt raw all the time. Like my eyes were on fire. The blogging thing, for me, became almost pathological. Kind of like: ha ha look at me I’m laughing and making you laugh so everything is fine. Meanwhile, the opposite was true.

But. Time passes. Life gets easier in some ways, harder in others. (I’m leaving out a lot here.) The point is, though, that I started to change. And as I changed, I realized I didn’t want to spend hours at my computer every day, coming up with something that might be funny. So, I started working on other stuff, but I didn’t forget Beowulf.

Towards the end of this epic, Anglo-Saxon poem, the reader learns that Beowulf’s kinsmen thought, when he was younger, that nothing much would become of him. I’m going to spend more time in a future post unpacking this, but here I’ll say: I connected to this, to a story about a hero, who maybe, at one time, felt he might have something to prove. That’s me, I thought, when I first read the poem. My friends had cool jobs, post docs, relationships, brunch schedules. In my mind, compared to them, I was a disastrous loser. Living with the results of serious mental illness can make a person feel that way. My whole life, all the chips on my shoulders (lots of chips, weighty chips), felt like markers on a journey where I was going to fight, and probably lose to, my own set of monsters.

What I know now is that my friends were probably struggling too. That everyone struggles. That every day is a goddamn epic.

Lately, the epic in my every day has been beautiful. Not in an I’m-so-happy-I-could-die kind of way, but rather in more of a life-is-peaceful kind of way. In an I-feel-like-writing-about-the-stuff-that-interests-me-and-putting-it-on-the-internet-even-if-only-three-people-read-it kind of way. I plan to write about the ways the Beowulf epic still holds our cultural attention, about mental illness and culture, about living between two cultures. (I’m currently living in Germany.) And, I feel I should add, what with my somewhat cringe worthy past reasons for starting a blog, this time around, I am writing because I want to.

I decided to keep the reference to feral children, even though I would no longer say I feel raw. It’s been years since I’ve seen the inside of a psych ward. But as I research and explore, and find myself moving away from identifying with any one specific diagnosis and instead toward an understanding of myself as more generally neurodivergent, I carry with me a slight sense of oddness. I’ve always felt odd, but for once, it feels powerful.

Thanks for reading.