Recently I have found it difficult to make myself sit down and write. It’s a problem I have come up against before, though not too many times, since writing has always been my favorite way to spend time with myself. For awhile I didn’t realize I’d not been doing it, but then I recognized the symptoms: I caught myself wishing I lived in someone else’s house, one with a fireplace maybe, or that I could find the perfect pair of platform sandals. I’d scroll Pinterest endlessly, looking for the home decor, the jeans fit, the screen printed t-shirts that would make me feel like myself again. Eventually I identified this restless acquisitiveness as a spiritual longing, not a material one. I haven’t been writing: I’ve been neglecting my true nature. It’s time to get back to work.
Happily, “the work” can take many different forms. One practice that has seen me through these difficult spells in the past is divination. It sounds magical, and indeed it is. It’s also very simple and accessible. To do the kind of divination I do, bibliomancy, all you need is a book that speaks to you, one you think will have something in it you can use. Traditionally bibliomancy refers to a type of fortune telling in which you ask a book a question, then let it fall open to a page at random to find the answer you seek. What I do is make poems out of old book pages, which is a bit different, but I consider it a form of divination just the same. I’ll take a book and, before I open it, I’ll bring some sort of intention to the project. I’ll keep the intention in my mind and heart as I scan the pages, and as I look some of the words will seem more appealing, more possible, than others. Eventually the words I’ve found will swim together to form new sentences, tell new stories.
When I wanted to make some of these erasure poems a few months ago, I went over to the Salvation Army in a nearby neighborhood and browsed their grubby bookcase. I found two old novels by different authors that had once belonged to the same woman, which I know because she pasted her address labels on the inside front covers. (In one of them she also wrote the date: July 9, 1976.) Both books are gothic romances—one’s about an American jewel merchant in Hong Kong, and the other is about a young couple who inherit an opal mine. I don’t think I noticed until now that both books are about people looking for precious gems, but that seems perfect now that I think of it.
I chose these novels because they’re exciting and a little bit scandalous, and therefore filled with juicy words: ones like love, passion, destroy, darkness, glittering, mocking, wounded, crimson. I knew I’d be able to make something good with them. I’d been neck-deep in trauma therapy for months at that point, so that’s what I asked the book to help me with. Sure enough my poems came out juicy too, in a psychotherapeutic kind of way: they’re about my shadow side, my tricky memory, my never-ending quest for understanding and connection.
More recently I used the books to make poems for a friend’s zine project. She’d asked people to write about what they conceive god to be, and I decided this would be an excellent topic for divination. First I sat quietly for some hours, scanning the pages of one of my books for the word God. I was surprised to find him all over this overripe novel. People were constantly exclaiming “Dear God” or “By God!” or “God alone knows.” I went back later and made poems from several of the God pages, and it turned out to be a powerful way to put words to feelings I have often found unspeakable.
Sometimes my process of divination comes easily to me, and other times it’s effortful, but it is always enlightening. I always find out something about the way I feel that I didn’t know before. It’s actually very similar to the surprise! of discovery that happens during a more ordinary writing session, where you dig and dig and dig until you strike something that’s alive inside of you. You don’t always know where you’re headed when you start out but, as a poet friend once said to me, you know when you hit it. In a way making poems out of a limited selection of words is easier than starting from scratch, with that blank screen staring back at you. In another sense it takes an even bigger leap of faith. How can you make the poem you want to make when you don’t get to choose all the words? You have to open your eyes and look, that’s all, and be willing to see what’s there. You have to be okay with not knowing what kind of poem you want to write in the first place. You have to stay the course, but remain open and flexible to whatever may come.
I’m sitting here thinking about the suburbs today, and it’s bringing up some feelings. I’ve been reading an essay on Criterion about the wonderful punk films of Penelope Spheeris, in which author Nick Pinkerton discusses Suburbia, Spheeris’ feature film that chronicles the lives of lost teenagers and young adults from chaotic households who have come together to live on the street and in punk houses and form a kind of family. He writes that the film’s themes are “child neglect, child endangerment, [and] the hostility of the suburban environment,” and the phrase snags at my heart.
My upbringing was safer, more carefully arranged, and more often affectionate than the ones suffered by Spheeris’ punks, but the idea of suburban hostility is true to my own experience. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, not the kind that’s a development of just houses, but an old town that sat alongside the city limit. It was well served by public transit and somewhat diverse, so—urban by suburban standards, but socially stunted, competitive, and lonely, the way suburbs so often are. Constructed around the ideas of “safety” and privacy, they create an unnatural psychic distance between the people who live there that can only be upheld by certain kinds of hostility. The fenced-in yards reinforced this distance; so did the ideas of social acceptability and rejection that were constantly being reinforced. These days people also have spooky shit like front-door cameras and smart home devices that talk to you in a robot voice, things I can’t get used to and don’t want to. I find myself wondering where all this is leading to, just how extreme our feeling of alienation from each other will become.
As a kid I was always measuring the distance between myself and other people, trying to understand it. Why did it seem like I could understand people when they spoke, hearing even the things they didn’t say out loud, but they couldn’t properly understand me? What was it that separated us all from each other in such brutal ways? How could I solve the problem of my never-ending loneliness? I knew I loved to read because of the way books placed another person’s consciousness inside my own, like having two minds, two sets of thoughts at once, and I think the reason I first started writing stories myself was so that I could live inside another person’s mind in that same way. It’s certainly one of the reasons I continued doing it. To bridge that gap, close up that space. To create a community I could live in, even if it was only in my imagination.
When I got a little older, I discovered that music had the same powers of connection and was in some ways even more vivid. In the sixth grade I begged my parents to buy me a copy of Ramones Mania even though I didn’t have a CD player to listen to it on because I had the hazy idea that they were punk, and that punk was cool. When the silly movie The Crow came out I bought the soundtrack on tape because there was a Nine Inch Nails song on it. I loved, loved, loved that song (“Dead Souls”) but it was some years before I learned that it was a cover of a Joy Division song, which led me down new paths of discovery, new kinds of angry music that spoke to the devastation of feeling disconnected. Dead Kennedys? That sounded tough, so I got a copy of Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death and found that Jello Biafra was hilarious and angry, and for good reason.
By the time I was in my 20s I started meeting people who called themselves punks. I found the idea fascinating, the many different ways people define the concept of punk and find an identity for themselves within it, even 20, 30, 40 years after the movement was started. When I started publishing zines and attending zine fairs, making friends with artists who were sharing their work outside of galleries and writers who were sharing theirs outside of traditional publishing, I started to think that there was a way in which I was a punk too. I still think this, though my understanding of what punk means changes day to day. At the very least, the ideals I learned through lyrics and zines have stood by me throughout my adult life, and have served as a guide for how to (try to) be: angry but kind, passionate and strong, ethical and upstanding, and prioritizing a certain kind of fuck-you fun.
All these years later, I still idolize the punks of the 80s and their radical world-building, the way they created a space for themselves where they could belong within the larger structures that had rejected them. I still fear the psychic death of the psychic suburbs that seem to be growing up around us more and more each day. I’m still telling my stories, building my own worlds, trying to understand and be understood. It happens in small moments, little flashes of what’s possible, and even on the hard days I trust that it’s worth working for.
In the dictionary—in a large, unabridged one, at least—you’ll notice that some words are followed by the abbreviation obs. It stands for obsolete, meaning that the word is no longer in use, which in essence means it’s no longer a real word. Not used by anyone living, and not known by the vast majority of speakers of the language. Often enough this is a word for an object or, say, a job that is also no longer in use—but sometimes it’s a word that, once I learn its meaning, seems like it would still be useful, and it feels sad to think of it having died, even though languages are constantly changing and these deaths are completely natural. It’s just what happens.
Several years ago I developed a fascination with the idea of obsolete words, and also with the experience of finding them in the dictionary mixed in with the living ones. It gave me a strange, excited feeling, as if the book was a house haunted by ghost words. I got the idea to write poems inspired by obsolete words, and I found the words I wanted to work with in the Oxford English Dictionary at my local library. The OED famously records 1,000 years of the English language, so there are a lot of relics in there. My library had the entire 20-volume set condensed into 2 books, and the print was so small I had to borrow their magnifying glass and pass it over each page, looking for that obs.
At the time I was living in the neighborhood I’d grown up in, just around the corner from my old house where my mother still lived, and the library was the same one where I’d been given my first library card as soon as I was old enough to be able to write my name. My dad had gotten sick and then died when I was 22, which was the reason I’d come back, but I ended up sticking around for years, continuing to spook my old haunts. I rented a pretty, airy apartment that I loved, me and my best friend Trixie (a cat), and during those years I did an awful lot of writing and made tons of zines. I listened to music and sat on the hardwood floor of my living room, stapling them and singing along. I had lots of sweet, happy times like that, but it’s also true that I was often quite lonely. I had friends, but never anyone I felt close enough with to let them see all the things I thought were wrong with me. I got terrible migraines that made me think I might die, or at least that I wanted to, and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night from a deep sleep and didn’t know why. I remember standing in my small kitchen on one of those nights, looking out the window into the dark courtyard that was still and lit by floodlights like a movie set and watching a possum take his time walking along the paved path that I myself took during the day. He was like a ghost too, a sweet, funny ghost: perfectly silent and almost glowing under the streetlamp a grub-like shade of white. I remember this moment fairly often, actually, and when I think of it I feel a mixture of feelings that I still can’t decide is more peaceful than restless or the other way around.
I think I had some understanding, at the time, of why I was so interested in obsolete words. I knew how much it hurt to feel extraneous, but I also knew the secret joy of liking yourself anywy. This was also the reason I exclusively wore secondhand clothes and dragged home intriguing objects from people’s trash. Everywhere I looked there were things that people didn’t want anymore, but I could look at them and see their value. They were still good! They just needed fresh eyes, some love and imagination. When I resurrected other people’s old belongings I felt the deep pleasure of owning something that was old and new at the same time, of letting the past mingle with the present—this time on purpose and for fun. What the hell, right? If I couldn’t “learn to let go,” I could at least make a small theater of my inability to move on.
And those words, gosh, I loved finding them. It was like a treasure hunt, like digging through the dollar bins and finding your new favorite sweater. There was “accinge: to gird up one’s loins, to apply oneself.” Appropriate! “Murklins: in the dark.” Also appropriate. “Famelicose: Often or very hungry.” Yes. Yes.
When I had made a poem I was happy with for each letter of the alphabet, I worked with a friend who designed them into a beautiful little book (I called it Obsolete) and another friend who had acquired an offset printing press and was running his own printing business. We made 500 copies of the book and I sold them, one at a time, through the mail and at events, and in a few years they were gone. I kept two copies for myself—they’re in my big bookcase downstairs—and when I see the book now I feel warmth for the memory of how proud I was of it. Looking back, I mostly feel proud that I was able to find a way to make something beautiful out of my sadness and my love for the world that persisted in spite of it.
The other day a blogger named Tabatha Yeatts gave me a nice surprise by posting a couple of the poems from that book, which was what got me thinking about it again. It was interesting for me to see them on a website, outside of the context of the book, and so nice to read people’s kind comments and feel their excitement at the idea of writing about obsolete words. These words have been dead for even longer now than they had been when I first found them, but look! They’ve got some life in them yet. As long as someone is thinking of them, they’re not really gone.
This week pagans in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate Mabon, or the autumn equinox. To honor the season I’ve been making wreaths using lavender from my garden and the zinnias, cockscomb, and sunflowers I cut at a nearby pick-your-own farm, this having become for me its own essential ritual of the season.
I’m not Wiccan, and in fact I don’t practice witchcraft as a religion at all. I am not interested in worshipping anyone, thanks very much, and when I call myself a witch, as I sometimes-usually-almost-always do, I consider myself a secular witch. But there are elements of Wicca and other pagan religions that I do love deeply, and one of them is the Wheel of the Year. This term refers to the way the 8 seasonal pagan holidays are rendered, and the wheel they appear on symbolizes the idea that time is not linear, but cyclical. It turns and keeps turning, fading and dying and growing anew, over and over again. I find this way of conceptualizing the passage of time quite reasonable, and it comforts me by rendering ridiculous the unhappy sense I sometimes have that I’m living my life along a straight line from start to finish, getting dragged along like in a side-scrolling video game that never slows down and will one day just stop, at which point I’ll drop off the edge and disappear. Much nicer to think of my death as the occasion when my energy will return to the earth, the water, the air. More realistic, too.
This Mabon, as I reflect on what the pagan holidays mean to me, I find myself thinking about healing. I’ve been consulting Llewellyn’s Sabbats Almanac, a book I love dearly and drag around with me all year long, and in an essay for this year’s Almanac, “Nature’s Sleep: The Importance of Dormancy,” Kate Freuler writes about the lessons this coming season has to teach us about the importance (and challenges) of rest. She writes that the period of dark and quiet that we’re about to enter, though it can be boring, depressing, and even scary, is an essential time to “look gently down inside ourselves” and “unlearn some toxic beliefs.” I’m all for that.
As a teenager I was drawn to pagan spirituality because it was cool and dark and different; because it appealed to me aesthetically; because a beautiful girl I met my freshman year of college told everyone she was a witch, and I was stunned by how gutsy that was. All of this is true. But beyond those things, I was intrigued by Wicca because it seemed to offer a lot of the stuff I’d been denied, as though it were the inside-out of religion as I’d known it. Instead of using shame to control people, it worked with the dark side, the hidden selves, the shadow; instead of authoritarian, it was decentralized and collaborative; unlike the crawly woman-hate my Catholic upbringing had smeared me with, pagan religions explicitly celebrated the feminine. What an idea!
You could say that choosing this path was a form of rebellion, but it’s not as black-and-white as that. I think it has more to do with righting past wrongs, healing old wounds. All these years later, I certainly do not reject every idea in Christianity, just as I feel free to bail on any interpretation of witchcraft that feels wrong (dogmatic/exclusive/cultural-appropriatey) to me. I think that in those early days, what I wanted more than anything was to heal from the damage that was done to me in the name of religion, and I’m proud of myself for that. Despite all the pain and self-censure I have tended to carry with me in this life, I’ve always had a perversely strong instinct to thrive. Like the Wheel of the Year, my thriving looks different at different times, and right now it’s taking the form of filling my house with flowers, just because I love them.
Last June I tabled at a Pride event with my husband. This might sound strange to hear, but he and I are both queer. Gay, if you like, though we’re gay for each other too.
The event was hosted by the South Street Art Mart, a shop that carries my books and zines. For a few years now the owners of the store, Nicole and Nicole, have been kind, supportive friends to me, and being a part of the community they’ve created went a long way in helping me feel safe to finally, after all these years, come out—first to myself, and then to other people. It meant a great deal to me to be included in their Pride festivities: my books in the front window alongside work by other queer artists, me and my table out in front of the shop one Friday afternoon in June.
Things meaning a lot to me usually manifests as getting really nervous and putting a lot of thought into my outfit, and this occasion was no different. If you’re curious, I wore my dark denim A-line skirt with a little bitty black crop top and chunky black shoes, which is a summer outfit I consider makes me look both cute and tough. I also wore my beloved dragon pendant, privately referred to as DT or Dragon Tits because of where it lands on my chest, because I always wear it when I need extra protection. The dragon is curled around on herself in a circle, sleeping and looking pretty, but ready to leap to my defense at the first sign of trouble.
There was no trouble, though. Tabling at Pride—for it is a verb, to table—was life affirming and sweet. Joe and I arranged our books, tapes, and zines on the table, two perpetual kids with a lemonade stand, and friendly people from the shops nearby came out to smoke cigarettes, shoot the breeze, and buy our stuff. A good number of our friends surprised us by stopping by too. One adorable human from the daycare up the street chatted with us for awhile, making us laugh with charming and somewhat horrifying childcare stories, and bought some zines. When I looked at Venmo later that day, I saw the note they’d left to indicate what the money was for: “gay junk.” In some not-so-small way, it made me feel like a part of the club.
That was my first Pride as an out queer-bisexual-whatever person, and here it is, a whole year later, Pride Month again. I find anniversaries to be useful, and this one has helped me see how much my understanding of myself has deepened over the past year. I mean, I was happy and relieved and proud to come out last June, but it didn’t necessarily feel that good to do. I was scared and uncertain about what, if anything, it might mean to ask people to start thinking about me differently, especially since doing so came with the assumption that they bothered to think of me at all, which is something I’ve never been entirely willing to believe. Talking about my sex life, however obliquely, felt weird too. The whole thing has taken some getting used to, but as I now see, coming out isn’t something you do just once anyway. It’s a process, baby, and I am letting it unfold.
For instance, at some point last year—even before I “officially” came out—I got brave and changed the bio on my website to add gender and queer stuff to the list of topics I most often write about because, well, it’s true. It’s always been true. There’s a certain power in pointing it out, though. In claiming it. All year long I’ve carried my little backpack purse with a beautiful pride flag pinned near the top, the one I bought at the Art Mart, wondering if people noticed it as I walked away, hoping they did.
It turns out that the people I’ve needed to see me, have. Chosen family is a big deal for queer people, and it always seemed so wonderful to me, the idea of belonging to people that way, not by chance or obligation but by intention. I thought I didn’t deserve to claim this kind of community, to go looking for it, but when I started feeling brave enough to tell my people, one at a time, that I’m queer, actually, I looked around and saw that I already have it. I’ve already chosen the people who matter to me, and for the first time I can see, with a feeling of deep gratitude that does not come easily to me, that they choose me, too. My friends, most of whom are gay and queer, have so easily accepted this thing about me that we’ve hardly needed to talk about it at all. Unless, you know, I wanted to. I can’t tell you what a big deal it not being that big of a deal is. It turns out that “taking up space,” to use one of my therapist’s favorite turns of phrase—to finally accept that however I am right now is honestly just fine—makes me feel a kind of safe that I’ve never felt before. I can feel it in my body right now, that safeness, in my arms and across my chest, a warmth and a sensation of light constriction, almost like being held.
So yeah. I’ve only been out for a short time, but of course I’ve been queer all this time down deep in my gay little heart, and I’ve always read a lot of queer writing of different kinds. I thought I’d tell you about the most recent gay junk I’ve read since it’s helped me on my path, which I’m happy to say has been long and winding and full of surprises.
Mylxine #20. Erica Dawn Lyle is a musician and writer who, as the creator of Scam zine, I’ve admired for a long time. Now she’s more famous for playing guitar in Bikini Kill (!), and she’s an out transwoman. Scott, who’s been doing Mylxine since 1995, interviewed Erica at length for issue number 20, and she talked with a ton of insight and sensitivity about her early life and the things that led her to a deeper understanding of her queerness. She also talks about childhood trauma and addiction. I’ve read the interview a few times and I find it so instructive and deep. The idea that stands out to me as being the most useful is something Erica said about questioning being central to the experience of queerness. This opened up for me the possibility that I might never stop feeling uncertain about who I am and what I want, and that this is okay … and might even be something to enjoy.
Bi All Means is a stylish and posi anthology of art and writing by bisexual people that I found on Instagram. Its creator, Julia, runs the Munich Zine Library, a queer feminist zine library out of Germany, and a few of the pieces in this zine are in German. The rest are in English. They all bravely claim an identity that has often been minimized and maligned, and share stories of both triumph and disappointment. I recommend it, especially to people who are newly exploring their sexual identities.
Pretend I’m Dead and Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin. These two dark, funny novels both feature the same protagonist, Mona, a cleaning lady with a truckload of a trauma. We’re happy to follow along on her misadventures because she’s smart, unusual, and on her way to becoming a serious artist whether she realizes it or not. She’s also into both guys and girls, which we know because we’re privy to her pervy imagination, and because she addresses it directly, just once, in a conversation with a housecleaning client who she’s joined for a cigarette break:
“Can I ask you a personal questions?” Lena said.
“Sure,” Mona said.
“Are you straight or gay?” Lena asked.
Mona blew smoke toward the sky. “Neither. Or both.”
“Ah,” Lena said.
“Why do you ask?”
“A few years ago, my daughter left her fiancé for a woman,” Lena said. “An older woman she met at a coffee shop. They ran away together. I never knew she had it in her to do something like that. She’d always been so boy-crazy.”
“There’s a place between straight and gay,” Mona said, “and it’s a very real place, but most people think it’s an imaginary place. Some fake, slutty island or amusement park.”
Lena smiled. “I don’t think that.”
“Right,” Mona said. “But there’s a stigma. I’ve never liked being labeled bisexual—in fact, I can barely bring myself to say the word.”
“Maybe you should give it your own name,” Lena said.
“Sometimes I tell people I’m part fruit,” Mona said. “I mean, if it comes up. It’s like being part Spanish or whatever.”
There was a silence.
“Which fruit?” Lena asked, and smiled.
“Lime,” Mona said flatly. “I’m part lime.”
“You sound bitter,” Lena said. “Which I love.”
Healing Your Magical Body: Crystal Quartz, by Jo-Jo Sherrow. This one isn’t gay, but it is queer, if you feel me. Author Jo-Jo, a longtime zine buddy of mine, includes in this zine a section on what she calls Wrong Planet Syndrome. She shares that she has often felt lonely and even like she doesn’t belong on this planet, and she lists a few kinds of people who might have experienced the same feeling, including those who are queer in their gender or sexual orientation. It resonated with me deeply. Jo-Jo’s conclusion, after doing lots of spiritual work and self-reflection, is that we all have a place; we belong here, right where we are. We’re all called to a specific purpose. I think I’ll hold onto that idea and try to remember it the next time I need it, which should be any minute now.
Queering Your Craft, by Cassandra Snow. I’ve read a lot of books on witchcraft, but rarely—if ever—have I sat down to read one of them with a highlighter in my hand. This book inspired me to do that. There are just so many ways in which I feel seen by this writer. She refers frequently to healing from different kinds of trauma, and she doesn’t assume she knows how her readers feel about anything (though she’s sensitive enough to make some darn good guesses), and in so doing she makes this book a place I can return to and feel safe. With great warmth and tenderness for her queer audience, Snow affirms that a practice of witchcraft is really a practice of love, for ourselves and each other:
“Proper self-care is also important for your craft and is especially important for queer people, disabled people, trauma survivors, and people of color trying to survive the systems that drove us to the margins in the first place. Pleasure is resistance. Self-care is resistance. Period. It feels like it’s not important, but what you’re doing when you’re taking care of yourself is telling those that do not love or support you that you are fine without them.”
She also acknowledges that many amongst us may have been harmed by religion in the past, which can make connecting to the divine feel very difficult, even for people who hear a call to a spiritual path. She coaxes us along gently: “If you try a prayer to the Earth, a god, your ancestors, the Universe, love, and it doesn’t work, if your inner critic comes out or your trauma screams “wrong,” that’s okay. Step away for a few minutes. You’ll get there. Try easing into it slowly. A quick prayer that is literately just “thank you” when you get unexpected luck or a despairing “please help” when you’re feeling your absolute worst is enough. The intention is clear. The Divine is listening. You’ll grow slowly from there.”
I hadn’t planned to write a post about cat books, but I guess it was inevitable. I wrote a cat book myself a few years ago, so it makes a kind of psychic sense that I was sent a review copy of a new book from Rizzoli, publisher of beautiful books about art, design, and photography. It’s called Cats & Books.
Like all Rizzoli books I’ve seen, this one is beautifully made, a small, hardbound collection of photos found in the social media hashtag #CatsandBooks (which I didn’t follow before, but might now, and which puts me to mind of one of my favorite Reddit communities, Cats in Sinks). There are two pleasures here: the cats themselves, whose “details,” likes, and dislikes are listed alongside their photos like the pin-up boys in the teen magazines of my youth. (Milky loves to play with colorful elastic bands; Caedmon, from New Haven, is named after the earliest English poet whose name we know; Posie’s hobbies include sitting on top of magazines.) The other pleasure is the books, or rather the fact that you can’t easily see them because they’re part of the background, always behind or underneath the cats who lounge on piles of them or perch inside bookcases. Visiting someone’s house for the first time, I love to look at their books, though I sometimes have to do this quickly or on the sly if the person doesn’t seem all that into the idea of me pawing through their things. Getting glimpses of books in these photos gives me some of that same pleasure—head tilted, scanning the spines, looking at colors and titles and authors’ names to try to get an idea of who their owner is. I think I’d hit it off with Caedmon’s human companion, who has a David Crystal book on language and a little volume by Edward Gorey. But just the fact of having books and cats is meaningful in itself, a clue I’d understand and like a few crucial things about the person behind the camera (or, more likely, a phone).
It happens that around the same time I received this book, I attended a reading at Giovanni’s Room, which carries both old and new books, and I spied beside the register a secondhand photo book called Metal Cats for 2 or 3 dollars. Yes, yes I’ll take this one too. This book is a sheer delight to look through—page after page of Alexandra Crockett’s photos of guys (all of them guys) in bands and fans of metal music, posing with their beloved cats. The thing I like most about the pictures is not the pairing of tough-posturing people with sweet cats (though that is the book’s obvious appeal)—not precisely. It’s more about the sweetness that the cats bring out in the men. In almost every photo the guy is smiling or laughing at his cat, cradling a cat like a baby, sitting down with one at a kitchen table, or posing with it on his shoulder or arm or head in a position that’s clearly habitual for them. The photos are a reminder, for anyone who needs it: some of the toughest looking dudes have the squishiest insides—and cats, as soft and small as they are, can be fierce as fuck.
I have hundreds of books in my house, and I know if I dug around for awhile I’d find a few others about cats. Just the other day I was tidying the tall to-be-read pile on my office floor and found The Cat Inside, a slender book of short pieces by William Burroughs. I’d bought this book a few years ago, along with a copy for my mother and one for my sister, with the idea that we could read it and have a little book club discussion about it, which for whatever reason didn’t happen. The only time we successfully did this was with the trash-memoir Mommie Dearest, and I might have been the only one who read much of the book, but we laughed a lot.
Burroughs wrote little diary entries about the cats who came to live with him in the 80s, when he was in his 70s living in Lawrence, Kansas. Some of the pieces are as strange as you’d imagine, but most of them aren’t, and only sometimes does he let his thoughts take him to a dark place. All the writing is gentle and insightful, deep and tender. Until now I had spent more time thinking about William Burroughs than I ever had reading his writing, and the conclusion I tended to draw was ick, based mostly on the fact that he killed his young wife in a shitty, careless accident. But in these pages he is sensitive, deep, and thoughtful—a cat person. He takes his stewardship of the cats seriously, even has a stress dream from which he wakes up crying that his dear cat Ruski needed help, but he couldn’t get to him. Some of his accounts are prosaic and familiar to anyone who has lived with animals: feeding routines, the sharp pang of loss when a cat slips out the door and doesn’t return. Other times Burroughs sounds more like the mystic he may actually have been.
The white cat symbolizes the silvery moon prying into corners and cleansing the sky for the day to follow. … The white cat is the hunter and the killer, his path lighted by the silvery moon. All dark, hidden places and beings are revealed in that inexorably gentle light. You can’t shake your white cat because your white cat is you. You can’t hide from your white cat because your white cat hides with you.
Like me, Burroughs digs the histories of cats’ importance to people around the world. He writes that the ancient Egyptians went into mourning for their dead cats and shaved their eyebrows, a fact I remember once reading on a placard at the Penn Museum. Like Burroughs, I find the idea of deep grief for a lost cat friend entirely reasonable.
When he does get dark, Burroughs rages about environmental destruction and our “doomed planet,” or grapples with the fact of violence in his life in a way I find refreshing and useful, if hard to read. He recalls slapping a cat with a book. (“I can hear the cat’s ears ringing from the blow. I was literally hurting myself and I didn’t know it.”) Later, he reckons that a completely honest autobiography could probably never be written. “I am sure no one could bear to read it: My Past Was an Evil River.” Eventually, he reveals the truth about the cats and the stories and himself:
This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer’s past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.
Last weekend I attended AWP, the huge publishing conference that happened to be held here in Philadelphia this year. I spent Saturday at the Microcosm Publishing booth talking to people and signing copies of my new book, The Kitchen Witch, which was a lovely and energizing experience, in large part because I haven’t done anything like this in … oh, just over two years now. Standing in the middle of the swirl of activity, talking to people about my work and theirs, I was reminded that—yes, I am a person in the world. I have things I want to share and say and do. And it felt really good.
We were busy at the booth all day, so I only got out from behind my own table to check out the others briefly. There sure were a lot of beautiful people with beautiful books. I was lucky to find three fine books of poetry, and it happens that two of them are quite musical—mixtapes of a kind, as the writer Simone Jacobson would have it. I was drawn to them immediately.
One of the books is called Starts Spinning by Douglas Kearney, put out by Rain Taxi, the literary book review journal. I didn’t know they published books and was tickled to see the wide range of sizes and styles on their table, which editor Eric Lorberer, who was there that day, told me was their goal: To make the appearance of each small volume representative of the poet’s work. Mission accomplished. Kearney’s book is small and pleasing to hold, about the size and shape of a CD. Each poem is “about” a song—specifically, the song’s crucial opening moments. There’s “Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jump in the Line’ (first 16 seconds)'” and “Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ (first 17 seconds)'” and “Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ (first 22 seconds).'” Get the picture? The poems, all of them evocative, are fun for the feeling of surprise they invoke, and each one is short and bright, sexy or triumphant or heavy-sad, depending, with wordplay as musical as the songs they commemorate.
Another happy discovery was Wisdom Teeth by Derrick Weston Brown, published by P.M. Press, who always have any number of titles that excite me. It happened that the poet was there at the booth that day, and he kindly signed my book and told me a bit about the poems. They’re about gentrification in D.C., where he’s from, they’re about characters from Toni Morrison’s Beloved—they’re about lots of things, and the book as a whole has such a lot of sweetness to it, even though some of its subjects are heavy. Brown riffs on romance, favorite songs and beloved poets. There’s even a poem about the nerdy pleasures of playing D&D (and being the only Black kid at the table). He celebrates a whole wide rainbow of blackness, and yes, he makes reference to MF Doom and J-Dilla and delivers a rollicking, loving tribute to Bonita Applebum, the (fictional??) sexy lady from the Tribe Called Quest song. In fact, there is enough variety and musicality here that Jacobson, who blurbed the book, compared it to a mixtape, which I find delightful.
For the title of this blog post I quoted the first poem in Brown’s book, the wonderfully titled “Hourglass Flow,” which starts out as a meditation on the difficulty of sitting down to write and winds up thusly:
“Remember the ritual of trying, falling, the get up and the dust off. The look to see if anyone is watching. The startover. The hopeful ending.
Remember each day is a draft. Remember possibility. Process. Remember place. Remember voice. Patience. Remember to forgive yourself.
I made a couple other exciting discoveries there in the Book Fair. One was BatCat Press, a table I was drawn to because the people sitting at it looked to me like sweet teenagers, and in fact they were! BatCat is a press run by high school students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School that puts out pristinely beautiful handbound volumes of both poetry and prose. I bought a hand-printed and -bound collection of poetry called “Lot for Sale. No pigs” by Sandy Green, which has a windowed cover and ornate end papers that remind me of Victorian wallpaper. On the BatCat website, the publisher explains the thinking behind the book’s elegant and clever design:
“The design reflects the same midwestern sensibilities found in the writing. With a window cut out in the cover, we get to peer into this woman’s life, her home, and the secrets that lie behind the what appears to be mundane and normal.”
I also spoke to the folks from the Writers Room, an organization local to me here in Philly that is run by Drexel University. All of their programming is free and open to anyone interested in participating, and the beautiful anthology they put out this year is also free. I took home a copy and have gotten a lot of pleasure out of reading the poems and learning about the community of people who worked together to coax them into being.
My favorite part? The portraits of Paul Robeson High School’s Class of 2021. These students, who were seniors during the worst part of the pandemic, missed out on most of the special things a graduating class gets to do, like prom and senior portraits. Photographer Danielle Morris created a photo studio in one of the school’s classrooms, and she and Dejah McIntosh, a 2019 alum, took photos that came out about 100 times more special than the typical cap and gown picture anyway. The project is called But We Keep Going. How perfect is that?
I’ve been thinking about my high school a lot over these last several days. I’m not Ukrainian, but my school was; it was founded and run by the Sisters of Saint Basil, a Ukrainian order of nuns, to serve their local community starting in the 1930s. By the time I got there in the 90s the school’s reach had grown and expanded, and many of the girls who were students there came from different ethnic backgrounds, like me.
But the Ukie-ness of the place remained as important to the women running it as ever. We were taught some words and phrases of Ukrainian that I can still summon as easily now as I did then; I imagine they’re with me for life. I learned that Ukraine, with its blue-sky golden wheat fields, was “the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union.” On holidays I ate pierogies with the other girls in the cafeteria, and in art class I learned how to make pysanky, eggs that we pierced with a sewing needle, blew into carefully to hollow them out, then drew on with wax and painted with traditional designs in a clumsy attempt to copy the photos in our art books. It was a precious experience to be allowed in on someone else’s culture in this way, to be invited to participate, but it was also totally ordinary, the way things are when you’re a kid. Adults tell you to do stuff and you do it. Your friend’s mom speaks a different language when she talks to her dad, and you don’t think much about it. It was just the way it was.
Like the Catholic grade school I’d attended—like all Catholic schools—Basil’s was oriented around the religion. It was run by the nuns who lived just across the way in a convent that was on a farm. They kept horses on the farm, which I could sometimes see from the car as we drove past, and I knew because a Ukrainian friend told me that in the back of the property somewhere was a small, private cemetery. All around the school and the convent were pizza joints and farting city buses and streets with heavy traffic, but there were these spots of loveliness too. It was kind of a mixed bag, but that’s a city neighborhood for you.
Basil’s also had a small chapel in the school itself. It was an eye-opener to me the first time I saw it, and every other time after that, too. I only went in there a handful of times over those four years because it was small, and when the whole school was required to attend Mass we went to the auditorium instead. The chapel felt special, in part, for that reason. But really it was special because it was so beautiful. I’d grown up in the western tradition of Catholicism, where the art was quite different—my parish church was all stained glass and grey stone and echoes, with a huge crucifix hanging over the altar in front. By contrast, this Ukrainian church was a revelation of color. There were bright paintings (called icons) on the walls instead of the creepier statues I was used to, and the most wonderful piece of all was the dome shaped ceiling, which was painted a deep blue and studded with golden stars. It was so pretty and so different from what I thought church could be. Painting a ceiling seemed like something a parent would do in a child’s room to make it feel cheerful, magical, and safe. There were more touches of gold paint like the gold of the stars throughout the entire chapel, and somehow the effect was arresting, suggesting not the material wealth of actual gold, but something transcendent, heart-lifting. Walking in there I always felt stunned into silence, as if there was a deep quiet already inside me that I didn’t know was there.
Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t like going to church on Sundays, and the minute I left my parents’ house I stopped going altogether. I also had a deep distaste and resentment toward the girls at school who seemed to believe that the stuff we’d been taught in religion class was all true. Some of them even palled around with the nuns before and after class in a way that grossed me out but also never felt accessible to me, even though we were all invited. The door was always open. I just rarely walked through it. My experience of Catholicism had made me feel so rejected that I was left to sort out spirituality for myself, though I see now that that’s something everyone has to do. I guess the only thing adults can offer kids is what they know, plus—ideally—the confidence to leave and make their own way. And a few of those adults must have given me some of that, because that is what I did.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. I can’t seem to find my way into what I’m attempting to do, which is express how hurt and disturbed I am by what’s happening in Ukraine, how I keep remembering the families I knew and hoping they’re okay, how I keep picturing it happening here, how helpless and even hopeless, at times, I’ve been feeling. I know my personal, emotional connection to the place doesn’t matter to anyone but me, but I wanted to share it with you anyway because it’s all I really have. The only thing I can think to say: Thank you, and I love you, and I’m sorry.
I once found this wild book at a junk shop called The Spinster Book. It was first published in 1901—my edition is dated 1909—and this copy has a handwritten dedication from one woman to another dated June 10, 1910. The only thing the gift giver wrote, besides their names and the date, was the inscription: “A few more reasons.”
The Spinster Book is a book of knowing advice about courtship, love, and marriage, presumably by a wise older woman to younger, unmarried women. An an object, it’s wonderful—a lavender hardback with an illustration of a hand mirror in gold foil on the front. The title is printed inside the mirror, as if to say that you could gaze into the book and see yourself, and the reflection would be pretty.
But the truth is, reading the book, it’s hard to tell whether it was meant to celebrate women who aren’t married, or to comfort them. Author Myrtle Reed writes that people who assume that unmarried women simply couldn’t get a guy to propose are wrong and are jerks for thinking it, but in the same chapter she offers the hope of finding love later in life as a reason to not feel so bad about not being married (yet). Over the years I have been drawn back to the book again and again, fondly (and wrongly) remembering it as a piece of proto-Choice Feminism, and then left scratching my head.
This morning I came across some found poetry I made from The Spinster Book years ago, so I went and got it off the shelf and reread parts of it. The language is flowery and a bit convoluted, but I think its main argument is that most marriages are bad because the set-up was inherently unfair to women—the author mentions the humiliation and helplessness associated with having to ask your husband for money, for instance—and also that many people are not being honest when they profess their happiness with their partners. But reading between the lines, it seems that to Reed the ideal of Love still reigned supreme, and the possibility of finding someone to make a life with remained a worthy goal.
A quick look at Goodreads just now shows me that most people who have come across this book latter-day also don’t know whether it’s parody, serious, a dating guide, or what. I did find this fine review by Hannah Eiseman-Renyard that shed some light on Myrtle Reed herself. “Although she never states in as many words that she herself is a spinster, Reed was writing the book at age 27 – five years past a woman’s usual marrying age. By the standards of her time, she was now a spinster, and was presumably preparing herself for the future. The advice I saw as laughable – that being a spinster isn’t so bad as a woman might yet find herself a nice widower – was, presumably, Myrtle Reed’s actual hope.”
Whatever the book is really about, and whoever it was meant to comfort and advise, I find I’m much more interested in thinking about the woman who gave her friend a copy of it all those many years ago. Were the two women using the book to look for reasons to stay single, or reasons to keep believing in love? Or both?
A Few More Reasons
If realism were actually real, We should have no time for books and pictures.
Broken, hesitant chords set some lost song to singing in her heart Like one whose presence is felt before it is made known.
The achievement sometimes takes years. It is to be the light in the darkness— The delight and torment of the world!
Lately the idea of—the fact of—emotional repression is popping everywhere I look. It’s something I’ve been doing some hard work on recently, learning to feel and name my emotions and not hate them and not be too scared to express them to another person—but the more awareness I have of this, the more I realize how common this problem is.
For instance. I wanted to tell you about this book I’ve been reading, an old RE/Search book from 1991 called Angry Women. The RE/Search books contained long-form interviews with fascinating artists of different kinds; some of my favorite people in the world have been profiled and probed in those books. I’ve got a framed picture on a shelf of the one and only Billy Childish, standing with Tracey Emin (his ex lover who went on to make a career out of more or less making fun of him) in a kitchen. It looks like a snapshot taken at a party in someone’s house, in the middle of some joke that’s making them both laugh. She’s wearing a 40s-style halter-tie bathing suit as a dress and he’s smoking a cigarette and smiling with his eyes. Point is, the photo is on the back cover of a RE/Search book that included an interview with Childish, and I loved the picture so much I tore the cover off the book and stuck it in a frame.
A few months ago I ordered this Angry Women book from my friend Karen who runs an excellent secondhand books business, knowing it was the kind of book that would have made a massive impression on me if I’d read it as a young woman when it first came out. Sure enough, it’s packed full of enough ideas, photos, and inspiration that I think I’ll be carrying it around with me and picking through it for some time to come. One of the conversations is with the writer Sapphire from before she published her devastating novel Push, which inspired a bidding war and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, when she was still an underground poet whose “uncompromising writings deserve much wider publication,” as the RE/Search editors put it. The poem they reproduced alongside her interview, “Mickey Mouse Was a Scorpio,” which describes childhood sexual abuse, is so blistering it will melt the hair off your head, but in this context it feels like a natural extension of the zero-bullshit interview she gave, in which she aired dark family secrets that the people in her family still actively denied.
(It’s superficial and me-centric, I guess, but I feel so proud and pleased to look at the pictures of Sapphire in this book and see that I have a long black dress and a wire-wrapped quartz necklace just like she wore here, in 1991. Like, Sapphire saved her own life with her art and her bravery, you know? And maybe in some small way I am like her. I like the thought of that.)
But yeah, the most refreshing— and frankly useful, even life-giving—thing about these artist interviews is their emotional honesty. I’ve always needed this from art: Songs, stories, poems, and essays in which the creator tells me just exactly how they feel. It gives me life. And yet talking about my own feelings can sometimes feel impossible to me. The word feelings, the word emotions: These have felt like such embarrassing things to say. Isn’t it loserish to be sloppy like that? Aren’t me and my big brain above that sort of thing? As I come to recognize this kind of thinking as a problem, I’m also realizing that I didn’t come by it naturally. It was passed on to me and has been reinforced on many levels, and it has hurt me badly, at times even sapped my life-force. And you know how that makes me feel? PISSED!
When you learn a new word, it has a way of showing up everywhere all of a sudden, as if for the first time. Similarly, when I opened the book just now to see which artists I wanted to tell you about, what did I see but this big pull quote from the performance artist and writer Karen Finley on heart v. brain:
“That’s the ‘male’* way of dealing with suffering: ‘thinking’ about it instead of feeling it. And my way is to feel it, acknowledge it. As a culture we kind of have the thinking part down pat, but not the feeling…”
It’s true, I think. (I feel that it’s true. Ha.) As a society, we really have a hard time feeling our feelings and not hating ourselves, or other people, for having them. Intellectualizing them is easier for a lot of people, as it takes the edge off the discomfort and pain—and doing so is often rewarded socially, while showing an honest emotion might well get you shamed or mocked right out the door.
Intellectualizing is one of those things that sounds kinda good but really isn’t, like perfectionism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a creative type brag about being a perfectionist, as if it’s a good thing to be so afraid of making a mistake that you never let a piece of work out into the world or even start working on it in the first place. It’s really just more fear: Fear of messy human stuff, like emotions and missteps and having an outburst when you were trying so hard to be polite. If your idea of being polite is never saying how you really feel because you’re “expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit” (thanks Kevin Barnes), then cut it out! Name those feelings and get ’em out there!
*The conversations in this book are a little heavy on the gender binary approach so prevalent in 3rd-wave feminism, except for when the queer artists are talking. For instance, a performance artist and playwright named Holly Hughes, who I’d never heard of before I read this interview with her, talks about her public identity always being tied to her identity as a lesbian, and how reductive that can be for an artist when they are trying to express a range of ideas and feelings, including more “universal” life experiences, like her waitress job at Red Lobster. Andrea Juno, the editor who conducted most of the interviews in the book, says to Hughes, “It’s a trap for women to think they’re that separate. If you start defining what you ‘are,’ you start getting so many exceptions that any argument can be whittled down. Actually, there’s nothing you can say that women are, that men aren’t (and vice versa).”