The other side of that moving window

Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”

Back around the time The IHOP Papers came out, I was poking around the zine section of Bluestockings Bookstore in the Lower East Side when I found an unassuming photocopied zine with Liebegott’s name on it. In my mind the writer was already famous, and I was stunned. Ali Liebegott still makes zines? Not only that, but she’d signed and numbered it; my copy, which I still have, is number 40 of 50. (To sign it she’d crossed out the typewritten “© 2007 Ali Liebegott” and scribbled her signature and an xoxo, which was a very ziney thing to do.) That little booklet held a couple of short pieces, excerpted from a longer work, about sex, suicide, and her dog. It was called The Summer of Dead Birds.

Continue reading my review of The Summer of Dead Birds at Utne

Rebuild all your ruins

Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik, on the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean. This photo was taken just before midnight on the summer solstice.

Iceland was the last of the European countries to be settled, just over a thousand years ago now, by Viking explorers, Celtic women, and monks. Today the country has a relatively small number of people living on it; it’s around the size of the state of Ohio, which has some 11 million inhabitants, but only about 340,000 people live there. The island’s tumultuous natural features are a big reason for this. There are hundreds of volcanos and many of them are active. Evidence of their previous activities can be seen all around the countryside in the form of lava fields, which look sort of like regular fields because they’re covered in green moss but are rocky and cracked all over by fissures, some of them treacherously deep. The heat from volcanic sources creates warm geothermal pools and magnificent geysers. (The word geyser, in fact, comes from the Icelandic name of a huge one near Reykjavik, Geysir, which was the first such water spout modern Europeans had ever seen.) Parts of Iceland are covered in ice caps, including the largest glacier in Europe, and the glaciers’ constant melting feeds the rivers and results in some 10,000 waterfalls across the country. The Icelandic highlands, situated in the middle of the country, are mostly uninhabitable and largely without infrastructure; the rivers there change course frequently, even daily, and can’t be bridged. The country’s landscape is wild, stunning, and in many ways rare.

Iceland is also, of course, the land of the midnight sun. That’s the reason J and I chose to visit there over the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Ever since I learned in school that, way up north, the sun is up around the clock in the summer and dark for most of the winter, I’ve marveled at the idea, have wondered for all these years what it would feel like if the sun never set. Now I know: It feels weird. Almost enchanted. During the week we spent there, it never really got dark. Even after sunset at midnight the sky stayed lit but dim, like the light at twilight, until it rose fully again at around 3:00 a.m. On sunnier days, as opposed to cloudy ones, slices of yellow sun peered through the slats in the blinds behind our bed and rested on my face, giving me the confused sensation—at two o’clock in the morning—that I was on a beach vacation and lying down for a nap on a drowsy afternoon. It felt moving, too—strange to think of people in another part of the world having a different sort of understanding with my old companions the sun and the moon—and very energizing.

The chaotic emotional stuff I’ve been going through in recent months has drained me, and I think something about the idea of drinking in full, 24-hour days of sunshine must have struck me as a kind of personal restoration technique. Sure enough, though I felt tired from traveling and from all the walking we did while we were there, I didn’t exactly get sleepy in the evening, the way you do naturally when it gets dark. It was as if my little internal battery was plugged in and getting recharged. One day I even refreshed myself the way the locals do, by soaking in a geothermal pool, right on a beach in Reykjavik. It was a grey day with a low, moody sky but I’d packed my bathing suit for our long urban hike in case we found a place to bathe. When we did find one I looked out at the unfriendly sea and felt dubious: Who goes to the beach on a cold, rainy day? Icelanders do, that’s who. We saw people trucking across the sand in bare feet, and others swimming in the ocean with mitts on their hands and feet to protect them from the sharp rocks on the bottom. Before I chickened out I went into the locker room to change, then hustled through the chilly air to a long concrete tub built into a platform on the beach. The water was only about as deep as a bathtub, and sinking gratefully into its warmth I had the embarrassing yet thrilling sensation that I was in fact taking a bath with a bunch of strangers. I eavesdropped on but couldn’t understand their conversations because they were in Icelandic, Russian, and rapid-fire French. My body was warm while a light, cold rain spritzed my face, which struck me as strange enough to be funny, and the pleasure of a rare feeling of pride filled me. I’d gotten myself to this beautiful, special place, I’d been brave enough to get naked in front of strangers, and here I was, quite literally basking in it. 

One evening in Reykjavik, J and I went to a concert. It was the thing I was most looking forward to on our visit to Iceland, which sounds silly given what I just told you about the lava fields and geysers, but before this trip I had no frame of reference for things like that. Listening to live music in a darkened room, on the other hand—that’s an experience I already knew I loved. This show was to be experimental ambient music performed by Jo Berger Myhre on standup bass, and his collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, who plays keyboard and drums (sometimes with Sigur Rós!).

Most of the concerts in this Midsummer Music series took place in Reykjavik’s large and impressive concert hall, and I’d somehow gotten the idea that the series itself was something most people in town would attend, as part of a circus atmosphere I imagined would be created by the perpetual sunlight, everyone up all night and partying. Once there I found that, with the exception of a few to-be-expected drunks hooting out on the street late at night, most people were not deep in some wild revel but were in fact composed and very soft-spoken (and, of course, going about their normal business). Likewise, as we walked to the venue I saw that this show was being held “off site” at the kind of place I’m infinitely more comfortable than in some fancy concert hall: a small art space located in what looked like it had previously been a storefront. People in good outfits were standing around and talking quietly, drinking from bottles of beer. I felt at home.

We sat in folding chairs and waited for people to come out and begin playing the instruments, both electronic and organic, that were arranged a few feet in front of us. Slowly Myhre and Ólafsson, with the aid of a dude squatting on the floor and working a big, blinking mixer, began playing from their album The Third Script. I’ve read that the album was almost completely improvised, which of course means that each performance of it is also completely unique. We listened as the music built up slowly, crescendoed, then deconstructed itself back into its separate parts before disappearing again. Myhre pulled his bow across the strings and made the bass moan and cry. The more rhythmic sections lumbered inevitably but irresistibly, like a dance and a dirge at once. Higher sounds occasionally streaked across the music’s horizon. Tiny bells tinkled in the middle of all that space, like wind chimes in the countryside reminding you that there’s a house not too far away, comforting you; you’re not really alone. 

I tried to resist it, but it was hard not to hear some elements of the music as reflections of the landscape around us: Ólafsson’s violent drumming as eruptions, Myhre’s bass as whalesong or the groaning of glaciers as they move, chafe, and break apart. And after all I do believe that, as a part of nature, we human beings possess the same qualities as the animals, earth, and atmosphere around us, so the art we make is necessarily formed from this elemental stuff. In any case, I loved the way the music made me feel. It matched something inside me, felt familiar. The movements of my life can be tectonic, rumbling low underground, or they can be sudden, violent, and smothering—a volcano. Whose can’t? 

The writer of this review of The Third Script gives an interpretation of the album’s name that I find profound and beautiful (and according to the musicians themselves, he’s correct). He writes that he finds the music “meditative” and “ruminative,” as I did. Several times throughout the performance my chattering mind went blessedly quiet, even as the music activated my poor, overworked solar plexus, who always comes to life during highly emotional moments. I let the performance be a way to meditate and breathed into that space, letting all of my constituent parts, my mind and my body and whatever else, know that they were free to wake up, if that’s what they wanted to do.

When we left the gallery it was 10:30 at night and the white, cloudy sky was still lit up as bright as daylight. It had taken several days for the strangeness of the perpetual sunlight to properly register and make some kind of sense to me, and all at once, for just a moment, it did. It just gives you more time, that’s all. More of each day to live. We walked the short walk through the city’s downtown to our rented apartment, not hurrying the way you do in the dark, but strolling like we had during the day, trying to take it all in. 

Sounds of power

fullmoon

Over the years I have read many descriptions of full moon rituals. I seek them out because I want to feel more connected to nature—to all of life—and to give my spiritual self a voice. I guess I still haven’t fully embraced this mode of spirituality, but I love its imagery, symbolism, and ideas.

The details of the rituals vary but they always have some elements in common. Typically they center on releasing, letting go. With tonight’s full moon in my thoughts, I made a found poem out of some the phrases frequently used in these rituals. Distilled this way, the advice sounds possible and, to my surprise, practical. 

Be calm,
sit comfortably.
Create a sacred space.
Share some wishes and
set your intention.
Chant using sounds of power,
take several deep breaths,
and conjure a connection to the divine.
Write.
Write it out. 
Release and declare.
Release what no longer serves!
Let go,
burn these papers,
and
dance

Sources:

Moon Rituals: How to Manifest With the Moon

My Favourite Full Moon Ritual

A Full Moon Ritual for Release

June’s Full Moon of Magicking!

Sacred Full Moon Ritual: Releasing What No Longer Serves

Full Moon Ritual for Letting Go

Moon Rituals to Connect, Release, and Relate

Vigorous and intrusive

honeyysuckle
Image from “Flowers, Earth’s silent voices. Sketched and painted by S. G. [and accompanied with select verses]” by Sophina Gordon, British Library.
I’ve been paging through a secondhand book I found some time ago called Common Weeds. It’s actually a coloring book that was put out by Dover in 1976, the year I was born. One of the things I find interesting about the book is that it helps to define what makes a weed a weed, which is something that really puzzled me as a kid. What makes one plant “good” and another one “bad”?

Weeds, of course, are not bad. They’re just plants. Many of them look pretty because they flower, some are edible, and lots of them have medicinal uses. E. F. Bleiler, the editor of Common Weeds, writes that a weed is usually defined as a “vigorous, intrusive wild plant that becomes a nuisance.” He doesn’t say anything about their being ugly or not useful. A person could certainly decide to cultivate any of the plants we consider weeds (though I can’t easily think of a good reason to put, say, poison ivy in your garden). My mother likes to grow tansy, a yellow-flowering perennial herb, in her garden, even though it’s considered a weed in many contexts—and is one of the plants included in Common Weeds—probably because of its tendency to take over.

Honeysuckle, the first entry in the book, is another good example. Any gardener will tell you that honeysuckle can be a problem because it grows like crazy and chokes other plants out. In my small yard, honeysuckle takes over the back fence and grows up and around an old tree on the property behind us. We hack it back occasionally to keep it from overtaking everything else that grows back there, but actually, we like it. It’s a wild-looking, lush vine and it smells heavenly. When I was a kid I’d pluck the white flowers, put them in my mouth as I pulled the stamen through, and told myself the sweet taste was real honey. In traditional Chinese medicine, parts of the honeysuckle plant are used to treat headaches and colds.

Thinking about the value of weeds reminds me of “Pigeon Manifesto,” a poem by Michelle Tea that I have long loved. It’s about her admiration for the scuzzy city birds, the kinship she feels for them. She says, “I am suspicious of people who say they hate pigeons. I think, Who else do you hate?” The thing about weeds is, they grow where most other things can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground; in parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They grow wherever they can, and they thrive. There’s a metaphor in that for sure.

This whole place is a mess!

I’ve spent the last few days cleaning my house like a demon. This is an activity I enjoy on any day of the week, but currently, to my great satisfaction, it counts as two categories of work since I’m also writing a book on the subject. I’m in my kitchen making up batches of natural cleaning products, trying them out, writing about them, then going back to my kitchen to tinker some more. I’m getting my book finished and my house smells gorgeous. Honestly, it’s pure bliss, but I have to chuckle about just how much I enjoy putting my house in order. It’s a little demented. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from one of my all-time favorite movies, Mommie Dearest. “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Faye Dunaway, playing Joan Crawford, sing-shouts this in an attempt to seem cheerful toward the poor hapless housekeeper she’s just read to filth for neglecting to mop the floor under a potted plant. I relate to this. I’m not mad (or sad, or anxious, or confused, or hopeless, or doomed)—I’M CLEANING!!!

Yesterday I watched the movie for the 200th time and laughed out loud all by myself, as I always do. It made me want to share this piece of writing with you again. I posted it on this blog a few years ago, and it originally ran in a food-themed zine put out by The Soapbox. The portrait of Faye Dunaway from that famous wire hanger scene was made by Joe Carlough of Displaced Snail. Enjoy it, folks, and remember, I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world.

Mommie-Dearest

 

When we were kids, my little sister and I watched Mommie Dearest on a regular basis. We had a VHS tape of it that we’d recorded off theTV a few minutes in, so we never got to see the very beginning, when Joan Crawford wakes up at four a.m. to begin her meticulous morning routine. In that scene, with the swirling, corny score playing in the background, we see Joan scrub her face with steaming water—literally scrub it, with a brush—and then plunge it into ice, a strange ritual that I didn’t really understand but knew had something to do with making and keeping yourself beautiful. There was something so incredibly satisfying to us about watching that movie. There were the terrible, overacting extras, who make me hoot with laughter when I watch them now; the cathartic, crazy screaming; the hush of melodrama that settled over the whole thing like snow. Even the way the word mommie was spelled was weird. It was wonderful.

I don’t know how much Joan’s rage and loneliness really registered with me back then, and as kids Liz and I certainly didn’t have the life experience to appreciate the subtleties of “camp.” I think what we were responding to instead was the childishness of Christina’s complaint, the outrage that every kid feels, at one time or another, however lucky they are: This isn’t fair! No one gets to choose their family, and it doesn’t matter how enviable it looks from the outside—there’s something scary and sad that lives in every household. Liz and I were no strangers to the way a parent’s mood could shift like the weather, responding to nothing but itself, the air dense with gathering storm clouds. And so we screamed along with Christina, and Joan too, since the anger of every person in the movie thrilled us equally. “Tina!” my sister would cry out, just before the rose bushes were about to really get it. The sob in her voice was just right. “Bring me the ax!”

The sumptuousness of the setting was a big part of the movie’s appeal too, of course. Joan puts on these floor-length gowns and glides down her art deco staircase like she’s in a movie, even when she’s just hanging out around the house. She goes out to dinner dripping with diamonds. And the dinners themselves? Nothin’ but steak. Whether she’s at home or cradling a vodka tonic at Perino’s, Joan always orders hers rare.

One of several baroque punishments Mommie hands out to her daughter has to do with the steak. They all sit down to lunch at home one day—Christina, Joan, little brother Christopher, and that lackey of a nanny, Carol Ann—but Christina balks, calling the meat on her plate “raw” in a babyish voice. She presses down on it with her fork and watery blood runs out. Mommie won’t let Christina eat anything else for the next several meals. Instead she sets out the same cold steak every morning and evening and waits for the girl to break down and eat it, but she never does.

The thought of eating steak for lunch (a rare one, no less) made a big, sickening impression on me back then. There was something so queasily grown-up about it, not unlike Mommie’s spooky sex appeal, or the very female rage that fills the movie. Christina wins that battle, just like she wins the war in the end. But that’s not what you remember, is it? It’s Joan’s anger and ego, larger than life, that matter to this story. She so often seems to want to kill the daughter she loves, but there’s that one moment, when she finally relents and lets Christina scrape the disgusting food into the trash, that a tiny smile plays at the corners of her mouth.

“Why must everything be a contest!” she hisses, but you can tell she’s kind of proud.

Me and My Shadow

shadows

Content warning on this one, pals: mention of sexual assault, lots of F bombs

A long time ago now, I wrote a zine and published it under a fake name. It was an obviously fake name, a bit rude, and I picked it because it made me laugh. I won’t tell you what it was because that zine is still out there in the world, and if you knew—if anybody knew—that I was the one who wrote it, it wouldn’t feel the same to me anymore. To tell those stories properly I needed to pretend to be someone else.

On the surface, the stories were not that big of a deal. Just some childhood memories of a spooky religion and adults who weren’t very nice to kids, turned into funny stories by someone who was still mad about it. Since the writer of that zine had an obviously fake name, the stories could have been written by anybody, which had a way of making them larger than themselves. This was fitting, because I am not the only person these kinds of things have happened to. 

I made an email address for that pseudonym, and she got letters from people who read the zine and wanted to share their own stories. Those stories were pitiful, too, but they were also always a bit funny. We weren’t talking about abuse or terror, after all—just the daily grind of boredom, befuddlement, and shame, the little indignities of life that we all suffer to some extent or other. I’d say that reading, writing, and talking about this stuff was cathartic for everyone involved.

Some months after I put the zine out I went searching for it online. I don’t remember why now; I think I was trying to see if any of the shops that carried it had listed it on their websites. What I came across instead, to my surprise, was a review of the zine on someone’s blog. I don’t remember most of what the review said anymore, just that the writer related to the stories and enjoyed reading them—and that they thought I was a fuck-up. The way they said it was something like, “this is where a fuck-up comes from” or “this zine is like the fuck-up’s origin story.” I will tell you right now that the moment I read this was one of the most satisfying in my entire life as a writer, or the public aspect of that life, anyway. I am not even kidding. It meant that something I had written had been a success in the realest meaning of the word: I’d set out to be completely honest, and someone had recognized it—they’d felt the “cut of truth,” as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down the Bones, her classic book about learning to write. 

The truth cuts, and it heals. Since I had made up that ridiculous name I could say anything I wanted, the way you can in a diary. It happened that the things I wanted to say were insulting, a bit immature, and very angry. And wow did it feel good. I was surprised by how freeing it felt to write this zine, in fact, since I write about my life all the time and I’m always trying hard to be truthful; I mean, that’s the whole point of doing writing like that. But this little experiment of mine taught me that I can always dig deeper.

I have thought about this many times over the years, this idea of me as a secret fuck-up. By secret I mean that I probably don’t seem like a fuck-up to most people. In fact I might even seem like the opposite: Hard-working, stable, fortunate, my middle class background written all over my face. I’m polite and my house is tidy. I did well during those years I wrote about in the zine, even—I was the fucking valedictorian of my high school class! But I hated the way I felt sitting in those classrooms, humiliated and trapped. I hated most of my teachers, thought they were stupid, and felt suffocated and insulted by the oppressive religion I was subjected to every day. I hated the kids who believed in it, their prissy smugness, and the adults who let themselves be bullied by these weird authoritarians who’d convinced them they had heaven to offer. I hated it all until it made me sick to my stomach, but I balled up my bad feeling and used it for the energy I needed to study hard and get good grades. I did this because I understood that being angry all the time would somehow mark me as a fuck-up—the fuck-up I thought I was, even though I had so much going for me.

When I read that review of my writing I felt seen, and I know you know what a glorious feeling that is. It’s so rare, so precious, that when it happens you’re usually about a minute away from falling in love. I’m sure it helped that the writer of the review was using the term fuck-up affectionately—or, I guess, knowingly: From one fuck-up to another was the general feeling I got. But I would have treasured that comment even if they’d said it to be mean. I had shown my real self—one of my real selves, I should say—and someone has seen it. A split inside myself was healed. Or if not quite healed, at least patched up a little.

***

I’ve been going through some personal turmoil over the last few months, something very hard. It’s brought new ideas to the forefront of my mind, ideas about family and belonging, safety, secrets, and shame. About what it means to tell the truth, and how hard it is to actually do that. I’ve been thinking a lot about what honesty is and where it is, where in the body. When something feels too painful for you to look at, where do you put it? And if it’s been tucked down in there for a long time, how do you dig it out? 

I don’t know much about the various schools of psychoanalysis and have tended not to be very interested in them as a subject, like intellectually, but as I say, I’ve been doing some searching. I read an essay recently about the Shadow Self, Jung’s idea of the Id. It’s the part of ourselves we keep hidden from ourselves but is there anyway, motivating some of our behaviors. Those hidden aspects of our personalities are usually things we consider negative, but positive stuff can get tangled up in the Id too. It’s a jungle in there. 

I warmed to the idea of the Shadow Self instantly. It reminded me of my inner fuck-up, that poor, pissed-off girl who thinks no one can see her. The one who was so split from the rest of me, I had to give her her own name. She’s been tagging along behind me all this time, and I really do love her after all. She tells the truth and makes me laugh. I need to recognize her, integrate her more—I need to do some shadow work—and even though I’m not quite sure how, I’m on a path, and I’ve been seeing signs to guide me as I go.

Like: In the car last week I passed a street called Moonshadow Lane. Later that afternoon I found a jigsaw puzzle at a thrift store that had the word moonshadow in it, too. Like: “Dark Morph,” the new song by Jonsi and Carl Michael von Hausswolff, who made an album out of sounds they collected on a research vessel: whale song, the sound of bats flying, gorgeous and terrifying. It conjures half-seen things moving elegantly, slowly, deep beneath the ocean’s surface, where the light barely reaches. It’s as if everything in the world has a dark side, a shadow self, but I’m only able to see that now for the first time.

One of the things that has always drawn me to Wicca, though I don’t practice it as a religion, is the idea of embracing the darkness, or at least accepting it as the balance of the lighter aspects of life. Wicca is a nature-based religion, and with nature as a framework for understanding ourselves these ideas are easier to conceptualize. Life is a cycle, the year is a wheel, and every season is necessary. The seed of death inside the heart of every summer day—you can feel it there. The green life tucked underneath the frozen ground in winter—you can feel it there. Everything is everything. 

Poking around the library the other day, I found a small book called Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison, a writer who I have loved for her brainy and fearless truth-telling. This book is too short to be a proper memoir—less than 100 pages long—but it is about her life. Allison, who grew up very poor in rural South Carolina, always writes about her own life in some way—and because of some of the details of her life, she also writes about secrets, shame, stories, and truth. In this book she writes that her stepfather raped her, beginning when she was five. She writes here, and has written in other essays and books, that she refuses to feel ashamed of who she is and where she comes from. But reading her writing, something more powerful even than that proclamation comes through: She very clearly just isn’t ashamed. Her honesty and love—love for her mother and sisters, her partners and queer community, as well as for herself—make that apparent.

Allison also writes that she didn’t tell the story of her abuse for a long time because stories like that have a way of defining their teller. She didn’t want to wear the coat of many colors, the one in the Bible that’s so brilliant no one can see the person wearing it—they can only see the coat. 

She says: 

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t.

Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.

Behind my carefully buttoned collar is my nakedness, the struggle to find clean clothes, food, meaning, and money. Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence.”

I think this is excellent, this image of stories like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. In a sense this is the hardest part of writing, figuring out when the story begins. You have to strip away so many layers to get to the truth, but when do you stop? Do you need to tell them all for the picture to be complete? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that, one way or another, we need to find a way to integrate all of our stories if we want to become whole.

The Wheel of the Year

Upon the first of May,

With garlands fresh and gay,

With mirth and music sweet,

For such a season meet,

They passe their time away.

—Traditional English song, reprinted in Herb Gardening in Five Seasons by Adelma Grenier Simmons

I love the seasons, and I love the way they pull me along with them into new phases of my life as they change. With my melanin-challenged skin and migraines that make me sensitive to light, I have tended to dread the intense sun of the summer. I used to start dreaming about Halloween in April, as if I could wish the in-between seasons away. But like a lot of things, I’ve learned that if I go with it—if I decide to embrace the obviously beautiful aspects of the season along with the blessings that are harder for me to recognize—I stand to gain a lot more. Living in season, a concept I first started thinking about thanks to the writing of Waverly Fitzgerald, has been a big part of that. Diving deeper into the reality of the day I find myself in, rather than trying to work against it. I might prefer the cool air and rich colors of autumn, but I’ll be damned, in summer the song really does sing itself.

In an essay about the holiday, Fitzgerald says that May Day, like Halloween—which is opposite May Day on the Wheel of the Year (I love that, the idea of the year as a wheel that keeps on turning)—is a time when the veil is thin between this world and the other one, and spirits can wander freely. Does that sound goofy to you? Maybe it shouldn’t. If you live in a part of the world where spring is turning into summer, go outside. See how it makes you feel. When I step out back I find myself in a messy little garden, a different world from the one inside my house. It’s full of life and color, and the weather is moody from hour to hour. The clouds move swiftly and surprise me with the rain that we need to make everything grow. There’s a wildness in the air.

There are many traditions around the world that mark this time of year with a festival. In northern Europe, where my people are from, the May Day festival was called Beltane, and there was dancing and drinking and maybe some sexy stuff too. Revels. I like that word, and I like the idea, too. The celebration has a feeling of abandon, of letting the wildness of nature inhabit your mind and body for awhile. Goodness knows I need that sometimes, don’t you?

Anyway, it happens that a small anniversary is coming up for me this month. I started keeping this blog four years ago, in May of 2015. Sometimes I feel like anniversaries and birthdays aren’t worth marking—like, who cares that another year has passed in the life of this blog that I really only keep for myself? But marking the passage of time gives us a chance to reflect on the things that have happened and the work we’ve done. I’m proud to have made this space where I can work through some of my ideas, and to have shown up to it, to have kept a commitment I made to myself and to anyone who’s reading this. I’m proud of some of the things I’ve written here, too. This spring, I wish you fruitfulness in your life, that you have the courage to hatch a plan you’ve been making and nurture it along. No matter how humble the plan is, how small your ambitions may seem to you, don’t talk yourself out of them. If you feel drawn to something, I promise you that’s reason enough to let it flourish.

may day
Spring, Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1894

Kitchen witches

s-l1000
Image from eBay

Hello, friends! After going through some difficult personal stuff this winter, I am happy to tell you that I’m busy working on a new book. This book will be different from the others I’ve written. In one way or another, most of the writing I do is some sort of memoir. The subject may be garage sales, linguistics, or cats, but really I’m always writing about my life, about myself in the world. This time around, I’m writing something informational——though we promise it will also be entertaining, and pretty!—based on a zine called The Kitchen Witche Guide to Natural Living that my friend Nadine and I made together a few years ago. 

The Kytchyn Witche zine is a recipe collection and a sort of introductory guide to what we’re calling natural living; by our definition, this means using the simplest possible ingredients to make safe, healthy versions of the wasteful, pointlessly expensive, and often toxic household and personal care products that are available commercially. I’m a bit of a fanatic about cleaning my house and Nadine is passionate about skin and body care, so to make the zine we divided it into those two categories and worked on them separately, but in tandem. To create a book we’ll do something similar but on a much larger scale. 

Nadine and I work well together because we tend to see things the same way while bringing different perspectives to our subjects. She and I are both serious about self-reliance, environmental sustainability, health and wellness, and damning the man. We are very serious about that last one. To this end, most of the ingredients we use are plant-based, and many of those plants are herbs. Though we’re not writing about herbalism in the strictest sense, we will talk about cultivating herb plants for use in the recipes, and we’ll give lots of detail on the benefits of various essential oils (which are oils made by distilling plants down to, well, their essence). 

In thinking about what I would like the Kytchyn Witche book to be, I’ve been taking in a lot of information, gathering piles of books about herbal healing and plant magic around me and then more or less rolling around on the floor with glee. The coolest thing, amongst very many cool things, that I have learned about so far is Culpeper’s Herbal. This is a book that was written and published by a botanist, herbalist, and astrologer named Nicolas Culpeper in 1653, under the title The English Physician. I found an edition of the Herbal at the library that was published by Sterling in 2002 and has a short but excellent foreword by EJ Shellard, a professor of pharmacognosy at University of London. That foreword, along with a few other sources that I’ve listed below, is where I learned the following history.

In 17th century England, people treated their illnesses, aches and pains in one of a few different ways. Wealthy people could see a physician—who charged a lot of money and preferred to see upper class patients—while poor and working people would either use plant medicines they made themselves or visit an apothecary or a pharmacy, this latter becoming increasingly more common due to population growth in cities.

Our guy Culpeper was a political radical who believed that the old knowledge belonged to the people and that they should have unrestricted access to it. Though he came from an aristocratic family and studied to become a physician himself, he experienced a personal tragedy—the accidental death of his girlfriend, who he was set to marry—and drifted from this path, ultimately becoming an apprentice to an apothecary in London. There he learned about plant medicine hands-on, by treating the city’s poor. He saw for the first time how different their lives were from his much more comfortable existence, and when he completed his apprenticeship he opened his own dispensary where he treated people at low or no cost. He did this outside of the authority of the City of London and to the extreme irritation of the Royal College of Physicians, who were looking to heavily regulate and, if they could, shut down the practitioners of traditional plant medicine. At one point he was imprisoned and tried for witchcraft.

In his practice Culpeper used plants that grew locally instead of imported ones and called them by their common, English names rather than their Latin ones. Even using the language of the common person was a radical act in this context. Believing that “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician,” Culpeper published his most important work, the Herbal, in English. (An herbal is a book that contains descriptions of the medical or culinary uses of herbs.) He also took the London Pharmacopoeia, which was a kind of herbal published by the College of Physicians, and translated it from Latin into English, thereby making their ”secret” treatments accessible by many more people. Culpeper died at 38, and after his death his wife Alice edited his unfinished work and continued to publish all of his books. His Herbal has been published in around 100 editions in its long lifetime and has never been out of print.

The Sterling edition of the Herbal that I’ve been reading reproduces Culpeper’s original text alongside the approved-of contemporary uses of the plants, which is interesting for comparison’s sake since some of the ways people used the plants back then are considered dangerous today, while many other uses remain the same. It happens that Culpeper was an astrological botanist, and as such he understood diseases, parts of the body, and the plants themselves to be governed by different planets—which is obviously bizarre and totally discredited today (“irrational” and “useless,” to use Shellard’s words) but was widely accepted during his lifetime. As Shellard writes in his foreword, “And why not! To the agrarian communities there was an obvious relationship between the growth of their crops and the behavior of animals with the changing seasons and the position of the heavenly bodies.” I appreciate his generosity on this point.

The best part of the book is that the editors have retained Culpeper’s “caustic comments about the ignorance and deceits of the physicians of his day.” For instance, before his entry on the herb clary (Salvia sclarea), he writes, “I could wish from my soul that blasphemy, ignorance, and tyranny were ceased among physicians, that they might be happy and I joyful.”

Ha! I find everything about Culpeper’s story to be life-affirming, from his choice to live in service to others to his abiding pissiness. It makes me proud to be working on a book like the one that Nadine and I are making—a small offering, but one that we’re giving our all to, and are steeping with our good intentions as we work.

Sources:

Culpeper’s Color Herbal

“How Nicholas Culpeper brought Medicine to the People” (Smithsonian Magazine)

“Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54)” (Brought to Life, The Science Museum of London)

“The People’s Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper” (Mother Earth Living)

Wikipedia entry on Culpeper

Little Boy turns 100

Today the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 years old, and he’s just put out a new book. Pretty incredible, right? Even more impressive is how intense the book is, and the power and vitality of his intellect even now. Little Boy is a novel—the author has been very clear about that—but it’s also in no small way about the life, or the kind of life, that Ferlinghetti has lived. ferlingI reviewed the book for the Utne Reader‘s spring issue. Here’s what  I had to say about it:

Ladies and gentlemen: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The co-founder of City Lights, the bookstore and small press that opened shop in the 50s in order to publish the only poets that mattered—or the ones who mattered most in their corner of the world, anyway—Ferlinghetti, who has published some 40 books of his own work, will be best remembered for A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of vivid and lyrical poems that remains popular 60 years after its first publication.

If it makes you feel blue to anticipate the way someone will be remembered while he’s still living, apologies. It’s just that Ferlinghetti turns 100 in March, and he has just put out a new book. He’s calling it a novel but it is clearly also a sort of memoir—a praise-song, a thrashing-about, a recounting of his colorful life—and at his age, it’s hard not to read it as a kind of elegy for someone who is decidedly not! Dead! Yet!

The book begins like a third-person biography of “Little Boy,” whose early life was characterized by instability and displacement. With the detachment of a biographer, Ferlinghetti describes a childhood spent bouncing around—from the mother who couldn’t afford to care for him after his father died, to his beloved aunt who brought him to France for a few years and then back to New York City, and eventually to the home of a rich couple in Bronxville—the Bislands, whose family founded Sarah Lawrence College. In the middle of this factual accounting, Ferlinghetti shocks the heart back to life with the phrase, “lonely was the word.” 

From here the narrative goes swooping into one long sentence that accounts for his college years, his service in the navy, and the time he spent faffing around Paris in a cold-water flat after the war. By this point the language has broken loose from its moorings, and for the rest of the novel it rushes forth, much more like poetry than prose. The reader has the sense that Ferlinghetti had to make an effort to contain it. 

At first glance the text on the page looks more unruly than it is: Ferlinghetti uses virtually no punctuation, no chapters, hardly even a paragraph break. But the start of each new thought is usually capitalized, and the rhythm of the language creates a cadence in the mind that serves as a kind of guide. 

Still, it’s intense. The language has a way of sucking you into its whirl and then popping you back up to the surface, over and over again, whether you meant to or not. This isn’t a novel you’re likely to read straight through. Memories, lines from novels, internal rhymes, love and sex and anti-establishment rants, marvelous little throwaways (“Mao say tongue-in-cheek”), caustic observations from the coffee shop—it’s all one steady-churning white water rush. 

Run your eyes down any page to hear a bling-blinging Pinball machine of references: Twin Towers, South of the Border, Onward Christian Soldiers, Mister Proust. Ginzy and Jack are in here too (you’ll permit Ferlinghetti a few trips down memory lane) but this is bigger than Beat Generation windbaggery—and actually, maybe it’s not really a memoir, either. The narrator’s voice is alive with humor and anger and a sense of the eternal now, not the what-happened-then. And each time he starts ranting about the people in the cafe where he’s sitting, all entranced by their “portable universes and handheld computers,” you will absolutely marvel: He’s still pissed! 

In a sense, Little Boy reads like a continuation of the last poem in Coney Island. The whole novel, like that poem, has the word yes threaded throughout it“the small boy knows nothing, he is just a part of it, unconscious in his little existence on the turning earth in some town or city or yes…”—and the earthy positivity is strongly reminiscent of the Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends Ulysses (“And yes I said yes I will yes”), which Ferlinghetti actually referenced by name in his 1955 masterpiece. 

And it must be said: This yes is the voice of the 20th century, a century Mr. Ferlinghetti saw much of, with its exuberance and nihilism, its god-is-a-shout-in-the-street realist grit. Whether the poet ends this particular book on a hopeful note or one of despair, that’s for you to judge. Either way, Ferlinghetti’s old age is a rollicking one, and it burns and raves at close of day.

Two Pints

ireland-531137_1920I’ve written about Roddy Doyle on this blog before, and I’ve written lots about Irish literature in general. In the past I’ve said—though possibly not in writing but only to people I was boring with my opinions in person—that Irish fiction, even the popular, not especially difficult or interesting stuff, tends to be better than its American counterpart. I stand by that statement. They’ve just got a more literary culture, with a tradition that ordinary folks are proud of. We have our own literary history too, of course, and plenty of us care about it, but not the average person, I’d say. Not anymore. Most people don’t give one solitary shit about Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. I’m American so I’m allowed to say this. And I’m not saying it to be insulting, I just know it to be true.

Roddy Doyle has for years written about ordinary Irish people and their problems and perspectives, their voices and turns of phrase. His most famous novels, the Barrytown Trilogy, are about a working class family in Dublin who start a soul group (The Commitments), have a baby (The Snapper). and open a chippy (The Van). Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a heart breaker about a ten-year-old boy and his little family; they too live in Barrytown, a fictional neighborhood on Dublin’s Northside. Paula Spencer, one of my most dearly loved fictional heroines of all time, has gone through some tough things and is an alcoholic—though by the second novel in the Paula Spencer series she’s clean and sober, starting over. All of these books kept me rapt and fully engrossed, laughing and crying—sobbing, even—out loud as I read. Fiction like this is one of the reasons I wanted to visit Ireland, back before I’d done so for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever read more than I did during the year or so that I lived there (and I managed to fit in a lot of living around all that reading, too). The stories and poems of that place, they call to me. A writer like Colm Toibin writes stories that feel timeless, but Roddy Doyle gives us something more of-the-moment, or at least in-the-moment. You feel like you’re really there, in the friendliest of ways, even when the people you’re meeting are half killing you with their sadness.

The attitude in Doyle’s fiction is essentially Irish—essentially Dublin, really—but it chimes with what I know of the people here in Philadelphia as well, which is also a very down-to-earth, no-bullshit sort of place, at its best. Lots of Irish people here, of course, and this time of year always brings that back for me, the shamrocks and pots of gold in people’s front windows and old men in Aran sweaters reminding me of the Catholic school—who am I kidding, the Catholic world—of my childhood. 

I read Two Pints when it was published as a book in 2012. In fact I bought a copy from Amazon UK, an expensive indulgence I don’t normally allow myself, just so I wouldn’t have to wait for it to be released in this country. It’s a fine little book, just a series of conversations, each one with the date at the top. That’s it, no names even, just talking. Conversations between two men, friends, over pints in the pub. The themes are big—marriage, illness, death—but also small: football, HD TV, parking the car. The two men have a love of fun and conversation that felt real to my memory of that place and the people I knew there, who were always trying to one-up each other with their piss-taking and quick wit. In a short interview I watched this morning, Doyle explains that he initially published some of these conversations as Facebook posts but soon envisioned what he was writing as a play, which is what it eventually became.

And now I am here to tell you that I have seen the play, and what a treat that was. A Sunday afternoon with a snowstorm about the start, and us inside a warm, crowded pub with pints of Guinness in front of us. The production was done by the Abbey Theater in Dublin, which is Ireland’s national theater, and it plays on the stage there, but it has also done two tours across Ireland in pubs. Now they’re doing a few dates in the United States this way, putting on the play in bars instead of theaters. J— and I saw it at the Blarney Stone, a cozy, divey Irish pub in West Philly that I’d never been to but my sister remembered fondly as a Drexel hangout. They had a few drink specials on the chalkboard, and even though I really only wanted to drink Guinness I had to ask the bartender what “The Gritty” was. “It’s … You don’t want it. It’s a rum punch. It’s orange with two googly eyes. It’s a hangover.” He was charming and quick and droll; he could have been in the play himself. 

J— and I sat at a small table just behind the actors, who were at the bar. They were lit from above, and Irish football jerseys and Dublin pennants were hung around the place’s regular, real decorations. The actors, Liam Carney and Lorcan Cranitch, were miked of course as well, but basically the art direction was invisible because the whole thing felt real. For a couple of hours the two men talked and we eavesdropped, and frequently laughed; they drank and we drank; at the end I cried and I’m sure a lot of other people did too. A few times the actors looked out into the crowd as they talked about some old friend or neighbor who was there somewhere, and once or twice they looked right into my face. I was embarrassed and delighted. The play has only three characters in total, and one of them is the barman, a long-suffering looking guy who says absolutely nothing until the very end, when he mutters fuck’s sake or something like that to himself, closing the play.

I loved hearing the characters’ accents and the turns of phrase I remembered from the time I spent in Dublin. The way Irish people say amn’t just like they say isn’t and aren’t and didn’t. The way they pronounce the word film like fill’em. The way the word fuck (fook?) acts as noun, verb, adjective, and hello-how-are-ya. One of the characters, each time he was about to introduce a new topic, would say the idiomatic phrase Come here, and I remembered with amusement how baffled I was when I met a lovely woman in Derry and had a great long talk with her, and how every time she wanted to ask or tell me something she’d first say Come here to me now, and after a while I had a terrible fear that if I got any closer to her I’d be sitting in her lap.

Come here. He must have said it twenty times during those three acts. Come here, I want to tell you something funny, something sad, something silly, something true. I love the intimacy of that phrase, and I loved being there for that show, with no stage to separate the players from the audience. With everyone’s cell phones tucked away it felt even more special, not mere entertainment or even art but like a real moment from our own lives, something you had to be there to experience. 

After the play ended Joe and I went home, the drama of our own small lives continuing as the heavy wet snow came down on us. We hustled to get out of the weather and into the subway station. Got take-out for dinner—the new fried chicken place is incredible, get the house-made buffalo sauce if you go. At home the cat caught a mouse, right under the coffee table while we ate! We’ve gotta do something about the fucking mice in this house. Maybe when the weather warms up they’ll move on. Come here, that reminds me of something else I’ve been wanting to tell you …