Browsing Tag

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Guest Posts, Nature

Animal Solitude

May 15, 2024
bird

I’m standing in a meadow, an old woman swinging meat on a string.

Whop! A big bird slams down from a tree, whacks me with his wing.

Instantly he’s back in his tree.

“So what was that?” He didn’t taloned me, though he could’ve. “Yes, I left you out all night. In the dark. Alone. HUNGRY! Didn’t you ask to be free?”

We look at each other. As we always do. Eye to eye.

***

My first close sight of a hawk was 68 years ago, a bird tethered in my science teacher’s backyard. Unmoving, huge, regal. Infolded power, I think now. But then I just felt it – power waiting in those great wings and killing feet. My teacher, a falconer, reached down, removed her hood, and amber eyes locked onto mine. We sat, bird and girl, studying, ignoring the sillies who gawked and giggled. When we left, she watched me go. My teacher gave me a book called Hawks.

So I learned about them, how to look for them, how to tell one from another. I’d whisper to myself, “Red hawks, buteos” beauties – reach up into the wind. Fly! Be the hawk. “But remember,” the book chided, “humans and wild animals are far too different to connect. You can only study them from a distance.” Or from dead things, cut-off parts that made me feel hollow.

But I only half-believed the book, so I became a falconer. I used the falconer’s tricks, withholding food until the birds got hungry and did what I asked. The birds and I each did as we were taught.

But it was never the real thing, wild, free beings in charge of ourselves.

What did the bird think, what did it feel? Were we just playing with death?

***

This young rascal, though! A pistol from the start. He came to me from the local avian specialist. “Zorro, we call him,” he said. “Four months old, brought in with a virus.” Could I monitor him, watch to see if his disease recurred? Make sure he could support himself?

“Well, actually,” I said, “I’m retiring. I’m 80, got no business chasing after a fat hawk.” My joints hurt all the time, and so on.

“Oh, he doesn’t need raw strength,” the vet said. “That’s why I’m asking you – he needs subtlety. This time, you can’t use hunger, you’ll have to invent.”

Subtlety? Oh my!

***

I started by sitting on the floor in my spare room, near his perch but not too. Studying him while he studied me. Thinking of that first magical bird, eons ago.

“Zorro?” That wasn’t a name. “Bird – that’ll have to do till you name yourself,” I said. “Meanwhile we need a language.” Chunks of quail lay on the floor between us. “You know meat. I know meat. Let’s talk flesh and blood.”

So there we sat, looking at each other, looking at the meat. After a time, I left one piece of quail in his reach. In the morning it was gone.

I moved him outside to a room of his own, a mews. Twice a day, I gave a soft whistle, and stepped in, offering him a piece of meat on my glove. “A-B-C-D,” I said, to say something. “ABCD goldfish. No, make it mouse. ABCD mouse. Now you say, LMNO mouse.” With the white walls and one window, there was enough light to see a little. He looked away. Sneered.

The second day, I didn’t leave the meat. The third day I did. The fifth, a meat day again, he was a little hungry. Just a little. I wasn’t hurting him by all this, but I knew what it was to feel a little weak and afraid.

In full light, he edged along his perch toward me. He leaned forward, eyeing me, Come closer, come closer! When I didn’t, he eased one foot onto my hand – paused. Eye to eye. Then the weight of the body, the other foot. He bent his head to eat. “Ah, gorgeous creature!”

Dark head – young, golden eyes. Brown and cream breast, wings with that dark under-patch at the bend that says “Red-tail” when they’re soaring. His tail, not yet orange, was striped brown, white, and salmon. Salmon? Definitely a fancy-pants!

Two days later, he jumped to my glove.

“Now we’ve been properly introduced,” I said, “let’s go out on a date.”

“This is called a creance.” I clipped a long leash to the jesses on his feet. I am much alone, these days, and my own voice is a comfort to me. To Bird, too?

“This is the lure. From old German, luder, bait. You’ll itch to chase it, like a hungry fish.” I bobbled the lure on a string through the tall grass. He leapt, caught, ate. In an hour, he was addicted – flying 100 feet, all the force of his passion in those razor-tipped feet. “Aren’t you the genius!”

***

Every morning he called me from his mews: “Let’s gooo! Go-gooo!”

Out in the air, I tempted him with live mice I’d trapped in the barn. He caught them, every one. Too bad, too bad for the little pounding hearts, flashing feet. “Death and life,” I said to him. “I didn’t invent it. But you. Suave, elegant murderer! You should be in the movies.”

We were ready for the second big test. “I take off the leash, you follow me.” He stared at my hovering hand. “I’ll be a good birddog, kicking up hot, wiggly things. Well, let’s hope. I’ve gotten pretty slow.”

I really was too slow for this work. My falconer pals were scornful. “He’s not hungry,” they said. “Look at him, he’s fat! You’ll lose him. You can’t run after him for miles and sleep under a tree to lure him down in the morning!”

Can’t? What stick-in-the-muds! I hope, I was thinking, not very specifically. Hope, hope, hope.

In the meadow, I unclipped the leash. Bird – that would do till something better came to us – flew into a tree. He was a bit slow, too. “Fine pair we make!”

I swung the lure. He looked away. I swung again. And again. Just when I was about to give up, he dropped down, gulped a treat – then back to his tree. I kicked over a stump, a lizard zipped out. He attacked, missed. Back to his tree. His bright eye met mine. Laughing! “Ah,” he cried, “a game!”

“Just like your ma would have done with you,” I said.

Finally, I whistled for him to come in. And glory be! He came and we went home.

Next, Bird in his box, I drove to an abandoned farm. There, in this new place, he changed. When I took him out on my fist, he trembled, hesitated. Looked all around, stared long up into the sky. Then – a rabbit! He was off, swooping low, twisting, dodging. Oops, clear through the falling-down barn – smack into an old tire. He scrabbled with his feet, yelping, dragged the poor rabbit out at last – it was twice his weight.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

He squeezed, squeezed, squeezed. Turned his back to me and gave a killing crunch. And ate.

We made our way to the car, leftovers in one powerful foot. Meat was indeed the subject.

***

From December to March, we hunted almost every day, and at night, both slept, exhausted, me from age and strain, Bird from excitement and a hundred flights. He was getting strong, fast, sure. I was getting slow, achy, tired tired tired.

I began eating my dinner in his mews, while he ate his. Sometimes I’d roll up in my sleeping bag, while on his perch above, he rested his head on his scapulars. A down pillow, I thought, envying. In the morning, I said, “Yo, Bird,” and he landed like a breath on the glove.

Once I got careless, moved my ungloved hand too close. In a blink, my fingers were locked in his talons. How easily they could plunge through the flesh! He looked at me, that way he has. Gave me a quick squeeze and let go. “Thank you, Bird!”

By now my falconer friends were urging me to release him. “Fatten him up. Wish him godspeed. He’ll have about a 40% chance – good as it gets.”

The veterinarian said, “No, no. Keep him through his first molt, two more months.”

“Can you manage another two months?” I asked Bird. “Can I?”

***

I got up every morning at dawn, took him hunting, came home at dusk, aching aching. Slept until dawn. “I’m fading on you,” I said. “I’m your old granny, living on aspirin. But you, young Bird-invar, what do you care?”

Driven by some internal force, he cared about something. He began flumping about in his mews, calling, calling. Reminding me of our third – private – covenant, just between us. To listen. We were clearly beyond meat. Beyond that fundamental, that home note. “What do you want?” I asked.

Let me go, he said, shivering his whole body, clattering his feathers. Let me go.

So I did. Removed everything that held him to me physically. And he flew.

That night, alone, I read my notes aloud for the feel of words in the air. Then slept. Long past sun-up, I strolled through our meadow, past the lovely knoll where a breeze always blows, past the rabbit paths, past the gopher holes, down to the pond with its throb of frogs. “Where are you?” The trees were silent. “No, I won’t worry.”

Liar! Did he know enough to hug the bole of the tree at night so Great Horned Owl, laser eye and ear, wouldn’t find him? I’d taught caution about cars – but owls?

This was very moment when he hurtled down and whacked me.

***

For a month, we played. I whistled. He grabbed tidbits in midair. He perched where he could see my eyes, and we held there, for our long, sweet minute. With a message oh so clear: “I can live without you!”

Oh, yes. We’re way beyond meat. And the leash is now on me!

***

Today, eight years later, Bird has a mate, and years of younglings. Convention says never ever look a wild predator in the eye. But Bird looks long into my eyes. Our eyes are doors.

Sometimes, he plummets out of the sky, a battalion of crows on his tail. If I’m not waiting, he may call. Or fly past my window. I’ve stopped whistling, that only attracts his tormentors, but I’ll point to a certain tree and he lights on the top, like a Christmas-tree angel. Or I step outside and in a fiery swoop, he passes low, wind ruffling my hair. He’ll never touch me again. Dear Bird!

From me I believe he’s learned something about community. From him, I have learned a different solitude.

One day, he won’t come. The next day the next the next – no Dear Bird. How long before I stop waiting?

Perhaps, since I’m the old one, I’ll be the first to go.

Will he feel it, that hole in the world where we were?

Every day is a rehearsal, a dance in the dark.

When his eyes slip into mine, we cross a border, our minds touch.

For a breath!

One breath . . .

Sallie Reynolds is a writer of fiction and essays, living in Northern California. Her stories have appeared here and there, recently in Writers of Mendocino County anthologies, and Dorothy Parkers’ Ashes, in press.

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Guest Posts, language

Bad Bitch

January 7, 2024
bitch graffiti art

On Friday afternoons I work at Bluestocking, a used bookstore in Hillcrest, a popular San Diego neighborhood and the center of the LGBT community. Next door is Breakfast Bitch, a relatively new and trendy brunch/lunch destination, people always massed around the entrance waiting for tables. Their schtick, which people seem to love, is that waitstaff call guests bitches, as in “Can I get you bitches something to drink?” Every birthday celebration, and there are many every day, is broadcast with a raucous rendering of the hip hop song “Birthday Bitch.” I hear it, again and again, blasting out their door and into ours—“One time for the birthday bitch, Two times for the birthday bitch, Three times for the birthday bitch…”—and two things happen. One, I start wondering about the reappropriation of the word “bitch.” Two, I bristle. I wince. I should be inured to it by now, but the reverse is true; it makes me increasingly uncomfortable.

From the Old English bicce, female dog, “bitch” is a term of contempt applied to women since the 15th century. Originally to suggest rampant sexuality, dogs in heat, it morphed into women behaving badly—according to men and more recently to other women as well. Synonyms include floozy, harlot, hussy, slut, tart, tramp, vamp, wench, whore, and more, including witch, hellion, and shrew. A bitch was aggressive and belligerent, controlling and out of control. Threatening. Off the leash.

When the second wave of the women’s movement came hurtling into the sixties, feminists began to reclaim the word, to make the designation a point of pride: a bitch was strong, independent, confident, assertive. Finally speaking up, sticking up for herself. Attorney and activist Jo Freeman published the Bitch Manifesto in 1968, saying that “A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her.” Bitch magazine launched in 1996, calling itself a “feminist response to pop culture.” A Ms. magazine contributor in 2011 called on women to celebrate their bitchiness, and Gloria Steinem suggested in 2015 that “when somebody calls you a bitch, say thank you.” In a 2008 Saturday Night Live skit, Tina Fey observed that people were calling Hillary Clinton a bitch. “She is,” she said. “And so am I. Bitches get stuff done!”

I bought into the concept that women could be mean and merciless; we could be ruthless leaders like Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher; we could stand our ground in any situation—we could be bitches. This was equality too. One of the few movie lines I ever memorized is from the adaptation of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to” was uttered three times, by three different characters, all fending off the patriarchy, grasping at empowerment.

Over the course of the 20th century, the word’s usage has expanded, flipped sideways and upside down. It’s no surprise that a slur against women would be adopted by men—prisoners, gay men, macho hipsters—as an attack against weak or dependent men, sissies and softies. But in this context, the term ricochets. Rather than unmanageable women, bitches are women (and men) who do others’ bidding. In an episode of House of Cards, Remy, a Black lobbyist, and Jackie, a Congresswoman, are on opposing sides, but he reminds her that they’re both beholden to higher-ups, both someone’s bitch.

Atlantic magazine examined the trend in a 2015 article, “Meet the New Bitch: The curious evolution of a slur.” It noted that Ernest Hemingway applied the word to women, notably Gertrude Stein, who held her own against him, but also to bad editors and Spanish dictators, instances in which a badly behaving man has traditionally been called a son of a bitch. In the TV series Breaking Bad, the character Jesse Pinkman says “bitch” 54 times, sometimes as an insult or in anger, sometimes in camaraderie or as an expression of triumph. Sometimes he pronounces it in two syllables (“bi-atch”), and sometimes it serves as a meaningless filler, the way people use and abuse the word “like.” In hip-hop culture and music it’s been used to denigrate women who step out of line, while Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and others have rebounded with “bad bitch” songs and memes to champion strong, independent woman, echoes of the 1968 Bitch Manifesto.

And yet. We’re told on many fronts that “bitch” is cool. That women can take pride in owning their inner bitch. But the meaning hasn’t really changed. The word is still used primarily to attack women who threaten the status quo, women in positions of power, as when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called a “fucking bitch” by a white male colleague on the floor of the House of Representatives. It reeks of sexism, its hatred and misogyny undisguised. Women use it among themselves as an expression of support and sisterhood, but they still use it against each other too. Remember when Barbara Bush referred to Geraldine Ferraro as something that “rhymes with rich,” later insisting that she meant “witch.” I’ve been guilty of it myself. My daughter and I refer to a woman who wronged us, deeply and intentionally, as “the bitch.” Nothing else seems to adequately express our bitterness, but I cringe when I hear myself say it. I’d love to believe we can reappropriate language and wash it clean of its taint, but the rotten-egg stench clings to it.

I count the word “bitch” 35 times in this essay. An early-draft reader suggested substituting “the B word” or “the 5-letter noun,” but sometimes repetitiveness is necessary to hammer home a point. It was the frequent and irritating reprise of the birthday song at the restaurant next to the bookstore and my gut-level response to it that finally exposed my ambivalence, cemented my antipathy.

A former boyfriend once, decades ago, called me a bitch during an argument. It was the first time anyone had ever done that, and there was nothing ambiguous about his meaning. I was outraged. “How dare you?” I said, or “Don’t you ever call me that.” Or I may have called him a bastard, equally inappropriate and, when taken literally, also an insult to women, like “son of a bitch.” But wait—I was finally standing up to him, which was why we were arguing in the first place. There was a long period when I rehashed the incident and our subsequent breakup, wished I’d countered with a smartass response: “You say that like it’s a bad thing!” But I was offended then, and I’d be just as offended today.

Alice Lowe writes about life, language, food and family. Her essays have been widely published, including this past year in Big City Lit, Borrowed Solace, FEED, Drunk Monkeys, Midway, Eat Darling Eat, Eclectica, Fauxmoir, Idle Ink, Superpresent, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice has authored essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work and is a regular contributor at Blogging Woolf. She lives in San Diego, California, and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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Guest Posts, Beauty Hunting, Current Events

A Eulogy for Comets

June 22, 2021
ison

by Natalie Torentinos

Three years ago, I was lying on abandoned elementary school bleachers staring at the sun. My sweaty skin burned against the unyielding metal, but I didn’t care.

It was August in South Carolina. My three friends and I rode our bikes for nearly 10 miles along narrow roads with no sidewalks and little shade to the path of totality because we couldn’t find any hotel rooms in Charleston. My whole body ached from peddling, hand signaling, and sitting on an uncomfortable saddle. But this was all to experience a cloudless afternoon fall instantaneously into darkness and eerie quiet for a few precious moments.

What did past generations think of these events, I thought, without any warning?

This irregularity of light and shadow left me feeling envious of anyone underneath clear skies for the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. A series of internet searches left me feeling sentimental for events I never knew happened or would never live long enough to see.

The astronomy community once dubbed Comet ISON a famous “sun-grazer,” or comet which flies just under 870,000 miles from the Sun. This comet spent most of its life from just beyond Pluto until a few million years ago, when it was gently nudged from its home by the gravity of a moving star. ISON entered our inner solar system with all the hopes of scientists resting on its frozen and rocky surface.

Scientists hoped ISON might survive its dalliance with our sun and be a spectacular sight in the night sky, visible to the naked eye. But it was not meant to be. As it passed our yellow star, ISON dissolved into nothing but dust and vapor.

“Born 4.5 Billion BC, Fragmented Nov 28, 2013”, reads an ISON-observing blog. “Survived by approximately several trillion siblings.”

The astrophysicist observing ISON commented that its disintegration was “a process of heartbreak.”

When I think back to how I felt watching the solar eclipse, I could understand the attachment and anticipation for an object flying more than 800,000 miles away, but ISON’s tribute was made all the more poignant by marrying the language of emotion and science.

I feel the constant struggle between emotion and the adherence to guidelines dictated by science. Seeing friends and family these days is, perhaps, a journey too close to the sun, but our basic human needs are not so different from the forces of gravity. No one wants to stargaze alone on a cold winter night.

Pandemics and celestial events, both cyclical in nature and harbingers of doom, connect distant generations. The last time Jupiter and Saturn were ever this close, a plague began in northern Europe belonging to a cycle of epidemics often referred to as the “Second Pandemic,” which started with the Black Death and kept recurring at regular intervals over decades. People were ordered to stay indoors for one month after the death or infection of someone in a household. As we communicated and entertained ourselves mostly from our homes, I wondered how past generations managed seclusion and feelings of loneliness. How can we comprehend periods of history when letters would be the only source of comfort, if they could read and write at all, and when modern medicine could not prescribe an effective treatment or vaccine in such short order?

Despite our modern comforts, we have become all too familiar with the process of heartbreak, but the pain hasn’t been fully realized, maybe because we know this isn’t over yet. Maybe it’s because we’re not accustomed to collective mourning. Maybe we are afraid to acknowledge our own deviations from the prescribed path of limited human interaction.

My friend’s brother wanted to surprise their parents with a holiday visit. He self-quarantined for two weeks and then drove cross-country nonstop for almost 30 hours, sleeping in his car and never staying in a hotel, only to develop flu-like symptoms upon arriving at their family’s home. All subsequent COVID tests came back negative, but the effect was crippling just the same. My friend, who had initially rejoiced at the idea of finally being reunited, could only cry in the driveway before daring to see him. They saw each other on Christmas through zoom.

Another friend lost her job this past year, and since her parents are both doctors in their 70s, she resolved to not see them until all were vaccinated. She was prepared to spend Christmas ordering takeout and binge-watching Orange is the New Black, but one of her neighbors, also single and recently unemployed, made her a dinner of brined herb chicken. They ate the meal separately in their apartments, apart yet perfectly aligned.

I attended a small gathering of family friends on Christmas Eve. Each person ate at their own table spaced at least six feet apart. After the meal, the hosts directed us to the living room, and while seated six feet apart from one another and wearing masks, we listened to Christmas carols on a 1920s Victrola phonograph record player. I heard those reedy voices singing to us in that living room, these voices of nameless and faceless people who likely lived through the 1918 pandemic, as if they were traveling across decades to comfort us in a time of uncertainty.

Christmas caroling and nativity plays were cancelled during the pandemic of 1918, but people continued to gather. One difference between now and then, however, is that while viruses were too small to be seen by any available microscope, we can now see detailed images of their structures. One news article pointed out that COVID-19 looked “otherworldly, a death star floating in deep space, with curious stars glimmering in the distance.”

It seems that microscopes, like telescopes, can see into deep space and instill a sense of wonder – and fear.

The collapse of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Telescope seemed an apt representation for a growing weariness of science. The 305-metre wide dish assessed asteroids and observed spinning stars for more than 50 years. An astronomer likened the loss to “losing an elderly relative,” as it persevered through the pitfalls of life – budget cuts, natural disasters, and periods of neglect. A student who saw the telescope through a research program said it hurt to talk about the observatory in past tense.

While navigating the varying emotions we’re all experiencing – whether due to losing one’s health, job, or sense of safety – it can be difficult to contemplate how we transition from present to past tense. Will there come a time when I sit a young child on my knee and start a story with, “back in the COVID days”?

I long to toss out the mask hanging from my car’s rearview mirror, but even when that day comes, these invisible death stars will linger in the air. Science may indicate that an acceptable level of immunity has been reached, but what will our emotions dictate? I suspect the same forces compelling us to gather now will compel us to look upon large crowds and cramped spaces with suspicion in the future.

Will we confront our changed psyches as the pandemic’s long-term effects cast an ever-growing shadow?

We are not so different from the universe, one that is both ever-changing and predictable. A pandemic will happen again; we will praise scientists, and we will ignore science-driven restrictions placed on us. We will take for granted the comforts past generations suffered without. We will find ways to assuage our grief.

Three years from now, the next total solar eclipse will cross the United States. When the moon and sun cross paths again, I will ask my friends to gather together so we can watch and wonder – about the past, the future, and all the worlds we cannot see.

Natalie Torentinos is a lobbyist for a medical society in Washington, D.C., but earlier in her career worked as a reporter for several weekly and daily newspapers in Texas and Pennsylvania. She holds a bachelor’s in history and journalism from the University of Delaware and a master’s in political management from the George Washington University.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Guest Posts, love

Midrash on Love and Language

February 14, 2019
love

After Grace Paley

By Adina Giannelli

midrash (noun: ancient Judaic commentary or rabbinic interpretation, exposition, investigation)

She had a tendency to ask questions: to seek validation or comfort through others and their words. To inquire: should I do this thing or that? She liked reflecting on others’ insights. By reflecting she meant contemplating; by insights she meant thoughts and feelings, how they varied, how they mapped onto one another, upon her. And then, after gathering points of view, by which she meant perspectives, she liked deciding on her own. By on her own, she meant independently, which is to say, in the strength of her solitude—as she had always done. As she had always been.

When and where she asked questions, those around her volleyed questions back. These boiled down lately to how do you know this is it? She loved these questions even when they failed to reflect her, which they usually did.

Because she loved language, she knew that to reduce her love to language was to flatten it, to poison it. And much was poisoned already. So she answered insufficiently, in watered down words:  she wanted to declaim, but lacked the lexicon to match her feelings’ depth. Instead, she said what people said about love: he feels like home to me; and when you know, you know; and—in a strange and borrowed idiom—she knew like the back of her hand. By hand she meant the part of her body she used to write words and lift children, to knead the pain from where it settled in his, drifting over warm skin like a nightly prayer.

Are you sure? Kelli asked, and she said yes.

Ben said you love him in a way your old ass has never loved anyone before? and she said yes. Continue Reading…

language, Guest Posts

My Ithaka

March 18, 2018
greek

By Catherine Curan

At age 19 I fell in love forever, with Odysseus, with Yiannis, and most of all with Constantine.

My mother had said college would be a happier place than high school for me, a bookish would-be poet marooned in small-town Long Island, dreaming of a life of the mind. What better place to find it than Princeton University, the pinnacle of the Ivy League and my father’s beloved alma mater? But when I arrived in September 1988, the intellectual paradise I had naively expected shimmered out of reach. I was wait-listed for creative writing workshops. I floundered in philosophy classes I took instead. I drank cheap beer, discovering a drunken hookup culture my mother didn’t know had replaced dating. I was so unhappy, I nearly dropped out.

My parents wanted me to stay. So I did, enrolling sophomore year in a comparative literature class with an appealingly weighty title: Myth, History, and Contemporary Experience in Modern Greek, English, and American Poetry. On the first day, a dozen students crowded around a long table headed by an avuncular professor who opened a book and immediately began lecturing, engrossed in the text.

I can’t recall exactly which poem he read. I like to think it was Cavafy, encouraging Odysseus to keep his beloved lost homeland of Ithaka always in mind, without fearing the monsters or angry gods he might find along the way. “You won’t encounter them / unless you bring them along inside your soul, / unless your soul sets them up in front of you.” The poems we discussed that day, and Professor Edmund Keeley’s unassuming love for them, captivated me. I bought Keeley’s collection of translations, “Voices of Modern Greece”, a slim paperback with a plain cover that gave no hint the verse it contained would crack my life wide open. My passion for these poets—Constantine Cavafy, Yiannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis—would send me on an odyssey thousands of miles from home, leading to a new language, a new home, love, betrayal, loss, and heartbreak. I didn’t know it then, but my personal epic journey began in that classroom with a few lines of Modern Greek poetry.

Both scholarship student and Princeton legacy, I was navigating an uneasy mixture of struggle and privilege. My father had graduated in 1958, but he still bore childhood scars of poverty and loss. I grew up watching him hoard 32-ounce cans of imported Italian plum tomatoes so he would always be able to make sauce, and hearing stories of how he and his five siblings cared for each other after their mother died and their father abandoned them.

I had no interest in my grandfather’s language, Italian, or in German, the language of my grandmother, whose death remained an ever-present tragedy. Greece had always fascinated me, and in Keeley’s class, Modern Greek poetry began to take shape as an appealing island I could explore on my own, apart from my family.

I was in awe of any person with the exalted title “professor”, but Keeley was friendly and supportive, introducing me to Dimitri Gondicas, the Assistant Director of the Program in Hellenic Studies. When I decided to write my junior paper on Cavafy, Gondicas arranged for philosophy professor Alexander Nehamas to advise me. Some of my happiest Princeton memories are of meeting with Nehamas in his office at 1879 Hall to discuss Cavafy. For years afterwards (until it was lost in a move), I kept Nehamas’ translation of my favorite Cavafy poem, “I’ve Brought to Art”, above my desk.

My work with Nehamas showed me the limits of writing about poetry in translation. Gondicas suggested I study Greek in Athens, offering me a scholarship.

I told my mother first. As a teenager, she had wanted to be a flight attendant, and still dreamt of traveling the world. We decided to tell my father I’d won a prestigious scholarship. Only after he congratulated me, glowing with pride, did we mention my trip to Greece.

At last I was sailing closer to a life of the mind (something I had not even tried to define, or realized I could create). A childhood friend traveled with me, and we skylarked around Paros with two handsome brothers from the UK. Then my friends returned home, leaving me in Athens, alone. I had never been farther from home than New Jersey. Athens seemed too intense: loud, hot, bright, and utterly baffling. I knew no one, and the other students in my Greek class were already a tight-knit group from the same American university.

The language I had longed to learn seemed nearly impossible, too. I remember sitting in my apartment, struggling to sound out a new vocabulary word. Greek is notorious for complex multisyllabic words, but I wasn’t going to give up until I got this one. “Soo-ppp, soo-ppp-eh,” I intoned. “Soo ppp eh, rm, ar, ket.” Supermarket. I had just spent ten minutes deciphering an English word in Greek. I gave up and went to buy canned tomatoes for the marinara sauce I was cooking, gesturing to the shopkeeper to make myself understood.

The next day after class I spotted a guy in a Princeton T-shirt, and tapped him on the shoulder. Photis invited me to lunch. He and his father, a Greek-American professor, were so friendly, I forgot to be shy of the man with the exalted title, and his handsome son. I was headed back to Princeton in two weeks, while Photis was spending a year in Greece. Both of us were surprised by how quickly our attraction deepened into love.

No matter that he lived in Athens. It was thrilling to long for him, back in Princeton. It was thrilling to walk to the copy shop late at night and receive a page of curling paper, fresh from the fax machine, containing a love letter he’d just written, 3,000 miles away. No matter that I now associated the language of Constantine, Odysseus, and Yiannis, my trio of perfect poets, with the flesh-and-blood Photis. Our love had survived my return to America, and was strong enough to lure him back for the spring semester.

After I graduated, we spent the summer in Greece. This time he was returning to Princeton, while I stayed in Athens for a year, teaching English and studying Greek so I could finally read Cavafy. Confident in our relationship, Photis suggested we see other people while apart. I didn’t like the idea, but I agreed. What difference would a meaningless fling make?

In November, I met a young Athenian. A professional-studies student and an aspiring composer, he struggled, as I did, to balance duty with creative dreams. Unlike Photis, my Athenian loved Modern Greek poetry, too; the first present he gave me was a copy in Greek of Elytis’ “Diary of an Invisible April”. And so once again I embarked on a romance that could not last. My Athenian was preparing for two years of mandatory service in the Greek Army, while Photis planned to join me in Greece after exams.

By the time my parents visited Athens that spring, I had astonished myself and everyone else by breaking up with Photis. My father had tolerated him, just barely, deriding our transatlantic passion as “puppy love”. In Athens, my parents smiled through a dinner with me and my new love, but I knew they feared losing me to Greece. I was happy with my Athenian, but I hated that I had hurt Photis, and I wondered, if I could abandon him, what other betrayals was I capable of?

That spring, I forgot about Yiannis, Odysseus, and Constantine. I squandered the opportunity to read Cavafy with my undergraduate Greek professor, Richard Burgi, who had retired to Athens. My Athenian’s knowledge of my native language was so much better than mine of his that we rarely spoke Greek to each other, and I did not complete the few translations I started of the poems he’d given me. Shutting out my guilt about Photis and anxieties about the future, I lived in a desperate but exalted present tense. My Athenian would soon be joining the army. My job, and the on-campus housing that came with it, was ending, and so was my time in Greece.

I had no plans for what came next. It did not even occur to me to request another deferral on my student loans, or try to find a new job, so I could stay. I had been away for an entire year, enjoying myself, perhaps too much. It was time to go home.

America had become a foreign country. New York felt unreal, a temporary detour until I could sort out a scholarship for graduate school in England or Greece. I found a job and started repaying my Princeton loans, while my Athenian coped with army life. We had no money for traveling, so long-distance landline calls and hand-written letters sustained us. During our separation, my relationship to the language I had started learning so I could read Modern Greek poetry deepened and changed. It took on the tenor of his voice on my answering machine, the sweet silliness of the pet name we created from one of my funnier grammatical errors. The shaky alpha, beta, gammas from my copybooks the summer I met Photis solidified into the shape my Athenian gave the Greek alphabet when he wrote to me from the army camp.

Over time, the stress and unhappiness on both sides grew too great, and in early 1995, we admitted defeat. Single again for the first time in three years, I discovered that I could not reestablish a purely academic connection to the language of my love for these two men. I quit my

Greek lessons and abandoned my comp-lit career plans. I felt I had failed myself and my mentors. I couldn’t even admit why. Modern Greek had become a lexicon of heartbreak, and I had to leave it behind me.

The man I married is the kindest person I know. Understanding my desire to study Greek in a new way, he found an app for me last fall, and since then I’ve been practicing Greek almost every day. Just this week I’ve been able, for the first time in years, to read a few lines of Cavafy. I’m also discovering, in English and the original Greek, new voices collected in the bilingual anthology “Austerity Measures” published in 2016.

“As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery,” Cavafy wrote. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind. / Arriving there is what you are destined for. / But do not hurry the journey at all. / Better if it lasts for years, / so you’re old by the time you reach the island, / wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way.”

I won’t have the Modern Greek Studies career I once envisioned, earning the exalted title of professor of comparative literature for myself. I’ll never know what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Greece. But I’ve returned at last to the Modern Greek poets I once loved for their beautiful, dangerous, passionate words. They will always be with me.

Catherine Curan is a fiction writer, independent journalist, and writing teacher based in New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Arts & Letters, Fiction, Many Mountains Moving, Ozone Park Journal, and the SalonZine. In 2011, she won a Freelance Fellowship from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. for a three-month investigation into residential foreclosures in the New York City area, which was published by the New York Post.

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Guest Posts, memories, Writing & The Body

The Arctic Front

June 26, 2017
arctic

By Tiffany Lee Brown

We were reshaping language. Making it fit better. Breaking it into chunks, discrete pieces. That’s what acid does: it lets you see all the infinitesimal pieces of everything, the air’s live molecules, the shivering motion of protons, electrons, neutrons as they fly through their individual atoms. At the same time, it lets you see the big things: the stars, the way the molecules connect all living creatures together, the breathing of trees against darkness.

We were reshaping language not just because it made us laugh, but because it brought new meaning to things, new clarity. And so the fire was no longer the fire. It was the Bright Flickering Orange Thing, as in: I’m freezing, but I can’t move right now. Would one of you feed the Bright Flickering Orange Thing? And someone would put a log—the Severed Guts of a Tall Being With Bark For Skin—into the big wood-burning stove with its open front, our only source of heat in this borrowed house.

All around us, Cold White Stuff muffled the forest and Cold Hard Stuff confounded the roads. It was twelve degrees Fahrenheit outside, in a region accustomed to mild winter days of low clouds and eternal drizzle. Every so often cold air—Arctic air—would come down from Alaska and get socketed in somehow. That’s what we were experiencing: an Arctic front.

Lee observed the Small Furry Clawed Mammals of the house and pointed out their qualities to me and Will. This grey one here, he decided, this grey one is named Steve. Check Steve out. He rules the world! Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Awe & Wonder, Young Voices

It’s (Not) All The Same To Me: On Gender, Language, and Death

March 8, 2017
gender

By Beatriz  L.  Seelaender

Death  is  a  woman  in  Portuguese.  She  is  still  a  skull  under  a  charcoal  cloak,  holding  a  list  and  a  scythe,  but  she  is  a  woman.  It  is  strange,  isn’t  it,  what  one  can  take  for  granted  as  fact  just  by  plain  language.  That  Death  is  a  He  in  English,  and  wiser  and  less  cruel  and  sharper,  still  somewhat  unsettles  me.  There  is  some  sort  of  slight  wrongness  in  it.  No,  Death  is  not  a  He.  My  Death  is  not  yours.  There  must  have  been  some  kind  of  mix-up.  My  Death  is  a  straight-up  gal.  When  my  time  comes,  she  will  tell  me  I  did  good  in  life,  all  things  considered,  and  hug  me  like  a  grandmother.  Then,  she  will  kindly  strangle  me  into  oblivion-  because  kindness  is  necessary  in  death,  and  it  is  women  that  are  forgiving  and  kind,  and  that  is  why  death  should  be  a  woman.

There  used  to  be  a  comic  book-  there  probably  still  is,  since  it  wasn’t  so  long  ago  that  I  was  a  kid-  featuring  the  adventures  of  Mrs.  Death.  Despite  her  not  being  the  main  character  in  the  comic-  that  honour  had  been  given  to  the  character  who  in  English  translations  is  renamed  Bug-a-boo-,  Mrs.  Death  did  get  a  lot  of  solo  stories.  While  I  am  not  quite  sure  why  a  children’s  comic  would  invest  in  dark  humour,  the  stories  were  personal  favourites  of  mine.  One  of  them  features  Mrs.  Death  losing  her  list  of  errands  (aka  people  she  should  kill  today)  and  killing  completely  random  people  to  make  up  for  it.  There  was  another  where  she  accidentally  offed  the  homonym  of  the  actual  man  she  was  supposed  to  take.  On  top  of  it,  she  had  to  deal  with  a  staggering  amount  of  typos  (we  are  led  to  believe  that  the  big  guys  up  there  do  not  really  care  about  Mrs.  Death,  who  has  to  perform  all  of  their  grunt  work  and  isn’t  payed  enough  for  it).  All  in  all,  they  did  a  good  job  of  having  kids  learn  about  death  as  an  inoffensive  old  lady  waiting  for  retirement.  In  a  lot  of  ways  having  this  image  of  death  is  more  comforting  than  that  of  an  arrogant  shadow  of  a  man  as  it  is  typically  conveyed  in  English  stories.  On  the  other  hand,  perhaps  it  undermines  the  seriousness  of  the  subject.  Oh,  well,  parents  should  not  let  their  kids  learn  about  death  from  comics,  anyhow.

I  can  only  conceive  of  Death  the  man  as  patronizing:  he  takes  pleasure  in  toying  with  people.  His  blood  is  icy  blue  and  he probably  hates  Death  the  woman  for  doing  better  than  him  at  the  slaying  business.  But  neither  one  of  them  can  die,  really;  it  is  their  greatest  tragedy.

It  wasn’t  until  my  teens  that  I  came  across  Death  as  a  He.  Because  articles  are  neutral  in  English  I  had  never  really  thought  about  applying  gender  to  things  in  English.  Although  perhaps  that  is  a  lie-  I  am  not  entirely  sure.  It  is  possible  I  just  kept  on  looking  at  things  gendered  according  to  how  I  knew  them  in  my  native  language.    There  was  reluctance  to  admitting  that  perhaps  things  in  their  fundamental  nature  weren’t  as  blue  and  pink  as  the  world-  but,  then  again,  neither  was  the  world,  and  we  still  see  it  that  way  nonetheless.

While we do have an “it” in Portuguese, it is hardly ever used as subject in sentences. We use he or she for everything, dead or alive; or never alive. If we really have to say “it”, we simply use the verb; the subject is assumed as it. We don’t say that it rained; we simply say “rained”. We don’t say it’s weird; we simply say “is weird”.

The rest of the time we refer to things the way Aesop referred to animals- he, the stapler and she, the copy-maker. We also refer to animals that way, as you probably must have guessed by now. And all those its, then, come alive.

See,  up  until my meeting with Him, Death,  it  had  been  very  simple to me-  a  table  and  a  chair  and  a  bed  and  a  house  were  female-bound.  And  there  were  things  like  school,  History  and  art  that  were  referred  to  as  female,  too.  At  least  death  is  not  alone,  then,  and  they  are  not  alone  in  death;  these  other  words.  Word  is  also  preceded by the feminine article,  in  Portuguese.  Forks  and  mattresses  and  napkins  and  hats  and  the  radio  and  peaches  and  candy  were  all  male-bound  things.

Some  of  us  even  got  confused  at  times;  I  remember  once  at  school  when  a  peak  number  of  students  using  the  wrong  article  for  “lettuce”  inspired  a  gender-bound-articles test,  but  it  didn’t  change  anything.  People  were  surprised,  surely,  that  lettuce  was  a  She-  a  couple  of  weeks  later,  though,  everyone  was  still  using  the  wrong  article  for  lettuce.

(I  don’t  know  why,  though;  lettuce  is  so  clearly  feminine,  being  a  leaf  and  all;  and  leaves  being  feminine,  too)    (Leaves  and  flowers  and  most  fruit)    (Except  for  peaches,  but  we’ve  been  over  this  already)    (Now,  I  wonder  why  in  Brazil  all  seasons  are  male  but  spring)    (It  cannot  be  just  because  of  the  flowers)    (It  would  be  sort  of  misogynistic,  if  it  were)  (In  Germany  all  seasons  are  male-bound,  even  spring)  (But  in  German  nothing  is  at  it  should  be)

I  want  to  try  out  an  experiment:  I  will  give  you  four  words  and  you  tell  me  what  your  immediate  thought  as  to  what  their  ultimate  gender  is;  ready?  Knife,  Life,  Book,  Fox. 

It  has  just  occurred  to  me  that  I  picked  “knife”  as  the  first  word  because  of  a  poem  by  João  Cabral  de  Melo  Neto  titled  “The  School  of  Knives”.  In  Portuguese,  this  word  is  preceded  by  the feminine.  Most  sharp  things  are-  blades  and  daggers  and  scythes,  too.  In  the  poem  de  Melo  Neto  takes  this  a  step  further  and  compares  women  and  knives,  in  a  sort  of  sensual,  femme-fatale  way.  God,  I  hate  this  word;  femme-fatale-  there  is  a  song  by  The  Velvet  Underground  under  this  title,  and  it  is  pretty  catchy;  and  I  hate  myself  for  enjoying  it.  Anyway,  knives  are  not  necessarily  female  until  some  sort  of  personality  and  explanation  as  to  why  it  is  female  is  imposed  to  it.

In  Spanish  knives  are  male-bound.  The  argument  for  knives  as  male  could  be  just  as  compelling  as  that  for  a  femme-fatale  definition;  knives  having  the  potential  to  be  used  for  gratuitous  violence  (traditionally  male)  as  easily  as  they  are  able  to  deliver  beautiful  and  entangling  performances  of  precision  in  clean,  lustful  cuts:  this  last  one  is  epitome  of  the  femme-  fatale  ideal;  to  destroy  and  look  good  doing  it.  There  is  also  something  about  gluttony  and  lust  merging  together  here  in  the  Portuguese  embodiment  of  the  knife,  especially  in  de  Melo  Neto’s  poem.

I  propose  we  look  at  this  not  as  an  instance  of  misogyny,  or  perhaps  as  more  than  an  instance  of  misogyny.  I  know  it  is  very  easy  to  go  the  way  of  saying  we  need  to  stop  gendering  everything-  but  there  are  many  variables  going  into  this  discussion.  For  one,  the  qualifier  of  gender  in  articles  is  not  promoting  gender  stereotypes  directly  or  even  indirectly-  all  of  them  are  entirely  arbitrary.  I  don’t  think  anyone  ever  thought  to  themselves-  knives  are  definitely  ladies,  so  let’s  use  this  article  when  referring  to  them.  The  problem  came  after-  it  came  in  the  form  of  explanations  as  to  why  things  were  the  gender  they  were.  See,  the  way  gender  roles  are  distributed;  one  could  arguably  make  a  point  for  something  as  dull  as  a  desk  either  as  masculine  or  feminine  simply  by  selecting  a  specific  set  of  characteristics  that  matches  the  stereotypical  definition  one  wishes  to  defend.  That  is  obviously  because  like  people,  things  also  have  characteristics  deemed  feminine  and  masculine  inside  them.  All  you  have  to  do  is  choose.

Let’s  talk  about  the  Life  with  a  capital  L.  I  think  most  languages  in  use  of  gendered  articles  (that  I  know  of,  obviously)  see  life  as  female;  the  exception  being  German,  in  which  das  Leben  marks  a  neutral  noun.  Surely  you  would  think  this  is  a  sign  of  female  emancipation-  the  plural  in  German  taking  for  once  the  shape  of  the  female  pronoun  being  a  step  in  the  right  direction  as  well-  but  I  wonder  how  much  of  it  is  actually  a  sign  of  social  progress  and  how  much  is  just,  you  know,  just  something  random  about  the  German  language.

When  you  take  a  closer  look  at  it,  in  fact,  it  is  hard  to  find  direct  correlations  between  the  use  of  gendered  articles  and  intolerance  rates  in  a  society.  Were  that  the  case,  one  would  expect  a  country  such  as  Poland,  speaking  a  language  which  allows  one  to  drop  pronouns  and  exempt  of  articles,  to  be  the  beacon  of  freedom  by  now.  Moreover,  the  Norwegian,  known  for  their  inclusive  social  measures  and  individual  liberties,  speak a language  featuring  article  qualifiers.  I  do  not  intend  to  make  a  study  out  of  this,  and  I  am  sure  there  are  many  more  variables  involved,  but  this  goes  to  show  problems  like  this  can  hardly  ever  be  traced  back  to  one  simple,  obvious  cause.

But  this  is  getting  too  derivative  (you  can  tell  by  the  excessive  use  of  parenthesis)  (not  aesthetically  pleasing)  (are  there  things  unaesthetically  pleasing?)  (Well,  there  are  pleasant  things  that  aren’t  aesthetic  and  there  are  aesthetic  things  that  aren’t  pleasing)  (And  then  there  is  the  anaesthetic,  which  makes  you  numb  to  painful  and  beautiful  things)  (I  hope  not  all  beautiful  things  are  painful)  (But  I  don’t  have  any  answers  now)  (Come  back  later)  (We  are  experiencing  connection  problems)  (Try  turning  your  brain  off  and  on  again).

Oh,  there  you  go.  I  feel  fine,  don’t  you?  Would  you  like  to  return  to  where  we  were  before  the  whole  thing  became  a  mess?

Now,  as  I  was  saying,  the  best  we  can  do  with  gendered  articles  is  look  for  clues  that  could  help  us  fight  the  feminist  crusade,  or  whatever  you  want  to  call  it.  Instead  of  ignoring  or  denying  their  existence,  we  should  take  a  look  at  what  sort  of  symbols  they  promote,  intentionally  or  not.  We  think  about  what  cultural  differences  stand  out  in  a  place  where  death  is  a  woman  and  a  place  where  death  is  a  man-  and  the  different  interpretations  of  death  that  may  come  from  it.  We  ask  people  who  speak  in  neutral  languages  to  gender  things  for  twenty-four  hours,  so  we  can  see  what  role  is  predominant  and,  most  importantly,  what  kind  of  justification  is  used  for  the  answer.  We  get  Intel  on  the  rationalizations  made  in  the  back  of  our  minds,  and  discover  potential  new  ways  to  break  down  gender  roles.

In  self-indulgent  speculation,  I  am  thinking  the  reason  why  Life  is  “female”  in  so  many  languages  is  because  life  is  brought  to  us  by  our  mothers.  Thus  life  we  associate  with  women  and  water  and  fountains  of  water,  because  all  these  things  symbolize  fertility  and  birth,  and  rebirth  as  well.  Goddesses  of  fertility-  Hera  and  Freya  and  Isis  and  Parvati  and  even  the  Virgin  Mary  if  you  look  at  Christianism  as  a  religion  with  multiple  focuses  of  adoration-  are  generally  also  associated  with  symbols  such  as  dawn,  death,  and  abundance,  because  fertility  could  also  mean  a  good  harvest.

While  I  do  get  why  some  goddesses  of  life  are  also  patrons  of  death,  it  is  still  strange  to  look  at  these  concepts  together,  as  dichotomies.  Everyone  likes  the  idea  of  going  full  circle,  but  I’ve  yet  to  see  someone  capable  of  making  one  with  their  hands.  Still,  it’s  a  nice  idea.  Idea;  yet  another  she.  I  guess  it  has  something  to  do  with  the  muses.  The  muses  are  also  inevitably  female,  because  the  artists  are  usually  male.  As  for  you,  female  artists,  there  isn’t  as  high  a  demand  for  male  muses  that  we  feel  compelled  to  change  the  rules.  But  I  guess  men  would  feel  undermined  in  the  role  of  muses,  don’t  you  think?  Well,  you’re  right,  not  all  men.  All  men  who  keep  saying  not  all  men,  though;  those  are  precisely  the  men  I’m  talking  about.

You  see,  there  is  a  deeply  rooted  notion  somewhere  in  there  that  an  artist  must  tame  his  muses.  Even  if  an  idea,  then,  is  a  she,  the  framing  of  ideas  will  definitely  be  male.  The  word  book  is  preceded  by  the  male  article  in  Portuguese;  in  German  it  is  neutral;  it  never  is  a  woman.  These  are  only  far-fetched  conjectures,  half  joke,  half  real;  but  inside  every  false  sentence  there  must  be  a  little  bit  of  truth.  That  of  men  taking  credit  for  women’s  ideas,  after  all;  is  hardly  a  new  trend.

The  discussion  gets  even  more  complicated  once  we  introduce  animals  into  it.  They  are  the  closest  thing  to  non-human  gendering  experienced  by  the  English  language;  just  take  a  look  at  the  Perry  Index  of  Aesop’s  Fables.  Snakes  and  foxes  are  male,  storks  are  female.  What  is  interesting,  however,  is  not  the  gender  imposed-  though  this  time  one  could  question  its  arbitrariness-  but  how  this  translates  into  people’s  mind  sets:

All  of  those  animals  are  female  in  Portuguese.  It  is  even  difficult  for  me  to  conceive  of  an  animal  as  peculiar  as  a  male  fox.  We  don’t  even  have  a  male  alternative  for  it.  Once  we  get  to  snakes,  it’s  even  worse.  I  recently  saw  the  animated  version  of  The  Jungle  Book  with  my  little  cousin,  and  I  was  convinced  they  had  redubbed  the  old  voices,  because  in  my  mind  that  python  was  a  lady  python.  I  can  only  assume  that  as  a  child  I  found  the  idea  of  there  being  a  male  snake  so  outlandish  that  I  blocked  it  completely.

It’s  not  like  I  didn’t  know  there  was  a  male  snake-  I  just  thought  them  unimportant.  They  were  not  allowed  to  talk  for  the  species.  They  were  not  allowed  to  represent  it.  Think  about  what  kids  think  sometimes;  the  thoughts  kids  have  are  a  rare,  clear  perspective  of  a  place  you  have  been  in  for  too  long;  life.

(They  will  take  some  funny  things  for  granted)  (And  question  what  you  have  taken  for  granted  without  noticing)  (When  you  play  with  language  you  feel  like  being  a  child  again)  (Your  brain  is  a  clean  slate  again)  (You  are  innocent  again).

There  are  other  places,  you  know;  outside  of  the  sky;  there  is  even  a  sky  over  the  living  room  ceiling.

If  someone  were  to  paint  clouds  on  my  ceiling  on  a  blue  background;  if  I  were  to  fall  into  a  state  of  hypnosis,  well,  I  wonder  what  I’d  be.  Maybe  I  shouldn’t  wonder.  There’s  way  too  much  randomness  in  this  world  for  us  not  to  aimlessly  wonder,  though.  It’s  what’s  keeping  us  from  crashing  onto  our  false  skies.

Author of the novel “De Volta ao Vazio” (in a rough translation, “Emptiness, Revisited”), Seelaender is a student of Literature at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Guest Posts, Inspiration, Travels

Degree of Latitude

February 5, 2017
map

By Josephine Ensign

This is a test of your mental state.1

  1. Where are you right now? (But first: Who are you? What’s the story of your true name?)
  2. What’s the date—day, month, year? (Where did you come from and where are you headed?)
  3. Repeat these three words after me: whale, map, stone. (Don’t question them; they’re important words.)
  4. Spell world backwards. (Now spell world spinning.)
  5. Repeat the phrase: ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss.’ What do you suppose it means? (Be careful of your answer. It can indicate instability.)
  6. Take these stones in your right hand. Roll them slowly in your hand like dice. Drop them on the floor. (Repeat. Gently, rhythmically. Imagine ocean waves lapping the shores of a pebbled beach.)
  7. Write a sentence. (Now write another sentence connected with the first. Repeat.)
  8. Tell me the names of the three items I gave you earlier. (Remember them? Whale, map, stone….)

 _________________________________________

Whale.

August 11, 1980. Time: 1720/ Position: 49.39 degrees N, 60.29 degrees W. Sea level. Banc Beauge, Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Canada.

Call me Josephine, although at the time I went by my childhood nickname: BJ. I’ve just turned nineteen and I’m at the helm of the Westward, a 125-foot topsail schooner oceanographic research vessel out of Woods Hole, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We’re under full sail. I’m steering a course SE toward Lark Harbour, Bay of Islands, Newfoundland. I glance down at the glass globe crystal ball of the compass binnacle in front of me. We’ve been blown off-course by a Force Nine gale lasting two days and nights. Today it’s passed by to the north, leaving us in sight of the desolate flat-lined coast of Labrador. The heavy grey clouds undulate above us, breaking in places to lapis sky. The breeze is stiff and steady, whipping small white-frothed waves against our hull. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts, loss, Miscarriage

Finding My Vocabulary.

January 10, 2015

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By Carly Williams.

I’ve learned a new vocabulary.

Dead. Death. Dead baby. Stillbirth. Stillborn. Neonatal death. Miscarriage. Bereaved.

At times I surprise myself at the ease with which death rolls off my tongue.

This fresh plethora of words flows easily from my unsilenced lips, slips calmly from my soured mouth.

For some, my emerging voice rings discordant. I wear, for all to see, the dark grief of random loss. Who wants to look at me, when my son’s death reflects the frailty of all life? Who wants to hear a language they don’t ever want to learn?

Language spirals uselessly around the death of a child or baby. I watch as the eyes of observers dart around, in search of an alternative to my truth. There is no alternative.

My vocabulary is the truth, my truth. Continue Reading…