Some days it feels like the more I consume of the news, the more I must be living in the staff writers’ room at The Onion. But no, this nonsense really is happening. The extraordinary lack of leadership and overall ineptitude of our federal and (here in Texas) state officials have gone beyond usual politics and launched us straight into The Twilight Zone. I’ll refrain from getting too far in the weeds with that right now, but suffice it to say we had a national strategy for pandemics and an expert team in place to navigate them back in 2015, but when the White House changed hands, all that stuff got disappeared, and the experts who participated in pandemic exercises were fired for “disloyalty.” (I’m reminded of Dolores Umbrage taking over Hogwarts.) Anyway, other writers have tackled that subject very well already. I want to write here, instead, about apocalypse. (And in this post you’ll notice that I’m practicing a type of mindfulness, in general and of my topic, as I begin to veer outward toward the grand and continually reel things back in to the personal.)
So, apocalypse. Not The Apocalypse (in whatever mythology is currently in your mind when you read that word), but the idea of apocalypses, which actually happen pretty often as part of the human experience. Say or write that word enough and it will start to become bizarre, start to lose its terrifying power. Now say or write it again: apocalypse. It becomes commonplace. Deconstructed from its connotation and transformed into a simple artifact of language. Comforting in its banality. Let me explain.
The word “apocalypse” has Greek roots. “Apo-” is the prefix meaning “un-,” and “kalyptos” means “covered.” The Latinized form of Greek “kalyptein” means “to cover or conceal.” Thus it follows, when you put those word parts together, that “apokalyptein” means “to uncover or reveal.” The word “apokalypsis” migrated into Latin and Old French as “apocalypse.” An apocalypse, as my friend and colleague Christa Forster often says, is an unhiding.
Sometimes when things are revealed – when they are uncovered, when what has been hiding them is stripped away – we feel as if the ground beneath our feet has shifted so irrevocably that we will no longer feel stable again. That can be the emotional effect of apocalypse. We feel unsteady, as if we’re treading unevenly over broken ground amidst the rabble ruin of our preconceived ideas. This feeling is brought forth in – and by – the literature of profound disruption and destruction.
But apocalypse myths have another feature in common as well: they lead to rebirth.
We find this not only in the destruction myths of multiple major and minor religions, but even in popular culture. Battlestar Galactica, Titan A.E., Lord of the Rings, Good Omens – these are perhaps obvious examples. And forgive me for quoting a rock song, but even the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing in “Californication” that “destruction leads to a very rough road but it also breeds creation.” I mean, even the Mayan calendar starts (that is, it started) over.
And speculative fiction (including both literature and film) tends to lend itself to the epic scale of what we think of when we imagine destruction myths. When was the last time you picked up a science fiction or fantasy novel where the entire world (or some perhaps personal version of it) was not at stake? We live in a culture of extremes. Our discourse is extreme, our adherence to ideologies and technologies is extreme, our reaction to everything around us is extreme. Doxxing, cancel culture, and hate speech are all part of this. So are the movies which are successful at the box office. You can read my review of the absolutely excellent Winona Ryder/Keanu Reeves film Destination Wedding here. It talks about some of this stuff, too.
That movie is hilarious and worthwhile, and I highly recommend it. But it wasn’t a commercial success probably because it is “thoughtful” and “quiet.” It’s a story in which the stakes are only personal. As I note in my post about that film, our culture seems to have evolved – at least in some ways – to a moment when stakes which don’t involve something epic or grand or societally- or globally-scaled must not be important, necessary, or even entertaining. And again, as I noted, if I were wrong, social media wouldn’t be “a hellscape rage-osphere of shitty opinions and offensive shares.”
Is Destination Wedding an apocalypse story? No, because the whole world isn’t hanging in the flashy balance of violence. And also, yes, because what these two characters reveal to each other about themselves uncovers what’s at the heart of who they are as people, and there is transformation as they are unhidden from themselves. This resonates with me in part because I’m a writer who doesn’t usually tackle world-hanging-in-the-balance stakes. The personal ones, based in character, matter more to me, and those are the stories I usually write, even though my fiction is mostly in the speculative arena. (That makes it hard, sometimes, to get some of those literary fantasy stories traditionally published.)
So what about our current little apocalypse right now? How is this pandemic changing us? I think we have to broaden that question and consider how we as a society have been changing. What is revealed?
Some say the election of Trump in 2016 was an apocalypse. Sure, it’s not the end of the world (perhaps / let’s hope), but it did reveal a whole lot of what was hiding in the woodwork of our nation. His election has unhidden the most grotesque parts of human nature in so many people. That stuff was always there, but now it’s in the light. Well, if we think of those terrible ideologies as mold or fungus, remember that sunlight is like bleach.
This pandemic has exposed so much of what is fragile and broken in our country. It made us take a pause, and even that revealed our further weaknesses, intellectual and moral and financial. Shakespeare wrote, “How poor are they that have not patience.” We are in an anxious morass of all of that right now. (I’ll take boneheaded decisions and pronouncements coming out of the Texas capitol for $400, Alex.)
But within a pause, we have the opportunity to fix some things. In a positive and necessary turn of events, socially conscious businesses and justice-minded people all over the place are waking up to ways in which they have been complicit in societal ills such as racism, inequity, and oppression. Even our private school is finally, meaningfully, focused on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Tackling these issues is a much bigger blog post, so I’m going to step away from this grand-scale apocalypse for a moment and return to the personal: the lower but still important stakes.
One thing the pandemic has uncovered for me is how very unhealthy my previous lifestyle was. Working too hard for too many hours with nothing but stress to bolster me awake is no way to live – nor even any way to work effectively. Running around for most of the day every Saturday and Sunday, running errands with no downtime, is not just unhealthy, it’s for the birds. I never want to go back to that. This pandemic has unhidden from me, among other things, what I no longer want or need in my life.
I won’t lie. This hasn’t been easy the entire time. Despite my family’s extraordinarily fortunate circumstances at the moment, I have had a few meltdowns here and there. I had an unexpectedly challenging transition to working from home, which has been a slow burn of annoyance and intellectual feeling more than anything else. I miss my aunts – whom I don’t feel safe going to see lest I unwittingly expose them to any germs at all – so much. I haven’t finished some of the things I wanted to do this summer, and every day that list grows longer, compounded by the stress of the school year getting ready to start again. Even just this weekend, I’m trying to proofread a galley for Homecoming, trying to restart daily writing on the new novel, trying to clean my house, and trying to do about ten hours of school prep for classes which start next week. I might be out of my mind as well as out of options and backup plans.
But I’m trying to be patient with myself and others. No matter your level of privilege or lack of it, none of this (*gesticulates wildly at the current landscape of our lives*) is easy.
It is instead the hard – but important – work of rebuilding, rebirth, re-creation. Hwaet. Time to get back to it.
I have a love-hate relationship with my new cell phone. On the one hand, it can do more things — lots more things — than my old one, which solves some of the annoyances of the old model, and the browsing on the new phone is light years better. On the other hand, it has a touch screen.
I can’t stand touch screens. They frustrate me to no end, in part because this is where technology is heading, and in part because I can get them to operate properly only about half the time I try. Even this is a dramatic improvement over a year ago. It doesn’t have to do with my fingernails getting in the way. (Everyone always asks about that.) I just can’t reliably get the screen to respond to my touch. For my birthday, my friend Margo gave me several stylus pens to use with the new phone, which has helped tremendously, but it’s still not nearly as fast as that tactile-button Blackberry keyboard my thumbs had come to love.
The upshot of all of this is that my phone is no longer a device of extraordinary convenience. I used to be able to spend half an hour catching up on emails and text messages while waiting somewhere and feel like that time was incredibly productive. Now, such an exercise would make me more stressed and irritated because of the clumsiness of the device-user interaction.
So my emails and text messages continue to pile up at an alarming rate, just like they used to before I had a smart phone. And I have begun to shrink from electronic communication as the go-to method of interaction. As unfortunate as that may sound to many people, I’m not convinced it’s a terrible thing.
While I kind of hate my new phone, I kind of love the fact that I’m not constantly attached to it.
In “The Flight From Conversation,” Sherry Turkle writes, among many other astute observations on the way technology has impacted our lives, that “the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.” She asserts that we as a society have moved from conversation to “connection,” which in this context means not making a real connection with another person on anything like a deeper level, but rather connecting to our devices with the result (or in some cases, the goal) of pushing the actual people in our lives farther away. “[O]ver time we stop caring” about this shift in our interactions with the people in our lives; “we forget that there is a difference.” She likens the way we connect to each other now to taking little “sips” — when really, what we need and have in many cases lost is the gulp of being together.
Hamlet, in a moment of snark with Polonius, told him the matter he was reading was “Words, words, words” (II.ii.191). In looking up the punctuation and citation for that quote, I reached for my Pelican Shakespeare from college on the shelf by my desk rather than open a new browser window and Google it. I’m not convinced the way I did it took any longer than the electronic way, and something about the silky texture of the pages and the visual flash of years of annotations scrawled into the margins as I thumbed through it comforted me. There’s a continuity to the physical book that reminds me its contents are more or less permanent, that I can rely on them to be there when I need them, that the only likely user error I might have when interacting with it is a paper cut, rather than a mockingly blank screen or a spinning color wheel of doom.
I am not a luddite, truly. I use technology on a daily basis, and I’m not half bad at it most of the time. I’m one of the only teachers in my department, though, who doesn’t have a Promethean board yet. I keep wanting to make the leap, but I hear such horror stories of technological problems, breakdowns, glitches and the like, that I’m more inclined to stick with what I know works, even if it makes me look like a dinosaur. At least, I rationalize, I’m a functioning dinosaur who doesn’t waste precious minutes of class time dealing with slow screens and the repetitive process of maximizing and minimizing windows.
But I know it’s a faulty argument. And yes, I know about what eventually happened to the dinosaurs. (I think about it every time I grumble about the touch screen on my cell phone.) Still, something prevents me from spending my summer learning the new device – something beyond the simple fact that I don’t truly have time in my summer for it. Part of me loves the idea of catching up with my colleagues. Part of me feels like the choice isn’t really authentic, and so…well, you know.
I think one of the problems I have with the break-neck pace of technology is its break-neck pace: the inherent lack of opportunity for people to think carefully about what exactly they’re getting into. I can’t even tell you how many times my students (who are in high school) have brought up the pitfalls of their “digital age” in class discussions. They acknowledge that their generation is poised to be more readily adept at social media yet, paradoxically, less equipped to understand its consequences. Remember when sexting first gained notoriety? Aside from the utter lack of forethought about the consequences to one’s reputation such an action implies, there’s that little matter of the law against the distribution of child pornography.
Oops. Now there’s an embarrassing thing to have on one’s record.
But we don’t have to consider frightening near-future scenarios that once would have been considered science fiction to realize that rapid, electronic communication is hurting the way we interact with each other. We can see this stuff any time, any place; sometimes we don’t even register at first what’s happening to us.
I’ve read no fewer than half a dozen articles or posts in the last couple of months which were so negative they actually kind of ruined my day. (I’m not sharing any links to them because I don’t want to spread the ugly.) In each case, the author excused him- or herself from politeness or the consideration of other people’s feelings with the common disclaimer of “I’m just blunt” or “I tell it like it is” or some other similar sentiment. The laconic “Sorry.” which sometimes followed rang with the tinny hollowness of inauthenticity, the electronic addition of insult to injury.
As Turkle asserts, “connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we…can attend to tone and nuance…are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.” Taking the other face out of a face-to-face interaction removes the urgency to do that. Out of sight, out of mind.
I don’t have a problem with frankness. I don’t have a problem with email – other than the sheer volume of it – or with other forms of electronic communication or with social media. Used thoughtfully and responsibly, these things are a joyful wonder and a powerful tool. But the instantaneous nature of such avenues for expression sometimes, I think, makes it too easy for us not to revise, not to think through what we’re saying. It makes us too quick to – publicly – judge.
And yes, we all do it. I’ve done it, but I’m not proud of it. I’ve tried really hard not to, but I’m no more perfect than anyone else, and probably a good sight less. That doesn’t excuse me.
Teaching is a difficult profession in the best of circumstances, but it can also be rewarding – if one doesn’t mind delayed gratification. You know how it goes: the students who apparently hate everything about you when they’re stuck in your class come back after a year or two of college for a visit, and walk into your classroom just to tell you how important your class was, just how much they learned from you, and thank you so much. Those are such good days, if you can just hold on long enough to experience them.
I know a lot of teachers who have a love-hate relationship with their jobs.
There’s a poem I read in the early years of my teaching career that has stuck with me ever since. It was written by a former colleague of mine, Sharon Klander, and I’m reposting it here with her permission.
When they complain about grammar, commas, and colons, want to go straight to the “A” without sweat or rhetorical scope, I tell them
. how easy it is for language to slip the line and spill across the boundaries of another’s feelings, someone you love
. reading the letter twenty times straight, finally convinced it must be over.
. . Or maybe the address book falls to pages each time you look for a number because starting a new one would mean
. leaving out all the names who died and you think maybe the letters themselves make manifest, maybe God really did it all
. with a word. What control we have we find in marks sharp as a look back, going over and over what went wrong, wondering
. how could we ever mean what we say?
The first time I read this poem, I was an adjunct instructor at Houston Community College, teaching three sections of remedial English. Most of my students were older than I, and sometimes some of the gentlemen I taught (and I use the term “gentlemen” loosely) thought it was cute to challenge me in front of the class on the finer points of grammar or punctuation or how to construct a decent compound sentence, since they’d “been writing perfectly good business letters for years” using their rules, and they’d climbed up the corporate ladder very well, thank you. It would have been rude of me to ask them what they were doing in my class were that the case, so I was a good girl and just pressed on with my lessons, perhaps unfortunately reinforcing their ideas that a well-made suit was impressive enough an impression to make.
My students’ abilities ranged from ready-for-freshman-English to genuinely-impaired, and because of the way the standardized testing and scoring worked, these students were sometimes all in the same class. Klander’s poem appeared on the back of the English department newsletter one month, and it helped me stick out that teaching job for four difficult semesters.
In my last term there, a mentally handicapped student whose parents refused to believe he needed help — a student who’d already failed my class twice before — started to become belligerent, threatening. He was physically bigger than I was, and he made this point a couple of times after class when he stayed behind to argue over a D on his paper. He also let it drop that he knew approximately where I lived, because he had an apartment in the same neighborhood. One night after class, he tried to get me to say my address.
Most of my classes were held in the evening; the department office closed up shop before I did. Even in April, it was always dark by the time I left work, the walk to my car in the parking garage filled with echoes. A male colleague happened to be walking by as I was leaving the classroom that night; I engaged him in conversation immediately, and the student left. My colleague walked me to my car, and the next day I explained to my department chair, Alan, that I felt unsafe with this student.
“What are the odds,” I asked, “that when he fails my course again, he’ll end up in my class, again, next semester?”
Alan appeared to be weighing his words. Finally he said, “Pretty good.” Then he added, “He requests you.”
I turned in my notice. Alan appeared disappointed but understanding. He didn’t try to make me change my mind.
Among the things I kept from that job, Klander’s poem, torn from the back of the department newsletter, stayed in my briefcase for a long time, until I taped it up onto the door of the classroom where I finally landed, in the school where I’ve now been teaching thirteen years.
I come back to this poem often, in my mind, when I think about language and teaching and the way we communicate with others. The power of words, the sheer number of words in our language, the multiple ways we have of expressing ourselves and our intelligence to comprehend such a thing — these all demand our responsibility to use words wisely. I think we have a moral obligation to treat each other with intention: we need to pay attention to the words we use with each other, because language is the currency of most relationships.
This means we don’t use text message abbreviations in our academic papers. This means we use active and interesting verbs or specific adjectives to express just what we truly want to say. This means we take a sharp look back at what we’ve dashed off in an email or a Facebook post and reread it, think about it, before we hit send.
It means I have the time, with my super-slow-going new cell phone, to pay attention to what I’m telling someone before I actually do it, and to change what I’ve said to make sure I’m not coming across badly. I don’t want my recipient to wonder how I could ever mean what I say.
Let’s return for a moment to that last semester I taught at the community college. I also had several residencies with Writers in the Schools and taught over a dozen gifted students in Johns Hopkins’ distance ed program. (This was back before those classes were conducted online; we did it all through the mail.)
Everything that spring felt awful. I was grading about three hundred papers a week. All of these jobs were considered part-time — in other words, no benefits — yet all told, I was working well more than one full-time job might have required of me. I had been working so much — teaching all day five days a week, teaching two nights a week, filling in all the rest of the nights and weekends with my distance ed course — that I was exhausted and run-down and really quite sick. I was also trying to move out of my parents’ house for the first time with someone who would be, in hindsight, the wrong roommate, a process that was going badly. And everywhere around me, people were dying.
And I mean actually dying. My friends’ grandparents were dropping at an alarming rate. My own grandmother had been losing her siblings at the pace of one every seven or eight weeks for several months. My mom’s aunt became sick to danger while staying at our house. And my friend Aaron — who would, a couple of years later, become my husband — lost his girlfriend at the time to a brain aneurysm. She was among the first casualties of our social group, the clue that we were actually embarking on adulthood, ready or not.
April that year sucked.
Another good friend, Brian, who lived several states away, sent me an email to cheer me up in the midst of my nervous breakdown. He knew how surreal and desperate everything must be feeling. Text messaging and Facebook did not yet exist. We did not yet own cell phones. Email was an actual convenience.
He had gone to the magnetic poetry kit on his refrigerator — though he didn’t consider himself a poet beyond that novelty — and written me a poem, a virtual hug, which I printed out and carried around in my purse with me for at least ten years in a pouch with my social security card, a picture of the Virgin Mary, and, eventually, my grandmother’s obituary.
hit me with a rusty chain I need to have sordid crushing moments so beat me madly like a delicate red rose in a summer storm and then we will go eat
It wasn’t the fact that he’d sent an email. It wasn’t that he’d made a connection with me in a way I could print out and keep and refer to whenever I needed it. It was that he’d used words, carefully selected and thought-out, to convey something deeper than a platitude of sympathy. “Yes,” he was saying, “sometimes life is just awful all around you, and that must be really hard for an empath. But you’re stronger than you think, and you will endure.” And I wasn’t going to be alone doing it. This helped me more than a simple “get over it sweetie 🙂 u can handle it xo” ever could have had the capacity to do.
Sometimes words fail us all, and sometimes we feel that void keenly. I have a love-hate relationship with words. They are gorgeous in their infinite variety, magnificent to wield. But they also crush, enable, soothe, placate, burn. Sometimes unintentionally. How can we ever mean what we say? It takes thoughtfulness, and that takes time. Technology seeks to eliminate that time.
There’s an old joke about a poet. He sees his friend for lunch, and his friend asks him what he’s worked on all morning. The poet answers, “I edited one of my poems. I put a comma in.” They see each other again that night for dinner, and the friend asks the poet what he’s worked on all afternoon. The poet answers, “I took the comma back out.”
I tell that joke now and only about half the people get it. A student of mine actually said once, in response, “Did he actually spend his whole day thinking about a single comma? Why didn’t he just use grammar check?” The tone of voice implied, “That’s stupid.” Rather than give a lengthy explanation of why grammar check cannot comprehend the intricacies of poetry, I told another joke.
Someone whose name has been lost to me — and Google search fails me now in my efforts to look up who it was — once quipped that he couldn’t get a Ouija board to work for him because of its lack of punctuation and inability to convey irony.
My students just stared at me. Crickets.
I’m starting to feel unfunny.
How many times will I revise this essay before I post it? It’s already taken me a week longer to write than I thought it would. If you’ve gotten to this point, I’m proud of you and utterly grateful, because so few people, I’m told, read anything online this long. I thought about serializing this post, but the fragments don’t work so well on their own. They need each other like most people need each other, more intimately than the conventions and stereotypes of technology allow for.
I remember the very first post I made here, an essay that was longer than the proscribed 2,000 words. I sent the link to all my friends and family to let them know I’d launched Sappho’s Torque, with the hopes that at least a few of them would subscribe. I remember my dad saying a few days later that he’d seen it, but the thing was just too long for him to keep reading it. He was too busy in his job (he’s a financial consultant — a Managing Director, in fact) to sit and do that. In his eyes, this didn’t mean he loved me any less or cared any less about my writing or that he was any less proud of me for whatever it was I was doing. But frankly, I knew, the world is too much with him. I remember when he used to read for pleasure, whole magazines filled with scientific articles and speculations about the universe. Now he reads his email and his reports and laments his lack of time for reading for fun.
Short stories have become popular again among my students. They’re like bite-sized chunks of literary gratification: something they can read in a night and have a discussion about the next day and be done. Check that off the list.
How many books have you read this year? Well, I’ve read about a dozen stories. Oh, that counts for something. Yes, and it didn’t put me out at all.
I’m going to have to split the novel I’ve written into two books because it’s over 200,000 words, and agents keep telling me that my query is excellent and the story sounds awesome, and if I can just cut out about 80,000 words, they’d love to read it, but 200,000 words is just too much of a commitment. (Fortunately, the story can be split in half, and this is what I’m working on now. The bright-side way to look at this is that I’ll have two novels under my belt by the end of the year.) I suppose if I wanted to I could self-publish it as an e-book, and then its length wouldn’t be an impediment to its being read, but that’s not my first choice. I have a love-hate relationship with being in the writing industry.
But what else am I going to do? I’m a writer. My brain hums in the patterns of Story. Apart from recalling memories, more often than not, I think in text rather than images, words forming rapidly across the pale canvas of my mind. My friend Mary tells me I need to be what and who I am. “You’re trying not to be you for all the best reasons,” she says. “But not being who you are is a tragedy.” It reminds me of a line from the movie Dead Again, where Robin Williams’ character tells Kenneth Branagh’s he needs to figure out what he is and be it. Good advice. I’ve tried not being a writer, and that’s not good for anyone — not just for me, but especially for the people who have to live with me.
Before I embraced my fiction-writing self, I tried to be a poet. I wasn’t terrible at it and had a lot of poems published, won a few contests. I still write poetry now and then and love it, enjoy it, love teaching it more than most other things. I wrote this villanelle about eleven years ago, when I was going through a little bit of a crisis with my work.
I hate and love poems As I hate and love myself. Guilt wraps around my bones.
I drain my whole self slowly Into the shaft of a pen, then spill a mess. I hate and love poems.
Ecstasy creeps to bitter in the knowing This luxury cannot support itself, And so guilt wraps around my bones.
I’m ashamed, hesitate to go To that heady cliff of self-expression: I hate and love poems.
My husband wants to know When he can read the next poem, and the next. Empty-papered guilt wraps around my bones.
There is no filling bread in poetry, Only the impoverished nectar of ephemera. I hate and love poems; Guilt wraps around my bones.
But, of course, I didn’t actually stop doing it. And so my love affair with words continues.
This video came through my inbox this morning, and I just had to share. You probably already know — if you’ve been reading my blog a while — that I think words are important, and that the ones we choose and the ways we use them really matter. (For a little tutorial on my views, see my previous post, “Because Language Matters.” Incidentally, BLM remains to this day the most viewed post on this blog.)
Anyway, this short video is really nice. It’s an advertisement for something I’m not familiar with, so I’m not actually endorsing it, but I do think the video is very worthwhile.
So here’s a little game for you, should you choose to accept it. (I’m guessing at least one or two of you might.) And it’s a contest.
It’s a popular technique these days to write poems which are inspired by fragments of poetry written by other people. The idea is to build your own new poem around something you’ve seized upon, but to italicize the text you’ve borrowed so that it stands out from your own words.
I’ve done this below with some fragments of Sappho. (The snippets I’ve chosen are italicized.)
Here’s your challenge: You pick a poem, any poem, which has some words in it you like. Then let your ideas grow around those pieces of verse into something else which is your own entirely. Write in any form or style. (The piece I’ve included below is a prose-poem.) Then post your new poem into the comments section of this blog post.
I recognize writing a poem like this can take a while, so the contest will be open until the end of this month, midnight central time on the evening of March 31st. Depending on how many entries there are, there may even be a readers’ choice run-off for the best poem. The winner will win a lovely book — which book, I haven’t decided yet, because I’d like the prize to be tailored to fit the winning entry in some way.
Here’s an example for you, a prose-poem I wrote entitled (coincidentally) “Sappho’s Torque.” (And yes, the poem was written before I began this blog.) If you don’t know any other poems that you’d want to borrow text from, feel free to take the Sapphic snippets from mine here (or any other fragment of this poem, should you so desire). Regardless of which poem you borrow from, be sure to acknowledge where your italicized stuff came from.
I’m looking forward to reading your entries! Happy writing.
“It is too much to bear,” she said, “this weighing upon my mind.”
The roses in the garden burst in full floribundance, infusing the air with decadence and coloring the day and even the night with their velvet flesh. “Beauty is as beauty does,” they told her, and she thought then that the garden must be the locus of outrageous fortune, a siren’s lair filled with killing thorns, slings and arrows. So it is thus, she knew, that she first came to love the very idea of love, so often the gift of the image of a demi-god, tempered by the grotesquerie of real life.
“I am tired,” he intimates, while she relents for the love of him.
Eros, she thinks, melter of limbs, you who imprison me now again, are the sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in, who ignites my dependence and fuels it with my passion; you burn me.
She thinks that birds will fall into sea, that worms will climb the walls of the house, that lizards will come into the kitchen looking for food. And only she will be awake to notice.
I’ve been fielding questions about writing from my current and former students via email lately. Lots of them. And sometimes, similar questions from different people. I’d like to open this forum up for discussions about writing — anything from creative writing technique (that’s my background) to literary analysis (that’s my background too) to grammar (really just a hobby). I don’t profess to be an expert on anything, really, but if you pose a question in the comments section here, I’ll answer it to the best of my ability in a new blog post. Then anyone else who’s following this blog — and I know for a fact that several of you are also writers — please feel free to chime in on the discussion as well.
Not terribly long ago one of my students deeply disappointed me by using the word “gay” in my classroom to refer to something he really thought was “stupid.”
Rather than directly point out the boneheadedness of his statement, I asked him whether he meant to say that the idea in question was homosexual.
He looked at me blankly. “Huh?”
“Or did you mean to say that it’s really happy and carefree?”
“No,” he said, looking at me as if I’d just asked the most asinine question in the world. “I mean it’s stupid. I don’t like it.”
“Then why did you use the word ‘gay’ to describe something that clearly isn’t?”
“Because. That’s just how I talk.”
I appreciated his candor, even though I vehemently disagreed with his logic, because his frankness led to a productive discussion about the words we use and why we use them, about the concept of “framing the debate.” When people use “gay” to refer to something that they simply don’t like, they demonize a percentage of the human race, sometimes without meaning to and sometimes with malicious intent. They’re ascribing a quality which is Other from themselves in order to show disdain for something, but the problem with this, of course, is that this practice implies that Otherness is somehow bad or wrong, when in actuality, it usually isn’t.
“Okay, so how about I don’t use the word ‘gay,’” the kid suggested, “and instead say something else. How about…I don’t know, ‘pagan.’ I can say ‘pagan’ instead of ‘gay.’ Would that work?”
“Are you talking about ancient folk religions?” I asked.
“No, of course not, I’m talking about something stupid,” he said as if irritated, as if stunned that I hadn’t been paying attention.
“Then. That. Doesn’t. Work,” I said as evenly as I could, angry that this otherwise smart kid either was goading me on purpose or was actually, unfortunately, sincere. I wasn’t sure which possibility was worse.
“Then I’m not sure I see your point,” he said.
I explained that when you refer to something you don’t like in a pejorative way by naming it with a quality which is different from you — when actually there’s no logical reason to do so — you are, intentionally or subconsciously, demeaning anyone who actually does have that quality, solely because it is different from you.
We discussed Otherness and respect, and why respect and acceptance are different from tolerance. (One person even pointed out the narcissism implied by the idea that anything which is different from oneself is bad.) It took a while, but I think the student finally understood my point.
No one has used the word “gay” in that context in my class since. And that’s good, but I’m not naïve enough to imagine that it’s because I changed the social thinking patterns of a bunch of young people. More likely, it’s because getting read the riot act, no matter how politely, in front of one’s peers sort of sours the mood.
Or maybe it’s because I have a really big, colorful, eye-catching poster above the white board in my classroom that says, “F*G ISN’T FUNNY. Stop hate. Start now.”
In a particularly insightful essay about the n-word versus the f-word (and I don’t mean “fuck”), a friend of mine* once shed light on the conflicting ways in which American society treats discomfort with issues of race and sexuality. He wrote about the “Black Codes” enacted after the Civil War which “limited the access blacks had to the basic rights the rest of the nation enjoyed,” such as the ability to serve in the military and the right to marry. (Interracial marriage was outlawed in this country until just a few decades ago.) He contends that today, there are de facto “Gay Codes” in effect which affect a range of life experiences from professional opportunities to what someone does in the privacy of one’s bedroom with another consenting adult. Developments such as the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the very slowly increasing number of states which have legalized same-sex marriage are chipping away at these inequalities, but it’s a rough road. Civil rights battles are always protracted and painful.
Witness, for example, the atrocities of lynchings in the first half of the twentieth century. Witness the atrocity of the death of Matthew Shepard just before the turn of the twenty-first. And note the way people reacted to both situations in their respective time periods. As my friend wrote, “The fatal beating [Shepard] endured left his skull so badly shattered that the doctors in the hospital he was rushed to were unable to operate. It also left most of the country shocked and horrified. But it was only the brutality of the killing that evoked such a large emotional response; the anti-gay motives common to numerous incidences across the United States could not spark such a reaction on their own.”
These incidences he refers to include, among other thoughtless acts found in high school hallways, the use of the word “gay” to refer to something one does not like.
It’s probably obvious by now that I’m offended when people diminish the value of another human being simply because that person is different. Bullying is a terrible practice, made no more palatable by the real circumstance that it is motivated by fear or self-loathing or ignorance just as often as (if not more often than) by mean-spiritedness or herd mentality.
When my high school students use these kinds of slurs, I’m reminded of the elementary school children who won’t let one child play with them because they don’t like the exotic food his mother packs him for lunch. I’m reminded of the seventh grade boys who tease the girl in their class whose breasts have already developed. I’m reminded of adults who are so socially stunted that they avoid co-workers who practice different religions or who speak different languages at home or who sport the occasional tattoo or piercing. What are these people thinking? Probably a lot of things, but I’ll bet at the forefront of all of it is Otherness, and a subconscious inability to comfortably process it. It would be great if we could all start teaching the children around us right now that it takes all kinds to make a whole world, and that all people are equal.
And maybe if we work on that hard enough, eventually we will all teach ourselves, too, that sometimes those old patterns of behavior we may have been raised with aren’t necessarily the best way forward. I’m far from perfect, and though the environment in which I was raised was a good one overall, I wasn’t explicitly taught these progressive ideals at home — and certainly not at all in grade school — back in the 70s and 80s, but I’m finding that the more I work on it in my daily life now, the easier it is to erase those old uglinesses away from my children’s interactions with the world. As they say, lead by example: repeated actions become habit, and repeated habits become character. So the message is simple: say what you mean, and think before you speak.
And yes, I’ve heard the argument that this “evolution” of the word “gay” is just part of a natural progression of language, that the word used to mean “happy” and then it meant “homosexual” and now it means “stupid” or “objectionable.” I can see the logic in that thought process, but I reject it. What motivates it is, at best, laziness and at worst, a rationalization of malicious behavior and a lack of respect, and we cannot, on either a societal level or a personal one, tolerate that sort of thing if we want to live in a free and fair world.
And what intelligent or conscientious or foresightful person doesn’t want that?
* This friend has chosen to remain anonymous, although I am using his words and ideas with his expressed permission.