Poem-A-Day: William Shakespeare

If you’ve read my National Poetry Month series before, you know that I like to celebrate Shakespeare’s birth- and deathday with one of his poems. This year it’s with one of my favorite of his sonnets, number 116. This poem has been read at many a literary wedding (mine included) and earned a well-deserved jolt of popularity after Emma Thompson’s utterly brilliant adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility came out in theaters.

Romantics everywhere, enjoy.

***

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
.     If this be error and upon me proved,
.     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

***

When looking for an image of Shakespeare, I found several, and one was even of a reasonably good-looking man, but there’s no guarantee it’s accurate. In fact, this engraving and the funerary monument on The Bard’s grave are the only two likenesses of him that can be verified as accurate. So.

William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 (baptized) – 23 April 1616) was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon”. His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. You can learn more on his Wikipedia page, which is where I got the rest of this paragraph, because — like John Donne — Shakespeare is not in any realistic position to email me his bio.

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Our First Home

 

The first home my husband, Aaron, and I shared, before we were married, was the top floor of a charming but tiny 1930s duplex in the Montrose. It was the kind of apartment that let you appreciate Craftsman style and the fact that back then no one cared too much about kitchens and bathrooms or closets or privacy. We lived there because it was cuter and nicer and in a more artsy part of town than my generic mass-produced mass-populated complex, and because the rent was a better value when it came right down to what we were getting, and because Aaron had already been living there a couple of years.

But he hadn’t lived there alone. He’d shared this place with his girlfriend before me, a woman named Debra who’d suddenly died of an undetected brain aneurysm when she was twenty-seven. I’d met Debra a couple of times. I’d gone to college with Aaron, and we’d been friends for years, always in intersecting social circles, but I hadn’t known him well enough to have been chummy with any of his girlfriends. The third time I saw Debra was at her wake.

Five months of extraordinary personal growth later, Aaron and I began dating. Five weeks after that, we became engaged. The next year, I moved in. We had a house blessing, and though the space was never big enough, we were happy. We looked forward to buying our own house — one day. After we were married and out of debt. And in the meantime, we had a cute, historical-feeling place in a fabulous part of town. We were cool kids.

The apartment we lived in wasn’t perfect, though. The galley kitchen was definitely meant for one person, so we didn’t get to cook together or even clean up together that often. And our cats didn’t get along so well when we merged the two households. One of his, a black and white long-hair crazy kitty, liked to run through the house at high speeds for no apparent reason, meowing her head off, a lot of the time. (This cat, named Bubastis — Bubu for short — had seen some trauma. Her first owner had killed himself when she was barely weaned, and then she’d been close to Debra, too.) None of my husband’s cats particularly liked my own kitten, and turf wars in our cramped home were de rigeur. The amount of closet space in the whole house wouldn’t fit my clothes, much less both of ours and storage. We could hear the lumbering footsteps of the large dog downstairs echoing from the wood floors every day and night. The windows, original to the house, rattled in the wind, and the neighborhood lay under a major flight path, so airplanes flew loud and low overhead day and night. In the humid quiet hours of the middle of the night, distant train whistles echoed from all around us, and the mercury vapor lamp perched above the next-door neighbor’s driveway lit our bedroom orange. Even in our intimate newlywed moments, I felt safe only with the bedroom doors closed.

One night I woke from a dream, my eyes opening to stare at the bathroom in front of me. Unusually, the light was on in there, and backlit in the doorway stood Debra’s silhouette, dark and unfeatured, though I knew it must have been her; I could see the red edges of her hair. She stood still and silent, watching me. Frozen in sleep paralysis, I drifted back down, my eyes closing on the dream as her image disappeared and my slumber deepened. I woke the next morning without a care in the world. It has never been unusual for me to dream of the dead; it’s just another way my subconscious mind finds closure, and it usually gives me peace.

Fast forward ten years. Aaron and I have children and are living elsewhere, having graduated from that tiny duplex less than two years into our marriage. We’ve come into town to have dinner with some married friends, Roger and Celeste. Roger had lived in the garage apartment of that duplex Aaron and I had shared, and Celeste and I had gone to college together. They’d known Debra, of course.

After dinner, we’re sitting at their house telling stories, calculating in the lulls how much time we have until the babysitter needs us back in the suburbs. Celeste tells us about the ghosts in the Heights, where they live, how their house is like Grand Central Station for this spirit or that one. We speak of how much we like our house now, of how much space we have, even if it’s far away, and how I seem to have lost my fear of the dark. “I think it’s because the house we’re in now is mine, it’s my own. I’ve bought it, there’s a mortgage.” I’m an adult now, with children to set an example for, and have no need to fear the dark.

Then I admit I’d never really felt comfortable in that old apartment in the Montrose, how it’d been six months before I could even really go into the kitchen. How even the cats like each other in the new house, too, how Bubu has calmed down considerably since the move.

“Did the kitchen still have all those little cows in it?” Celeste asks.

Yes, it had — Aaron had forgotten that, when he and Debra had moved in, she’d decorated that room with little cow heads for cabinet doorknobs, with Holstein-spotted contact paper on the shelves. I’d always thought it was odd but hadn’t ever said anything; it hadn’t been my place to criticize the design choices of someone else’s home.

And then I tell them about the dream I’d had, the strange one when I’d half-woken to see Debra standing in the doorway of the room where she’d first collapsed, looking at me asleep next to my husband in our bed.

Aaron looks hesitant for a moment, then says he remembers that dream.

“But I never mentioned it to you,” I say. “It was nothing.”

“It wasn’t nothing,” he says slowly. “I had it, too — or rather, I didn’t. I wasn’t asleep. I didn’t tell you in the morning because I didn’t want to scare you.”

More talking, more triangulating, more uncovering the details to find it was the same middle of the same night.

It wasn’t a dream.

More putting the pieces together, more realizing I’d never felt at home in that apartment because I wasn’t the only woman there.

 

A Valentine Story

My grandfather Joe, on my dad’s side, fought alongside his brothers and cousins for the US in WWII.  He found himself in multiple theaters: at Normandy, in Northern Africa, in Italy.  And unlike many men of that generation, he never shied away from telling us stories about the war, but he picked his tales carefully.  We heard anecdotes about the lighter side of things, such as the small black goat they bought from a man on the side of the road; they named the kid Midnight and made him their company’s mascot for a while.

My favorite story, though, was the one he and my grandmother, Rose, told us about how they met and married.  Seeing as Valentines’ Day approaches with relentless haste and this is such a sweet tale, I want to share it with you.  My grandmother isn’t alive anymore, and my grandfather is in his nineties, and now just feels like the right time to commit this story to writing.

My grandfather was on a thirty-day furlough from the army and was headed home to Houston.  It was the mid-1940s, and he’d had several tours in the war already.  He came back stateside to the northeast and then took a long train ride down to San Antonio, where he would need stay at the base for processing for three days before continuing on home.  On the train to Texas, he sat across from a man he didn’t know, but who had “the map of Lebanon on his face.”  Always happy to meet any ethnic brethren, my grandfather introduced himself, and on that journey, they became friends.

I don’t remember the other Lebanese man’s name, but he lived in San Antonio, and he invited my grandfather to come home with him for real food instead of staying at the base the whole time.  He didn’t have to ask twice.

Now, across the street from that hospitable gentleman lived the Sacres, another Lebanese family.  The Sacres had six grown children, three boys and three girls; their boys had been in the war, too, and they had a kindly habit of inviting the Lebanese GIs coming through San Antonio over for dinner.  When they found out their across-the-street neighbor was home and that he had a friend with him, the dinner invitation couldn’t come fast enough.

The Sacre daughters — Mary, Sarah, and Rose — were all beautiful as could be, and they were polite to the soldiers at dinner.  And afterward the young people all went out bowling.

(Yes, bowling.  Fun Sacre pastime that, like playing Canasta, lasted all the way to my generation.)

Over the next three days, while my grandfather was in town, they all continued to meet and go out, but it was clear that he had a particular interest in Rose.  The oldest sister, Mary, told Rose she should date him.  He was good-looking and from a well-heeled family in Houston.  My grandmother was ambivalent, largely because when the soldiers had come for dinner that first night, my grandfather had kept staring at her.

“I was admiring your dress,” he insisted when they told me this story.

“You were looking at my chest,” she scolded him.

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were,” she said.  She turned to me. “I had on this white eyelet dress, and it was pretty, I guess.”

“Very pretty,” my grandfather corrected her.  She shrugged, but even more than fifty years later, she still blushed cheerfully about it.

So in those three days, the young folks managed to see each other quite a bit.  Joe told Rose he’d be back in a couple of weekends, and he hoped she’d go out with him again.

“Okay,” she responded casually, but with a very nice smile.

When she told her older sister Mary about it, Mary was very keen that Rose go out with him.  But my grandmother could be a bit stubborn and never liked being told what to do.  She acted noncommittal and advised Mary that she should go out with him instead.  Well, of course that didn’t happen.

Two weeks later, Joe came back to San Antonio and took Rose to a dance.  He told her he wanted to marry her.  I’m not sure what had changed in my grandmother’s mind in those two weeks, but she agreed.  While my grandfather was on leave, the war ended, and he was discharged from the army so he could come back to Houston and make his life as a grocer.

And as a husband.  A couple of months later, Joe and Rose married.  They went to the beach for a little honeymoon.  They lived in Houston, had seven children, and — though it wasn’t any more perfect than any other marriage, and in some ways it was rockier at times — they made a pretty good life of it.

My grandmother passed away from cancer in 2001, a few weeks after they celebrated their anniversary.  It was a party around her sickbed.  She was lucid, we all managed to be cheerful, and there were so many friends and family members around we couldn’t all fit.  The cake was enormous, and my grandfather held her hand all afternoon.

***

Last year around this time, I suggested you should write a love note to someone — anyone — for Valentines’ Day.  I think this ought to be an annual tradition.  Go ahead, write a love note, write a poem if you like, write a card.  Do something wonderful for someone you care about.

Here, Dear Readers, is a valentine for you.

My daughter made this.  Pretty cool, huh?  She made a different valentine for every teacher and classmate and friend.  I wish I could take pictures of all of them to show you.
My daughter made this. Pretty cool, huh? She made a different valentine for every teacher and classmate and friend. I wish I could take pictures of all of them to show you.

National Poetry Month — Just a Little Over a Week Left! (Until Next Year, That Is…)

Hey there.  Have you all written a poem or two in honor of April, National Poetry Month?  Maybe you’ve attended a poetry reading?  (I know some of you have, because I saw you at mine a few weeks ago.  Thanks!)  Or maybe you’ve gone out and purchased a book of poetry, thereby doing your small part to help stimulate the economy?  No? Hmm…we can fix that…

Go out and support a local independent bookstore this week by purchasing a book from them, ideally (since it’s still April), a book of poems.  If you don’t like to read poetry yourself, then get one as a gift for someone who does.  And for the next week or so, you can even find copies of one of my chapbooks of poetry, still available till the end of month, at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.  Here’s their website:  www.brazosbookstore.com.  (Perhaps if sales of it go well this month they’ll want to keep featuring it on their shelves.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  It could happen.)

The chapbook they have in stock right now will likely be out of print soon, so this might be one of your last chances to find it anywhere.  It’s entitled Barefoot on Marble:  Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.  I thought, for this weekend’s post, it might be nice to share with you a sampling from this volume.  Back in the late 90’s when I was living part of every year in Los Angeles, I had written a short series of poems which my friend and poetry colleague Greg Rea had dubbed “mermaid lit.”; this is one of the poems from that series, a sestina.  (And because of the vagaries of WordPress formatting, I’ve placed an asterisk each time there’s a stanza break, just to make it clear.  Sorry I had to do that, and if you WordPress bloggers out there know how to insert a space-break on here without having the formatting ripped out when the post gets published, I’d love the guidance.  Thanks.)

Enjoy!

***

Moving to Green Rain Island, Your Home

We’ve been sitting on the bed
in the place where it rains
every afternoon as a part
of the natural order of things.
The afternoons become evenings
quickly here under the rainy sky.

I recall an afternoon when a green sky
made me want to crawl into bed
and wait for the dark, wet evening
to clean the greenness away with rain.
The sky-light washed all of our things
in a pale green bath, and a part

of me wished we could make a departure
from this place, jump into the wet sky,
leaving all our things
in the house, piled on our bed
in case rains swallowed the land.  Blanket-cocooned, I trembled for rain
to wash the daylight out of the evening

air, but the green tint slid even
onto the darkness, partially
dripped in sheets by the rain,
partially a reflection on the sky
of the wet trees.  The window by the bed
shook with the wind, and little things

started to scare me.  I packed a few things
into a satchel in case we left for the evening
to sleep in your old bed
at your parents’ house.  They were never a part
of the plan, but even I could not resist the sky’s
thundering, the ugly greenness of rain.

Now, wrapped in the blanket, we watch the rain
dripping rivers on the window.  You reassure me our things
will be safe in this house, under this sky,
under our bed, and that we will stay home all evening.
I’m not wild about the weather here, but I guess it’s part
and parcel of being with you, together in this bed,

in this house, under this rainy sky,
on an island where people leave their things under their beds
and the evening is part of the afternoon.

Another Poetry Challenge

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.

***

Sappho’s Torque

“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.

Something So Simple

I had a strange conversation last summer with my daughter.  We were driving home one afternoon.  My son, then four, was napping in the sun.  My daughter was watching the scenery out her window, and we were both listening to the music playing on the radio.  We hadn’t talked for several songs, just having a mellow car ride home.  Then all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, she tells me in a dreamy voice, “Mommy, I love Ferdinand.”  This is a boy in her class.  (Please note, Ferdinand is not his real name.)

“You do?” I asked, thinking this was something to investigate, but not freak out about, not yet.

“Yeah, I do.”  She was wearing the kind of smile I could imagine the Mona Lisa wearing, if she had been struck with pleasant infatuation at the age of six and had just eaten a chocolate bar.

“That sounds nice,” I said, trying to figure out how to evaluate what she meant by “love.”  I decided to abandon subtlety.  “How do you know you love Ferdinand?” I asked, keeping my voice even, light, relaxed.

“Sometimes I just feel like he’s here with me,” she said with great contentment.  “Sitting next to me, talking to me, taking a nap with me during movie time.”  (The sleepover phenomenon had just started among the kids in her grade, but not boy-girl ones, thank you very much.)

She hadn’t seen this kid in a couple of months.  “And do you like to imagine he’s here with you?”

“Yes,” she said, that same sweet smile still gracing her lips.

“So…what about him makes you love him?”

She flashed a really big grin at me.  “He’s really funny.  He makes me laugh.”

This is a good start, I thought.  “That’s an important quality in someone you love,” I said.  “And does Ferdinand love you, too?”

“Oh, yes, he adores me,” she said with the kind of self-assurance most adults don’t have when they answer this question.

“That’s very sweet.”  I smiled at her in the rearview mirror.  “Has he said that to you?”

“No,” she said peacefully, undaunted.

“Then how can you tell he loves you?”

“Because when he sees me, he gets this really big smile on his face that he doesn’t get for anyone else.”

I was struck by the simplicity of her answer, by its grace.  I did not freak out.  She was beaming, and in this moment I was hopeful that these two children really did have such a genuine affection for each other.  I was immediately reminded of Linda from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the instincutal affection Timmy and Linda have for each other at the age of nine, a fondness they don’t have the vocabulary to explain and yet somehow, don’t need in order to feel or express it.

“We should tell Daddy about him when we get home,” I suggested, and she nodded her head and continued smiling out the window at the scenery.

I wondered whether Daddy would freak out.  Considering he started grumbling at boys he saw walking down the street as soon as we found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I guessed he would.  But, I wondered, should he?

Something of the self-assurance my daughter exhibited in the car that day gets lost between childhood and adulthood; I think it’s probably burned away in the crucible of adolescence, and unfortunately, young adulthood doesn’t do much to replenish it for most people — or at least, most of the people I’ve known or observed.  How horrible.  And I say this without too much irony.  Even I, in my rock-solid life filled with blessings and a happy marriage, haven’t completely regained that sense of confidence, at least not 100% of the time.  Sometimes I wonder if I ever will, or if my brain just isn’t hard-wired that way.  It’s a conundrum.

I’ve been thinking lately about love and what it makes us do, how it makes us feel, and how much I desperately wish everyone in the world could experience it on a daily basis.

***

One of the most important things I learned when I had children was that one’s capacity for love only increases.  Exponentially, in fact.

I worried when I was pregnant with my son that my and my husband’s love for each other and for our daughter would be divided when our son was born.  Mostly I was worried that my husband’s affection for me would diminish down to a slice of his attention as he lavished all his emotional wherewithal on the kids.  He’s such a good father that I didn’t see how it would be possible for him to focus on all of us at once, or together.  I sat on this anxiety for too long, and when I finally, tearfully, expressed my fears to him, he smiled and put a gentle hand on my swelling, kicking belly and explained to me in the most loving terms possible that I was a hormonal, raving lunatic.

“That’s just not the way it works,” he said.  “Why on earth would it be?”  He reminded me that I didn’t love him any less just because our daughter had come along.  He asked whether I intended to reduce my affection for him once our son was born.

“Of course not!” I sputtered, indignant.

He shook his head indulgently.  “Then why are you worried?”

That, I didn’t have a good answer for, and in the absence of clarity, I just kept my stupid thoughts to myself.

***

My mother is ten years older than my father.  After he graduated from high school in 1970, he went to a business school, and she was his computer programming teacher.  She had been a programmer, working in the industry, for a while and hadn’t been teaching long.

He was smitten from the first moment he saw her.  He was young and she, beautiful and confident and in a position of respect and authority in a male-dominated industry.  In the early seventies, that was a really big deal.  He was smart enough to recognize that.

My dad comes from a produce family.  They owned a grocery store which boasted some of the best produce in this part of the country (along with pretty much everything else).  He brought her an apple every single day and repeatedly asked her to go out with him.

She was downright rude in response.  “Absolutely not,” she told him.  “Go sit down and leave me alone.”

On the last day of the term, he asked her out one more time.  He told her, “After today, I’m not your student anymore.”

I like to think my mother rolled her eyes at him, although I suspect she was too straight-laced and proper to do such a thing.  Finally she said, “If I go have coffee with you, will you get off my back about it?”

“I sure will,” he assured her.

She grudgingly agreed.  A couple-few years later, they were married.

***

Love makes us do silly things.  Wonderful things.  I think about my early twenties, when I got to witness some of these stunts firsthand.  That inner joy for humanity made Steve buy a motley collection of exotic flowers and go around on Valentines’ Day handing one out to every girl he saw.  (Mine was a bird of paradise.)  It made Jason dress up in a cloak like one of the Three Musketeers and go deliver a CD of the soundtrack to his friend’s favorite TV show, wrapped in comics and adorned with a red rose, to her while she was working the dorm security desk in the middle of the night, just to keep her company.  It made Konstantin slough off his stern demeanor long enough to let me paint his fingernails black with silver glitter.

“Look, Konnie, it’s the night sky,” my roommate Amber and I told him, laughing, while he grumbled in Bulgarian, then when that didn’t deter us, in Russian, which also failed.

And then he even let us take his picture, even though he and we all knew his students (mostly ten-year-old girls who were also math geniuses) would tease him about it the next day.

***

Lately my daughter, who is six, has been giving me folded pieces of paper on which are written, “I love you.  From:  ?” next to a cartoonish sticker of a smiling, heart-shaped cupid.  She hands these notes to me as if I were meant to believe that she has just discovered them somewhere, mysteriously, with the intuition that they must be for Mama.

Obviously she has made these love notes but wants me to believe otherwise.  Her sly grin and hopeful dark brown eyes encourage me to play along.

“Oh, I must have a secret admirer,” I say each time.

“Yep!” she always replies, as if newly discovering what those words mean.

I thank and hug and kiss her.  I tuck the love note away in a box full of special cards and letters.  It will be only a couple of days before the next one comes.

I adore love notes.  Writing them has become, sadly, a lost art, and I’m pretty sure I can blame the rise of email and other electronic communication for that.  Remember when we all wrote actual letters to each other?  I had one friend in college who slipped into formal, yet passionate, Nineteenth Century diction when he composed his.  Those letters were something to see.

You should write a love letter this year.  Go ahead.  It’s not that difficult, actually.  Just pretend you aren’t going to send it, and then it’s much easier to write.  If you’re feeling really inspired, write a poem.  You’ve got a week to do it.  Go on, get started.

Happy Valentines’ Day.

The Twi-moms’ Lament

I’m going to irritate a lot of my friends here.  Apologies in advance, but hear me out.

Leave the Twi-moms alone.  They are hurting.  And no, I don’t think I’m one of them.

The Twilight series, for those who have not read the books — and notice I did not write “for those who have not seen the movies” or “for those who have been living under a rock,” because the books and the movies and the stuff people say about them are three different artifacts of expression, and we need to acknowledge that — is about a late-adolescent girl, Bella Swan, who moves across the country to live with her father in her junior year of high school.  She has a relatively smooth transition, largely avoiding the usual problems of displacement such a situation might bring, but encounters conflict when she falls hopelessly, fecklessly into consuming, co-dependent love with a vampire.

Oops.

I saw the first movie before I had read the books.  I saw it opening night with a couple of girlfriends who were fans of the books, in a theater filled with giddy, squealing teenage girls.  It was a raucous weird time.  I didn’t entirely know what to make of it all.  The movie, a tortured melodrama fraught with good music, poor acting, and worse direction (1), was weak at best.  My friends and I stood around in the lobby of the movie theater for an hour afterward making fun of it.  We all went home that night and changed our Facebook status lines to read, “What is he doing in that tree?” (2)

But I read the book the next week.

And let me explain why I did that:  I love vampires.  Some other time we can get into a discussion, if you like, about what they represent from a literary or psychological point of view, about why they are so different every time a new author reinvents them, about why they come back into mainstream pop culture every half-generation or so.  We can get into that stuff later, maybe.  But I could tell from the movie that Stephenie Meyer was clearly doing something unique with the mythology, and I wanted to know more about it.  I had heard her recent interview on NPR and was intrigued by this apparent literary phenomenon.  Paranormal romance?  A story based on a dream?  Best-selling books written by an ordinary mom?  Written for a younger audience and will probably take me all of one day to read?  Sure, I’ll bite.  Plus, I love vampires and am willing to give a cute story a chance.

So what happened when I read the book?  I became a little bit of a fan.  It wasn’t great literature — it wasn’t even particularly good writing — but it was really entertaining.  I went back and saw the movie a second time with another friend who had not seen it yet but wanted to, this time in a nearly empty movie theater.  It was a profoundly different experience.  Now I could hear all the dialogue, now there wasn’t any giggling around me, now I had the context of the novel in which to frame the movie.  It was still poorly acted and poorly directed, but now, well, it wasn’t so bad.  I sort of got it.  It was easy to willingly suspend my disbelief, to let myself sink into the goofy fantasy of it for a couple of hours.  And I admit it was a little embarrassing to be able to do so when so many of my friends had such disparaging things to say about it, but oh well.  To be blunt, most of them had not read the books or seen the movies.  Though I love my friends, I could get only so worked up about what they thought.

Then I read the rest of the books.  From a writing standpoint, I was curious about how Meyer could possibly sustain the driving tension of the first novel across three others.  From an analytical standpoint, I was interested in her redefinition of what’s at stake for these vampires:  what exactly was the downside, again?  What was so compelling about this story?  Sure, it was fun —  a big bowl of candy, in fact.  (Generally enjoyable but not a lot of nutritional value.)  And the male leads are, in their fashion, irresistible. (3)  There’s plenty of romantic tension, which is fun, if you have inside of you a person who believes that sex is not something one does with just anyone.  And so what if Meyer was putting forth a philosophy?  She has the right to do that, it’s her book.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it. (4)

But beyond that, I think this series has been incredibly popular with teenage girls and mature adult women for one particular reason that is the same for both very different age groups:  Bella Swan is incredibly flawed.

Bella is a convincing teenage girl who has fallen deeply in love for the first time.  I think many women who fell into true love in high school can recognize themselves in her.  She has the trappings of youth:  clumsiness; an inability to see her own beauty or even, at times, self-worth; poor judgment.  And her love for Edward is fierce and dependent, much like true love really is.  Audiences may scoff at her martyr-like attitude and find her choices to be frustratingly bad.  They might even criticize her for the way she thinks, and in this modern time, they have a good point.  (Linda Holmes has an excellent review of the latest movie installment, which I agree with in pretty much every way.  Here’s the link to it:  http://www.npr.org/2011/11/17/142248824/dawn-breaks-and-much-baroque-nonsense-ensues.)

I criticized Bella, too, until I remembered my own youth, remembered experiencing these emotions in the first place, remembered being seventeen and so desperately in love that I was willing to make really stupid choices.  Perhaps I saw in Bella what I regret about my own life.  This can make any protagonist – and frankly, any person, in a book or not – annoying.

But Bella is worth my attention for her proverbial warts.  Not because they are unusual – they aren’t – but because they do not prevent her from being loved.  And not just loved, but adored – and not just by any old loser who can’t do any better, but by a demi-god.  (Two of them, even.)

This makes these books, well, a little bit inspiring.  You know, on a subconscious level.  Who doesn’t want to feel like she (or he, for that matter) is so lovable, warts and all, that the object of her (or his) affections could possibly reciprocate them with such passion?  It’s wonderful to imagine that we are more than the sum of our flaws, that others can see past the imperfect body, the neurotic habits, the lack of self-confidence, the constant need for reassurance and just love us.  Adore us, even.  Find us so compelling that their need for us is just as intense as ours is for them.

So why do I say the Twi-moms are hurting?  (And sure, some of them aren’t.)  This story just might represent something they feel they have lost.  Even if they haven’t — even if what they think they’re missing is only buried deep down under layers of marriage and children and the demands of a career and household minutiae and far too busy weekends and having to actually schedule date nights with their spouses and a general lack of time for themselves — this story just might remind them of that thing inside of them that is young and vulnerable and desirable.  It’s like a princess story for grown-ups:  a damsel in distress hidden within the trappings of the modern age.

So go easy on these vulnerable matrons.  Absolutely, teach the young kids enjoying these books and movies that Bella is messed up hard-core, that her choices are weak, that her priorities are badly skewed.  Teach them that life does not in any way resemble this fantasy, and teach them why, and teach them how to avoid being victims.

But if enjoyment of this story isn’t interfering with real life, if it’s not hampering the fulfillment of their duties and obligations, if it’s not messing with their sense of reality, let the Twi-moms enjoy themselves.  Don’t be haters just because you don’t understand.

And if you know a Twi-mom and don’t think her obsession with Twilight is healthy, then give her something else to read.  You know, something with literary merit.

Like Jane Austen.

(1)  For more examples of Catherine Hardwicke’s illustrious career, check out IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0362566/).  She has six directing credits, including Twilight and a project not yet complete.  The only other one of those movies I’ve seen, though I’d heard of them all, is Red Riding Hood, and I’d like to have that hour and a half of my life back.  RRH was one of the worst movies I think I’ve ever witnessed in my adult life.  I thought about blogging about it, in fact, but to do a good job of it I’d probably have to watch it again, and I just can’t suffer that much for my art, unless there’s really a demand for it from my audience.  For more objective context, I think it’s interesting that all the little user-generated lists that pop up on the right-hand menu bar for her IMDB page are lists of “bad directors.”

(2)  The answer to this question is that he is demonstrating his Otherness.  You know, in case you were still wondering.

(3)  Totally talking about the books here.  The choice between Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson is laughably the choice between Child on Steroids and Child Unwashed.  Barf.

(4)  I had heard and read the criticism that she was injecting religion into her story, but honestly, I don’t think it goes that far:  the issue of morality is not belabored any more than in any other thoughtful exploration of the Human Condition, and the question of whether Edward has a soul isn’t truly answered.