Following Up (and Down and All Around)

Today, I read a lot of Endgame by Derrick Jensen.  If you recall from my mention in a previous post, it’s about taking down civilization to build up a liveable world.  Among lots of other things.

It took me awhile to buy it, after I wrote that post about Justice and Heat and Beauty and that book and gay marriage and trees and all… Not because I had to go far; I got it at Word Up.  Not because it’s expensive– the two volumes together were only $6.  Because… I was waiting.  Because it is scary, and because it is large, and also, in some other way that I don’t know how to articulate, because I was just waiting.

There’s a lot in this book, and some of it I am absolutely, hands down sure is true.  And some of it I am not.  But so far there is nothing in it that I am absolutely, hands down sure is false.  I can say that much.  And I’m not actually writing this post to go on and on about this book– not yet, anyway.

But I wanted to follow up.  Because everything I wrote before about the trees and their stripped off bark and their beauty is true, but it can’t be the end of the story.  The end of the story can’t be, I look at the injured trees and they are still beautiful.  That’s a great middle.  But it would be an end that takes me out of relationship with the trees, or makes the relationship only something symbolic and about my psyche.

Of course relating to trees is totally symbolic and about my psyche (she phrases this way so as not to invoke psychic, not to go too far so that you’re picturing the thoughts of trees flowing into her brain, even though that kind of is exactly what she means, if we just had a word better, larger, more precise than “thoughts”).  But it is also about my body and my breath (most especially my breath), my fingers and my feet and my head and my lungs, and the bark of the tree and the roots of the tree and the leaves of the tree.  If it becomes only about the idea of me thinking about the idea of a tree, the relationship is a fantasy– and no longer, I think, the kind the helps.

What I mean to say is that today I looked up what to do when bark has been stripped off trees.  I learned that probably these trees will survive.  I learned that stripped bark on a tree is very, very much like open skin on a person.  So it helps to clean it.  It also helps to trim back raggedy bits of bark around the wound, and to bind up any strips of bark that remain with the tree so it can heal itself.  But right today, I didn’t have tree trimming equipment and I didn’t have bark binding equipment– but I had water and soap and a sponge.

I took it all down to the trees and I cleaned all around the wounds as best I can.  It was surprisingly scary.  I felt like someone was going to ask what I was doing, or that whoever is hurting the trees  would pop up and… stop me?  Attack the trees?  Attack me?

I also felt much more keenly aware, in my fingers and my whole body, of the trees as alive.  It made my sadness and anger at their mistreatment stronger, different.  And I also felt, finally, that I was giving something real to a tree, which maybe I had never done before, not in this physical way.  That part felt good.

I’m trying to stay in touch.  I’m trying to open to and understand the relationships I have with the different lives all around me– and, also, remember that it’s not all about me.  It’s not all about how I see things or what I feel about a tree, it’s also about what that tree needs and if I can provide it.

Remember that saying, the personal is political?  The corporeal is spiritual, too, the spiritual is corporeal.  What is in our souls is not separated and floating, detached from our bodies, but pervades our bodies and is pervaded by them.  I believe.

So there I was, washing the trees, hoping it would do some good, and concurrently (in the general trajectory of my life) feeling more and more suspicious of much of the trappings of Christianity and even, sometimes, maybe, just kinda, or a lot,  suspicious of its heart– and in my head is this song:

Jesus took a towel and he girded himself, and he washed my feet, yes he washed my feet.  Jesus took a basin and he knelt himself down, and he washed, yes he washed my feet.

I ask the trees for their blessing when I go by them each day, and I try to give mine.  But now the stakes are changing.  Now I know that the stakes are grounded in my body, and the bodies of the trees.

So mysterious, I don’t even know what to say.  But I wanted to say something.

This isn’t much of an end, either.  Good, maybe.

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Charlotte’s Novella, Royal Quarry, is Coming!

Charlotte just got word that her Dreamspinner novella, Royal Quarry, will be released on August 17th!  Check out the cover art and blurb and buy link:

Royal Quarry cover art, again by Anne Cain

Hopeless at hunting, Prince Albert has been sent into the woods by his impulsively cruel father, required to kill a stag before he can return. Luckily he has Manning, a quiet and overly competent bodyguard, to rely on.  But the familiarity and evident desire growing between prince and bodyguard shame Manning into revealing a secret: the king is using Albert as bait in a political game with a neighboring power, and it’s Manning’s job to lead him into danger.

Angry and betrayed, but unwilling to endanger Manning, Albert insists that his bodyguard go through with the plan. To save Albert and win back his trust, Manning will have to disobey two sets of orders and prove he has the canniness to survive in the royal court.

http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=2477

I’m super-excited about this novella, and I think the cover art is amazing!  I like mine for The Clown and the Magician a lot, too, but I like this art even more.  There are lots of other reasons I’m excited about this story, and I’ll tell you about them as we get closer to release.  I have also been lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with Charlotte!  So you can hear it all from the horse’s mouth pretty soon.

Yay!!

Justice, Heat, and Beauty- A Week in Review

Yesterday, I was getting a ride home from my boss, and we heard on the radio some kind of recap/discussion of the rape accusations made by Nafissatou Diallo against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  My boss turned off the radio and spoke about how confusing the case was, how at first he had believed Diallo and now he thought she might have seduced Strauss-Kahn.

I had not been following the case in detail, so I just listened.  Then my boss said, “Sometimes, I don’t know about justice.”

I let out a breath, in a sort of laugh-sigh-surprised noise.

“I sure don’t,” I said.  “I sure don’t know about justice either.”

This past week has been brain-meltingly hot.  The kind of heat during which I walk seven blocks and want to collapse, during which I  hole up in the bedroom where there’s an air conditioner, eating and sleeping and spending all my time in one compressed space.  But I can still feel the heat, coming in at the skin and radiating through me.

I feel so creaturely in the heat.  The parameters of my comfort and my survival narrow.  This window I mostly live in, where my focus is not primarily on my bodily needs, is so easily made to close in on me.

In my Upper Elementary School class, which consists of rising 5th and 6th graders, we move at a break-neck pace: 20 vocabulary words per day, one book per week.  Last week’s book was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.  I felt like I needed to do something to supplement the book and teach the Holocaust.  I asked them what they knew.

They knew about Hilter.  They knew about Jews being killed.  They’d heard of some of the other groups singled out.  Homosexuals got a brief titter.  They nodded at figures like six million, twelve million, but seemed strangely unimpressed by what the Danish had done in rescuing nearly all of the more-than 7,000 Danish Jews.  Then, a supplemental reading mentioned the death camps, and I realized that the numbers were just numbers, because of what they didn’t know.

“What are death camps?”

I tried to explain.  They wondered aloud why, if you found yourself in one of these camps, you wouldn’t just defy your captors, simply to hurry death.  They thought a little more and concluded that it is not easy to die.  I told them that some people survived and were still living today.

This shocked them.  They had thought World War Two was maybe 100, 200, even 300 years ago.

The living and the dead were thick in the room, but there was so little time.  I showed them a video talking about one shoe taken off one child who went into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. (http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/educational_footprints.shtml)  A man showed us the back of the shoe, which had been carefully stitched and repaired by some adult hands.  He described what had happened to this little boy as he approached the gas chamber, how the people had been told to tie their shoes together so they could get them again.

“Oh,” one of my students gasped as they showed a staircase leading into the gas chamber, “They actually filmed it?”

I did not tell him his error, because in that one moment he seemed to understand what he was seeing.  The class ended right after the video, and on its horrors I was mostly silent.  Feeling like Virgil in the Inferno, like the Ghost of Christmas Future.  Look and see, look and see.

On one of the hottest days this week, having been shut up in my room for great swaths of distorted time, I decided to take a short walk.   I walked to the small park near my apartment building.  I approached one of the huge trees, feeling drawn.  After a moment of self-consciousness, I put my chest and my cheek up close against its bark.  I stood against the tree, close, silent.

Have you ever hugged a big tree like that?  Put yourself up against it?  I feel the life of that tree in those times, how big it is, how small I am.  How I move and move and flash by quickly, while it might stand and stand and stand.  It is a good feeling all through me.  Slows me down.

On the way home, newly attentive to trees, I noticed the thin, young trees that line my street.  Someone had stripped a big chunk of bark off of one of these trees.  Over the next few days, I saw this on at least four.  It has to be deliberate.  I can’t imagine why.  I put my hands on the trees and wish my hands were bark to cover them again, to heal them.

In the midst of this week, I worked a shift at Word Up, and began reading Endgame by Derrick Jensen. (http://www.derrickjensen.org/)  Jensen is a radical environmentalist who describes the society and culture and world we live in in terms so poetic and resonant that my secret suspicions, long harbored and often not quite voiced, come out to meet him, murmuring, “yes, I know.”  He thinks that the whole world around us is incredibly real and beautiful and holy.  He also thinks that civilization will, if not destroyed itself, destroy all people, plants, animals, and the planet we all live on.  It is quite something, to go from an articulation of destructiveness that I do see all around me, to this position about civilization itself, as a whole, being irredeemable.  That is so frightening I do not want to ignore it, but so extreme I do not want to swallow it too easily.

I thought about the word sustainable, so popular a term these days.  Then I thought about its opposite, what the word “unsustainable” actually means.  It hadn’t occurred to me before.  I imagined, briefly, where I would be, if New York City ceased to function.  If the faucet gave no water and the food stopped coming and the order broke down.

I thought about that person, standing there and telling the other people on the way to the gas chambers, “Tie your shoes together.  You’ll want to find your own shoes again.”  This person knew, of course, that they were sending the others to their deaths.  What did it feel like to say this?

Today I walked home, touching the trees, putting my hand on their bare places.

On Sunday, Charlotte and I went down to City Hall to watch some of the first same-sex couples get married in this state.  (http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/portraits-of-gay-couples-just-married-in-new-york) There was a small crowd of cheering, happy people.  Everyone waited for couples to emerge.  For the first time, in this public, governmental place, people were erring on the side of queerness.  That is, if you were a City Hall employee, wandering out with your same-gender buddy for lunch in the sweltering heat, you were liable to get cheered and applauded as new spouses.

It was way more dazzlingly great than I anticipated.  Being “other” as a bisexual woman in a lesbian relationship is something I’ve thought about, written about, but I didn’t realize, until it happened, what it would mean to me to be in a place, a public, open, official place, and know that the people around were more likely to misread Charlotte and me as “married” than as “friends.”

There was one protesting man standing on the sidelines, in a T-shirt that said “Jesus Saves Us From Hell.”  There were marvelously polyvalent clergy with golden stoles and headpieces and accessories.  On their stoles I caught glimpses of crosses, Stars of David, other signs I couldn’t quite make out.  There were two African-American men playing the violin and the cello, playing the wedding march, again and again.

And the people stepped out, old and young and middle aged, in dresses and suits and shorts and skirts and jeans.  They were many colors, many sizes.  Some came surrounded by family and some just two by two.  They looked surprised, stepping out into this receiving line of strangers.  Getting approval just for being as they were, something that so often garners the opposite.

I thought about the end of the world, and the terrors of the world, and how very, very close evil lies.  How entwined it is with the good.  I can make my friend a meal with all the love in my heart, to nourish and support a person I love, and perhaps that food was harvested by someone practically living as a slave.  Perhaps that food came from an animal that had lived an abused and stunted life.  And yet, the food is there.  The love is there.  It nourishes.

All life from death, all death from life, and yet we are not by this exempted from responsibility.

So quickly we move through this world.  So hard to know where to place our trust.  So dangerous to be silent, to be paralyzed by fear, not to choose.  So many trees and animals and people that will suffer–whatever we do–that go today, in suffering, to death.

And yet when it rains after days of heat, I turn my face up and rejoice.  I put my hands on the stripped bark of the trees, the small trees I could not press my chest against.  And when I see the green of the leaves at the top of these trees, I love the green that I see.  And when Charlotte curls against me, I do not have to wait for the man in the shirt about hell to take off his shirt and smile.

I sure don’t know about justice.  And it may be the world is burning like my brain has been burning.  There is a famine in Somalia, violence again in Darfur, people shot in Norway, people shot here.  And I feel my fingers tremble– fine motor skills have never been my forte, and it seems these repairs need such delicacy and strength.

I sure don’t know about justice.  But I know I walk in beauty.  Despite it all, because of it all.  Now I walk in fucking beauty.

Harry Potter and the One Who Didn’t Want to Read Him

In case you haven’t guessed, this blog is not just going to be me talking endlessly about my writing, but will also feature me talking endlessly about other things that interest me, and, hopefully, you.  I will happily take requests!  Today, I wanted to put in my $0.02 to the gigantically rich bank of ideas and thoughts about Harry Potter, since I watched the last movie of the series on Sunday.

When the series first came out and became so wildly popular, I was a little irritated, and for awhile resisted reading the books.  It was like the whole world suddenly discovered reading and magic and fantasy, which was great, but seemed to think that it was a new, revelatory experience that had never existed before, which was decidedly untrue.  I confess, I was jealous on behalf of my childhood favorites, the series I had adored and devoured and re-read again and again. My understanding of magic and mystery was Narnian from the first; my young wizards were those given me by Diane Duane; my vision of a fantastical world layered on our own, and the moral questions in the layers, owed a great deal to Madeleine L’Engle.  Even after I read the Harry Potter books that were out at the time (1-4, I think), I was not totally convinced that this was something novel and revolutionary.

And I’m still not, actually.  But I am convinced that it’s something special and delightful.  I came to love the stories and the characters, and to love even more the sense of collective story-sharing that is possible when so many people care about the same tales.  That, to me, is maybe the most exciting part.  And it happens some through talent and good story-telling, and some through luck, and some just through sheer momentum.  When the 6th book came out, I happened to be in the midst of one of the most communal times of my life thus far: living with lots and lots of people in a very small apartment and doing theater , and whenever anyone would finish the book, she would be pulled aside with the others who had finished to privately conference.  Who, among book lovers, doesn’t want to talk about a book like it’s the most urgent, exciting news around?

At that point, I was hooked, and I insisted on buying the 7th book right when it came out, the weekend of my cousin’s wedding, and reading it all the way back to Boston, as I traveled on the train.  A late convert, perhaps, but a convert.

The story of Harry and me wouldn’t be complete without a mention of my feelings about fanfiction.  I learned that fanfiction existed when I read a snippet of a Harry/Draco fic in, of all things, Esquire magazine.  I thought it was hilarious… and I was totally disdainful.  People who couldn’t be bothered to make up their own stories, I thought, silly, adolescent parasites and scavengers.

Let that be a lesson: Be careful of anything for which you feel an excited, animated contempt.  It is often, in some ways, attraction.  Be careful, if you are a writer, of calling anyone a scavenger too loudly, for everyone who writes is a scavenger, everyone who writes takes cold meat and drags it around the desert, hoping for a dragon to come along and give you a blast so you can enjoy it cooked.  And if the dragon never comes, you’ll probably end up trying it raw.

That is to say, I wrote a fanfic.  I heard that my dear friend Maddie had a taste for Harry/Draco fics.  And I thought I would write one for her birthday.

A year and a half-ish later, I had what is still the longest complete thing I’ve written, in which I got to play and twist and justify and world-build to my heart’s content, while trying not to contradict a thing, psychologically, that had been offered up by J.K. Rowling at that point.  I didn’t care so much about the factual details, though I stuck as closely to those as I could, but the psychological ones… these were a perfect game, a marvelous treat.  How could I get characters to do the strange and impossible things I wanted them to do without making them totally different at the center than Rowling had?  I tried.  I think in some ways, I succeeded.  And I got to play, knowing this work would never be published, and I think I’m a better writer because of these games.  I guess fanfiction isn’t quite what I thought it was…

So that’s a gift that Harry and friends have given me.  And, oh, did I say that fic I wrote was about Harry and Draco?  Because, um, yes, but really… it was the Redemption of Snape.

I adore Snape.  I adore Alan Rickman.  When I see Alan Rickman playing Snape, my heart actually does this funny flutter in my chest.  I love seeing him, hearing him, and I loved having the chance to believe in him while everyone argued.  There’s not much more I can say about that without simply sounding ridiculous, but what I do want to say is that a strength of these stories is their belief in redemption paired up with many different thoughts about how people find it, achieve it, try for it, don’t try for it, etc.  Snape is perhaps the most obvious example, but it’s all over the place, in the “good” characters and the “bad” ones, and this complexity in character building and in what makes a person a hero or a villain is one of my favorite things, whenever it occurs, in any story.  And isn’t it fascinating to watch Snape and Dumbledore, Snape, who would sacrifice anything for one person, and Dumbledore, who would sacrifice any person–himself included, Snape included, Harry included– to what he believed to be right and true and essential? So interesting.

But Dumbledore leads me to my real complaint about the series.  I have criticisms and things about parts of the writing I like and parts I don’t, etc.  But I have one serious complaint and it is this: if Dumbledore is gay, the story should say that he’s gay.  It deals simply and honestly with all the romantic affections of all the straight people in the story, and should do the same with Dumbledore.  Not saying it, simply, honestly, as a reference to who he was in love with in the past (because we can all see that in the backstory, right?), does say that gay relationships are qualitatively different than straight relationships, that they have to be handled carefully and tiptoed around, that there is something about the simple fact of them that cannot be stated plainly to children.  And I think that is a disturbing thing for this series to do, in both the books and the movies.  I was hoping it would be rectified in this last movie, but in fact the whole movie seemed to be bizarrely freaked out about men even touching each other (no hug for Harry and Ron?  Really?), so my serious complaint about the whole story stands.  And I think the reason I want to mention it is this: if you see yourself as an ally of queer people, and the quality of your alliance is such that you never mention their queerness, even when it would totally come up in a straight context, or the fact of queer relationships is something you consistently avoid mentioning– think again, and please try again.  A stronger stance is needed, especially from powerful story-tellers.

Now, lastly, in watching this movie, I was totally struck by the visual and thematic parallels to England’s experience of World War II.  I saw it in a number of places, and I’m not really qualified to draw it out, but I would love to see someone read through the whole series, books and movies, and think about how World War II is weaving in and out of the story.  I think it would be a really worthwhile reading, not to look at the books and movies as simple allegory, but more as ways of processing and responding to that national experience.

All right, this is totally long and totally disjointed, which I guess is what happens when I sit to write and am hot and tired and want to simply put down a bunch of thoughts.  I hope some Harry-Potter-interested folks enjoyed the ride.

All in all, I am delighted I gave in, and read and saw and experienced these stories after all.  It has, in fact, been magical.

Word Up Bookstore

When I first moved to New York City, and specifically here to Washington Heights, I was nervous. I was nervous for a lot of reasons, mostly because I was doing a Big New Thing with my life. After 4 years out of college and 4 years in college in the more-or-less constant company of my beloved bosom friend, Rachel, I was moving in with my girlfriend, Charlotte. I also didn’t have a job, exactly, or much of a plan aside from getting a job somewhere and writing more and maybe applying to PhD programs someday. I was nervous about leaving Boston, leaving the friends I had there. I was nervous about not being in school again for awhile. And I was nervous, especially, deep-down, seriously nervous, because my new neighborhood didn’t seem to have a bookstore.

I hoped, of course, that Charlotte’s and my relationship would grow deeper and stronger without my losing the deep, daily friendship I had with Rachel. I hoped that I wouldn’t discover that Charlotte and I worked great long- distance, and not so great no-distance. I hoped that I would like New York. I hoped that I would find ways to work and play and live and connect and love my new situation, while staying in touch with my friends scattered in their various haunts. And I hoped I would find great bookstores close to home.

So far, most of my hopes have been fulfilled in various, lovely ways. These weekend, Charlotte and I are celebrating our five-year anniversary (the actual date of our anniversary is rather vague: we were doing a theater workshop when we actually got together and everyone in the workshop was pretty much living in the same apartment, and well… we just can’t remember the date, so we celebrate sometime in July.) Turns out we work even better no-distance than long. I still talk to Rachel every day, and to several of my other beloved bosom friends weekly or so, though there are also many of you with whom I would love to be in better touch. I’m hoping this blog, while boosting interest in and sales of my writing to sky-rocketing levels, will also provide a means of in-touch-ness with those I have not spoken to in awhile. New York has gone from overwhelming to friendly, in a strange transition I don’t know how to describe. I’ve written more (did you catch the 500 posts about The Clown and the Magician?), and I’m starting a PhD program in English at CUNY in the fall.

But… But. No bookstores close to home. Until about a month ago, when we heard about this pop-up bookstore that is so very, very close to where we live. What, you ask, is a pop-up bookstore? It is a bookstore that springs up with little warning, that is perhaps temporary, and that, in this case, is designed to provide literary and musical and performative community space, along with lots of interesting books to buy.

Word Up Bookstore is housed in a former pharmacy, with the pharmacy awning still out front. It is small-ish, but has lots of open space, especially at the back, where there is a lovely small stage and performance area. There are bookshelves filled with books, many by local authors, many strange, beautiful, random, political, quirky books. There is a terrific sale on books by Seven Stories Press, so there are lots of books available for $3 or $5, and there’s even a table of books for free. Word Up has lots of art on the walls, paintings and all kinds of decoration done by local artists, and, in one especially decorated corner with lots of yellow and pink, you can find out what your sign is on the vegetable zodiac (determined by birth year), and, if so inclined, buy a packet of seeds of your zodiac vegetable. I am a chili pepper. Charlotte is a tomato.

There are readings and/or concerts and/or comic book workshops, self-defense classes, and other things harder to classify almost every night. The space is hot, and there are a few places where the walls and ceilings are a bit holey (mostly cleverly hidden with art), but it is the one place I voluntarily go where I know it will probably be ten degrees hotter than the outside, and sometimes even than my home.

The first or second time I went in, I learned that Word Up is entirely staffed by volunteers, and I started volunteering shortly thereafter. Initially, Word Up was supposed to only exist for one month. They planned to close it down last night. The space, in a long saga I don’t fully understand, has been donated by its owner, a New York realty company called Vantage, through a Community Outreach program they have. Looking up the company online makes for some interesting reading. Anyway, the overall response to the bookstore has been incredibly positive, and so Vantage and the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance and Seven Stories Institute worked out a plan to keep it open at least through the end of September, perhaps longer.

Last night we had a volunteer meeting, and it was really great to meet a motley assortment of people in my neighborhood who all love the bookstore. I don’t know where it’s all going, but I’m loving it so far, and I wanted to tell you all about my literary-community-volunteer experiences. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by Word Up and check it out. And whether you are or not, here’s the link to their blog: http://wordupbooks.wordpress.com/

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