Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post is for Trayvon Martin. 
It is for Freddie Gray. 
It is for Walter Scott,
Philando Castile, 
Alton Sterling,
Terence Crutcher,
Keith Scott,
Christian Taylor,
Michael Brown, 
Ezell Ford, 
Eric Garner, 
Tamir Rice, 
Sandra Bland,
Rekia Boyd, 
Shereese Francis, 
Ramarley Graham, 
Manuel Loggins, Jr., 
Sean Bell, 
Kendra James, 
LaTanya Haggerty, those who I have failed to list because it is a traumatizingly large group, and every person whose name did not make this list simply because they died in silence and their injustice has yet to be named.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Bigger, Jefferson,
a young black man,
must die.

This we know from the start.

The question then, is not how
but when?

And in the time
before the shocking current
reverberates through his veins and brain
what parts of his humanity
will this world allow him
to retain?

Enter Grant Wiggins,
unwilling participant,
reluctant teacher, fellow black man,
staying, simultaneously wanting
to run away as fast as he can.

Cell block conversations,
family visits,
shared sweet potatoes -
even a radio makes its way
to Jefferson as if to say
perhaps this is a nightmare after all
and there is still time
for you
to wake up.

But the nightmare is the truth
and death is certain still, you see,
the time is fixed
we know it will be
some time between noon and three.

Shaken and shaking,
but firmly a man,
Jefferson does not sit but stand.

Heard for miles,
a humdrum horror,
sanctioned, legal, still - a scandal
Louisiana blows him out like a candle.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear blobbists, 
   I hope that this blob finds you well, or as well as can be, given the current state of affairs. I have been struggling to craft this post both because I wanted to honor the heft of its content, and because recent events left me wondering, yet again, whether we are in a desperate circle. But, as Dr. King reminds us, we must speak out, or our silence will be what our friends remember, louder even than the voices of the hateful supremacists in Charlottesville or Charleston. So here are my thoughts, simply put, aired without expectation, but with the hope that they will speak over the silence of others.

Narrators, not unreliable, but rather unwilling
Choosing Grant Wiggins as the narrator of this story was a fascinating choice, and one that confused me at first. Grant is sent to the jail to help Jefferson understand that he is 'not a hog, but a man' before he dies, a mission devised by Jefferson's nannan (godmother), seemingly his only kin. They are all living on a plantation in Louisiana, no longer slaves but tied to the land. Grant's interest in this task is minimal at best, and he undertakes the project under extreme pressure from his own aunt, Tante Lou.
  Grant's unwillingness to confront this effort had this ingenious way of mirroring how I felt about reading the book at all. Here are a few lines that illustrate this push-and-pull, this internal tension:

Grant, on wanting to spend time with Vivian, his lady, instead of going to see Jefferson:
"I didn't want to think about that cell uptown. I wanted to think about more pleasant things."

and later, when the time of Jefferson's execution is fixed:
"That's where you come in, Reverend. I'm going for a walk, a long walk in the opposite direction."

At several points (choosing to read this book, reading this book, writing this blog) all I wanted to do was talk a long walk in the opposite direction and think about more pleasant things. And while, for our own survival, and our own happiness, it's important to create space for those pleasant things (and for long walks!), I think it's equally important to climb into this challenging headspace, inhabit the discomfort of harsh realities, and, one labored breath at a time, turn and face the fictional demons that haunt our nation's painful past, listening closely, as their doppelgängers often duplicate and divide us still today.

So here's a long walk we can all pretend that we've just taken, during which we've thought of many pleasant things, 
"Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'"

And once you've decided whether pigs have wings (it's really up to you, you know!) we can, as a group, move on to that challenging headspace together.

Ok. Off we go!

Referents and reverberations
Some of my most faithful readers (A VERY SELECT FEW) will know that I have recently started a section where I speak about things that either feel as though they've informed a work or come out of it. This is not to suggest that I am drawing clear lines of connection (SOOPRIZE! I'm not omniscient!) but rather that the web linking these works was apparent to me, in my mind.

(1) To choke, to suffocate, to bear a burden.
Native Son, by Richard Wright (published in 1940)
Bigger: "They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (published in 2015)
"The [American] Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

A Lesson Before Dying (published in 1993, set in the 1940s)
Grant, to Vivian: "For my aunt and Irene it is the same. Who else does my aunt have? She has never been married. She raised my mother because my mother's mother, who was her sister, gave my mother to her when she was only a baby, to follow a man whom the South had run away. Just as my own mother and my own father left me with her, for greener pastures. And for Irene and for others there in the quarter, it's the same. They look at their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their brothers - all broken. They see me - and I, who grew up on that same plantation, can teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. I can give them something that neither a husband, a father, nor a grandfather ever did, so they want to hold on as long as they can. Not realizing that their holding on will break me too."

And later, Grant, to Jefferson: "I need to know what to do with my life. I'm needed here and I know it, but I feel that all I'm doing here is choking myself."

Television show Being Mary Jane, S2E6, aired in 2015
A conversation between Sheldon, a black man, and Mary Jane, a black woman, recounting his experience:

Sheldon: Did you know that étouffée in French literally translates to "suffocate?" To smother.
Mary Jane: What's your point? I'm guessing you're trying to make one.
Sheldon: My point is that black men in America today, like Brian Ellis, have been smothered literally their whole lives. Smothered as they clawed their way up the ranks. Smothered by corporate greed. Smothered by racism. By oppression. Smothered by hatred. Smothered by fear. Smothered by a system that truly never wanted to see them succeed. And why do you think that is? Jealousy. Obama's walk was inspired by Michael Jordan's dunk, was inspired by John Coltrane's solo, by Malcolm X's thoughts.
Mary Jane: Can you drive the car straight? Because I have low blood sugar.
Sheldon: Black men represent freedom, and that's what they're trying to squash.

What strikes me in these four moments is how aptly each one fits with the others. If you're concerned by the dates and the seeming lack of difference in sentiment despite the decades between them, then good. You should be. I know I am.

(2) To run, to sprint, to hasten away.
It's not surprising that given the state of emergency which is presented as potential inhabitable existence, the black man in literature is struck often with an urgent desire to flee, literally or metaphorically, whether it's in times of literal or moral slavery:

Jefferson, when he was witness to the robbery and knew he would be considered guilty of murder:
"He wanted to run, but he couldn't run. He couldn't even think. He didn't know where he was. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He couldn't remember ever getting into the car. He could remember a thing he had done all day."

Grant, on advice given to him about growing up as a black man in the south: "He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run."

in Beloved, when Paul D got help from a Cherokee tribe to run away from Sweet Home plantation:
"Follow the tree flowers to find north. Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone."

(3) To rain, to storm, to prevent adventures.
At one point in the novel, Grant's visits to Jefferson seem to have broken through, and Jefferson starts to make observations about life, from the food he's brought to the weather outside. At one point, he's speculating about the forecast, and Grant says, 
"I hope it's the kind of day you want, Jefferson."

I loved this line and its tenderness, and it reminded me of one of my favorite lines from 'To the Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf. The book's title is a reference to a potential trip to the lighthouse that James, a young boy, is to make with Mrs. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay officiously asserts that the weather will be wretched, and that the trip will have to be postponed. Mrs. Ramsay is devastated for James, and tries to keep a cautiously optimistic outlook on the weather to come. She turns to James and says, "Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining and the birds singing."

(4) To die, to sleep - to sleep, perchance to dream. 
Grant gives Jefferson a pencil and a notebook to record his thoughts, and this is one of his last:
"sun goin down an i kno this the las one im gon ever see but im gon see one mo sunrise cause i aint gon sleep tonite.
* * *
im gon sleep a long time after tomoro."

which reminded me of this line from Sydney Carton, who also faces execution for a crime he did not commit, though under rather different circumstances (and not by chair, but by guillotine):
"There is nothing to do until tomorrow. I can't sleep."

How much can one word hold?
Grant wants to give Jefferson a radio to listen to in his cell, something to call his own before he dies, but he can't afford to buy it by himself, so he asks for donations from the community. My favorite moment of offering is Thelma, the wife of the owner of the Rainbow Club, the local bar and café:
"When I was finished, she put a wrinkled ten-dollar bill on the counter by my plate.
'Here.'
 It was the kind of 'here' your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of 'here' that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of 'here' that said she wished you had it and didn't have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then 'here' it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of 'here' that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs 'here'?" So much weight for one syllable.

What comes after? Does anyone know?
I liked that Grant didn't believe in heaven. I don't say this to be incendiary, or offensive, or to suggest that I have any conception of what afterlife(or lives) do or don't exist. Simply that I appreciated that the emphasis for Grant was on reinforcing Jefferson's manhood and personhood before he died, not simply lining up a potential hereafter. The local reverend also visits Jefferson, and Grant is clear that he is not working to nullify or negate any of the reverend's message, just that he personally doesn't believe. Unfortunately for Grant (and for me) his disbelief is met with condescension, much as it is in my most recent books, but at least it is expressed honestly on Grant's part, and he is not deterred in allowing it a space in how he sees this present world and his work with Jefferson.

Who decides if and when we die?
I'm generally opposed to the death penalty, as I don't think it's our right to decide when life should end for other people, regardless of their crime. I know the issue is complex, so I will leave my thoughts at that, for now. If you were curious, though, 
  • The electric chair is 'optional' in AL, FL, SC, and VA - lethal injection is the go-to method, but the chair is still presented as a choice (lucky them).
  • The death penalty is legal in 31 United States and 58 countries in total. 
  • Twenty people (all men) were executed in the United States in 2016. Sixteen men were executed this year. Of those thirty-six, nine of them were black men.
Words I knew not then but I know now, in many cases because I did not grow up in Looosiana:
chifforobe - a piece of furniture with drawers on one side and hanging space on the other

sugarcane - a perennial tropical grass with tall stout jointed stems from which sugar is extracted. The fibrous residue can be used as fuel, in fiberboard, and for a number of other purposes. OK, so I knew LOOSELY what sugarcane was, but I didn't know it had so many uses, or that this is what it looked like!

filé - pounded or powdered sassafras leaves used to flavor and thicken soup, especially gumbo

cush-cush - a tropical American yam that produces a number of tubers on each plant (cmidbdis?)

It's close to bedtime for me now, and I am exhausted in my body and my brain, my thoughts and my soul. I will leave you with my three favorite exchanges between Grant and Jefferson.

"Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people. He does something that other men don't and can't do. He is different from other men. He is above other men. No matter who those other men are, the hero, no matter who he is, is above them. I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. The white people out there are saying that you don't have it - that you're a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are." You have the potentials, I have the potentials, we all have the potentials. We do!

"Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth - and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe. They're safe with me. I don't want them to feel safe with you anymore." Unfortunately, it's they who don't feel safe with us, but I echo this sentiment, and hope we can build a path to the future where all men and women stand and fight, particularly the ones we have repressed and oppressed and forced to kneel over the years.

Grant, speaking to Jefferson early on:
"It don't matter," I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.
"What don't matter?"
He didn't answer.
"What don't matter, Jefferson?"
"Nothing don't matter", he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.
"It matter to me, Jefferson," she said. "You matter to me."

I may not be able to undo bigotry with my words, or bring the wrongfully dead back to life, but I can exert power in this small corner of the world where I have created safety for all. I can use my power to say that I will fight injustice, I will do better to protect you and yours, and it and you matter to me, always. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Playing with time and space is a dangerous game.

A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters, and
An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Five novels which together make up the 'Time Quintet')
Spoiler Alert: Plot pudding
These books are about any number of things, not limited to, but including God, time, family, adventure, and growing up. Now that I've finished them all, their individual plots have formed a conglomerate in my brain, and I'm having a hard time pulling them apart. Here's a snapshot of what I remember from each one (as you can see, I haven't promised a summary, but rather a gelatinous understanding):

Time, somewhat wrinkledy
characters: Meg Murry and her younger brother Charles Wallace, their father, a schoolmate named Calvin, several angel/star/oldlady-people with funny names along the lines of Mrs. Whatchamacallit
locale: New England, utopian planets, dystopian planets, you know. the usual.
goal: save Mr. Murry, then CW from evil brain thing
outcome: success and safe return to grand ole' New England

Door, breezes near the
characters: Meg Murry, Calvin, Charles (sort of - it's complicated), a cherubim named Proginoskes, the principal of CW's school, Mr. Jenkins
locale: New England, Charles Wallace's mitochondria (yes. you read that right.)
goal: save CW from the evil Mr. Murry, then CW from evil Echthroi (gezundheit)
outcome: success - CW is healed!

Planet, the leaning tower of
characters: Meg Murry, Charles, a bunch of people from the past (not, like, yesterday, but more like eons ago), Calvin's mom
locale: New England, in a variety of centuries, specifically the star-watching rock in the Murry's yard
goal: stop the Cuban missile crisis by intervening in the past (basically. change some names and you've got the gist)
outcome: success. messing with the past always works out, right?

Waters, and lots of 'em
characters: Sandy and Dennys Murry (I know, who? the twin brothers of CW and Meg), Noah (as in, the ark), some unicorns, some seraphim, some evil anti-angel-type creatures
locale: New England, a desert from whence came the ark (if you go for that sort of thing)
goal: get back to New England, help build the ark (like you do when you find yourself nearby)
outcome: success, with a few horrifying sunburns along the way.

Time, suiting everyone
characters: Meg's daughter, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Murry, Polly's suitor Zachary, a bunch of druids, a bishop
locale: New England, again in both the present and a real long time ago
goal: unite warring tribes, get unstuck in the past
outcome: success, with the occasional 'whoops you almost become a blood sacrifice' moments.

There you have it, blobbists, a veritable tahPeeOHHka of a précis!
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, friends, the year of July has come and gone, and I've spent it in any number of places, all of which were too hot for my taste. I finished these books some time ago, but I was disappointed in the process of reading them, which slowed me down substantially in both the reading and the plotting of this blob. 

Nearly every person I told I was reading this series said something to the effect of, "oh, I have fond memories of A Wrinkle in Time, but I can't remember what it was really about... and then smiled off into the distance". Which describes exactly why I wanted to read the books in the first place. That, coupled with the fact that my sister Diana had a bear named Charles Wallace. I came across him the last time I was home -->

That being said, and I hate to stomp on anyone's childhood nostalgia here (mine included!), I was underwhelmed. While the construct of the books is intriguing, and I think her conceptual fantasy world is quite engaging, I could not, as an adult reader, separate out the Christian, borderline proselytizing nature of the works. We all know that fantasy and Christianity are no strangers to each other (ahem, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Pullman, even some might say, Ms. Rowling) but this felt like it reached a point where the religion was more real than the fantasy, which bothered me. 

Here are the bits that resonated with me, at any rate:

The British are coming, the British are coming
Some of you know that I aspire to write my own YA fantasy novel series, and I was only further inspired to do so when I realized that these books are the only fantasy novels I cherish by an American author (unless I'm missing someone, which is highly possible. To be clear, I'm not saying there are no American fantasy writers - that's ridiculous - just that the ones that stick out in my memory are all by.... BRITISH PEOPLE.

Here's the list I came up with:
BRITISHLAND:
- J.R.R.Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings)
- C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia)
- J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
- Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy, including The Golden Compass)
- Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass) (which, amusing, was referenced several times in the Time quintet, including the gifting of an unbirthday present, which I quite liked)

AMERICALAND:
- Madeleine L'Engle (Time Quintet)

So clearly we need to work on our fantasy game. It's not like England is the only place we can build imaginary worlds from!


What sound what a star make in your world of fiction?
Just curious. In these books, the sound stars speak in the voice of an English horn (pictured left, think an oboe but slightly bulbous and slightly deeper in timbre). I found this delightful, because the English horn is my favorite wind instrument, and the one I would most like to play if I added on to my cello skillz. For an example of its sound, listen to the first minute or so of this exchange between the English horn and the oboe, from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. 
video

Nicknames, nicknames are so fun, nicknames are for everyone
What's your favorite nickname that someone has called you? I'm not sure. I like 'Mere', but only some of the time, and it depends on who the person is. I think the search is still out for a nickname that I love. Meg gets quite a few nicknames in the books, and I found them very endearing. These included Meglet, Megatron, and Megaparsec. 

Fermi's paradox - are we alone out here?
Are you familiar with Fermi's paradox? I wasn't until a few weeks ago, on one of my many work-related travels. It came up on a podcast, This American Life, I believe, and one of the producers was trying to explain why it makes him feel very down sometimes. 

Here's how the interwebs describes it: "The Fermi paradox or Fermi's paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, e.g., those given by the Drake equation, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations."

In other words, there's a really high probability we're not alone, but there's also no evidence of extraterrestrial life. So what gives? I'm not sure how it makes me feel. I don't know if lonely is quite right, but maybe more like isolated? Solitary? I know those are pretty close approximations, but I can't quite put a word to the feeling. How does it make you feel? 

I thought of it when I came across this exchange:
"You mean your planet revolves about all isolated in space? Aren't you terribly lonely? Isn't he?
'He?'
'Or she. Your planet. Aren't you lonely?'
'Maybe we are, a little,' Calvin conceded. 'But it's a beautiful planet."

Religion is not invited to my fantasy party.
I don't want to dwell on this, because I've already mentioned it above. My concern with religion here is not so much that it's present, but rather that it's presented in kind of a condescending fashion. L'Engle adds an atheist in the final book, and he's looked down as someone who just "can't come around", and as an agnostic/atheist/spiritualbutnotorganizedreligion person myself, I was offended. It also felt like because she was dealing with science and space and time, she was defining biblical events as real, which is a leap for me, in that some of it is grounded in scientific fact, but not large parts of it. I think I just wanted her to take the opportunity to make the science evident in fantasy, so it was disappointing to me that she made science into a sort of side-lens for religion.

What form does evil take for you?
I've read quite a few books for this blob, and evil takes any number of forms, from Sauron to Randall Flagg, to groupthink, to Voldemort. Here's my favorite definition of evil from these works:
"What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort?" it reminded me of a dementor.

I also liked this line from Charles Wallace:
"We have to make decisions, and we can't make them if they're based on fear." and this line from Mr. Murry: "Don't be afraid to be afraid."

because they reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Dune: 
"Fear is the mind-killer."

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.
That's a Dorothy Parker line, that I love to hate, as a woman who wears glasses. I loved this moment between Calvin and Megatron:
"Calvin, to Meg: Do you know that this is the first time I've seen you without your glasses?"
'I'm blind as a bat without them. I'm near-sighted, like Father.'
'Well, you know what, you've got dream-boat eyes,' Calvin said. 'Listen, you go right on wearing your glasses. I don't think I want anybody else to see what gorgeous eyes you have."

I thought this was great, in that it both emphasized Meg's beauty AND encouraged her continued wearing of glasses (albeit as a screening mechanism against other suitors). I have been told by a few people (not men, more like Mar and Mama Monroe, and my pcp, most recently) that I have beautiful eyes, but I do kind of enjoy keeping them a secret sometimes. Also, if you can't tell someone's beautiful around or behind their glasses, then you have no business being interested.

We're not seeing other people yet. 
When Charles Wallace first meets Mrs. Whatsit, who is a star/old-lady person, he doesn't want to let Meg in on it, which I kind of love:

"Who's Mrs. Whatsit?' Meg asked.
'I think I want to be exclusive about her for a while," Charles Wallace said." shhh! she's a SECRET star person!

A parliament of owls, an unkindness of ravens, a drive of dragons, a destruction of wild cats
I have a special affinity for the names of groups of animals, so I thought I would share these samplings. The drive of dragons is featured in the second book, I believe, and I wanted to share as my fun fact when I visited my old Breakthrough site that a group of domestic cats is a litter, but a group of wild cats is known as a DESTRUCTION. How awesome is that? Other favorites:

a QUIVER of cobras
a CHARM of hummingbirds
an UNKINDNESS of ravens
a MURDER of crows
an EXULTATION of skylarks

Cocoa in the kitchen, a fire in the hearth, bread baking in the oven, a room in the attic
The best part of these books for me was the Murry's home itself, which I think was part of why I was disappointed when I realized that each book starts there, but generally takes place elsewhere (in time or location, or both). I loved the idea of the fantasy, but their house was where I wanted to cozy up and settle in. 

Here are some things that I loved in terms of setting or the Murrys:
  • The star-watching rock - this is a rock that's near their house, where they watch the stars, and also the location for many jumps in time
  • The vegetable garden - contains things such as legumes, dragons, and the occasional snake
  • Cocoa on the bunsen burner - in several scenes, a Murry family member makes cocoa on Mrs. Murry's bunsen burner, and it made me nostalgic for cups of cocoa with my mom and Wilbur's
  • New England autumn - one of the things I miss the most about New Hampshire is the spectacular fall foliage. The 'peak' of the season was always a point of much debate, but this never took away from their majestic beauty. ;)
  • Cinnamon toast - someone makes it in the Murry's kitchen - I haven't had cinnamon toast regularly since kindergarten, when Mrs. Fellin used to make it for us
  • Schubert's trout quintet - featured in the books, and a favorite of both my mom and moi-même
  • Orion's belt - picked out in the sky at a variety of ages in time, special to me because I wear it on my sleeve (literally) and it's the first constellation I remember my mom pointing out to me in the night sky
Words, wondrous words
tesseract - "the fifth dimension - add it to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around". In geometry, the tesseract is the four-dimensional analog of the cube; the tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square. See visual representation on right -->



"Oh, we don't travel at the speed of anything," Mrs. Whatsit explained earnestly. "We tesser. Or you might say, we wrinkle."

also, a British band

anorak - a waterproof jacket, typically with a hood, of a kind originally used in polar regions

moonset - the setting of the moon below the horizon

corona (in astronomy) - the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun and other stars. The sun's corona is normally visible only during a total solar eclipse when it is seen as an irregularly shaped pearly glow surrounding the darkened disk of the moon.

contumacious (especially of a defendant's behavior) stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority - how great is the phonetic spelling? (känt(y)o͝oˈmāSHəs)

Lines I Liked:
  • I'm full of bad feeling.
  • Wild nights are my glory.
  • You don't have to understand things for them to be.
  • You don't know how lucky you are to be loved.
  • Good galaxy, no!
  • Though we travel together, we travel alone.
  • There are dissonances in the song of the stars.
Well, I want to make it to the gym before moonset, and I haven't quite mastered tessering yet, so I'll leave you with these final bits:

Proginoskes - "Perhaps you could meet me early tomorrow morning, and we can compare our night thoughts." lollolololololz.

Mrs. Murry, to Charles Wallace:"You are not going back out tonight to find if the snake, magnificent though she be, likes cocoa. Save your experimental zeal for daylight."

Save your experimental zeal for daylight, folks, and let me know if you come across any exultations of larks, or cinnamon toast, or destructions of wild cats. (or extraterrestrials!)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson [did you remember he used a pseudonym, friends? I did not.]

Spoiler Alert: Plot Poem
Alice down the rabbit hole [quite litrally, we mean]
Too tall, too small; rinse, repeat. Is this all a dream?

Cries her way to Wonderland with wild menagerie.
A caucus race is thus begun; the winner is... EVERYONE!

MaryAnn the rabbit messenger hunts for gloves and fan
Curious Alice drinks mystery drink just because she can.

Off she grows to such great heights, stymied one again
Arms in the window, lizard in the chimney; Bill's not feeling too zen.

Hookah-smoking caterpillar with mushroom domicile
Quizzles existentially, he brooks no denial.

Fish footmen for duchesses, pepper, babies, and pigs
Meetings with the Cheshire Cat; an airy grin he rigs.

Tea with a Hatter, humor a Dormouse, six the clock will chime
Riddles and rudeness, twinkles and treacle, buttering away the time.

Flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, a game of queer croquet
Tempestuous duchess, a hotheaded Queen, "off with her head!" she'll say!

Mock turtle songs and lobster quadrilles, jury's out - who stole the tarts?
Important evidence (of nothing) is given to please the Queen of Hearts.

Larger, now, the girl awakes to think on Wonderland
Real or imagined, dreamed or not, it was most awfully grand.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear Blobbists, 
   Did you like my rhyming? Alice connoisseurs may have noticed I omitted the Looking-Glass from my plot poem. If I'm being honest, I preferred the first volume by a teensy bit, and I also got tired of rhyming. ;)

If you have not read these little works, find a copy and devour them. They're bite-sized, and marvelous! Ostensibly they're children's books, but like all the best children's books, they're full of nuance for adults and witty puns and jokes no child would get. OK. Alice PSA Over!

If you're still reading (BECAUSE YOU ALREADY READ THEM, or because you ARE PLANNING TO REALLY SOON) (LIKE, TOMORROW, MAYBE) then please proceed.
I've decided to continue my new section, since this one had several...
Referents and Reverberations (I'll tell you a quote from this book, and I'll tell you a quote from another book from this blob that it reMinded me of. Sound like fun? Tbqh, I don't care what you think, the section is happening anyway. But #fingerscrossed you find it fun.)

Alice quotes:
"How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I've changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? But if I'm not the same, the next question is, 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

"I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then."

Guesses, anyone? Hint: it's a Meredith FAVORITE, and an oft-referenced tome...

"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp."

One MILLION pounds sterling to anyone who guessed PROUSTY-proust. What's that? OH, you want to be super-snooty and guess which VOLUME of Proust? OK, fine. Hint: there are seven. 

I'm thinking of a number between one and seven.... it's... THREE! The Guermantes Way. (Which, if you're a true blob fan, you might remember I accidentally read BEFORE number two. An honest mistake! If you're a FRENCH speaker, you most probably guessed it when you saw the Picture.)

OK, moving on to the next Alice quote(s):
'He said he would come in,' the White Queen went on, 'because he was looking for a hippopotamus. Now, as it happened, there wasn't such a thing in the house, that morning.'
'Is there generally?' Alice asked in an astonished tone.
'Well, only on Thursdays,' said the Queen."

lolz. OBVIOUSLY only on Thursdays, silly! and then this nugget:

"Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Together, these reminded me of someone who also had a lot of thoughts involving breakfast...

"If I start thinking about something which didn't happen I start thinking about all the other things which didn't happen. For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milk shake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea* I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn't eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn't a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn't wearing a diving suit and so on..."
*But I wouldn't have Shreddies and tea because they are both brown.

So which was it, folks? A hippopotamus or a rhinoceros when you were eating breakfast? It IS Thursday, after all!

And for our last installment in this section, this quote from Alice:
'If that there King was to wake,' added Tweedledum, 'you'd go out - bang! - just like a candle!'
'I shouldn't!' Alice exclaimed indignantly. Besides, if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?"

Which put me in mind of this quote:

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

I gave you a picture clue, so I'm not telling for this one. Look it up if you must! ;)

How are we feeling, readers? Do you need a stretch break? Why don't you do a little 'cat/cow', get your mail, or grab a cuppa, and then roll on back. Here's a silly photo to cleanse your neural palate:




Aren't cats simply the silliest creatures? Susan has taken to slumbering in my closet, because it has the lumpiest clothes. Onward we go!

A new section I've decided to call "Things which were simply a part of my growing-up vernacular, and which I only now realize are from Wonderland"

Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never ever ever ever jam today. I really think I thought this was just a thing my mom said sometimes. I had completely forgotten that it was from Alice, and I'm not sure I knew there was a real song! Mom, were you quoting her?

stuffing the Dormouse into the teapot, and stories full of treacle

Alice - pudding: Pudding - Alice. now you've been properly introduced, so of course you can't EAT the pudding!

these lines:
'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.'

And now for some random thoughts...

Wit and Wordplay
Carroll/Dodgson has the MOST fun with the English language in these books. I don't know if I've ever read a book that took such pleasure in my native language, and it was truly a joyful experience. One of my favorite moments in the book is this one, which comes before the caucus race and when the animals (and Alice) are all sopping wet. The mouse jumps to the rescue:

'This is the driest thing I know.' "William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English..." lololololol. Get it. DRY? dry? (slaps knee and guffaws)


Who's your friend who likes to play?
Perhaps the only thing more fantastic than Carroll's delightful wordplay is his vivid imagination. One of my favorite creatures was the 'Snap-dragon-fly':
'Look on the branch above your head, and there you'll find a Snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy.'
 'And what does it live on?' Alice asked.
'Frumenty and mince-pie,' the Gnat replied: 'and it makes its nest in a Christmas-box.'

It reminded me of BING BONG from Inside Out! (see video for more on Bong, Bing)

Tick tock, tick tock, Hook's afraid of an old dead clock...
Time is a frequent topic of discussion in the books, and there's even one section that had a pretty trippy 'Arrival'-style discussion of the future happening in the present and such. Here's my other favorite time-related quip:

The Mad Hatter: 'I dare say you never even spoke of Time!'
 'Perhaps not,' Alice cautiously replied; 'but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.'
'Ah! That accounts for it,' said the Hatter. 'He won't stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!" are you on good terms with Time, blobbists? What time would you make it, if you could?

What are you, after all?
Many of the creatures Alice encounters ask her what she is, and she is accused of being a great many other things (my favorite of which is a serpent). One creature asks her: 

'Are you a child or a teetotum?' and if, at this moment, you are thinking to yourself, WHAT, praytell, is a teetotum, and/or did Monsieur Carroll make that up? 

THIS (see left) is a teetotum. It is apparently a top. Not necessarily twelve-sided, though this one is, but generally containing some sort of numbered sides to determine a winner. 

Please let me know if you knew this word and I will give you BONUS POINTS ON THE NEXT QUIZ. 

This exchange reminded me of one of my favorite moments in the movie 'Stranger Than Fiction', when Dustin Hoffman says, "Aren't you relieved to know you're not a golem?"

And if you are NOW wondering what a golem is,
"In Jewish folklore, a golem (/ˈɡoʊləm/ GOH-ləm; Hebrew: גולם‎‎) is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (specifically clay or mud)."
OK everyone. Time for that POP QUIZ! (No, I didn't forget that you Might have gotten bonus points for knowing teetotum!)


Real or not real? Are the items below references to real things, Carroll-isms, or a bit of both?

jabberwocky - Carroll-ism, though now a term that extends beyond Alice, imho. Also, the only poem I know in full (don't worry, family, I've STOPPED trying to rememberize the Raven)


Lory - a bit of both. Here are side-by-side pictures of the Lory in Alice and a lory IRL.


caucus race - real words, turned into Carroll-ism. According to CLW (or LC) "all participants have to run in circles until an arbitrary end is called and everyone is declared a winner". my kind of race.


treacle - I honestly didn't know if this was a real thing. Apparently it's just the British term for molasses. 

un-birthdays - Carrollism [BUT CAN THEY BE REAL THO] - "three hundred sixty-four days when you might get presents because it is Not your birthday." So obviously we should be doing this. 

Clap backs from Wonderland
In honor of the sassiness of these novels, I am including a new section. For those unfamiliar with the term, here is a definition of 'clap back': 

Frog footman:
"How am I to get in?" asked Alice again, in a louder tone.
'Are you to get in at all?' said the Footman. 'That's the first question, you know.'"

The Rose, in the garden of live flowers:
"This sounded a very good reason, and Alice was quite pleased to know it. 'I never thought of that before!' she said.
 'It's my opinion that you never think at all,' the Rose said, in a rather severe tone."


The Mad Hatter and the March Hare
"You should say what you mean.'
'I do.' Alice hastily replied; 'at least - at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing, you know.'
'Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. 'Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!'

'Really, now you ask me,' said Alice, very much confused, 'I don't think--"
'Then you shouldn't talk,' said the Hatter.'

The Dormouse
"'I wish you wouldn't squeeze so,' said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to Alice. 'I can hardly breathe.'
 'I can't help it,' said Alice very meekly: 'I'm growing.'
'You've no right to grow here,' said the Dormouse.
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Alice more boldly: you know you're growing too.'
'Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,' said the Dormouse: 'not in that ridiculous fashion."

Tweedledum
"It's no use your talking about waking him, when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.'
'I am real!' said Alice, and began to cry.
'You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying."

Humpty Dumpty
'What does the name Alice mean?'
'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully.
'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: my name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."

The Red Queen
'Do you know Languages? What's the French for fiddle-de-dee?'
'Fiddle-de-dee's not English,' Alice replied gravely.
'Who ever said it was?'

Phrases we should all say more often:
  • As sure as ferrets are ferrets. so many possible uses!
  • Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you're at! that's the Suzuki song, right?!
  • I'm doubtful about the temper of your flamingo. I'm gonna start saying this to everyone.
  • 'I shouldn't know you again if we did meet, you're so exactly like other people.' this seems like a great option after a failed first date, or perhaps to an ex, upon conscious uncoupling.
  • You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch! a possible alternative to 'Who is John Galt?'
Well, I certainly hope you've enjoyed this rollicking romp through Wonderland, and (final plug) if you haven't read these because you "think you know the story from pop culture", GO READ them, plzzzz.

I will leave you with my three favorite quotes.

#1
"We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near."
I often feel like an old child, who constantly frets to find her bedtime near! Do you, blobbists?

#2
The Unicorn, to Alice:
"This is a child? I always thought they were fabulous monsters. 
If you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"
Such a great exchange. If you believe in me blob readers, I'll believe in you! Deal?

#3
"In that direction lives a Hatter: and in that direction lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.'
 'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice. 
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here."

Enjoy your late summer evening, watch the temper of your flamingo, clap back when you can, and only eat jam TOMORROW and YESTERDAY. Have fun among the mad people, from one mad person (and one mad cat) to another. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Diana's Thoughts on "Ceremony"

As promised, here are Diana's thoughts on Ceremony:


This book was nothing like I thought it would be. When I looked at the list of upcoming books to try to identify ones I might want to read along with you, I saw the title "Ceremony" and the name Leslie Marmon Silko. The "silk" part of her last name made me think of luxurious cloth, and coupled with the title I had an idea that the book would be something delicate, feminine, perhaps about a family saga or a marriage (the first kind of ceremony that came to mind). So...I guess this should be a reminder to all of us not to judge a book by its cover (or by the imagery evoked by the title and author alone).

I, unfortunately, did not like this book, did not find it to be feminine or delicate, and did not discover within it a steady narrative of any kind. You could hardly even say that it's about any character at all -- in my opinion Tayo is just a stand-in for Indian people (again, I'm following Silko's lead here with the terminology), and I never connected with him because he's just a composite of emotions and experiences, completely overshadowed by Silko's love affair with nature and her native New Mexico and the web of origin stories/poems she throws in throughout the book. I think the whole thing would be more successful as a blend of short stories and poetry, but maybe that's just my frustration with modern novels talking.

In any case, I found this book brutal, confusing, and occasionally tender, but the moments when I was able to appreciate a thought or a gem of writing were few and far between. At the start, I thought I might be able to get behind Tayo as an underdog, as a castoff within his own family, as someone who made it back from the war when his best friend and uncle did not, however, as the pages went on, I found the rest of the book almost impossible to read. Silko stolidly refuses to help the reader understand Where or When in the story we are, as paragraphs begin willy nilly with such lines as, "He was sitting in the sun outside the screen door when they came driving into the yard." Not only did I not know where geographically the action was taking place, I didn't even know what time it was. I suppose that was partly by design, as the journey Tayo embarks on is more psychological and spiritual than it is physical, but considering that Silko is also obsessed with the land and the flecks of color on the trees and the gulleys and the stone etc. etc. etc. I might have thought she would help us figure out the geography a little more.

I suppose I could say that I learned a little more about the perspective of American Indians from this book than I knew before, but what I really wanted by the end was to know what Leslie Marmon Silko thought, directly, emotionally, not through this veil of poems and confusing plot and characters who never became real to me. I wish I could be less negative, but I think it just comes back to the fact that I read books to enjoy characters going on adventures or solving mysteries or revealing universal truths, but this book was not about characters; it was about ideas like mistrust and betrayal and loss and it was just too fragmented and confusing for me to piece it together to appreciate it. So, I'm sorry Leslie Marmon Silko; I'm going to have to find something else to read if I want to expand my perspective on American lndian life."

Monday, May 29, 2017

Once there had been a man who cursed the rain clouds, a man of monstrous dreams.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
I've decided to carry on the tradition of summarizing in poem form. This is the story of Tayo, a young Indian man who has recently returned to the Laguna reservation after fighting in WWII. (I recognize that there are many different terms preferred by indigenous people of America, but for this post I will be using "Indian" in many places simply because that's how they are referred to in the work.)

Tayo is half-white
Tayo is half-Pueblo
Tayo is not all anything

Tayo fought for us
But Tayo is not one of us
Second war of the world
Atomic pain
Great loss

Tayo returns
But Tayo does not return
He is lost

His friends are lost too
They lose themselves in liquor
He wants to be found

Medicine men
Healers
Fights with friends
Crossroads

Savagery
Restraint

Tayo finds himself in the mountain
The ceremony is complete
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you found that plot poem to be a bit opaque, then WELCOME to my world. There were things I really enjoyed about this novel, but there were also things that disturbed me, and many more which confused and confounded me. This was one of those books where I looked up a summary online after I finished, and thought, HUNH. Really? I was supposed to get all that? Not quite as large a mental gap as, say, Gravity's Rainbow (barf) but still substantial. 

My sister Diana did a read-along with me, so I'll be posting her thoughts shortly. Here are mine.

Between worlds
Reading this right after Native Son was fascinating, because I saw a lot of comparisons between Bigger and Tayo. Each young man felt trapped in his own skin, and wronged by the country to which he was 'native'. Here are a few of my favorite lines describing how Tayo feels when he returns home with PTSD from WWII:
  • They didn't want him at Laguna the way he was.
  • The new doctor asked him if he had ever been visible.
  • It had been a long time since he had thought about having a name.
  • It took a great deal of energy to be a human being.
  • He wanted to walk until he recognized himself again.
I have to agree that sometimes it does, indeed, take a great deal of energy to be a human being. Do you recognize yourself, dear readers? Do you ever wonder if you're someone else? It reminded me of one of my favorite Proust lines:
"So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp." I love the idea that you could accidentally grasp onto another human being's consciousness when you wake up in the morning. Whoops, I'm someone else!
"Jungle rain had no beginning or end."
OK, blobbists, I have to make a confession. I put this book on the list because, aside from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I don't think I've read any other books by indigenous Americans. I thought the biggest leap in my social understanding would be life on a reservation versus my rural upbringing. It hadn't even occurred to me that indigenous people fought in American wars, saw gruesome realities, were accepted as soldiers, and then rejected as humans when they returned. Tayo is so completely lost when he comes back, and between his PTSD and the fact that his cousin, the 'prodigal son', so to speak, died in the war, his identity is stripped away. No one wants to claim him, even the ones who are bound to do so. 
  • A white recruiter, to Tayo and Rocky - "Anyone can fight for America. Even you boys. In a time of need, anyone can fight for her." I found this so repulsive. I know that it is not uncommon for us to expect the same peoples that we denigrate and abuse to be our foot soldiers, and it's happened for eons, but that doesn't make it right. How dare we.
  • "Here they were, trying to bring back that old feeling, that feeling they belonged to America the way way they felt during the war. They blamed themselves for losing the new feeling; they never talked about it, but they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took. They never thought to blame white people for any of it; they wanted white people for their friends. They never saw that it was the white people who gave them that feeling and it was white people who took it away again when the war was over." It was interesting to me that in Native Son, the white man bears the blame, but here, even if the white man deserves the blame, he is not held responsible. 
It's a (white) man's man's man's man's world.
In Native Son, Bigger feels that everything belongs to the white man, but fundamentally it's about personhood that has been stolen. For Tayo, the land is what has been stolen, and personhood is tied to the land. 

"We fought their war for them.
But they've got everything. 
They took our land, they took everything!" reminded me of

"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." from Native Son

Do you believe the lie? Do you live the lie?
Tayo, to himself: "Why did he hesitate to accuse a white man of stealing but not a Mexican or an Indian? He had learned the lie by heart - the lie which they had wanted him to learn: only brown-skinned people were thieves; white people didn't steal, because they always had the money to buy whatever they wanted." There's a term for this pattern of thinking - internalized racism? I can't quite put my finger on it; I think there was another term in my head. Anyway, it should force us all to do a gut check, methinks. I liked Tayo's next line:

"As long as people believed the lies, they would never be able to see what had been done to them or what they were doing to each other."

But, like Malcolm X and like Bigger Thomas, Tayo learns that whiteness is not singly equivalent to evil. One medicine man tells him: "Nothing is that simple. You don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians."

What is your tribe?
In addition to forgetting that indigenous peoples had multi-layered identities as Americans, I also forgot, to some extent, of the variety of tribes and the ways in which tribal identity reinforces or conflicts with other identities. Silko only touches on a few tribes in this work, but it made me want to learn more and research more about our nation's too-often hidden history.

This land is your land, this land is my land...
The importance of nature and the earth to Tayo and his culture were some of the only things I really liked about him. I wanted to like him, and I wanted to root for him, but I didn't feel like Silko really gave us the chance to get to know him. I also found it off-putting that her protagonist was a rather personality-less man - I wanted a woman's perspective, a woman's voice, maybe even (gasp!) some female side characters, if we can't have a female protagonist. His aunt and his grandmother were in the distance, but I never felt truly connected to them. It reminded me of how odd I found it that House of the Spirits centered around obnoxious Esteban and not any of the lovely del Valle women.

Some bits about nature:
  • "Indians wake up every morning of their lives to see the land which was stolen, still there, within reach, its theft being flaunted. And the desire is strong to make things right, to take back what was stolen and to stop them from destroying what they have taken." What struck me as I read this was the role of time, and the unfortunate fact that if you go back far enough, a new layer of imperialism, or subjugation, or slavery, or despotism will appear. I remember my favorite word from Intro to Comp Lit - palimpsest - a kind of manuscript where the original writing has been scratched off to make room for future writing, but traces of the old writing still remain. America's history is like a palimpsest, and unfortunately there's a great deal of pain hidden along with the triumphs of democracy and individual liberties. Bigger came earlier in the literary canon than Tayo, but Tayo's pain predates slavery and the Civil War.
How are we doing, dear blobbists? Do you need a break? A snack? Here's a mental caesura:


Oh I'm sorry. Was that too literal for you? 

Here's a less literal caesura:


AAAAAnd, we're back. 

The good news is, even though white people stole the land from Tayo and his people, they know a secret:
  • On white people buying up the land near the reservation: "They only fool themselves when they think it is theirs. The deeds and papers don't mean anything. It is the people who belong to the mountain."
  • "He had lost nothing. The mountain could not be lost to them, because it was in their bones."
Then there's this excellent line:
"He breathed deeply, and each breath had a distinct smell of snow from the north, of ponderosa pine on the rimrock above; finally he smelled horses from the direction of the corral, and he smiled. Being alive was all right then: he had not breathed like that for a long time." I love this line, and its simple poetry. What smells make you feel all right to be alive? I think for me it's new rain, browned butter, and fresh coffee. 

Alnilam, Mintaka, Alnitak***
 ***Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Hatsya
             ***Meissa, Saiph, Rigel 

I have a personal affection for the constellation Orion, so I was pleased to see it featured in Silko's secondary narrative which follows the 'Spider-Woman', a sort of Mother Earth equivalent.

"Maybe you have Orion in there

And then
everything - 

his clothing, his beads his heart
and the rainclouds 

will be yours."

Dessert stomachs, states with their own atmosphere, standing on a mesa to touch the moon
Tayo talks about how in his youth, he thought that you could touch the moon:
"He had believed that on certain nights, when the moon rose full and wide as a corner of the sky, a person standing on the high sandstone cliff of that mesa could reach the moon. If a person wanted to get to the moon, there was a way; it all depended on whether you knew the directions - exactly which way to go and what to do to get there; it depended on whether you knew the story of how others before you had gone."

It's like Neverland, right? Second star to the right and straight on till morning? I loved this imagery, and it reminded me of the amusing things we believe when we're still putting the world together in our heads. I, for instance, used to think that all the states and countries were stacked on top of each other, ground to sky, and so to cross from Pennsylvania to New York, for example, you'd have to travel through the atmosphere and start at the ground again. Logical Meredith tried to clear this up, since she had often ridden in cars between such states, and didn't remember crossing any atmospheres. But then imaginative Meredith countered with, "You always fall asleep in the car! You probably just missed the atmospheres changing!" ;)

A few years ago I was having dinner with my friend Sarah and her boyfriend, Chris, and he said that we should all get ready to fill up our dessert stomachs. I asked him to elaborate, and he said that as a boy, he thought we had separate stomachs for each course of our meals, and so he would delightedly inform his mother that he wasn't full, since he hadn't even touched the space in his dessert stomach!

What did you believe when you were young, dear readers? Dessert stomachs or alternate atmospheres? ;)

Lyrical lines I Liked:
  • "His body had density again." 
  • "The feelings of shame, at her own people and at the white people, grew inside her, side by side like monstrous twins that would have to be left in the hills to die."
  • "When it came to saving her own soul, she wanted to be careful that there were no mistakes."
  • "I've seen you before many times, and I always remembered you." I love this line so much. I was torn between this one and the one I chose for the title, but I felt like the title was more inclusive of the novel's intent. 
  • "They are trying to decide who you are." Another strong contender for title.
  • "Spider Woman had told Sun Man how to win the storm clouds back from the Gambler so they would be free again to bring rain and snow to the people." While some of the secondary narrative was confusing, I loved the imaginative quality to it. I know it only seems magical to me, since it's a different origin story than the one I was inculcated with, but I think there's something special about this. When you're told something is true from a young age, you are inclined to either accept or reject it. When you hear an alternate version, it can have a sort of mystical ring to it.
  • "She was with him again, a heartbeat unbroken where time subsided into dawn, and the sunset gave way to the stars, wheeling across the night."
petite pieces of poetry:
Because this book heavily features poetry, I wanted to take a moment to honor it with some of Silko's poems from the novel. 

"They flew to the fourth world
below.
Down there 
was another kind of daylight
everything was blooming 
and growing
everything was so beautiful."



"I have left the zigzag lightning behind

I was born from the mountain
I leave a pat of wildflowers"



"Back in time immemorial, things were different, 
the animals could talk to human beings 
and many magical things still happened."

Did you see what I did just there? ;)

Words, Words, Wondrous Words

hackamore - a simple looped bridle, or a bridle without a bit, operated by exerting pressure on the horse's nose

hogan - a traditional Navajo hut of logs and earth

arroyo - a steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region

kiva - a chamber, built wholly or partly underground, used by male Pueblo Indians for religious rites

Did you know all those words, blobbists? I did not. 

Well, all good things must come to an end, and so, alas, must this post. I want to leave you with a few final thoughts:

"I will tell you something about stories. 
They are all we have, you see, 
all we have to fight off 
illness and death. 

You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories."

It's so true. I don't know where I would be or what my life would be like if I had never found reading, and like Scout, I can't imagine losing it - it is, to me, like breathing now.

And in case you actually garnered some sort of affection for Tayo:

"I'm walking back to belonging
I'm walking home to happiness
I'm walking back to long life."

Our past is indeed a complex one, as Americans, and the intricacies of individual and collective identities can be painful to observe and immerse ourselves in. But how can we truly know ourselves until we understand what and who we are made of, and acknowledge who has won out and who has suffered in each phase of our becoming? 

I'll leave you with one final line:

"Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, 
the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them. 
It was a world alive, always changing and moving; 
and if you knew where to look, you could see it, 
sometimes almost imperceptible, 
like the motion of the stars across the sky."


On this day of remembrance, let us remember all the people who stand up for us and our freedoms in the ways they feel are right, our soldiers, both literal and literary, our forgotten, and our cherished nurturer, Mother Earth.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I shall witness for Bigger Thomas.

Native Son by Richard Wright

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Dear Blobbists, in a constant effort to mix things up, I have decided to present the plot of this novel in the form of a poem. Bigger = Bigger Thomas, the 20-year-old African-American male protagonist.

Bigger feeling stuck
Bigger offered a job
Bigger accepts

Bigger meets the white Daltons
Learns about Communism
Drives for daughter Mary

Bigger eats with Mary and boyfriend Jan
Bigger hates how they make him feel
Bigger brings Mary home
She's too drunk
To keep her quiet
Suffocation (accidental)

Bigger burns the body
(and chops the parts that need it)
Bigger says nothing

Bigger gets cocky and tries a ransom note
Bigger found out
Bigger on the run

Bigger kills his girl Bessie
To keep his secret

Bigger gets caught

Bigger defended by Communists
Bigger resentful, raging, alone

Bigger is tried
Bigger is killed.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Sometimes you read a book and you feel happy. Sometimes you read a book and you wish for more. And sometimes, in rare cases and in the right circumstances, you read a book and it changes you. 

This was one of those books. 

I read this book in stops and starts, and at times I felt like I was in a fugue state or an alternate reality. The intensity of emotion, the parallels with today's race relations, and the sheer brilliance of Wright's writing held me hostage for the handful of days it took me to finish the work. It was hard to read, acutely painful, on a number of levels. All that being said, if you haven't read it, please consider picking up a copy, or at least read this post in full to get an inkling of it.

I will not apologize for the lengthiness of this post. Race relations in America deserve a prominent place at the literary table, in the resistance, and on my blog. I will also not apologize for the black and whiteness of this post. While I recognize that race relations in America include a much larger set of groups with various interactions and prejudices and problems than simply those two groups, Wright's work focuses with laser precision on people with the color of his skin, and so, for this post, I will follow suit. Without further ado, here are my thoughts.

I don't like to read introductions or extra information about books. I was, however, struck by this line from Arnold Rampersad's introduction to my edition:
"The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright's urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation."
It's certainly a beautiful line, but what struck me was its similarity to this line from Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 "Between the World and Me", a novel told as a letter to his son about race in America:
"When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies."
Are you dreaming now? Were you dreaming, but awoke? I think I alternate between dream-world and 'woke-world', and I am intimately conscious of the luxury of this choice. 

Before we dive into the novel's plot a little more, here are a few lines I think speak eloquently to this struggle:
  • "Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America." -Arnold Rampersad
  • "We must deal here with a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination; so fraught with tragic consequences as to make us rather not want to look at it or think of it; so old that we would rather try to view it as an order of nature and strive with uneasy conscience and false moral fervor to keep it so." -Max, Bigger's attorney
  • "Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights."
How does it feel to be a captive in your own country? Are there ways in which you feel you're a captive, readers?

Wright organizes the novel into three parts - Fear, Flight, and Fate. I've kept his sections and collected quotes that best articulate those themes. I've also added a few themes of my own.

FEAR

  • "His courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness." I read this line over and over and over.
  • "This boy represents but a tiny aspect of a problem whose reality sprawls over a third of this nation. Kill him! Burn the life out of him! And still when the delicate and unconscious machinery of race relations slips, there will be murder again."
  • "You cannot kill this man, Your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!"
FLIGHT
  • "This was not his world; he had been foolish in thinking that he would have liked it." Bigger, on coming into the white world to drive for the Daltons. For some reason it made me think of this line from Ender's Game - "We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
  • "He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led."
  • "He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape." Traveling this journey with Bigger was troubling because I wanted to evaluate his actions on a scale of morality, but each decision and each action was so tied up in the history of his very existence and the socialization of his person that it became harder and harder to examine them through a lens of right and wrong. This is not to say that his actions are to be sanctioned, but rather that their impetus and drivers were much bigger than Bigger.
FATE
  • "His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this."
  • "He was tensely eager to stay and see how it would all end, even if that end swallowed him in blackness."
  • "'Didn't you know that the penalty for killing that white woman would be death?' 'Yeah, I knew it. But I felt like she was killing me, so I didn't care."
  • "It did not seem strange that the papers ought to be full of him now, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story." This is another theme in the book - the idea that only by violating convention could Bigger make himself visible, create his own liberty. It was striking in its suitability.
HATE
In my last post, I spoke about hate, and how it's a sentiment I try to avoid, given its severity. That being said, I'm intentionally including it here because there is no other word for what Wright describes and what Bigger is feeling. I think it's essential that we recognize hate in this form, and the ways in which white people and America as a society have engendered this hatred. 
"Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail."
"He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having. How could he do that? The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill." Sometimes I wonder (and this is dark, dear blobbists, so fair warning) how a people who have been so wronged by their country and their fellow citizens can even breathe through their emotions. At Breakthrough, we speak from the "I" perspective, so I will not pretend to know anything other than my own feelings, but I know that my rage and my fear and my sadness are but a fraction of what I could feel were I born with a different color of skin.
"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."
I mention these lines in particular because, while in some ways, things are dramatically better or different than they were when Wright wrote this, in other ways things are much the same. I say this not to be pessimistic or dismissive of the various efforts and battles to get to where we are, but rather to draw attention to the work to be done.

COLOR
I was struck several times by how often and explicitly Wright refers to the color of his characters. I realized that in part, this drew attention to how often and how unconsciously I assume characters are white. In reading these various lines -"the black mother", "the brown daughter", "his black body", "their black fingers", "blackly naked" - I was reminded of a discussion I had with my friend Dennis, a writer currently working on his own brilliant novel at the MacDowell Colony. (#soproud) 

We were talking about writing and race, and Dennis brought up an interview he'd heard with Toni Morrison where she spoke about race and how she wrote about it in ParadiseMorrison said that she started with race (The novel opens with the line "They shoot the white girl first. . . ") and then erased it by never revealing who the white girl is. I thought of how often we ascribe race to characters without thinking, based on arbitrary or logical descriptors, our own biases, our own natural proclivities, our own identities. What race do you assume characters are?

CHANGE
I was struck by one noticeable change in reading Bigger's opinions on race. Before he goes to work for the Daltons, he spends time with a friend of his and they 'play white'. They poke fun at the formal way white people talk, the kinds of things they say, the power they wield. In particular, playing white involves pretending to be the President of the United States. In reading this section, I was pleased to think that this particular example would no longer work. Though, alas, it could still be a game where we 'play men'.

"It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black." Do you feel that you can lose yourself to find yourself, readers? What holds you back?

INTERSECTIONALITY
As a woman (and a feminist) I feel it is my duty to point out that while Wright eloquently depicts the struggles of being a black man in America, in doing so he frequently tramples on black women. I don't want to oversimplify this, because I think there are a lot of complicating factors when we look at the crossroads of race and gender, particularly within a severely oppressed and repressed race. That being said, here were a few lines with which I took umbrage:
  • "A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away." oh REALLY? fine, then. leave without us.
  • "That's a woman, always. You want to know something, then you run like a rabbit." oh yes. we're just a bunch of Ridiculous Rabbits, we women.
  • "All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain't got no happiness. I ain't never had none. I just work. I'm black and I work and don't bother nobody..." This is a line from Bessie, and it reminded me a great deal of Beyoncé's Lemonade and the exploration of female blackness. Bessie REALLY drew the short straw in this book (and in life) and I felt for her.
Referents and Reverberations 
(This is a new section I'm including when the spirit moves me. It refers to when a work reminds me of other works that came before or followed suit. I've made this version a guessing game - see if you can guess the novel based on the cropped cover art and the quotes I chose from Native Son to match!)


Year of Publication: 1866

"Could people tell he had done something wrong by the way he acted?"


"During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind."


ANSWER: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Year of Publication: 1932

"The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score."


ANSWER: Light in August by William Faulkner



Year of Publication: 1937

"Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they ever done? Perhaps they had not done anything."



ANSWER: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston




Native Son by Richard Wright - 1940 
(Just to help you place it on the timeline)




Year of Publication: 1942

"He was not so much in a stupor, as in the grip of a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything."


"Was this the all, the meaning, the end?"



ANSWER: The Stranger by Albert Camus


Year of Publication: 1952

"Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength."



 ANSWER: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison



Year of Publication: 1960

"What's the use? When folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born. I'm black. I don't have to do nothing for 'em to get me."


ANSWER: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

That line reminded me of this exchange, an all-time favorite I've referenced many times on this blob: 

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"
"No, honey."
"Then why-"
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."