With Apologies to Perseus...

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about men. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about one man, because I realized last year, that out of all the men I know—I still don’t understand them. Make no mistake, I know how to take care of a man. I usually can determine what a man’s needs are and how to address them even at the expense of my own. I know how to not let my intellect come off as a threat. And that if they do or do not respond to me in very specific ways, I add it to my running calculation of what to do or not do around men. My mother, for instance, taught me never to make eye contact with men I am not interested in, because in her experience, it encourages the predator in them. On the other hand, she encouraged me to fix myself up when I am interested because men are visual creatures.

I’ve been taking care of a man for as long as I can remember. I know how to take care of him when he’s hungry, when he’s exhausted, when he’s in pain, when he’s discouraged, when he’s at the end of his emotional tether. I know how to give him space, when to motivate him, when to say nothing and let him think it was all his idea. I know how to twirl our conversation into a fan dance. It seems I have never not known these things. I thought I understood men, but in twenty years of writing, I have never been able to write them. And since last year, I’ve been obliged to learn. Quickly. Because when writing a character, the voice, in order to be convincing, has to feel true. The audience can always tell.

This past summer, the image of Luciano Garbati’s sculpture has been making the rounds online depicting a nude Medusa holding the head of Perseus captioned with, “The way it always should have been.” A year ago, when the opportunity presented itself to create an origin story for Medusa, I admit, I put off writing Perseus. To me, Perseus has always been just another dumb, opportunistic jock with Olympus-sized daddy issues. But for the past few months, I’ve had to get in his head and make arguments in his voice as authentically as possible which means I have to empathize with him because if he reads hollow on the page, he’ll read hollow on the stage. But I struggled with Perseus. I did. I mean, why do we need his story at this point anyway? We live in a world full of men just like Perseus. But in trying to recall having deeply authentic moments with men I’ve known at a critical point in a relationship, I’m left remembering long silences or tantrums or rage. So I stopped asking them to open up. I also stopped caring about why they reacted this way. Historically, for me it’s been kind of like asking a child where it hurts and they don’t know where to point, so all they do is cry. And I don’t have the time or interest anymore to raise a grown man. But I’m still so often confused by why men do things.

What must it be like to be born into the body (to say nothing of the mind) of an oppressor and to be obliged to stay there even if it’s not a great fit? It’s like trying to figure out why someone would choose to rake leaves with a hammer. I’m reminded now of Hurston who said, “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult...The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.” And then there’s Orwell who says of the colonizer, “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” Now I am wondering if Perseus is, in a way, just as voiceless as Medusa, pinned forever in the role of a demi-god man-child who slays monsters and rescues princesses and usurps thrones. We often talk about his acts of violence, but in the same myth, Perseus was trying to save his mother by volunteering to slay the Gorgon. He is also attributed with inventing antidotes, bringing life to the desert, and creating coral reefs. And Pegasus (the progeny of Medusa and Poseidon released only upon her death) was the ambassador for the Muses—the literal embodiment of pain transmuted into grace.

When Perseus returned the Gorgon’s head to Athena, she affixed it to her shield, and the Gorgoneion icon became an emblem of creation out of destruction, and was replicated as jewelry, installed over buildings, and welded into armor. Medusa’s name, in fact, means “Protectress,” and so, the disembodied Gorgon head has come to mean all who wear it or stand beneath it are defended. It’s odd how selective the collective memory can become regarding mythology. We sometimes forget that Perseus’s distant half-brother, Heracles, willingly sought out his penance when he took on the Twelve Labors. And even the problematic sky god himself didn’t start out that way when he liberated his siblings from his father’s gut. In fact, Zeus was at one point a creatrix and gave birth to a fully-armored Athena from his own head. We sometimes forget that Odysseus wanted to come back home. We sometimes forget why Orpheus looked back. To the ancient Greeks, heroes weren’t heroes because they were great men. Heroes were heroes because they did great things despite the fact that they were men. Why is it that today, we so often assume people who do great things must possess/embody great morals all the time? It’s no wonder in the process of being let down by our conventions, we often forget they were forged right here among us.

Truthfully, I have only learned one thing about men in trying to write one—if we continue to turn the men in our lives and memories into gods, then a god is all a man will think he has the option to become.

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One Wild and Precious Life: RIP Mary Oliver

Photo from The  New Yorker

Photo from The New Yorker

I unapologetically love Mary Oliver’s work. In fact, if one were to ask me who my favorite poets are,, I always say, Mary Oliver and Tupac, in that order. At 83 years old, Mary Oliver passed away yesterday, and now, I like to imagine that my two favorite poets are out there in the aether somewhere, having a very interesting conversation about All Of It. The image makes me very emotional, actually. Mary Oliver was a Virgo and born in a Pluto in Cancer generation, Tupac was a Gemini/Cancer cusp and born during a Pluto in Virgo generation (the Pluto placement in your natal chart indicates what your subconscious drives are). In other words, two Mercurial signs, one put here to nurture the world and make it feel at home with itself, and the other put here to help the world pay closer attention to its self-destructive tendencies through tough love…that would be a remarkable conversation….

I have all of my poetry workshops read a little of both, with an emphasis on Mary Oliver. Her work has historically been critically bashed around by a lot of folks (mostly male critics), and yet, she somehow won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award without their approval. In fact, as a poet, Mary Oliver has already written everything this whipper-snapper Virgo lady poet obsessed with the oak tree and midnight deer in her front yard, would ever want to. Every poem reads like a prayer. She makes the natural world sacrosanct and yet also accessible. It’s so simple. So simple. And her words soothe in the way that Rumi’s do, or Gibran’s. There’s something of the sibyl there, something of the sublime, as experienced through the everyday.

Not all of my students see themselves in her work. Last year, when I had my graduate class read “Wild Geese” and copy it word for word, a practice I find very useful to do on occasion—literally embodying where the poet pauses, a couple of my women students who are undoubtedly in the Pluto in Scorpio generation (they just want to blow the roof off the sucker, okay? Pluto in Scorpio gen young people just wanna burn it all down lol) wrote response poems later that basically said “Shut the hell up you old ass white woman, out there in your blackwater woods being all high and mighty with your geese and your grasshoppers eating sugar out of your hand. How dare you? When’s the last time you—” And on and on. I was shocked at how offended they were at Oliver’s work. Just shut it down immediately. It’s still kind of a head-scratcher. Like, how can you read a MO poem and redeem nothing from it? Are you alive? Are you a person? Do you have a pulse? An imagination?

But, I suppose it takes all kinds.

For me, it didn’t hit me until today that she’s gone. Not like it did when we found out Sister Aretha (Aries) or Brother Stan Lee (Cap) had passed on. It’s just here now, like the snow that hadn’t fallen last night when I went to bed and I woke up to a world that is all white and gray and silent. That’s exactly what it feels like to know her living voice is gone. I feel like we do need new stories and new voices, but it feels like in the last year, so many of my imagination’s greatest heroes are one at a time saying “Goodbye because the world doesn’t need us anymore—at least not in the same way.” What makes someone’s work a classic? I think a person’s work becomes classic when we continue to need it, generation after generation to gauge how far we’ve come and how far we have left to expand. It’s work that continues to grow with us. Like when you read or watch something as a kid and you’re still discovering applicable qualities to it as an adult.

Like any good Virgo, (the Florence Nightingales of the zodiac), Mary Oliver’s work never tells us overtly what truth to live or how to live. She quietly and efficiently again and again, poem after poem, asks us to remember why we live. Even if we don’t live the same way as she, she compels us to, in our own way, pay attention: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” It’s odd…I just can’t help but feel like I lost a really good friend, and I can’t entirely wrap my head around it. Too, this poem by Dick Allen, a contemporary of Oliver’s keeps coming to mind.

So. That said, rest in power, Mary Oliver. Whatever field you bloom in next, may it be worthy. And one day, may we be worthy enough to join you (and Tupac) there.

If You Want to Heal the World, Heal Yourself

Image from  Gina Spriggs  (no relation).

Image from Gina Spriggs (no relation).

What principle do the Laputians, the Lemurians, the Ancient Greeks, the Dogon, the yogis, the Zen masters, the Renaissance alchemists, and pretty much all of the most celebrated scholars, thinkers, inventors, and artists in the world share in common?

Self-mastery.

Self-mastery is what I consider to be the third principle for personal balance. The first two are self-awareness and self-acceptance and you cannot attain self-mastery without them.

Self-awareness means becoming conscious of the effect of Newton’s third law on our lives: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is also my own personal definition of karma—it’s not so much about if you do something bad to me, something bad will happen to you, although this could certainly be the case if someone does a lot of bad things—it’s bound to catch up to them by doing it to the wrong person. But to me, karma operates more like the impact of our choices on our lives. Self-awareness is considering why we make choices based on the information we have at hand and how we rationalize those choices based on our desires and how badly we want them. Whatever we decide, we can then assess the consequences of our actions as progressive or regressive and thusly recalibrate our approach as needed. But the impulse to recalibrate is also a choice. It’s about learning to not take setbacks as character indictments but as opportunities to add those results to our running calculation re: how close we are to what we want. Self-awareness is understanding the impact of other peoples’ choices on our lives and that our choices, intentional or not, will in turn, make an impact on other people.

Self-acceptance means being conscious of the fact that what you are issued in life re: intellect, intuition, position, privilege, inherited traits, natural ability, and adaptive quotient, will all dictate how far and fast you evolve and in what area. This means being able to objectively examine your skills, thoughts, and behaviors and accept you have limitations in certain areas. It’s about not declining what our emotions have to teach us about our boundaries. It’s to admit we have boundaries. It’s the desire to know more about what limits us and rather than run away from what makes us uncomfortable, we interrogate why. We all have animalistic instincts, a shadow side, a dark side that over the course of our lives we can either embrace as the occupational hazard of being human or operate in denial. But when we deny the fact that our actions are limited by our beliefs about ourselves, we deny an opportunity to expand beyond what we know and make choices based on these limitations whether we have experienced them for ourselves or we are operating within another person’s projected parameters upon us as to what’s possible. Self-acceptance is essentially on the one hand saying, “I don’t know,” and on the other using Nietzche’s concept of “amor fati” as a tool for expansion.

Where self-mastery comes in, however, requires not only the intention to improve the quality of one’s life but also doing something about it beyond daydreaming. Self-mastery requires an insatiable thirst for knowledge, self-discipline, becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, and a refusal to measure one’s achievements by another person’s as more than just a gauge as to how close we are to a goal. As Rocky told Apollo Creed, "It's you against you—he's just in your way. Get him out of your way." This means not allowing other people to have power over how you interpret your experiences. It means not taking conflict as something or someone doing something to you. It’s about refusing to occupy the limitations of victim mentality. Self-mastery is operating through life with the belief that, “I always have a choice. I can find another way.” Even if that is just rewiring how you consider a problem or challenge mentally—changing your perception alone of an obstacle into an opportunity for growth is the mark of self-mastery. I know all of that can sound kind of woo-woo. But I believe obtaining balance in one’s life is that simple. Truly. "‘Member what Denzel said in The Equalizer? “Progress not perfection.” So many people are waiting for the table-flip moment in their lives to show up to yank them out of their pathological thought patterns like some sort of cosmic intervention. But that is doing oneself a disservice.

Here’s the irony of self-mastery. It isn’t sustainable without a purpose, which, admittedly, you may not find out until you’re already on your way. What’s the point of mastering oneself if you can’t help others? Kinda reminds me of your boy, Wim Hof. Wim Hof originally began to develop his method for altering his own physiology (including his immune-system) to reduce anxiety and depression. When he attained self-mastery he couldn’t just keep this information to himself. He let scientists poke and prod him and experiment on him, and when they said ‘nah, you’re just a freak of nature,’ Wim Hof started to train other people. It’s not like he’s figured out anything that yogis and zen masters and shamans haven’t been doing for thousands of years, but he’s definitely making the most noise about it in the right century at a time where self-absorption is creating more and more distance between people whereas inclusivity is this abstract concept we all cite but don’t entirely understand how to enact at the interpersonal level. Y’know—until we try and get more interpersonal.

The most wonderful part of self-mastery is that there is no finish line. It’s more like a spiral staircase. There’s no trophy other than perspective. That said, I believe that the ultimate distinction of self-mastery at a certain point is dialectical—if you want to heal yourself, heal the world.

In a Hundred Years, Who's Gonna Care?

Image from  Kingston Herald

Image from Kingston Herald

‘Member that scene in Terminator when a kid smushes ice cream on Sarah Connor’s apron, her homegirl, Nancy asks her, “Look at it this way. In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” Nancy also becomes Sarah Connor’s unintentional harbinger (“You’re dead, honey”). Ironically, by the end of the film, a pregnant Sarah Connor (can’t say just Sarah) ends up going on the run and effectively is in fact dead to society.

But that question has always lingered with me: “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” Perhaps the biggest motivator for following the path of an artist, no matter what, was once being struck by the realization in my late teens at that point, that I’d met way too many middle-aged people and senior citizens who said something to the effect of, “Oh, I used to make art,” and in their advanced years were trying to remember how their inner child, so long neglected, used to hold a brush before it was too late.

Not me, I decided.

And despite the fact that many of my friends watched in puzzlement as I skipped from the Humanities building to the theater to some live show to some protest to some coffee-shop open mic to whatever else I was on that week, many of them discouraging me for being so “flighty,” there was something in me that couldn’t stop sampling a little of this and that from the wide buffet of all that the arts world had to offer. Later, as my writing began to help consolidate everything I was learning into at least a manageable field and career option, I unintentionally began to compartmentalize my life. I had theater friends who didn’t know I was a writer, I had writer friends who didn’t know I sometimes hung drawings and paintings in small galleries around town, I had artist friends who never knew about my background in any of that. The older I got, however, it was harder to continue to keep those things separate, so I stopped when I realized I could combine all of them in books and make short films and live interdisciplinary performances with friends. But then academia showed up and sometimes still has a hard time accepting the fact that I am also an artist. And that I don’t think like other academics about my field. And I have plenty of artist friends who don’t understand why I’m always babbling on about different theories and discrepancies as though I’m intentionally rubbing my degree in their face.

But the thing is, none of those labels really matter to me. I don’t care what you call me. I know what I am—a little bit shaman, a little bit scholar, a little bit artist, a little bit teacher, a little bit cat mom and crystal collector a little bit meme enthusiast. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been calling myself a Liminal. It’s the only word I know that is a wide enough umbrella to encapsulate how I think and what I produce. The content chooses the form. My job is to learn the form only insofar as it is useful to distribute the content. So, really, it’s more about getting to know the content—the crux of what it is I was put here to say and do—and not care so much about what to call the vehicle it picks to get here.

I think I’m here mostly to meet and learn from other Liminals. I think in another hundred years people are going to care and perhaps look back on the early 21st century for these first kernels of societal rebirth and call it a kind of renaissance, which means if we want to be ahead of the curve, more of us are going to have to become comfortable in more than one area, masters perhaps even in at least a few. If we think about someone like Leonardo da Vinci, who Robert Greene discusses in his 2013 book, Mastery, he talks about how Leonardo had the kind of genius that was able to fixate on multiple areas because it wasn’t so much that he was a natural artist. It was more about how he trusted his instincts from the early age of eight when he stole some paper from his father’s office and went to go draw flowers in the woods. But he didn’t stop at that impulse. He worked and worked and worked until he perfected until he could do no more and then moved onto the next. He just happened to a) move really fast and b) put in hours that no one else did. But Leonardo also brought something of himself to every apprenticeship and every medium and every court he worked in, becoming in a lot of ways, a free agent. You had to hire him for a year if you wanted him to show up and do more than just paint your mistresses’ portrait. He did all kinds of stuff. And all kinds of stuff taught him something new about expansion, which again, is the name of the game the cosmos is playing. Leonardo was also obsessive and tinkered with something until it revealed its secrets to him, working hours into a problem that no one else wanted to work.

In a recent interview, Rushion McDonald discusses how to reinvent yourself at any age. He himself, had left a well-paying job at IBM after working his way up through the ranks as an intern by doing all of the jobs that no one else wanted to do. He made himself indispensable, working those hours no one else wanted to, and then felt he needed to walk away from it all to become a stand-up comedian. Not even a collapsed lung stopped him. And then he ended up managing Steve Harvey’s career right after Original Kings of Comedy. Seriously, check out that interview. His story is wild.

But the idea of mastery is certainly about determination and focus, but it’s also about trusting that instinct when it says walk, sprint, stay put for a minute, hone in. It’s about opening up to the possibility of not just what if and what could be, but how do we contribute our own interpretation of All Of It to All Of It? I guess you’d have to subscribe to the notion that we are each of us the cosmos expressing itself to itself in that sense. But that kind of breadth of vision begins to reveal patterns in the work and in a life that many other people can’t or won’t see. I’m not talking about trippin’ balls or anything, I mean perspective—being aware of where you are in the tapestry of your life and what has contributed to how you got there, what’s keeping you put, and all of the infinite directions in which you could go. And it ultimately doesn’t matter what route you take to get there, because just like The Fool in the major arcana, y’know, or the Dude, you’re right where you need to be no matter where you are.

And to be sure, at this stage, synchronicities like repeating numbers and other cledons are fun to take note of in this space, that’s just Muppet Babies compared to what happens when you apply that kind of openness to your craft. Leonardo knew what was up. He called it ostinato rigore—relentless rigor. That is, the subconscious compulsion to become part seer and part seeker—knowing that what you need will be there right when you need. This is not luck. It’s knowing the answer is quite literally within arms’ reach, even when there don’t seem to be any. Because there are no coincidences. There couldn’t possibly be, and yet, paradoxically, we’re all making this up together as we go along. The hippies have recently dubbed this sort of built-in search-engine we all have for the soul, the causal chakra.

And it freaks folks out when they all of a sudden start writing or singing or dancing or drawing or pulling cards or whatever they do when they wake up out of nowhere and feel like they have to do and they didn’t go to bed that way. It’s not unlike the calling of the sibyls of ancient days. And it’s scary, especially if you’re not anywhere near a touchy-feely field like Humanities or the fine arts. And I feel like not enough people ask themselves “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” in the right way. It can make you feel sticky-notes bonkers because now you’re thinking sooooooo fast and not many people around you can keep up anymore, and there’s definitely gonna be a stretch of time in there somewhere, where you’re recalibrating to this new way of thinking like, “Am I seeing the Matrix right now?”

So, I mean sure. Take a minute if this happens to you and your causal chakra pops online. You could certainly waste…I mean take that time to think long and hard about what to do with this information and why no one else is seeing what you see. Or you can push snooze. Whatever. Takes all kinds. But. I will say this. Denying the gift of relentless rigor because you don’t have all the words yet for it and your friends and loved ones won’t get it and you won’t be able to have the same boring-ass conversations you always have with the same boring-ass people whose minds are just as glazed-over as the same boring-ass screens they let watch them, would kinda be like Sarah Connor not trusting the man (aka Future Baby Daddy) in that shot-up nightclub holding a shotgun talm bout some, “Come with me if you want to live.”

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Mi Fa Mi: The Song That Doesn't End

Photo courtesy of  Eco Kids

Photo courtesy of Eco Kids

Blue whales remain one of the most magical, mystical animals to me. I’ve never seen one in person, but ever since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Kirk drops a line from D.H. Lawrence’s sexy whale poem, “Whales Weep Not,” and then the crew in then present-day San Francisco beams two whales onto a Klingon Bird of Prey, kidnaps a woman, and then warps them into the future? I mean…first of all, best time-travel plot ever. Second of all, the fact that Kirk, who will throw down a phaser to throw a punch and ain’t livin’ his best life unless he’s breaking one of Starfleet’s rules, and he’s an Aries, okay, is just rattling off D.H. Lawrence like he reads ancient Earth poetry in his spare time when he’s not riding a horse or chatting up some green lady? Talk about a plot twist, lol. I digress…okay, one more thing. No, two more things. Spock tryna curse and then swimming naked in the whale tank and then Bones in the hospital giving the doctors a hard time for turning the operating room into a medieval torture chamber and basically layin’ hands on folks with his future space medicine? Claaaaassssssic.

Okay, okay, I’m done, I swear.

Anyway. In the 21st century, we know more about deep space than we do the deep ocean. That thought never gets old in the same way that remembering in the middle of one’s work day that the sun is a star (a small one at that) and we are all already in space separated by the thin membrane of our atmosphere never gets old. Scientists and naval vessels pick stuff up all the time (usually in the Pacific) that no one has any idea what to do with, like the “milky sea effect.” We still don’t know why some animals become so gigantic down in the deep, and unfortunately in 2012, maybe because of the popularity of that random one-off Mermaids “documentary” that Planet Earth did, we now kinda know what the infamous “bloop signature” is. No, it’s prolly not mermaids. Yes, what they came up with is mad boring, so I’m just gonna stick with my aquatic ape theory, thank you.

But one of the enduring mysteries of that of 52 Blue, the song of the “loneliest whale on the planet,” who emits a very specific frequency that is much louder and higher-pitched than any other blue whale song recorded. For a long time people have argued that maybe 52 Blue is deaf or some sort of hybrid. Whatever the case, the very melancholic stance persists that it is the only one of its kind and can communicate with no other being on the planet and just roams around and around seeking companionship, is kind of depressing. Thank God, not too long ago, somebody thought, ‘Hey, wayminute! Maybe we’re projecting our anthropomorphized expectations on 52 Blue and other whales can understand him just fine. Maybe we’re just assuming because he sounds different, no one can communicate with him.”

Which reminds me of this guy Johannes Kepler, Capricorn (Really into Caps lately. Prolly has something to do with Saturn being back in Cap and the South Node being there too currently), born in 1571, who essentially became the father of celestial mechanics. It probably wasn’t an apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head. It was Kepler’s third law. I like Kepler because, because one, he was a Sag cusper, so he had not only a Rubix -cube mind but an expansive one. And a Cap with a vision is a thing of beauty. The amount of work he produced and what he set out to solve re: Mars (nobody knew what to do with ellipses/retrogrades at the time) was so impressive.

Kepler took a stand on Copernican theory when even Martin Luther condemned it and support of Copernicus had only gotten Galileo put under house arrest. He grew up as a sickly kiddo to poor parents, so he gravitated towards more intellectual pursuits, and his mind opened doors to him through the ranks of academia and the church (he was originally studying theology), that few other people of the period could claim. It was an exciting time to be an inventor or scholar but dangerous, about as exciting as the Bone Wars in the 19th century between paleontologists. Back then though, astrology and astronomy were considered the same thing. Kepler had an opportunity to go study with a well-known astronomer at his observatory in Prague but when he got there, your boy decided Kepler was a threat to his own discoveries and told him to go solve the unsolvable: Mars. No one knew what to do with Mars. Kepler said he ‘d figure it out in eight days. Eight years later, he made good on that promise. (Try and tell a Capricorn what they ain’t gon’ do and see what happens, lol). Mars was exactly what inspired his greatest discoveries including, De Harmonices Mundi (The Harmonies of the World), his third law, and then like, telescopes were named after him and stuff. Oh, and he also wrote a novel. IN. LATIN.

Now. Here’s where it gets interesting. Despite the fact that Descartes and Galileo weren’t really feeling his vibe along with other prominent astronomers of the day, ‘member that expansive vision thing I was talking about earlier? I still don’t understand it entirely. But what I do understand, is that through the abstract concept of musica universalis, based on their size, orbit, and distance from one another and the sun, Kepler could harmonically analyze planets (mind you, not meant to be heard but thought about really hard for a really long time), and what each one “sounded” like, thus assigning it different tones or notes. This was a game-changer because it accounted for the ellipses orbits and retrograde motion of certain problematic planets that shall not be named (ahem) Mars (ahem).

So, for instance, Venus makes the sound “La.” And Earth? Earth makes the sound “Mi Fa Mi.”

Now. For whatever reason, and I still can’t find out why he did this, so somebody help a sister out if you know, but Kepler decides Mi Fa Mi stands for Misery Famine Misery. So, lemme get this straight. Out of all the words in the world in lots of different languages that start with Mi (Milk, Minute, Millimeter, Mind?) and Fa (Father, Falcon, Fact?) how you gonna give the Earth a stage name like Misery Famine Misery?? Bruh. We ain’t been right since. I have a lot of respect for Kepler’s discoveries because I’d be a dumb dumb not to, but when we look at the conditions surrounding Kepler’s life? Kiiiiiiinda influenced his worldview, I’d be willing to bet. Like, let’s not even count being sick all the time as kid and growing up poor, but the challenges to prove himself as a scholar? Not ideal. And by the time he was working on Harmonices, his first wife had died, two of their children had died in infancy, he remarried, three of their children died in infancy, and just when he thought he was settling down into the family man groove and enjoying the success of breakthroughs in his research? HIS MOTHER WAS ACCUSED OF WITCHCRAFT AND LOCKED UP FOR FOURTEEN MONTHS. Sorry for all the caps but, li-sten. No WONDER he named the Earth, Misery Famine Misery. ‘Cause that was all he really knew aside from the work. A lonely song for a lonely dude. He named the Earth after himself, in a way.

Not unlike how we are now open to considering the 52 Blue isn’t as alone as we think he is and that other whales are understanding him, it’ll have been 400 years this year that Harmonices was published. I feel like it’s time to retire Misery Famine Misery for something a little more heartening. I’m opting for Miracle Fabulous Miracle, myself.

That said, I want to send a special belated birthday s/o to my boy, Johannes Kepler, for all you’ve done for humanity in helping us to see our role in the cosmos a little more clearly. Not so great with naming things in space, but we appreciate your efforts as well as your humble- brags that give total credit for your discoveries to the most high. But here’s the thing…when you name something, I believe the thing takes on the energy of that name. I do. I really, really do. Fight me. So, I think it’s high time we remastered the Earth’s stage name, even if we can’t remaster the song.

Johannes Kepler, you rogue astronomer, you. Thanks, mane. We’ll take it from here.

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The Trouble With Making Monsters

Ultra Gorgon Image From ”The Monster Maker” episode from The Jim Henson Hour  Muppet Wiki

Ultra Gorgon Image From ”The Monster Maker” episode from The Jim Henson Hour Muppet Wiki

I’ve been slowly but surely revisiting all of my childhood stories lately, books and films and TV. I mentioned a couple of blogs ago how I’m in the process of remembering why I love to tell stories and am making my way through wonder tales, imbibing upon everything from Star Trek films to Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. (Side Note: Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away from here and go work for the Creature Shop. I’ll shovel muppet poo, even, I don’t care, just get me in, man, lol. But really, though……..).

I suppose I’m looking, not necessarily for any content in particular, but how to recapture a feeling. The feeling. The Neverland and Wonderland in me that’s been stomped out through years of analyzing texts and teaching other people how to do the same. I’m looking for that thing you can reach in others that has the power to change, not just hearts and minds, but All Of It. But I can’t expect others to find it if I don’t find it first within myself. As Frost once surmised, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

I’m getting close, I think. It’s gotta be around here somewhere…

You know the problem with the films and shows we watch nowadays? They’re just…extra. Unnecessarily so. Some of these films, as epic as they are, are basically one long glorified special effect with some plot points thrown in-between to staple the thing together. This whole polarizing good vs. evil shtick has run its course this paradigm. We are starting to gravitate more and more towards complex heroes like Deadpool, sure, but like…idk, man. It’s not that serious. Not unlike the Borg, we’re all collectively adapting to the bells and whistles geared to truss up bad, essentialist, outdated storytelling. It’s a mental drive-thru dollar menu to choose from these day. The same faces, the same talking points, the same plots, the same heroes’ journeys, the same battles over and over and over and rinse repeat. I feel like audiences are getting further and further away from knowing what all those guys are all fighting so hard for and why. We go to the movies as escapism, sure, but also to reinforce the feeling we had when we were being read bedtime stories. Shared experiences re: the artifacts of storytelling create community bonds between audience and storytellers alike. It’s why I’m happy to be winding my way back to theater. There’s nothing like the breath of an audience member quite literally down your neck while you’re running lines before pummeling onstage like you hadn’t been standing there the whole time.

You know why shows like, Sanford and Son, New Girl and The Twilight Zone and The Office, or even radio shows like Paul Harvey’s, will continue to endure, despite the fact that some of their references date them? It’s because life moves episodically like these shows. There’s not one big bad piggy at the end of Angry Birds to defeat in life. You just keep leveling up. I was actually playing that again all last summer probably for the first time since it came out, and you know what? The original version is still the best. Bird in slingshot. Aim at piggies. Release. Knock down blocks. Maybe I think that because I never did have the eye-hand coordination/interest to keep up with gaming, but there’s something about a simple yet sophisticated storyline we can all to connect to where the extraordinary is made manifest in the everyday, and wonder of wonders, it’s actually within our grasp to attain.

I’ll spare you the Rodman Serling (Another Capricorn, btw, just like Alan Watts and Stan Lee) treatise on how he was a 20th century prophet, but this is just one reason why the show was so brilliant: Crazy things could happen to anyone. And when I say anyone I mean a-n-y-o-n-e. Beggar. Socialite. Secretary. Horn player. Boxer. Movie star. CEO. Mob boss. Patsy. Teacher. Kid. Astronaut. Cowboy. It didn’t matter what your status or race was even. What mattered was the caliber of your character which dictated how you handled the extenuating circumstances of occupying the 4D. The audience is just dropped into these peoples’ lives and we see them on an ordinary day going about their business the way the rest of us do. We recognize ourselves in them. We’re all just trying to get by. We’re all trying to figure out what the promised land looks like in our own lives, even if we don’t always agree on the way there (or even how to tell it’s the promised land when we arrive).

My point is that the more villainous the villain and sacrosanct the saint, it robs us of the apocryphal in-between that’s blurry and messy and full of uninformed choices and dealing with the subsequent consequences of forgetting one’s keys that day or taking the right instead of the left on the way home. We create monsters to represent/symbolize tangling with the Other, but the real monstrosity is that we still don’t know how to be neighbors with one another.

I feel like I’m not the only person looking for that feeling these days either. I feel like at the moment, there are real life monsters we have to confront that aren’t going to be showing up wearing prosthetics and bat wings, man. The sensationalized films are fine and all, but because stories are so powerful and can quite literally recalibrate lives, why aren’t we paying more attention to the specific needs of the contemporary audience at the moment which revolve around (gasp) remembering joy and pleasure and peace of mind.

There’s a reason we’re running out of such terrifying monsters. I would argue, for the moment at least, we don’t need them anymore. It’s because we don’t need to fear ourselves anymore. And as Harry Dean Stanton’s character Chancey Bellow observes in “Monster Maker,” “To get the essence of life, you have to draw from life itself. You can’t just copy it. If you copy it, you get a monster with no beauty, no life to it…If you’re gonna make creatures you’ve gotta make them so you show people their own humanity. Their own reality. That’s the responsibility of an artist—to show people themselves.”

Doing it MY way...

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Today, I did a very strange thing, which I’m not sure has ever happened—if it has, then by accident…let’s chalk it up to the imminent calendar flip here in a few hours. I’ve been superstitious about how I spend NYE for as long as I can remember—probably since my early twenties. It’s the one superstition that always pans out for me exactly as advertised. The way you ring in the new year is the way that year will go. The last time I didn’t heed my own advice a couple of years ago today, man. For those of you who are familiar with the ol’ Rider-Waite, it was one long, slow Tower from, I kid you not, Jan 1 to Dec 31. So, y’know. Last year around this time, I stayed home and lit candles and popped a bottle and ate fudge and gave thanks for having made it another lap around the sun and watched cartoons. This year, I was home again, on an uncharacteristically balmy if drizzly winter day, leafing through my books. Not out of any sense of hubris, mind you, but it felt like I was looking for something specific that I’d recognize once I saw it.

But seeing them all together like that…poetry collections, poetry anthologies, a book of writing exercises, a journal I edited for six years…you know what never gets old for a writer? Seeing your name in print. You know what else never gets old? Knowing that somewhere in the world, someone has quite literally picked up what you’ve put down.

That said, working my way back through time—I mean, it literally felt like I’d found a cadre of time capsules, because with the exceptions of the most recent few, I don’t read out of those anymore—I grinned and cringed and became very somber and not gonna lie, there were more than a few tears. The one thing I can say for doing one’s best to occupy the Eternal Present, is that you don’t often think about the past. Technically, you have that person’s memories, but you don’t really identify anymore with who you used to be. Works wonders for momentum when taking not-so-low-threshold entry risks. Working my way through, I was slammed by a lot of backlogged emotions—things I’d forgotten I’d said or even cared about. People I am no longer in love with or even talk to anymore—some of those same people I thought at the time of those books’ publication dates, we’d all grow old together and sit on the porch and hold hands and drink spiked tea and watch the neighborhood kids play. No longer an option for me and a lot of those folks. Too many, perhaps. It’s sort of morose, nostalgic moments like those, I take great comfort in this particular Alan Watts gem:

“It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it's dense, isn't it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you're a complicated human being.”

As I’ve grown as a writer and a person, particularly in recent years when the goodbyes have been more often unceremonious than not, where the closure just won’t come, where forgiveness has generally been a one-sided act (as in forgiving myself for letting a scenario drag on too long), eschewing victim mentality and not taking splits and setbacks so personally, takes practice. And even though at this point, as evidenced by too many poems filled with so much regret, mine is a kintsugi heart. So, y’know. Poetry is cheaper than therapy, I suppose. And artistic expression exists because better out than in. Left alone, grief will fester and swallow you from the inside. So, I try to think about those people and those versions of me that wrote those poems, who felt those moments so, so deeply—whatever I was obsessed with at the time—as a kind of intellectual enterprise. In theory, it shouldn’t have felt any more awkward than assessing a piece of taxidermy.

And yet…

The hardest collection to make it through was the first one. Oof. A lot of cringing there. I got it picked up by a Kentucky press in 2008 and it came out in 2010. I will stand by the poems from my first book until the day I die because at the time, I thought they were my best thing, raw as they were. You have to start somewhere. And now this collection is my best thing. The covers feel kind of similar, though, right? Beyond the fact that the one on the left is my face and the one on the right is my own drawing—a version of kinda how I look in my head. I don’t know that that choice was on purpose. But while they’re both still veiled and bedazzled women, the only difference, perhaps, is in the first collection, Kaffir Lily, that woman was still trying to keep some distance between herself and All Of It. That woman collapsed in on herself for a long time. But in this collection, Black Mermaid, she’s outstretched and bare and whole, reaching up towards the surface of whatever void she finds herself adrift in at the time.

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But it wasn’t until I found a bag full of old playbills from high-school theater and very elaborate notes swapped between classes with my then best friend, that I think I got a little bit closer to what I was looking for. Six year prior to that first official collection where a press outside of my house vouched for my work, I found a faded copy of the book I put together back in 2002. I hadn’t even graduated undergrad yet. Eighty-five pages of poems and stories dedicated to my crushes and friends, shapeshifters all. Believe it or not, I think it was better stuff than what came out in KL. It also felt more sincere although the attention to craft wasn’t yet there. It read like I wasn’t trying so hard. I was writing for the sheer joy of writing and for the even sheerer joy of sharing what I wrote by dedicating poem after poem to places and people who had moved me. Quite suddenly, without warning, I remembered being her for the first time in maybe ten years. Without knowing it, that was my true beginning as a writer. Someone who took her voice into her own hands just because it felt good, not because some journal or anthology solicited it or I was trying to win a contest.

It’s weird. I was thrust so intensely back to those packed open mics in coffeehouses and bakeries and bars and low-lit basements where we all just collided there together like solar-system formation, I remembered the sounds, the smells, the sensation of holding hands with best friends and clinking glasses with strangers, ink-splotches and all, and the urgency to capture it all as fast as possible before the glamour fell away.

Those moments are increasingly rare for me now, particularly in mixed company. Back then, I didn’t know how drastically it would all change. How serious and somber an affair writing poems would become. I never knew then how I would be obliged to write a CV or interview for a teaching gig or build an audience through social media (there was no such thing then) or take myself so seriously because it was this thing I just did the way our organs just do what they do. It may have not been snatched up by some shmancy press (mostly because I didn’t even know that was an option to me then—as far as I knew, you just printed up as much work as you could afford, and you were paid with whatever crinkled bills someone had in their fist). But I found the first clue in a long time in that little book of something very pertinent to why I continue to do what I do that I think I’ve misplaced along the way—not unlike Toodles in Hook who legit lost his marbles, lol. But here it is, to be summed up again with more eloquence than I’ve got to spare at the moment, by your boy, Alan Wilson Watts, Capricorn:

“I have always done things in my own way, which is at once the way that comes naturally to me, that is honest, sincere, genuine, and unforced; but also perverse, although you must remember that this word means per (through) verse (poetry), out-of-the-way and wayward, which is surely towards the way, and that to be queer—to "follow your own weird"—is wholeheartedly to accept your karma, or fate, or destiny, and thus to be odd in the service of God, "whose service," as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer declares, "is perfect freedom."

Putting the "You" in Eucatastrophe

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Like the deer that browse front lawns in my neighborhood, that’s how I make use of my woefully disorganized library. When I’m working on something, I collect a stack of random titles that seem to just beg to be let down off the shelf, and once or twice a day, I’m leafing through a chapter while waiting for the clothes to dry or frozen lasagna to heat up, until a connection between even the most disparate subjects is made clear. In that way, my library has become a sort of amorphous divining rod, full of cledons, waiting for the right story to make themselves known. I use songs and films the same way, even if I’ve seen or sung them a hundred times. And don’t get me started on the blue holes I go down on Wikipedia or YouTube. I’ve disappeared for weeks at a time, deep-diving looking for literal sunken treasure or the origin of a conspiracy theory when I started out doing research on something to do with swamp vegetation. (True story)

Today’s selection came from a textbook we used in a class where I once fancied myself getting a second Master’s in folklore and dreamt I’d be an anthropologist/folklorist like my she-ro Zora Neale Hurston.. Jack in Two Worlds traces the storytellers of ‘Jack Tales,’ which are oral stories that originated in Europe and landed in Appalachia. Jack is a trickster, just like Br’er Rabbit. (In fact, remind me some time to treat you all to my theory of how before Pangea split, Appalachia and West Africa were kissing cousins). You can hear a popularized version of a Jack Tale in the Charlie Daniels Band song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” where the protagonist is named Johnny (which makes sense since the names John and Jack are often conflated), who is challenged to a duel of fiddles with the Devil. If Johnny wins, he gets a solid gold fiddle. If the Devil wins, he gets Johnny’s soul. Of course, in this version, it’s not entirely a true Jack Tale because Johnny straightforwardly beats the Devil with his fiddling skills. By contrast, customarily, Jack outsmarts his opponents with his own personal brand of irreducible rascality which I mentioned in a recent blog entry. The essay I read today included a Jack Tale that has Scottish roots where Jack and his brothers (Tom and Will who are usual fixtures in Jack Tales), tell stories to a dying king in the hopes to marry his daughter and receive all the fixins that come with marrying a princess. The first person in the kingdom who can make the king say, “That’s not true!” wins. Naturally, Jack won, but not the way you’d think. This version was wonderful even on the page, and I wish I could have seen it told live by a master storyteller.

Reading it made me think about the behemoth work I’m trying to hogtie down currently. Sometimes, even if the plot is there, the characters are there, the dialogue and intrigue and all of that is present and accounted for, knowing why you want to tell a story is just as important (art is a conversation, you see), as well as who your audience is. If you don’t know who’s doing the hearing, you don’t know what tone to use, what jokes to include, what heartstrings to tug on. But if you don’t know why? Then your story might as well be a monologue where the audience is your reflection in the mirror. Because stories are how humans make sense of the world and our role in it, all good stories should impart information, entertain, solve a problem, fill a chink, or make a claim, not just break the ice. As any screenwriter worth their salt has probably heard, Aristotle teaches this in his seminal work, Poetics, “the faculty of saying what is possible or pertinent in given circumstances.” 

My favorite stories are wonder tales.

‘Wonder tale’ is kind of like the layman term for “speculative fiction,” which is not relegated to sci fi or fantasy or horror, but can include parallel histories, superheroes, and so on. I like ‘wonder tale’ though, because that encompasses fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and of course Jack Tales. A wonder tale also makes a kind of pledge to the audience that they will be amazed at the outcome. Wonder tales also feel alive. They evolve with each retelling and passed down generation after generation, wonder tales are like heirlooms, each teller adding a hint of this and a dash of that to make it good and relevant to any contemporary ears that care to hear. The wonder tale can serve the needs of the teller and the teller serves the needs of the crowd. Some, of course, are timeless, like, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or “Leda and the Swan.” In addition to a protagonist that is an obsessed seeker, an enchanted animal, a magical mentor, and a night journey, one element that most wonder tales seem to encompass is the eucatastrophe.

Tolkien coined this word in his 1947 essay, “On Fairy Stories:”

“But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy- story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.”

In literature, the eucatastrophe is an event that very much like a Deux ex Machina moment, serves as the plot point that resolves the story’s climax and precipitates the denouement. The difference is that a eucatastrophe seems to be already seeded earlier into the plot as opposed to a lightning bolt on a clear day. For instance, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione’s time-turner is introduced early on to help Hermione get to all of her classes since she over-loaded that year. She swore not to tell any of her classmates about it, so we just sort of saw her popping up places she shouldn’t have been. By the end, when Harry needs to literally turn back time to save the reputation of a friend and the life of another (which happens to be a hippogriff), hey presto! Hermione just so happens to have a literal app for that.

I also really enjoyed burrowing this morning for the etymology of the word. “Eu” in Ancient Greek, translates to “well” or “good,” as in there is a form of stress called “eustress” that is stimulating and healthy for the body and brain (like the jitters you get before a performance that ratchet up your senses and make you super alert). With regard to “catastrophe,” the Ancient Greeks had a much more benign definition of the word than our 21st century understanding which usually means certain doom. Re: Greek tragedies, a catastrophe was simply a turn of events. Coincidentally, catastrophe theory? Is a principle that surmises that the quality of an outcome can change irreversibly by a tiny tweak of the conditions surrounding it. It’s related to something called “bifurcation,” which essentially means something that branches into parts. (I told you, lol…I go H.A.M. when I’m onto something that probably has nothing to do with anything until it does).

Speaking of Ancient Greek tragedies, for people who remember their high-school English class, the strophe (“a turn”) is the first part of an ode delivered by the chorus which sets up the plot. It is physically embodied by the chorus moving from the right to left/east to west onstage. The antistrophe (meaning “turning back”) is the second part of the ode where they—wait for it—move back. This time left to right/west to east. During the epode, the chorus moves to centerstage and thusly concludes the ode.

To return to Tolkien, one of the more notable moments in LOTR that we see a eucatastrophe in action is where Gandalf the Gray is being held captive by Saruman at Isengard. In Tolkein’s version of calling an Uber, Gandalf is rescued by a giant eagle, name of “Gwaihir the Wind Lord.” (Side note: Does anyone know if those giant eagles were based off of the roc?”). Now, in the books, we know that Gandalf has been working with his boy, Radagast the Brown, to rally allies of all walks to fight Sauron, and that’s how Gwaihir finds him. In the film, though, I argue that the eucatastrophe moment wasn’t the eagle showing up. The eucatastrophe moment was Gandalf whispering to a moth, which went, I guess, and summoned Gwaihir.

To me, eucatastrophes aren’t typically huge chasms in the time/space continuum where entropy abounds. I feel like they are smaller, humbler moments, that could go almost unnoticed—hinges between the phenomenal and the mundane, usually there the whole time…y’know…like Dorothy’s slippers or Gulliver’s Lilliputian sheep. The extraordinary is nested somewhere in the ordinary, which means it could be anywhere. Anywhere! And not unlike a magic trick’s three acts (the pledge, the turn, the prestige), the eucatastrophe as a device doesn’t work unless the audience believes it possible. If something in a person doesn’t long, on some level, to witness the phenomenal in the everyday, it can’t work. Because what is magic, if it’s not the willingness to believe? I can’t remember if I’ve said this already on this blog (I’ve been known to be repetitive—too many years in front of a classroom), but it warrants saying again. 98% of the battle was in Arthur’s head. The other 2% was magic. If he didn’t believe it was his destiny to pull Excalibur from stone, Merlin’s magic wouldn’t have worked. So, too, it is with stories. What a sad, gray world this would be indeed without a little fairy dust, a little uncertainty, a little “Can I even pull this off? Only one way to find out!”, a little glamour, and more than a little wonder.

And now, for some inappropriate memes…

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Year of the Flamingo

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I believe that all of life’s answers are already all around us in nature. I was thinking today about the nature of what 2019 promises as the Three Year, and that 3’s represent harmony where 2’s represent balance. I’m constantly amazed at how deceptively simple the vesica piscis is in sacred geometry, two whole yet disparate circles that overlap to create a third space. That is the symbolism of interdependence, right? That third space could not exist without the independence of the two. That space is generative. And now that 2018 has forced all of us, even the civilians, to re-examine our motives and values and seek out communities that support us as we are today, how do we make those relationships stable and sustainable? 

For me, the Three Year can best be summed up by the flamingo. If 2017 was an eagle (bold moves and taking new risks), and 2018 was a condor (learning receptivity and seeing setbacks as opportunities), then 2019 is definitely a flamingo. 

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The flamingo is a marvel in that it is uniquely engineered for its environment. Long-lived, opportunistic, resourceful, resistant to disease, and as long as nothing happens to their legs, their ability to endure allows the flamingo to occupy land, water, and air. Its neck twists underwater upside down to scoop up food using its bill as a shovel. What it eats turns it pink. In fact, because they tend to socialize a lot (and get into a lot of squabbles) they choose their pecking order, so to speak, based on color not size (more pink means a flamingo has access to more food).

And its legs? Still kind of a head-scratcher. Flamingos can literally run on water because of their webbed feet to gain momentum for flight. Standing on one leg regulates their body temperature but does not require additional musculature, so they’re also conserving energy. Apparently, a flamingo’s legs don’t lock so much as they stay which means they are at any point poised to move. But miraculously, this ability to stay indefinitely if need be is so integral to their composition, scientists can stand up a flamingo cadaver and its one leg will still stay put. And when it’s nesting season, they focus on one egg at a time in a kind of sloppy yet functional nest (which isn’t so much a nest as it is a mound), the parents taking turns to look after the egg (which, coincidentally, has a pink yolk). 

If we transpose the flamingo onto what we’ve accomplished individually and collectively in the last couple of years and what conclusions we’ve come to about stepping more fully into our life purpose, that it’s not enough to just post on the ‘gram or update folks as to our political beliefs anymore, more and more of us are unsettled, realizing we can’t walk through the world anymore as it is. We have to become more adaptable because hybridity is the future. Adaptation is at its best in communities. What can people who don’t look like me or think like me do to diversify my worldview? Who shares my values? Who gets my vision? Who has patience with me while I change gears and my mind? Who encourages me to expand? Am I using my life force to just maintain a sense of self preservation or to thrive?

Not everyone is going to get the memo on this one. As always, there are some who will continue to stay sleep standing up. Takes all kinds. If there weren’t rests in music, there’d be cacophony. It’s not everyone’s season. But for those of us who truly, desperately want to leave the world in better condition than the way we found it, right here, right now, and are prepared to do whatever we need to to make that happen, there will certainly be a learning curve re: communication, walking the talk, and not taking it as a character indictment if someone isn’t automatically picking up what we are putting down.

But the nice thing about new, vibrant, generative partnerships that revolve around interdependence, is that just like flamingo parents, power struggles can mercifully be brought to an end in partnerships, professionally or personally, if we allow the people with more acumen in a given area take lead while the rest of us take notes. We take turns minding what we’ve created between us. And even if the nest containing new life ain’t much to look at, it’s ours. But to be sustainable, whatever we tend to this year has to be a strong enough shared vision between people to make it through the seasons and changing hands. So, there is an emphasis on picking the right people with the right motives who understand their own limits and are open to learning more. After all, what comes of 2019 will one day be able to move through the world all on its own—poised to walk, run, and fly. 

Yin is the new Yang

Photo from  KNKX

Photo from KNKX

The other day, a mentor of mine texted me a few paintings he’d been working on. Now, this is probably the only mentor I’ve ever had who not only raised me as an artist but has stayed the most consistent staple in my twenty years as an artist. I’ve known him primarily as a poet and had only heard about his glory days as a visual artist through stories. It’s how he got his start. There are even a couple of notable names that have his work in their collections, and back in the day, he literally lived in his art studio and taught classes even. Never met that guy, so I was thrilled to see him pick up a brush again.

Most writers I know, particularly poets, are also visual artists. Making images with words is not so different from clay or canvas or photos. I was surprised to see the paintings and wowed at their depth. He has an engineer’s mind and to see that  mind play with vivid color as opposed to the black and white page was a treat. I asked him how it felt and he said something to the effect that it was like remembering a part of himself and that these were only several pieces he’d started but was eager to see the 10th or 12th. The nice thing about working with career artists is that they know about the alchemical process. Quantity IS quality. You don’t usually know what you’re looking for but do enough of ‘em and you’ll know it when you see it. 

Another poet I’m close to has, in the last year, picked up a pen and just started drawing out of nowhere. And still another who also happens to be a bang-up cook has taken his poems and turned them into these digital collages in Paint. I didn’t even know Paint was still around! And what he’s done through pure instinct is in short, inspired. I could go on...I’ve been amazed at the little pockets of some of the most men’s men I know who are also woke display such unexpected tenderness and vulnerability as they learn more about the supple space within themselves that is the creatrix.

The first two brothers had each, both in their early fifties, also both experienced the loss of a parent within the past year and then had a baby (the same gender coincidentally) within months of their parents’ passing. The third, born a day or two within the same date of his own father, had been witnessing his own dad come to terms with his ancestry and lineage, which apparently wasn’t what he thought it was. So his dad was experiencing a serious ego death. Additionally, he and his family had just moved for the first time in a decade, his middle-school aged daughter is already looking at college reading lists, and this semester was the heaviest load he’d probably ever taught on top of everything else.

I think these brothers quite unintentionally gave birth to themselves this year. Or at least the latest model. It’s kind of like in Deadpool where that seedy lab experiments on civilians by injecting them with something to flip on a genetic lever and then subjects the body to excruciating circumstances so the body activates latent defense mechanisms to protect itself. 

I’m typically used to watching women learn to stand in their power—embrace their animus, that assertive, generative, solar-plexus space to move closer to their dharma or at least the next pit stop along the way. But with men in the last couple of years, watching them—my students, friends, colleagues, and compatriots—soften, become creatively pliant? It’s a very different type of bloom. It’s urgent but quiet. It’s receptive. It’s yin. 

I taught a Women and Writing class last semester where at the last minute, a football player had to enroll. This young brother, biracial and from Kansas, showed up with no school supplies, no books, and a lot of questions. He had just uprooted from his home state in January to move to Ohio to play and in four months, he went from thinking he’d just taken whatever writing requirement was available to becoming more comfortable articulating questions about women as well as his own personal restrictions re: clinical depression. Wonder of wonders, he was probably the most open-minded student I’ve had the pleasure of working with in a long time. It was a true delight watching him work through the texts I’d selected for them which became new again to me too, from The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui to Butler’s Parable of the Sower to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. They read Shange, Cisneros, and Gay, and DiAngelo, and Lorde, and Truth in that class. We watched Beyonce videos, talked about the reception of the Michelle Obama portrait, and the latest rash of celebrity creeps sparking protests.

The women in class, most of whom were already very savvy about a lot of the subject matter, answered his questions from the 20-something standpoint, even the most simplistic, with patience and compassion. When I spoke to him, it was like talking gently to a feral cat to let it know the outstretched hand meant no harm, but sometimes had to reset a splintered bone. By the end of the semester, he confessed that he’d been more reciprocal in communication and adding more emojis in his texts to women (for him, this was apparently a coup). He’d also interviewed his teammates only to find out  they were just as lost as he. It reminds me of that scene in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy’s news team, behind a closed door, asked Ron what it was like to be in love. 

One of the other challenges with that class has been when I have an ESL student show up, the language barrier can really get In the way of dissecting the contextual layers surrounding women’s narratives. The final project for that class was to create a video feminist manifesto based on what they each perceived as the greatest restrictions surrounding women’s voices. They would film and write the script and present it the last week of classes.

When my ESL student (from Saudia Arabia) came to my office to pitch ideas, it was clear that he didn’t really have an audience in mind which, of course, dictates your tone and aesthetic for papers and video manifestos a like. I was asking him question after question to see if there were women in his life that he felt could use more empowerment and we went through some generalized scenarios, but then, I caught the image of two baby girls as his desktop background on his laptop. “Whose precious babies are those?!” I exclaimed. He grinned and told me they were his daughters. I asked how old they were and when they were born and figured out the eldest was a Capricorn and probably just disappeared on him all the time and the youngest was an Aries and bossed him around all the time. When I correctly assessed their personality traits he sat straight up and his English improved by like 50% immediately and he told me how the older girl is so quiet sometimes he forgets she’s in the room and he basically does whatever the youngest points which was frustrating but also kind of tickled that she had that power over him at so young an age. After maybe ten minutes of me talking to him about his daughters, I said his manifesto wasn’t going to be like everyone else’s in class. He was my age and had kids—his priorities were different. “Your manifesto is going to be a letter to your daughters. With all the restrictions there are now on women and women’s voices, what kind of world do you want those precious little girls to grow up in? You are going to tell them in your letter.”

His face grew thoughtful and in one of those rare, priceless moments when a student is processing a concept that is new tread, he sat back and said, “Huh.” His video was one of the most compelling I’d ever seen from that assignment. He narrated the video himself to his girls about how he wanted them to grow up without restriction, and this was laid over top videos and pictures of he and his girls playing, and man. It was so, incredibly moving, and again, so, so gentle. I seriously had to fight the tears on that one on presentation day because I was invested at that point, lol.

Like a lot of women in the 21st century too aware that our independence is hard won and harder to keep, perhaps because of so much emphasis on what men are doing wrong, I sometimes forget about the radical moments where one by one, there are men out there who are learning that there is strength in surrender to the unknown. If it hadn’t been for these quiet moments of what to me may seem like low threshold entry risks, but in reality for them are YUUUGE, I would have missed it. Social change cannot begin without personal change—and in their case, it’s like watching the time lapse of a desert flower bloom after rain, like fingers launched away from a fist. A cupped palm, an upturned face, no longer attempting, at least artistically, to impose but to learn, be led, explore, accept, and receive. 

The Element of Irreducible Rascality

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On Christmas Eve, a lot of little kids all over the world are, as we speak, awaiting the arrival of the Jolly Old Elf, himself, to descend down their chimneys and place toys in their stockings and under their trees. As much as we enjoy the mythology of Kris Kringle/Saint Nick, at the end of the day, he’s kiiiiiiinda breaking and entering. I’m not saying that to be a Grinch or anything, but there’s a reason we like Santa so much, I think. When we consider all of his magic and wonder and strange choice of home-base (with apologies to aurora borealis), he only gets one night to make a miracle. He’s gotta do it fast. And people gotta believe in him and set out the “cookies ‘n s***” to the only myth/man/legend who does a year’s worth of work in one day. He’s got helpers and a sweet ride and a doting wife, and despite all the screaming children sitting in his lap in the mall, I don’t really know anybody who’s got actual beef with Santa. Sure, his methods are unorthodox but, hey, they work. And century after century, characters like a “mischievous,” bearded dude dropping off toys down a chimney endure, because at the end of the day, what other day in the year can compare to the glamour of Christmas Eve—anticipation, moral desert, and family values all seem to be at their best and even super grumpy over-worked people usually don’t try to ruin the experience for a kid. Except for Jimmy Kimmel.

I have long been interested in the trickster archetype in folklore and mythology. I especially enjoy spotting a trickster in contemporary narratives without Pan’s pipes, Robin Goodfellow’s potions, the red and black of Papa Legba, or the toothy grin of Br’er Rabbit. They’re my favorite kinds of stories to hear—a characters who gives the “good guys” a reason to wake up in the morning. Alan Watts’s phrase “the element of irreducible rascality” is definitely a favorite from his lectures—this element is essentially a Salt Bae’s pinch of salt in the stew of life. Too much and it’s ruined. Too little and it’s tasteless. The cosmos literally couldn’t function without this quality. Rascality is ingenuity, inspiration, a jazz riff, a blue note, the secret ingredient Big Mama will take to her grave, the governing principle of “Enso” as best summed up in the seminal film, The Forbidden Kingdom: ”Learn the form but seek the formless.” This guy’s definition is actually really quite good on the matter…

There’s a reason why films like Suicide Squad are increasingly popular. We send the bad guys to go after the badder guys, you know why? Bad guys have a savagery and sense of humor to help us collectively let off some steam. We are identifying more with that irreducible element of rascality increasingly in this first quarter of the 21st century, I think, because we’ve tried it the Baby Boomer way. We’ve gotten our degrees and we’re gainfully employed and we’ve got just enough to do, just enough to bitch about, and our lives are increasingly dull when we’re not on. Even social media is just part of the periwinkle blue wallpaper now, so when we crave a bit of solar-system formation in our lives, we turn to the tricksters. They’re the guys (and gals) we can’t take our eyes off of because we never know what they’ll do or show up as next—tricksters are also usually lightweight shapeshifters—the Doctor of course, Merlin, Tam Lin, Nanny McPhee or Mary Poppins, Doc Holliday, The Dude, Sherlock Holmes, Willy Wonka, Loki, Gonzo, the Goblin King, Tumnus, Riddick, Anansi, genies, leprechauns…and of course, Bad Santa. I could make cases for a whole bunch more.

The guy I’m currently very interested in isn’t so much a guy as it is a moon. Meet Umbriel.

Photo taken from  FANDOM

Photo taken from FANDOM

He’s a particularly dark moon, one of Uranus’s 27, and in true trickster offbeat fashion, he’s the only one named after a character not found in Shakespeare’s works. Nobody knows why Umbriel is so dark. They named it Umbriel in keeping with the Latin word, “umbra” which equates to “shadow,” after a “dusky, melancholy” sprite in Alexander Pope’s (very odd) satirical poem, “The Rape of the Lock.” They even named his craters, which at the top, they call that one Wunda (named after a shade in aboriginal mythology), and no one really knows why that particular is so glowed up. Also, Umbriel always faces his dad, so he’s also called Uranus II. Umbriel spends 42 years in complete darkness in his orbit and then 42 in complete light. He’s about as wonky a moon you could have and yet, he’s still considered one of Uranus’s major five moons.

It’s no small wonder I gravitate (heh) towards a wise-guy moon like Umbriel. The first character I ever fell in love with wasn’t Aslan. It was Mister Tumnus. And who found him? A curious girl who couldn’t resist peeking into a slightly ajar door. And in some way, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Umbriels in my life—the people who keep me guessing, who manage to surprise me or catch me off guard in palatable doses (very hard to do, mind you), people who I can’t entirely read or predict, whose company I enjoy because I know it’s most likely going to be memorable. And story-junkie that I am, I can’t resist that whiff of memorable about a person. I had a complicated relationship with a guy off and on in my early twenties (as you do) who, when I asked why he never seemed to really settle down with anybody (obvs, now I know a lot more about the mating habits of Libras, lol), he shrugged and said he didn’t want to be the guy that women grew to hate or become disappointed in. He wanted to be the guy who they thought back to when they were with their boring-ass boyfriends and husbands one day and speculate, “Yeah. That guy was alright. He wasn’t always around but when he was, he was fun.”

I mean, I guess it takes all kinds right? And thinking back now, it’s like, well yeah. Mission accomplished. That’s exactly how I think of him. He still answers to the pet name I gave him. I still have the S.W.A.T. knife he sent me off to my first stint of grad school with and showed me how to use it. I still quote him in poems. And he remains the only former love interest who’s now a friend who texts me on my birthday, every. Year. He never forgets. And if I still want to ask him about zombie apocalypse prepping or pop into town and get a hug and a shoulder-squeeze because I need to know somewhere in the world somebody still makes sense, he’s probably one of those rare fixed points in time in my life that I’ll never, ever, ever regret.

And yet, he’s a monarch trapped beneath archival glass in my mind. The same exigency that keeps it preserved is the very thing that robs it of its butterfly-ness—life.

The one thing, paradoxically, that I think folks love best about the irreducible rascals in our lives is that they are as much fixtures as the good guys. We can always depend on their wonky orbit to mix things up for us. I mean…Umbriel is one of Uranus’s major five planets. He always faces Dad. They basically named him, Junior. What is Neverland without Pan? What is Narnia without Tumnus? What is Wonderland without the Hatter? Oz without the Wizard? LOTR without Gollum? Arthur without Merlin?

Maybe I’m romanticizing those characters too much because there are plenty who just show up with a bag full of crazy instead of toys, but all I know is that we’d miss them if they were gone, the not knowing if what they’ve got to say or do is gonna cure us or kill us…because somewhere in each of us, we’ve got a rascal inside too that’s down to find out.

Why movies like ‘Get Out’ will never get any of us out of the sunken place

Okay, let me start by saying that in an age where for Anglo America, Beyoncé is their closest black friend, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on films like Get Out. But. To be completely honest, Tyler Perry’s character, Madea (which even he’s sick of), has been more progressive re: the Black American experience than Get Out

The problem with films like this is that it’s emotional pornography. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation and then it makes you feel all the feels with nothing to do with that information except capitalize on the self-flagellation of white liberal guilt for two hours and then everyone goes home. We get it. White agenda bad. Black naïveté good. Temptress. Seduction. The horror. Narrow escape. Rinse repeat. We’ve lived this story for hundreds of years. What else y’all got?

Nothin.

These filmmakers need to all be sitting front row in somebody’s classroom ASAP. They’re running out of material (and craft) but are equipped with millions of dollars for their budget to keep repackaging the same story where yet again Black women’s voices are still almost completely left out. It’s the cultural equivalent of giving the keys to a semi to a toddler. All that power and we can’t even reach the pedal. No one in Hollywood knows how to write for Black women either. No idea what we think, so how they gonna give us something to say apart from what they’ve already heard in....wait for it...the movies.

I think Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain is still so prophetic in that allegorically, Miriam is effectively silenced by the same man she helped bring to power. In a tragic case of life imitating art, like Miriam, Hurston died alone and anonymously while Wright and Ellison and Hughes and Baldwin (all skeptical of her work btw) were heralded as the fathers of the New Negro Renaissance. Similarly, Butler’s work is JUST now getting some attention thanks to a few dedicated scholars like Dr. Gregory Jerome Hampton, but again. Y’all late. (And I wish people would teach something other than just Kindred or Parable of the Sower. Mix it up! Try Dawn or Wildseed!) 

When we continue to trot out the same old story trussed up in more dazzling effects, contemporary audiences will continue to be lulled back into a false sense of security that we are empowering Black voices and artistry. And like any true hypnosis, all the teller needs is a willing participant. You technically cannot hypnotize someone against their will. So...I would argue that Americans may say they want new stories but in reality, they keep pushing the snooze button because too much change is too uncomfortable. As much noise as folks make about #45, he hasn’t gone anywhere, okay, and! He didn’t come from under no cabbage leaf. He was made in America. He’s also a useful distraction, his Twitter feed just one more mode of entertainment tossed into the crib where a Baby Huey sized America is still throwing tantrums and calling for its pacifier. 

Our stories in this country are stunted, so our emotions and adaptive quotient are too. It’s just so frustrating as a storyteller and a teacher that the good material is so hard to find and largely inaccessible. If we keep financing and endorsing films like Get Out and billing them as brilliant without alternatives except, say, Black Panther, no wonder we are all still stuck in the sunken place. 

When You Win, I Win

Like a lot of teachers, one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator is witnessing a lightbulb moment for my students. When we’ve labored together over the course of a semester to co-create an environment that is safe and trustworthy enough that students want to play and explore and suspend their disbelief just long enough for their imagination to pop on, we are able to create new tread in the familiar trenches of their minds. And mine too. Everyone’s a teacher, after all. My friend and colleague, the rhetorician Dr. Scott Whiddon, summed it up best for me ten years ago when he said, “Writing is a contact sport.” 

The classroom dynamic and peer review is fine, but the a-ha moments usually occur during office hours when I’m working one-on-one with someone (novice or veteran) to punch through the stratosphere of their previous limiting beliefs with regard to writing. 

All I really have to offer is the power of choice. Life is choose your own adventure no matter where you are. I bring backroads, detours, the scenic route. I like to think up generative exercises that create low-threshold entry risks so someone who’s stalled out isn’t greeting the page cold. Step by step they oblige with specific instructions and the prestige comes when they are looking at their own story with new eyes—like being introduced to themselves for the first time. So, they think they’re writing about a room in their house but they’re really writing about a formative experience they’d forgotten all about. They might think they’re writing about mythological creatures but they’re really examining the spectrum of how their unique story is influenced by and contributes to the collective narrative. And even better, you can change it. My favorite part of being a writing doula is being the gateway to All Of It. 

I remember when I realized while working in women’s detention centers that imagination is a luxury. When a person is in survival mode, the very aspect of their brain that can help them change their perspective on their options, is the first thing to shut down. So, I had to modify some of those exercises because some of them had been incarcerated for so long, they just couldn’t make the connection between mermaids and the potential to shape-shift irl. So we built bridges between us and met one another halfway. 

Too many of the women, when confronted with the sadder parts of their own stories, stopped. A lot of them expressed shame or regret that they didn’t have a happier ending or outcome to share in their work. After all, it was a poetry workshop, wasn’t it? And poems are supposed to soothe, right? 

Poems can be therapeutic. Writing is certainly cheaper than therapy. But what I was really there to do was help them understand poetry as one tool among many to excavate one’s emotions and acknowledge emotion as a kind of intellect. In other words, the opinion of the brain in your gut matters as much if not more than the one in your noggin.

There is certainly an element of the trickster I bring to the classroom. My students don’t always believe me when I say they have more power than they think they do to affect change starting with their own stories, but they trust me. And that’s really all I need. Not unlike a vampire, you gotta invite me in if you want find out what it means to be supernatural for yourself. And the bonus is that their breakthroughs become just as satisfying as though they are my own. When my students are in a better frame of mind about reading and writing, they have more fun, they talk to their friends and family about what they’ve learned and managed to pull off. And since expansion is the name of the game the cosmos is playing with us, if I teach my students nothing else, it’s that there are infinite ways to win. 

What's in YOUR Ticker?

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Maybe five years ago, I attended a lecture at a local university given by Dr. Ronald Mallett, a theoretical physicist, whose talk changed my perspective on the possibilities of “someday is today” because Dr. Mallett is very interested in time travel. The way he explained it that night was that it is possible for us to travel forward in time but never backward. He’s currently the most prominent spokesperson re: constructing a real, live time machine, and he’s even garnered the attention of Spike Lee because of his personal story that led him to become a scientist.

But the one line that stood out more than any other that night was, “The heart is a clock.”

I was amazed and thrilled at this deceptively simple observation. It makes too much sense—of course the overall health of a living body is generally measured by a pulse. And given that 1 in 4 deaths can be attributed to heart disease in the U.S., I argue that heart health isn’t just about keeping one’s physical arteries clear but keeping one’s heart-well as pure as possible too. In Sanskrit, the heart chakra is called “Anahata” and translates to something like “unhurt” or “unstruck.” The color associated with the heart chakra is green, as in grass green. And regardless of how healing the body through sound can come off like pseudoscience, and there’s plenty out there that disproves the theory that a certain frequency can heal, all I’m saying is I’ve been incorporating a tuning fork tuned to 528 hz (the “miracle tone”) for a few years now ever since a lady “tuned” me up during a mystical arts fair one time. I give tuning forks away all the time, usually to fire signs, lol, but without any prior knowledge of tuning forks, when this little birdlike woman held one over the center of my chest, I felt a surge of tears and then burst out giggling. It was weird and awesome. But after I started using the tuning fork regularly in addition to cultivating a mindfulness breathing practice and carrying around rose quartz and aventurine all the time (excellent stones to promote a healthy Anahata), something strange happened.

For one, I didn’t feel so hopeless or helpless about events occurring in my own life at the hands of others. I stopped taking other folks’ words and actions so personally. I stopped giving people that much power over my joy. I realized that my love language was changing from verbal to action oriented. And not everyone in my life was thrilled that I didn’t want to compromise my values anymore for their sake. I stopped letting other peoples’ needs supersede my own for peace of mind (helluva drug, that). I was standing up for myself and my voice in new ways in my personal life, which I’ve always struggled with. I didn’t feel like I resonated with certain pathological thought patterns and behaviors anymore. I didn’t recognize myself in certain people any longer, and I couldn’t identify with their worldview which we used to share—a lot of this worldview had to do with talking about how everything was going wrong and there was never enough time. The thing is, we’re all issued about the same amount of time as anyone else. How we choose to spend or squander it is our choice. This essay by the late Brian Doyle, btw, which compares the heartbeat of a hummingbird to a whale, expresses the poeticism behind time as it relates to one’s heartbeat, way more eloquently than I ever could.

When we think about the shamanic concept of soul-retrieval, which is no different really than a stint with a psychoanalyst, just different methodology, I can point to usually one of three core areas where a person is most wounded. It’s either in their imagination, their solar plexus, and/or their heart. The people I’m most familiar with are super brilliant and gifted, tireless workers, team players when it comes to others, but they’re not so good at maintaining stable one-on-one relationships. A lot of this has to do with core wounding from childhood reinforced by self-fulfilling cycles of seeking out partners that mimic the pathological devices of parents and/or mentors. Sometimes, when we say someone has a broken heart, psychologists argue that an injured person’s True Self becomes severed and tucked back in the subconscious somewhere which can manifest in feeling numb or hollow as a person moves through the world, like just not completely able to show up for life. Or at its worst, manifest in a codependent dynamic where someone feels like they have to carry all of the emotional labor in a partnership, so if they just do enough to prove to someone else they are loved, the love-object will reciprocate. Or a person believes they are entitled to love and validation from others but there’s never enough to go around. In both of these cases, the wounding is the same—it’s the perception that love cannot be disassociated from struggle/pain—love is conditional, love must be earned. The former tends to keep someone in a victim mentality (someone is doing something to them which paradoxically keeps them in survival mode so they don’t recognize their own identity without the survivor label). The latter places someone on the sociopathic spectrum because they are unable to feel true empathy, seeing themselves as pretty much the star of everyone’s show. They’re like automatons and the least likely to seek help for their wounding because they’d have to admit they have a problem first.

So think about these traits and how not just in families and immediate communities this dysfunctional pattern can manifest, but whole cultures and countries too. Oddly enough, we live in a culture that glorifies weddings and romantic unions with fairytale endings as entertainment, beginning in childhood where most of our emotions are collectively stunted—in other words, part of most of us never really grows up no matter how well we appear to adult. The empath has a much better chance of resolving this issue but it takes time and practice to cultivate trust and not revert to Stockholm syndrome tendencies with new people who are reminiscent of the old.

I think, as a bleeding heart type myself, establishing boundaries with others has been the biggest hurdle. Because even if my friends and loved ones aren’t purposefully setting out to take advantage of my weenie-ness, it can happen if I enable defeatist behavior. If I continue to endorse someone else’s suffering as justified when we’re having the same conversations year in and year out about how others are causing them to suffer, I’m able now to recognize the signs of a wounded heart. Only ‘cause it takes one to know one. It’s taken me long time to get my own ticker out the shop and open back up to folks after my trust has been violated by former friends and loved ones, so I tend to backpedal out of a dynamic when I feel myself starting to slip. Only because I know how far and deep I go for the people I care about. I’m still trying to get the measurements right there. I almost never know who and when to trust. But I’m working on it. Slow going sometimes, though.

Another issue I’ve had recently is learning when to walk away—when I can’t do any more for someone. That’s been the most painful process, I think, whatever the relationship. Change agents aren’t so much trying to affect change—they’ve been changed and want others to feel good too to know positive, progressive change can be done—you can reincarnate in this life. But not everyone cares to because growth spurts like that are messy and blurry and undefined—it’s terra infirma. And if I feel someone’s interest in expansion dwindling, or their becoming resentful about my hard-won independence, or pouting because I’m not as available anymore to commiserate about what’s going wrong, or it becomes clear there’s no pleasing someone no matter what I do or how far I bend to accommodate them, I’m becoming better about learning how to accept people not for who they/we used to be, but who they are presenting themselves to me as now. I also have learned to become more observant when it comes to people who say they want to grow but we’re literally having the same conversations on loop over the years. Inevitably, I start finding other things to occupy my time that are expansive or productive.

But life isn’t always so cut and dry. My learning curve is always unfurling like a fern. I just know that when I regularly attend to my own personal miracle tone, and become intentional about de-cluttering my heart from past exchanges that stifled or suffocated my ability to expand, I feel better. Literally and figuratively. Increasingly, I seek out others who are vigilant about repairing their own fractures—people who make me long for the future, for the kind of pulse that isn’t going to kill me by lagging behind.

Blood May Be Thicker Than Water, But Water Finds a Way

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Anybody who runs with me, whether they’re new students or friends, finds out sooner or later (probably to their disappointment) that I’m basically a feral Fraggle. My profession requires me to be at least somewhat visible either on stage or in a classroom, which is deceptive because my stage presence suggests I have some part of ‘It’ figured out, but apart from what I am obliged to do to keep the lights on, like everyone else, there’s no real master plan. No pattern. I have a few hacks up my sleeve, but the rest of it’s pretty much parlor tricks.

When it slowly but surely begins to dawn on any new recruits to my collaborative squad who meet me first at arms length from the page or the crowd, that the vision for my life revolves around acquiring adequate snack time, nap time, and play time (y’know…like a child), and I basically just want to play with my frans (play being the most serious work there is in the world, mind you…whole ‘other treatise coming about that at some point revolving around the film, Hook), people start asking questions which go something as follows: “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” Nope. Never said I did. “But, but…your poems are so dark. You are in way too good a mood most of the time to write such dark poems.” Welp. Gotta put it somewhere. “Why haven’t you figured ________ part of adulting out yet? Aren’t you a card-carrying white collar professional?” Nah. That’s my Clark Kent act. “Wha?! You don’t want to go out with everyone else to that bar/club/reading/conference/retreat where all those people are gonna be?” I’m an INFJ, man. And I’m done peopling today.

So, once those questions start coming, to save some time, I let folks know that my coordinates are located within the combination of three very specific films (in no particular order): Labryinth, The Last Unicorn, and The Wiz. Literally everything I do in life relates back in some way to these films. Long story short, whatever current quest I’m on at the moment to see if I can best myself is best enjoyed meeting kindred spirits along the way to share in the fun, preferably other shapeshifters.

That’s something else that these films share in common. They’re about found families. I’ve mentioned before I’m a latchkey kid, raised on a steady diet of muppets and Mister Rogers. I also moved around a lot growing up, so from state to state, when I made friends, we were usually bonding over what we watched and listened to. And that’s how I figured out that sharing stories is how we become kinfolk, even if we’re not skinfolk. So, when I share the most formative films of my life, it’s not to be coy. It’s to show inquiring minds what my core values are—what is sacrosanct to me in terms of achievement, endurance, and authenticity.

My fondest memories aren’t lodged in some special occasion like graduation day or holiday. My fondest memories revolve around hatching some hare-brained scheme with friends off-road (or on a rooftop) and daring ourselves to pull it off. I became a very amateur filmmaker several years ago because I wanted to explore the medium and talk back to it. See what had happened was, a friend of mine and I were on the way back from Louisville talking about this poem that people seemed to really like called “Waterbody,” which is about a woman who finds a mermaid, takes her home, patches her up, and they end up switching places Within that hour drive, we’d already cast it with some girls we knew around town, thought up a videographer, and started making phone calls because it was so crazy to think we could just make a movie on our own, it just might work.

We ended up making that short for under a thousand bucks, which I organized my first ever crowd-fundraiser for, ordered mermaid tails off eBay before it was fashionable, rented an underwater camera, and took four days running around in backyards and Kentucky creek beds trussed up in prosthetic ears and sequins. It was heaven. It took us a few months to edit it, record the soundtrack, and plan a huge release party on my birthday. None of us really knew one another very well, but that summer became the hallmark for the type of play I like best which is generative and expansive and fun, dammit. With people who are sharing a vision and everyone knows their role in it and supports one another through the process even if we can’t stand one another while trying to get through the weeds. Family stays, though. And when the magic is worth the price of admission re: setbacks and outbursts and improvisation, I mean. The partnerships and bonds that bloomed from that singular Kentucky summer? It was life-altering for most of us. I mean, technically of course, we were all winging it, and the short is probably twenty minutes too long, lol, but it’s still a big hit among four year olds and forty-year olds, who also happen to be my demographic. If you want to watch it, feel free to check it out here. It’s based on a poem I wrote several years ago that at long last, made it into my most recent full-length collection, Black Mermaid. But if you do watch, please do so with compassion for accidental guerrilla filmmakers who were working through their first flick together.

But anyway, when I’m talking about found families, I’m talking about people who just feel like home. Our souls recognize one another past the skin suits. Past the status. Past the age gap. Past the belief system. And of course with family, you can always come back to that feeling even when you’re with a new crew, it’s like, once you find that true North feeling in yourself that resonates with someone or someones where wisdom, grace, and authenticity abound (if I only had a brain, if I only had a heart, if I only had courage) it is like a true water-body right? Water always seeks itself out no matter where it is in or on the planet. It falls, runs, swells towards itself. And when your own family doesn’t entirely understand you or your choices, sometimes it’s like the water in your very blood calls out to the water in another person’s. It’s cellular-level gravitational pull. Like attracts like. Whatever the reason or season or lifetime.

Deer Magic

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On last night’s episode of Porch TV (what I call everything I can see from my porch), I had the most incredible encounter with a deer. Because I keep strange hours, I have become well accustomed to the comings and goings of all the wildlife around my home year-round, including the middle of the night. That’s when the deer come down to browse in the lawns, mostly in summer, but we’ve had a mild Midwest fall and they’re still around.

There’s this one trio of does that run together all year that I like to imagine was probably a one-hit-wonder Motown girl group in another life, and they are reborn together each time experiencing the world as sisters that find one another no matter the skin they’re in. I see the girls the most often. But the stags. Oh, the stags. It’s never not a magical moment when you see a head lift up from the grass beneath the amber sheen of streetlamp light, and it’s got a a crown full of antlers.

The stags. Good God, the stags. I have no words for the bliss-point of that moment when in the middle of the night, you lock gazes with a stag and you see him see you, and he does not see you as a threat. For some reason, the fact that wild things that call the forest home seem to trust me enough to not only not run away but continue to eat—I mean, that’s typically when an animal is at its most exposed—I don’t know. It is a comforting thought to think that in a world where we are all constantly scrambling and tussling for positions of power, our egos seeing threats where there are none, boogeymen at every turn in one another, my personal electromagnetic field doesn’t pose a threat to somebody out there. If I’m having a bad day, I try and think about how even the stags,all bulky spring-loaded muscle and grace, but so shy for all of their power, sense I mean them no harm. I respect their space and I am aware that at that hour of the night, the world belongs to them, and I am just a guest even on my own front porch. And when they bound off, their hooves clattering up the street, at barely a skip, they are fast. Seeing a stag is always a gift.

Last night, however, in an equally mesmerizing moment, I had just finished entering final grades, and at around 1:30 am, I decided to make a run to the store for a victory snack. I flipped on the porch light, barreled through the door, and was shocked to find that not six feet away, a young doe was in my lawn, very close to the porch. She appeared just as surprised to see me. I want to say I recognized her as the same lil’ doe that came crashing over my fence out back and almost ran into the pine tree the night before. I snort-laughed because it’s not often I see a deer move through the world as awkwardly as me. “Hey, hey, hey!” I hissed, “Where is the fire?" Slow down young lady, with these maniac cars driving through here all crazy. Are you trying to get hit?” She had the nerve to toss a look at me and flip her sassy little tail up before trotting off into the night, her hooves tapping out a staccato rhythm up the street. Smh. Teenagers. (Yes, I talk to the wildlife around here like they’re people and have given most of the names—I blame it on seeing too many anthropomorphized animals in cartoons growing up)

But there she was, several feet away, nosing around Sir Reginald’s roots at the wildlife mix I left out for the regulars. I don’t usually put it out that late in the day, so I’m guessing she just kind of took advantage of the timing. (Side Note: I have since learned that you don’t want to give deer corn, even though they like it, particularly in the winter, because the sudden change in their regulated diet makes them all acidic and they could keel over, but I’m guessing the few kernels she got a hold of didn’t hurt. If you want to feed deer in the winter, you’re supposed to introduce new foods slowly. But I won’t be making that mistake again in case she tells her friends.)

Anyway, we stood there staring at one another (I was also quietly hyperventilating), so I let her see me avert my eyes and turn my head away. I figured that might work like it did with the squirrels. At least at my house, the squirrels don’t seem to feel comfortable eating in front of you if they see that you’re watching them. I’m sure that’s probably just a hardwired response to predators in there somewhere that makes them freeze until you look away. But then, she put her head back down to nibble, snuffling at the frosty ground, circling Sir Reginald slowly, and I watched her breath circle her ears like a halo. I’ll be honest. It felt like a dream. It’s the closest a deer has ever come to my front door. I don’t know why it felt so good other than it just felt good. Even across species, it’s like, if you look for it, you get a singular moment where you remember that separateness is an illusion. That we are all extensions of the cosmos and natural world. A doe’s gotta eat, right? So did I. Thus, at the same time of night, we were both out doing the same thing—scrounging for junk food.

Next time, I’m crossing my fingers it’s one of the stags.

If I Had a Million Dollars...

Image from  My Finance

Image from My Finance

Americans are obsessed with being an original—and although history begs to differ, Americans continue to suffer from the illusion that “I saw it first.” We crave to be the first to discover something, to break a record, to have our names credited with being the first. Turn us into a meme, we don’t care! We don’t want to be just any old influencer, but the first influencer re: a new product/idea/gain. We don’t just wanna win. We wanna win from space.

Louise Glück's new book of essays American Originality revolves primarily around poetry, however the titular essay, an earlier version of which can be found here, goes into why Americans want so badly to be considered anything but derivative. It’s an excellent treatise on the mythology of originality, and it has a lot to do with how this country developed re: competitiveness. My concern, however, has more to do with the pathological thought patterns and behaviors that manifest as a result of so much pressure of being the first. I would argue the pendulum is going to swing back the other way and become increasingly collectively minded (earth ships anyone?!), because as the colloquialism about loneliness and being at the top observes, what’s the point of being the first to reach a peak if there’s no one around to share the view?

How 21st century Americans view the extremes of excess and minimalism happens to be very interesting to me at the moment. At the same time we’re seeing an upswing in the trend of minimalism, corporations continue to capitalize off of social attitudes with even more stuff (not unlike the plot to Holy Man) like H&M pairing with the Italian fashion house, Moschino. So you get H&M, renowned worldwide for its simple, yet classic, and affordable clothing, teaming up with a luxury brand founded in the early 80’s, and the result is a collection of “statement” pieces that cost a lot and you want to have because they’re a) nostalgic and b) expensive. In other words, as with any brand, you’re still only actually purchasing the idea of clothes, not the actual garment. You’re buying it to say you can afford to, thus positioning you more closely to being perceived as the elite few who can afford to buy luxurious brands, the presumed reward for originality (regardless of how many people who came into their wealth and notoriety off of other folks’ ideas and kinda tweak ‘em—I think they call that being an opportunist in certain circles). I won’t go into the paradox of this excessive-minimalist mindset here, other than suffice it to say, it kind of looks like the Auryn from The Neverending Story. And even if you an’t afford some of these pricier but super posh brands, enter Afterpay, a site that allows you to make a purchase and then pay in installments. It’s like a reverse layaway, and bonus! No credit checks required.

By the 90’s, visible excess kind of cooled off on the bling (until Puff Daddy and Missy Elliott videos lol) and the country turned more towards the aesthetic of prep vs. grunge—Tommy Hilfiger vs. Doc Martens. Being an alternative misfit clad in chunky boots and a choker wailing along with Alanis Morrissette, however, did not necessarily make folks desire the dream of sustainability any less, ultimately. It just made it more complex as to how to obtain the dream. So, the golden ticket became a college degree. And all through high-school, my friends and I serenaded one another with “If I Had a $1000000 Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies and “I Would Buy You a New Life” by Everclear. Side note: Art Alexakis talking about how looking at wealth from the inside is a lot different from looking at it from the outside (based on at least one song about not having any wealth) is sooooo relatable, particularly for a Pluto-in-Libra generation latchkey kid such as myself who will never really know if she will ever get this work/life balance thing down pat.

But at this point in the 21st century, not a semester goes by where I’m not talking some terrified undergrad out of their tree when they are wheezing into their inhalers over even the thought of how horribly they’re going to disappoint their parents who sacrificed everything to give them opportunities they themselves didn’t have, just for changing their major from Business to English which is the modern-day basket-weaving major. (Ironically, Exercise Science is the go-to degree these days while History and English and Philosophy sort of sift to join the grounds at the bottom of our collective cuppa light blond roast). When I ask my students and colleagues and friends why they do what they do, a lot of them struggle for an answer beyond “Get out of financial debt, so I can be free.” What kind of quality of life is that?

Look no further than this less-than-three min vid with mogul, Gary Vaynerchuk aka Gary Vee who talks with South African DJ, Black Coffee, about why you shouldn’t set goals for yourself. He says owning the New York Jets is going to be a weird day for him, because for him, money is just one way to keep score of achievement. Entrepreneurs like Gary Vee are emblematic of that American originality issue I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s a work ethic he inherited from an immigrant upbringing, his self-discipline and work-ethic are clearly sound, but I would argue that he hasn’t yet escaped poverty consciousness — a mentality of never having enough. Not that he’s not a humanitarian or philanthropic or he’s a bad person…I mean, I don’t know the guy…it’s just that…one day he probably will own the Jets and then what? For him, he admits that it’s the getting that’s the lure. Like so many others of us who are chronic workaholics, I always say that the most motivated people in the world aren’t running towards something, they’re running away. They’re motivated out of a reaction to lack. The problem is, you take you with you wherever you go. And humans make choices out of only one of two places—love or fear. I would argue that too many of us are basing our life choices out of fear of failure without questioning who or what they’re so concerned about letting down. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly oedipal)

So, what’s the alternative?

How does a person cultivate prosperity consciousness in the early 21st century? What’s the middle way, or as Alan Watts says, to desire softly? We can’t not have desires since we’re human and we are urged on by our inner, nameless Witness that wishes to experience the world through sensory information. There’s another part of us that craves expansion. I have to admit, I very much admire what I can see of Elon Musk’s approach for this reason. I feel like he’s motivated by a vision for accessibility. I’m not saying he’s not motivated by the credit of being the first to make a breakthrough, and sure when he risks big, sometimes he loses big and publicly, but I like Elon Musk, because he seems to be able to take the occasional chin-check because, one, he assumes there’s more where that came from, and two, he knows that those who risk nothing have nothing, and three, his gains benefit us all.

It’s kind of like the 100th Monkey Effect, right? You give a controlled group of disenfranchised citizens resources, and watch the mushroom cloud over their collective adaptive quotient. Each one reach one. Except the ones you can’t reach because they’re either too old to adapt or too scared, so they stop because someone is constantly showing up to take their resources away. My favorite part about the 100th Monkey story (along with other hopeless tree-hugging type romantics), incidentally, is the idea that somewhere else in the world, without any exposure to adapting to a new resource, someone else gets the same idea and modifies it, enhances it, and shares it.

That’s the true secret to prosperity, right? I mean, not a day goes by that I think about people out there in the world who have more money than they know what to do with, and I have all the ideas but I have to do my best making magic with the financial equivalent of mason jars and shoe strings. I wouldn’t even know how to find those kinds of people to begin to talk to them, honestly. There’s a certain level of wealth out there that won’t even look at you if you don’t have at least ten million because it’s just such a completely different worldview. I worry that too many well-intentioned donors, too, are giving to the disenfranchised while they are still occupying a poverty consciousness, thinking all they need to make it is money. They don’t yet understand that money is just one narrative of abundance. Money can empower people but it’s only one tool of many. Not unlike the thinking mind, money makes a wonderful servant but a lousy master. If the people who need money haven’t yet changed their minds about prosperity, it won’t work. It just won’t work. Education and habitus need to be cultivated first.

Prosperity consciousness takes practice. And giving without education only reinforces a codependent cycle, further enabling pathological behaviors. Prosperity consciousness is making a choice out of love. Love accepts. Love is inclusive. Love is selfless. Love comprehends that what we value may not mean the same to another person but it doesn’t mean it’s worth any less (a la Wendy Darling giving Peter Pan a kiss in the form of a thimble). Love means to protect. Love means to defend. Love is an action word.

And as they say, the benefactor loves to be thanked, right? I can point to at least ten people in the last few years alone, who the only way I would ever be able to say thank you to, is by paying it forward to someone else. Not unlike paying for the coffee in the drive-thru for the person behind you, right? Kinda like catch-and-release. You know what I’d do with a million dollars? After covering all of my immediate debt, lol, I know ten people right now I could also share the rest with and bring up to 21st century prosperity consciousness speed. Y’know. Like that starfish parable (I feel it worth mentioning here that Holy Man is a highly underrated film). Speaking of throwing stars, even Zeus, as dysfunctional as he was, sometimes functioned as a savior (re: Chronus), a creatrix (re: Athena) and doula (re: Leda). My favorite version of “Leda and the Swan,” is that when Leda laid three golden eggs after her courtship with the sky god, he helped her hatch ‘em, and then in the Ancient Greek version of putting a person’s name in lights, hung Cygnus for everyone to admire and enjoy, in honor of the girl-child who broke through first.

Prosperity consciousness means that our resources are best enjoyed when shared. What’s the point of having a house if no one’s there to come home to?

But sharing is tricky, right?

You can give someone a house and they are ever in your debt, or you can show them how to build and maintain a house, then set them free.

How to Move a River

Before I moved to Athens last summer, I remember being enchanted by the idea that a river ran through town. The Hocking River, which has, for hundreds of years, had its name and direction switched up on it so many times, small wonder when I pulled into town, it felt about as enchanting as a clogged toilet. The river comes off as sort of a dull hematite no matter the season and just feels inert until it occasionally floods during winter or heavy rains where whole backroads and portions of main streets are impassable. So, naturally, I made up a story in my head about how the river god has been spellbound to sleep somewhere, but every now and then, he wakes up from a nightmare that he’s been kidnapped, and remembers his true name.

What actually happened is that in the late 60’s, the flooding through town and campus got pretty inconvenient because, y’know, people decided to build their houses all close to it and a college, and then it was the river that was in the way (slow blink). I sometimes show my students pictures of this phenomenon and tell them they have no excuse for skipping, because their predecessors wanted to come to class so badly and learn something just for the sake of learning, they built foot bridges and rowed around campus to get there.

Alas, in ‘69, the Army Corps of Engineers showed up and for a cool 10 million proceeded to move the river. Now. When a colleague of mine told me the Hocking River had been moved decades ago, I blurted out, “How do you move a river?!” He smirked, “One shovel at a time.” (Ten points to Hufflepuff) Okay. I know it sounds like a really corny punchline, but as it turns out, that’s literally what they did. For. Years. Took ‘em awhile, but one shovel at a time, the Hocking River was re-routed and no trees were ever planted again on its banks running through town because the root-system creates piping and slows the water flow.

I read somewhere that now local geologists are concerned that wherever the river is letting out is actually creating the sedimentary conditions for this whole genius plan to backfire and create even worse flooding in roughly a 100-200 years. The folks in the 60’s didn’t think about that though. They just thought of their own immediate inconvenience but not how that would impact future generations to saddle us with their short-sightedness. Kinda reminds me of that James Bay song with lyrics like: “Lonely water, won’t you let us wander/let us hold each other” and “Hold back the river let me look in your eyes/Hold back the river so I/can stop for a minute and see where you hide/Hold back the river/Hold back.”

I actually think about the Hocking River quite often. So much so, I included a poem about it in my most recent collection. I haven’t properly introduced myself to the river god, because like I said, it just feels—off. But then again. the Hocking can’t help that it feels like that. Someone else imposed their restrictions onto it, but eventually it’s going to find its way again. Water does, you know. But the Hocking also makes me think about how this happens with people, right? In terms of systemic terraformation, a short-sighted group of people looking to ease their immediate discomfort decide to make some major policy changes that completely disrupts the environment to say nothing of the folks who live there, and then have the nerve to die off, leaving the rest of us to figure out how to become better neighbors while we also try to get out of a mess that we didn’t create.

So, I suppose the real question is how do you move a river back?

The punchline still applies.

See, the way my brain is set up...

Photo from  Curious Arts

Photo from Curious Arts

“How did you know?” is a question I get a lot from people. The easy answer is at this point, having been so long an educator and artist, I’m fairly adept at making educated guesses based on deductive reasoning. The more complex answer is that I just—know.

There’s still so much we do not understand about the human brain. We’re making discoveries all the time. There are so many theories out there and learning about the theorizers is often just as interesting as the theories, especially when they start to explore the blurred lines between science and spirituality. Carl Jung, for instance, was hooked on medieval alchemists and coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” based on the first stage of alchemy which was called the nigredo or the putrification/blackening stage. This is where the alchemists charred their ingredients to a uniform black, because fire purifies. The medieval alchemists, who were known mostly for their desire to transmute base metals into gold, were among the first to document this process as parallel to human psychological/spiritual expansion.

Jung describes a “dark night of the soul” as a temporary depression that occurs between stages of a person’s development where they no longer function as an outdated version of themselves but don’t yet know who they are to become. In short, it’s an identity crisis. You can’t go back to who you were and you don’t know what’s in store. Not unlike the sixth gate in the Ancient Egyptian’s premise of the afterlife, as you change gears, sometimes you just have to stop and reorient yourself, your values, your vision for your life apart from others’. (Coincidentally, as a primarily agrarian culture, the Ancient Egyptians in the Book of the Dead, called navigating the afterlife a ‘night-journey.’)

A dark night of the soul is a lonely, isolating process that can make you feel like a misfit and dysfunctional, and in the process of course-correcting your worldview to accommodate the new you, you have to discard the outdated narratives you used to live by, which are often projections from others—expectations from one’s parents and peers and overall culture that need to be shed. That process sort of just takes as long as it takes. It can last years (quarter-life/mid-life crisis anyone?), months, weeks, a day, depending on where you are on your path. And the really fun part is that sometimes you can think you’ve absolutely licked an issue but then unexpectedly become triggered years later by an event or encounter that reminds you of a more traumatizing time. So, despite your growth, you’re booted right back to fending off crippling self-doubt, fear, and shame, and it can feel like you’ve made no headway at all. Unfortunately, this expansive and often exhausting process has no finish line, and as Jung and so many others have observed, the subconscious remains ever the undiscovered country which we traverse like a spiral staircase. The only real reward after making it through a dark night of the soul is perspective. You get to know your boundaries better (emotions point to our limits and limiting beliefs) as well as locate the source of pathological thought patterns, and sometimes you just have to let a dark night of the soul do its thing to better understand and release the unhealthier parts of ego.

Now, take someone like Descartes, who was very much interested in the pineal gland and called it “the principle seat of the soul.” For instance, in modern medicine, we’re still not entirely sure about what all the pineal gland is doing back there. We know that it produces melatonin and regulates our circadian rhythm, but it’s largely considered vestigial at this point. Situated in the middle of our brains, the pineal gland is about the size of a pea and shaped like a pine cone, and can even become calcified due to a buildup of calcium, phosphorous, and fluoride, thusly creating irregularities in our sleep and metabolism. For some reason, it also randomly regulates the onset of puberty. Other than that, we don’t really know why it’s comprised of so many cells that function like the photosensors in our retinas since it’s kinda just tucked back there.

The pineal gland sits at the intersection of the two hemispheres of your brain beneath the cerebral cortex where consciousness and sensory and motor skills intersect. It registers light/dark the same way our eyes do and appears to transmit a response up and out. Practitioners of alternative medicine/spiritualists suggest that the pineal gland originally functioned as our first eye and today, while we don’t use it to see the way we do the eyes in our face, many people argue it’s responsible for clairvoyance and visions, ya know…it’s basically the origin story of the third eye. In Sanskrit, yogis call this area the Ajna, or, the brow chakra which is the sixth chakra, the power center of your body that says ‘I see.’ Many people who experience spiritual awakenings report feeling a slight pressure between their brows almost as if someone was pressing a finger lightly on their forehead.

Another area of interest in the brain is the parietal lobe which governs planned physical movement/motion and processes sensory information. It’s situated towards the rear of your brain on top, right where it begins to slope downward. One of the more nebulous accounts of the brain’s properties has to do with mirror neurons, or the neurons that explain mimetic action and activity (When you wave, the neurons say I should wave back. Even if I don’t wave physically, the same neurons light up, so I’m still waving at you, just with my brain) as well as their role in creating the occasion for sympathy and compassion for another persons. Mirror neurons are so recent a discovery, though, there’s still a lot of debate among what they are and if they are even a thing, but! Those who suggest mirror neurons are a thing, have documented their activity in the parietal cortex, and it’s theorized that mirror neurons in this region specifically allow us to understand the actions of others. In this scintillating paper on functions of the brain’s pre-motor cortex, the conclusion surmises, “The assumptions underlying this hypothesis are: (a) individuals understand actions made by other individuals because they are able to react to them internally; and (b) the individuals know the outcome of their actions.”

Literally just this year, Columbia and Yale scientists discovered that the parietal cortex is the area of the brain that lights up when someone claims they’ve had a spiritual experience. This is the point where yogis would again argue, y’all late. They’ve been calling this region “Sahasrara” in Sanskrit for a long time. This is the seventh primary chakra and is also known as the crown chakra, the power center of your body that says, “I know.”

Long story short, my knack for being able to read people is quite literally part of my job, so I practice using what I’ve learned in the undiscovered country of the mind fairly regularly, but anyone can know things the same way I do. They just have to be open. And as Audre Lorde asserts, “There are many kinds of open.”

“All My Life I Had to Fight": When WoC Turn On One Another, Nobody Wins 

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I don’t think there’s a Black American woman alive who hasn’t seen The Color Purple and doesn’t remember the scene where Sofia comes charging through a field to confront Celie who had advised Harpo to beat Sofia into submission. I don’t think a single one of us hasn’t quoted that line at some point in our lives, even if just internally, in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying sort of way, when confronted with scenarios that feel like nothing we do, even when we know we’re doing everything right, ultimately appears go in our favor. 

In fact, I muttered this to myself in the original spirit of the line first thing this morning when a homegirl of mine sent me a screenshot of a woman’s post who blocked me on social media yesterday, citing that unprofessional people will be deleted and blocked. I won’t mention this sister’s name and I won’t name her organization, because I do believe that many of the women who attended the conference which I was invited a year ago to deliver the keynote address this past weekend, did benefit from the experience. But I’m writing this because my experience is a symptom of a larger problem, and the culture of silence surrounding Black women’s experiences in the U.S. helps no one. So, I’m lightweight blowing a whistle here, no doubt. But, hey. Silence is compliance. And over the past few days, it has taken everything in me that I have committed to compassion, empathy, and leaving the world in better condition than the way I found it, to not publicly go H.A.M. (which I would have been well within my rights to), over the fact that this sister did not honor our contract by paying me. 

Mind you, I’m used to waiting on checks. But not getting paid at all is a first for me in twenty years of gigging. And it pains me that the first perpetrator of a violated contract isn’t The Man, but someone who’s actually supposed to be fighting alongside me in the same trench. And for the last few days, after compiling a paper trail the length of two CVS receipts where she and I discussed specifically when and how my fee would be paid, I keep asking myself: How could this have been avoided? How did it come to this? Why didn’t I see this coming? Why did I so readily give her the benefit of the doubt? Come to find out, after having privately disclosed what’s going on with a few of my trusted sisters-in-arms who’ve had encounters with her in the past, this isn’t her first rodeo with fraudulent behavior, which inevitably ended up in them being deleted and blocked too. To my knowledge, I am the only one she straight-up hasn’t fully paid according to our arrangement—she did cover my deposit, albeit several weeks late.

But one of my sistren alluded to the fact that she probably lost money on the conference which is why she couldn’t pay me, and she probably just thought I had it like that given my profession as a university professor, so why am I bothered? I mean. Apart from the fact that there’s a huge discrepancy in what people think professors make and what we actually make (which warrants its own separate blog including everything I’ve had to do, and I do mean everything short of selling drugs or my body to stay afloat as well as kick the deeply entrenched poverty consciousness I’ve cultivated as being a teaching-artist over the last twenty years), that’s not the point. The point is, A) You agreed to my fee. B) I signed your contract. C) You did not pay me. 

The more sisters I’ve talked to over the past few days, the stories they’ve confided in me about their own experiences in similar circumstances have been utterly shocking about Black women turning on one another, not in Corporate America or as Real Housewives, but intentionally instigating rivalries as community organizers, arts administrators, executive directors, and change agents. I’ve heard now about everything from whisper campaigns to vicious gossip to outright blocking another Black woman’s progress in order to curry favor with the gate-keepers in far-too-few coveted positions of leadership. Hearing all that, I guess I’m lucky that this is just now only my first experience with this behavior in this context. It’s not even so much about the principle of not paying me that stings so bad, it’s that this woman purposefully benefited from using my name and reputation to boost attendance at her conference, cut communication completely off when I asked her to settle up both in person upon completion of my address (which the contract stated she would) ignored subsequent correspondence, and then immediately began painting herself as a victim.

So, why is this the case? Why is that Black women, who have been so historically marginalized and oppressed, “de mule of de world,” to cite Hurston, turn on one another? My theory is that it’s because generally speaking, wounded people wound people. And when we are talking about generational wounds where the resources and the opportunities to acquire them are too few and far-between, we go immediately into survival mode—fight or flight. Her flight triggered the impulse in me to fight. I mean. I am wired to fight anyone who stands in-between me and my own socioeconomic survival because, wait for it, all my life I had to fight

I assume total culpability for assuming our shared experiences were something she might have understood, identified with, and valued as a so-called sister-in-arms. And that’s my mistake for assuming that the person who looks like me and struggles like me would automatically want for me what she wants for herself—peace of mind. But why would she when she stands to gain more by throwing me under the bus? I’m eerily reminded in this case of Lacan’s “Mirror Theory,” the part where a person sees you as whole, but they view themselves as fractured, so they both resent you and covet what you have. The problem isn’t that they view you as whole. The problem is that they don’t see themselves as anything but broken. 

So, theoretically speaking, her actions make sense to me. I, too, am well acquainted with self—sabotage, a fear of failure or being viewed as a failure, and the impulse to block out my problems. That indicates a deeply wounded inner child who acts out because no one modeled to them that they weren’t unconditionally loved. I always say the most overtly driven people in the world aren’t running towards something, they’re running away. At a subconscious level, humans make choices out of only one of two places—love or fear. Even if you’re deemed successful, at some level you may still be running away from feeling a lack of self-worth as well as shame that you won’t live up to others’ expectations of you. It’s a childish impulse I recognize in how she handled this situation, because unfortunately, I also recognize this impulse within myself. 

But all of that doesn’t erase the fact that I still haven’t gotten paid, and it doesn’t appear she has any intention to do so. When I asked a mentor of mine what he does in scenarios like this, he said, “When US cross me, I treat ‘em like a THEM.” And so, I’ve been advised to take this to small claims court where no doubt, this is going to get very expensive for both of us. Which means both of us will now have to deal with court costs, legal fees, and whatever we have to make up for coming up out of pocket to handle what should have been handled. I’m not saying every Black woman needs to hold hands and sing songs and share candy and stuff all the time, but what I am saying is that what we certainly don’t need anymore of in the world are more battle-weary WoC who are obliged to wear their armor to bed on a good day, squaring up against one another. Not when we’ve already had to fight all our lives. Because nobody wins in this situation except the system which didn’t even have to lift a finger this time since it was designed to keep us fighting among ourselves in the trenches in the first place.