“Back in black / I hit the sack / I been too long / I’m glad to be back.”

Hey.

Are you still here?

Okay.  I hope so.  And I’m glad if you are.

When I first sat down to write this, I thought, I am going to write about how all of a sudden we are halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.  And then I realized that I’d been writing “7” for the month for, like, oh, thirty-one days now.  And then I mathed and realized that half of twelve is six, not seven, which means we are over halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.  Or, I guess, I’ve been trying to blog, but I haven’t been able to put much of my energy into a post.  For a while I told myself, Self, you are totally experimenting.  You’re just micro-blogging.  You’re a revolution and that revolution is CUTTING EDGE.  Then I remembered that I am not a revolution, nor am I particularly cutting-edge at anything, and that illusion lay shattered, like the shards in the Delicate Vase Aisle at Hobby Lobby after being visited by a mob of grammar school kids who have just eaten too many M&Ms.

Like I mentioned in my revolutionary and cutting-edge micro-blogging entries, there have been Circumstances, and these were the kinds of Circumstances that require most-and-I-mean-most, if not all, of one’s energies.  These were the kinds of Circumstances that require a re-routing of one’s life and how one lives it, the kinds of Circumstances that — very, very literally — stop one in one’s tracks and require one to Think.  A lot.  And then to Adjust.

That is all very vague, you are probably thinking.  Why are we talking in such vague terms and using David Foster Wallace capital letters to try to make up for it, you are probably also thinking.  Those are both perfectly legitimate things to be thinking, and I guess the thing is that I have, after Thinking and then a lot more Thinking and then Adjusting, come to the place where I am ready to say that there have been Circumstances but not to talk about what they were/are.  I mean, I have been writing about Circumstances, sure, but in the Let’s Put This In Creative Nonfiction Form So I Can Go As Slowly And Carefully As I Need To And Then Use A Couple Of Metaphors About Christmas Lights To Help Me Out Kind Of Way, not the Very Public As In Immediately Very Public Blogging Kind Of Way.

And that’s the strange and spectacular thing about writing, I think, and, really, reading — there’s something terrifying about the blank page, and that’s the thing we tend to talk about.  But there’s also something amazing and transformative and meditative about the blank page, and then about the way one puts words onto it.  The blank page gives a person the space — and the safety — that they need to think things through.  And I mean really think things through.  When I write poetry, I’m often prisming off of my personal experience, but in very extreme and sometimes even absurd ways.  I’m taking myself to the edges of language and seeing what’s there.  I’m taking each situation to its extreme, and then every angle of each situation, to see how it looks.  I’m turning it over and over again in my mind, and with each turn it becomes something new.  I’m speaking about things in a way I can’t speak about them with everyday language, which also means that I’m speaking about things I can’t speak about in everyday language.  That’s because everyday language belongs to everyday life, and there are things that I just can’t spend a lot of everyday time with.  There are things that will shut you down, will stop you from moving inside of everyday life, where there are things that have to keep moving.  There are groceries to buy and student papers to grade and cats to feed.

The everyday world keeps moving, and one must move with it.  Everyday life must be lived.  And so, in these Circumstances, I’ve been grateful for that blank page.  I’ve been grateful for the moments of respite it provides, for the sacramental space it creates, for the place where I can take a break from moving and just be still for a while with my words and the realities they represent, so that I can keep moving, keep doing, keep living.

Advertisements

Hobby Lobby (An Essay)

20130723-162747.jpg

Listen, Hobby Lobby. You know how I feel about you. But you have GOT to stop trying to make the Thanksgiving Tree a thing. I mean, at this point, it’s just embarrassing.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Alice B. Toklas*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and my writing, it’s that major breakthroughs and advances — well, they don’t come easy.  Sure, from time to time a breakthrough will come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page, but I know that I can’t depend upon that.  I also know that these breakthroughs only come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page if I’m there at my laptop or notebook page.  In other words, I do sometimes have breakthroughs out of the clear blue sky that make everything very much easier,

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today's story.

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today’s story.

but said out-of-the-clear-blue-sky everything-easier-making breakthroughs only come from hard work.

And when I say hard work, I mean hard work.  I mean hard, frustrating work.  I mean minutes and hours and days and years of hard, hard, hard frustrating work.  And sometimes it takes a very long time, and always it takes being honest with myself in a way that isn’t exactly comfortable.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer — often, when I finally figure out how to do something and do something well, it’s exactly the point when I know I shouldn’t get comfortable.  If I get comfortable, I do the same thing over and over again, kind of like my treat addict of a cat, Alice B. Toklas — she’s figured out that if she goes in the kitchen and meows and looks up at me in this certain unbelievably pitiful way, she will receive two treats.  But writing isn’t like that, no matter how pitiful the look I give my laptop.  Eventually, the treats stop coming.  Or else the treats do keep coming, but they’re increasingly stale.  Like, moldy stale.  Yes, I’m doing something I figured out how to do, and sometimes even to do well, but I’m not growing.  I’m not moving to the next level.  I’m not taking risks and challenging myself and thinking, really thinking, about what I’m doing.  I’m not engaging with language and the way it’s built.  I’m not doing myself or my work any favors.

And so I keep pushing myself to push myself, even if I don’t get the treats.  And usually, when I’m moving towards a breakthrough, there are no treats anywhere to be found (apparently, I have decided to stay with this metaphor and stretch it beyond its capacity.  Which is, incidentally, one of the things that I do when I’m not pushing myself the way I need to push myself as a writer.  Harumph).  There are just — pardon me, but Anne Lamott’s phrase is too perfect not to borrow — shitty first drafts.  And shitty second and third and fourth drafts.  There are hours of staring at a screen, putting a line in one place and then moving it and then deleting it completely, only to put it exactly where it was the next day.

See?  Frustrating.  Like, beyond.

And that’s the state I was in a while ago, when I realized that I had no idea where Alice B. Toklas was (the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course; it’s pretty clear where the actual Alice B. Toklas is, or was).  This is generally bad news because it could mean that she’s eaten a couch or gotten arrested for spying on my neighbors.  I started walking around the house very slowly and saying Alice very softly, both because I didn’t want to scare her and

This is the ball and the corner in question.  I'm posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

This is the ball and the corner in question. I’m posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

because a disappeared cat is a generally terrifying situation.  When I found her, she was in the corner of my bathroom, trying to wedge her let’s-call-it-big-boned-and-just-very-furry body between the toilet and the bathtub.  At first I thought this was just another thing that Alice B. Toklas likes to do, like licking the windows or hiding under things by only putting her head under them and closing her eyes.  Then I started hearing a bell, and I realized that there was a reason for her hiding behind the toilet, besides, you know, hiding behind the toilet: she was trying to get her ball out of the corner, and with the kind of complete and total focus my cats usually only give their food bowls or my feet when they want to bite them.  I decided to help her out and picked up the ball and threw it, expecting her to jump joyfully after it.  Instead, she just looked up at me in great confusion — or, at least, more confusion than usual, which I admit is quite a bit of confusion.  I said what and she just sat there, staring with great confusion until, finally, she walked off in defeat to chew on a sofa or something.

That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the ball itself that Alice B. Toklas wanted; it was the challenge of getting to the ball.  She enjoyed the struggle, the fight.  She loved the work itself — and then the bell went off in my mind.  I realized that’s what I needed to do, too — to let myself relax, to allow myself the shitty first, second, third, fourth, and nth drafts, and to just enjoy playing with language, finding new ways into words.  I may get the ball.  I may not.  In the end, really, I think it’s not about the product but the process — not the solution, but the struggle — and learning to be happy with both.

* That is, the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course.  Everything I learned from the human Alice B. Toklas is only legal in Amsterdam, Washington, and Colorado.

Shedding Light on the Book of Shadows

So last night, I was watching television with my mother, which meant, as usual, that we had flipped around with great despair until, finally, we’d become resigned to watching something ridiculous.  In this case, the something ridiculous we watched was The Biography Channel’s Celebrity Ghost Stories.  No, really.  That’s seriously a thing.  It features a number of people who are almost or once were actual celebrities describing, with great suspense, their almost or actual hauntings.

This particular episode featured a typically almost-recognizable man who was scruffy enough to be believable as an almost- or once-celebrity.  Predictably, his wasn’t the most coherent story ever.  He’d been staying at a friend’s friend’s house in LA, where he found a box containing tarot cards and some really creepy cassette tapes full of really, really creepy chanting.  Then he had a bunch of girls over and something happened, and then something happened with a painting.  I don’t know, exactly, because I wasn’t exactly paying attention.  I was in the middle of this enormous paint-by-number project that required a great deal of focus.  Anyway, I started half-listening when the creepy music ramped up, implying that we were about to reach the cliffhanger before a commercial break.  The friend’s friend, it seems, had called because she somehow knew that he had unearthed the box with tarot cards and creepy cassette tapes.  She’d called to warn him not to mess with them.  “And then she said” – here, the story paused for maximum suspense and creepiness – “‘I’m a witch.’”

At that point, I wasn’t just listening.  I was furious.

After the commercial break, the almost-recognizable man repeated the sentence, pausing again before saying it: “a witch.”  Things in the house got worse and worse, until a demonic voice screamed “get out of here” and the man obeyed.  And that, he said, was the end.

Where do I begin.

This is the cover of the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, which lays down the system of beliefs that led to the European witch trials.  It's chilling beyond chilling.  Wicasta and Christie Jury transcribed the text and posted it online to further education on the text and the trials. It's a very, very difficult thing to read, but it's very, very much more important to build knowledge and make sure nothing like this happens, in any form, again.

This is the cover of the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, which lays down the system of beliefs that led to the European witch trials. It’s chilling beyond chilling. Wicasta and Christie Jury transcribed the text and posted it online to further education on the text and the trials. It’s a very, very difficult thing to read, but it’s very, very much more important to build knowledge and make sure nothing like this happens, in any form, again.

I was terrified, but it wasn’t the story that scared me.  It wasn’t just the flagrant disregard for paganism, or the absurd and inflammatory equation of paganism and Satanism (not the same thing, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous.  Not anywhere close).  It wasn’t just the complete ignorance about witchcraft (I’m guessing that the producers, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous, and/or The Biography Channel weren’t aware of the Wiccan Rede — An it harm none, do what ye will – which, I mean, perhaps they should take a look at that?  And stop with the harming?), it was the perpetuation of said ignorance, without thought.  It was the off-handed carelessness with which they perpetuated misinformation about an ancient, beautiful, and terribly misunderstood system of belief.

You’re probably thinking, Emma.  Come on.  It was just a ghost story.  Lighten up.  And yes, it was just a ghost story.  But I’m not sure I should lighten up.  It’s the mindset behind the ghost story that’s really, truly frightening – so frightening that it’s definitely worth discussing.

When I was doing research for Maleficae, I came across countless explanations for The Burning Times, the witch trials that happened in early modern Europe between the 15th and 18th century.  I read theories about ergot poisoning from central stores of grain, about movements of mass hysteria.  I read about how property laws changed to allow women to inherit property, which in turn made women less dependent on men – which many men wanted stopped, so they accused women engaged in pagan practices of consorting with Satan.  I read about how the Catholic Church gave midwives the power to perform baptisms so that babies who died shortly after birth wouldn’t be damned.  Women began to ask questions: if they could give this sacrament, why not the rest?  And the Church, the theory goes, responded with witch trials and executions.

Though the explanations differ, it all seemed to boil down to the same series of actions: one group feared or hated another, and so they turned against them.  That energy built and built.  People spoke out of ignorance, and that ignorance became dangerous.  That ignorance led to action, which led to persecution.  And the trials began.

It’s estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed.

There’s something missing here that I think is important, and that’s another group, another set of voices.  What’s missing here is the group that speaks up, the group that speaks for the persecuted, the group that says, at the very beginning, that perhaps everyone should cool off and actually talk to and understand each other.  Silence, it seems, is an action in itself.  Silence is acquiescence.

So yes, I probably did take the story too seriously.  But isn’t that the point?  What happens if you keep letting things go, telling yourself that you shouldn’t take them too seriously?  What happens if those things build and build, accreting a power of their own?  If silence persists, if no one says hey, wait a minute, if we continue to speak out of ignorance and ignore the fact that ignorance can become dangerous, and fast – well, that’s when the story becomes really, truly frightening.  Better to risk speaking up at the beginning than standing powerlessly by the story’s terrifying end.