Big Fish Eat Little Fish

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It “is always ‘symbolic,’ even when it is ‘real’.”

-Marshall Sahlins, “The Ethnography of Cannibalism”

“We’ll eat you up– we love you so!”

-Wild Things to Max, Where the Wild Things Are

I’m almost done with Typee, Melville’s… hmm… dumbest novel.  I think Typee is the novel I could write.  I mean I could write Moby Dick, if I were given the right hallucinogens, perhaps, and a nice supportive community of people who would have dinner and wine with me every day when I was done and hold me accountable for writing, and a dictionary, and of course the internet to research whales, but let’s face it: I’m afraid of hallucinogens.

For the first time in a long time, I’m reading literature with other people who are really into reading literature and thinking about it.  So sometimes I get to say things about how I’m digesting the book, out loud.  It’s a big change.

Yesterday my professor noted that Melville was a proto-Ernest Hemingway in his swagger (“I’ve been around the world”), and I was like, NOOOOOOOOOOO (Darth Vader in the terrible prequel as he’s being burned and we laugh, we actually laugh out loud).

If Hemingway bought me a drink, I wouldn’t drink it.

And I’ll drink scotch bought for me by businessmen from the Cayman Islands.

The Typees, they are a tribe, and they are cannibals (maybe), which is about the deep dark secret of Christianity (spoiler: it’s about killing and eating people to make things better), about how you can never get away from yourself, not even on the other side of the world (one of the great human disappointments), how men are more beautiful than women, really (he writes like a Kinsey 4, the 2 to 4 range also encompassing “artist”), just kidding, it’s not really about that, but that amuses me.  He writes like a Kinsey 6 boy asking what boobs feel like.

I still do believe much of literature is holy, just as much as “the Bible.”  And that if God is real, magical spiritual things are real, you can’t get away from them.  Most of the time I’ve thought I needed to seek those things out, but maybe you never do.  Maybe it always finds you, Jonah-style, wherever you go.

The primary paradigm I was raised with is impossible.  Lutheran theology is: God loves you, God does it all, don’t worry about it.  Just say yes.

No one can believe this, which is why it was such an enduring idea.

It’s something I tell other people, though.  God doesn’t need you to do anything.  Not anything.  Not show up, not be good, not try, not wake up and get coffee before noon, not keep your ears clean, not help your neighbor.  Some of those might be good things to do, but God doesn’t need you.

I’d like God to need me, though.  So I don’t believe that, either.

Cannibal rabbit hole: I have already read about the Donner Party, about the men from the Essex, fall into the guy in Germany who goes to prison for consensual cannibalism.  What?  (I’m frightened by most crime stuff, and horror stuff, so this is a weird area for me to snoop around in.)

You could own a person, under American slavery, but you could never eat a person.  That was wrong.  Slaves were people, in a certain way.  You had to be there.

Jonah gets eaten, but not digested.  Moby Dick eats Ahab’s leg.  People as food.  Books as food.  There is nothing more shameful than eating people, nothing scarier (Soylent Green), but also, the primary ceremony of Christianity (arguably) is eating someone.  Someone alive, though.  Sort of.  Sort of, you both are.

We feel God needs us to do something: kill your son.  Kill these doves.  Hand over your best crops.  It’s so hard to sit still.  Drink up.

Image: “Big Fish Eat Little Fish” by Pieter van der Heyden,”  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beyond Typee, my most interesting researched piece here.

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Lecompton

img_6164The town died as soon as its industry left.  They abandoned a Catholic church, half built.  All the Catholics left.  People who stayed took their heritage seriously, preserving a Victorian-era wreath made of human hair of the dead, clocks brought from the old country, and the yokes their oxen wore.

Today it has a population of 647.  However, there are two museums in Lecompton, Kansas.  Its industry was being the state capital.  For a bit.

I love museums.  I love the great-auntie of all museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the great-uncle of all museums, the Natural History Museum of Teddy Roosevelt and Things He Killed Because He Loved Them.  I also love all the tiny museums that no one cares about, anywhere people have put things in glass cases with typed labels.  It is best if there is someone to mind them, and this person will happily go on forever, so I don’t have to do much reading.  (It’s the only time I don’t prefer to read.)

Here’s why Lecompton has two museums:

In the 1850s, the latest place the white people want to kick Indians out of is: Kansas and Nebraska.  People back east want to make their influence known out here, but rather than merely posting things on facebook, many of them actually move here to be Kansas voters.  Pro-slavery people move here, too.  (I would figure it’s easier, as an abolitionist, to move, because you’re probably in a job that makes you mobile.  If you’re pro-slavery, and you have enough money to move, you are probably a farmer who owns slaves already, and land.  Right?  Don’t take my word for it. I just began researching this yesterday.)

To be a state, Kansas needs a constitution.  The first constitution is written in Topeka (abolitionist), and prohibits slavery, and sweetly declares that white men, and “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man” can vote.

Congress, pro-slavery at the time, is like, nah.

The pro-slavery people meet in Lecompton and write their own, pro-slavery constitution.

Note: Territorial capitals moved around a lot, based on what the current governor found convenient.  The territorial capital of Kansas was, at times, Shawnee Mission (near Kansas City), Fort Leavenworth, and Lecompton.  (And a bunch of other places that are so far out in Kansas, and not along I-70, so I have no idea where they are.)

The Lecompton constitution’s unexpectedly redeeming quality is that the lettering is done as if a child of 1992 had suddenly received a big old box of floppy disks of fonts from Santa Claus (Best Buy) and chosen one he thinks looks “rustic.”

President Buchanan likes it.  Kansas voters reject it, in spite of its cute lettering.

Congress says no, too, and decides to let Kansans vote.  Kansans vote to be a free state, because mostly, they are inherently good people (of course).

After a lot more mess, they ultimately adopt a constitution that does not give women the right to vote, but does give women the right to own property, have access to their children, and vote in school board elections, which was pretty sweet, considering the times.

Then Lincoln is elected, and people have, you know, other things on their minds.

The museums in Lecompton are housed in the building that was going to be the capitol, and the building that was where the constitutional convention met.  The almost-capitol has mannequins wearing old clothes, photographs of people looking serious, friendship quilts, gorgeous old furniture and gadgets.

The constitutional hall has its original cottonwood flooring.  Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas (I did learn something in Kansas State History).  It isn’t necessarily great for building, but at that point, people used what they had at hand, and Kansas wasn’t exactly teeming with forests.  Cottonwood was good enough, anyway, to last until today.

I ask the guy manning constitution hall why there is so much history to see here, so well-preserved.

“The people here think of their history as family history,” the guy tells me.

I have roots in Orleans, Nebraska (population 383), and Lancaster, Kansas (population 288).  I guess they are a lot smaller than Lecompton, so I can’t fault them for not having history museums.

Some people stayed in Lecompton, and I guess they were really serious about staying.  Their veterans’ memorial, as the man points out, has veterans from the founding of the town through the 21st century.

I feel some sense of pride or comfort, living in an abolitionist town, the sort of pride one feels from people having done things long before one was born.  The sense that people believed in something that was progressive, and good, and just.

I feel comfort, also, in being somewhere people hold their history in its awkwardness.  Lecompton proclaims it has been voted, “Best Small Town in Kansas.”  People were also wrong, in the past.  They were unrepentently wrong, and they were confused wrong, and they seemed right at the time, but were wrong.

I’m not the just the inheritor of abolitionists’ thirst for justice, but also of slaveholders’ exploitation and struggle to part with evil ideas and evil acts.  There are memories of goodness and virtue, and memories of mistakes and mess.  This near Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s healing to me to think of both.

Images: my own, from the museums in Lecompton.  My research is mostly from them, as well, although this was also helpful.

Wreath made of human hair. The hair in the center was from a person who died, to memorialize him/her, and the rest of the hair was from… oneself? Friends? Just another Victorian creepy weird thing.
Ballot box of the type used way back when.
If you cannot tell, THIS TOY DUCK BELONGED TO WILLIAM B. GLENN WHEN HE WAS A BOY. He was born 1-28-1867.

Classic Christmas Breakdowns

If you haven’t had a Christmas breakdown yet, THERE IS STILL TIME.

I had a minor one when I decided I would run into the mall and pick up a pine-scented candle.  Having a pine-scented candle is part of my Christmas celebrating.

It had already been a day of near-misses: friends I was supposed to meet I did not meet, the art gallery I tried to spend a minute in closed early, and this was my last-ditch attempt at getting things straight.

I parked, noting carefully where I was, and the minute I got in there, I realized this was a mistake.  I will never conquer The Mall.  I walked up to a kiosk that used to be a map, and it was just pictures progressing, pictures of people who had the money to buy things that made them very happy and secure in themselves all the time.

I took my spidey sense in hand and went upstairs.  I believed the candle place to be upstairs.  I walked down the mall hall, following people who were walking so slowly, I thought we were in Birmingham Alabama in July in the afternoon.  I looked at the various storefronts, and realized there were many I didn’t even know what they were about.  They sold clothes to teenagers?  They sold… makeup?  They sold… sleek bodies without faces?

I saw a familiar soaps-and-goos place, and I ducked in to see if they had candles.  Just in case.  If someone asked me if I needed anything, I would lose it.  I hate that more than anything.  DO I LOOK LIKE I NEED HELP I DO NOT.  This is something I love about thrift stores, and The Dollar Store.  They will never ask me if I need help.  I will be free to make my own mistakes.  I AM FINE.

The candles there were not cheap.  I am going grocery shopping when I get paid, and feeling rich when I don’t add up what’s in the cart, I just recklessly buy a bunch of food. I felt I could get a candle cheaper than this.

I decided to go on, to the candle store.

I reached out with my feelings, and saw that indeed, the candle store was where I suspected it was.  A man immediately asked if he could help me, of course I said no.  I saw the pine-scented candles.  There was a whole display.  All sizes.  Big babies, tiny babies.  I turned one over.  No price tag.

“Ah, so it’s… free.”  I always say this to myself when merchandise lacks price tags.  It’s a little joke between me and me.

I looked around for a sign that had prices.  I get it, you don’t want to relabel the things over and over, especially if they go on sale.  Nothing.  I wandered to another display, hoping a sign might be there.  No.  Nothing.  They COULD NOT EVEN TELL ME HOW MUCH THINGS COST.

I could… NO.  FINE.

I whisked myself out of the store, down the mall halls, down the stairs, to the car, which was just where I remembered it.

A friend told me: I drove into a narrow street, and another car faced me, and we couldn’t pass, and we stayed there and yelled at each other, and yelled, and yelled, and neither one of us would move, and I was like, I have more insurance, and finally she started to move, and she took a picture of my license plate, and I was like, “I’LL TAKE A PICTURE OF YOURS!”

And I was like, ah, yes, Christmas meltdown.

You may have refused to attend a gathering, and instead sat alone at a bar, thinking, AT LEAST NO ONE IS FUCKING WITH ME HERE.

You may have stomped off in the snow, and the cold felt good because THEY CAN GO TO HELL.

You may have been at a dinner where someone sat at another table in a restaurant BECAUSE I CAN’T STAND YOUR BULLSHIT ANYMORE.

It’s okay.

There is still time to wonder bitterly why you work and end up with not enough money to not worry about money every minute.

There is still time to curse the universe for leaving you without a soul mate, or even a companion who occasionally makes dinner.

You can still wonder why other people have perfect families, why other people aren’t having trouble getting out of bed, or knowing it’s The Last Christmas That Something Happens.

Plenty of time.

But: may you also have some moments of genuine happy-to-see-you, and real what-a-nice-gift, and relieved the-sun-is-coming-back-now.

Merry Whatever and Happy This-and-That.

Image: “Preparing for Christmas,” Francis William Edmonds, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Steel

My darling friend, with whom I sat in the passenger seat of my own car, as he drunkenly drove it up the hill, from downtown Kansas City, to wherever we were going, it didn’t matter, the top was down, and I put in “Kind of Blue,” an entry-level, amateur jazz album, but the only level at which jazz admitted me.  We had been there to see each other embarrassed. We trusted each other to be weak, on occasion– a rarity for both of us. He drove, because he could drive a stick, and he could drink more than me, because I was a woman, and so I got to put my hand out the window, and feel the air above and below my palm. The lights were behind us.  Not the caverns of lights that are Manhattan, but the sofa-sized picture that is Kansas City’s lights. We were having a time in the small jazz town, long after jazz, and times, had left it.

He is the friend I would get as drunk as he would get me, which was very, very, which was whiskeys and whiskeys and I knew he would care for me.  I threw up in his bathroom.

Wine, wine, wine at either of his regular place, then whiskey, when your tongue and throat are softened to accept it.  There were always drinks, and with good company, they made me loquacious on the topics of opera, crossword puzzles, politics.  Then they made me mournful. Then they made me disclose: I’m afraid I’ll never. I’m not sure that I. And he told me secrets, too.  And we didn’t hold them against each other.

Then there was a night he didn’t remember where his apartment was, and I did, and I thought, this isn’t right.

Then I met him and tried to talk him through his trembling drying-out anxiety (I should have realized this was dangerous, it was), and walked him around the neighborhood on a cold, snowy day, on the iced sidewalks, and hugged him before he went into an AA meeting, in the basement of a stone church, just like in the movies.

I get a message from another friend.  He told me he had been beaten up. I have known these men who are so dangerous to themselves, who I think show me how to take chances with your body, chances I am not brave enough, or foolish enough, to take.  What if my primary concern was not protecting myself, because I am a slight woman.

I took a few small step chances, I mean, I do.  I will walk in any neighborhood, I took the subway at all hours, I talk to strange men, but I will reject their advances.  I will draw strong lines, and not mind being a bitch, not a bit. I swam naked in the Atlantic, and lay on the roof like Bathsheba once.  

Not the same.

Men’s bodies, I always thought, were the ones in danger.  

“I don’t understand why you are guys are always talking about wars,” I said.  

“Because if it happens, we’ll have to protect you, dummy,” thus said my friend who is a man, and I became a little less dumb that day.

This has changed.  Men my age, now, will not be called to fight for me.  Now, many of the men I know have been throttled, in combat with others, physics, or themselves.

It’s different, though I’m not sure how, that my female friends have certainly suffered.  A gallbladder lost. Babies pushed or cut out of them. They’ve been continuously shaken with unnatural anxieties, had blood vessels in their brains spout, had their backs opened up and rejiggered.  I don’t know why a female body seems so hardy to me, even in death. Too many pictures and statues of Jesus?

Once my father was in the emergency room on Easter.  We had already celebrated with him, and were at our next engagement, with my mother’s side of the family, and left for the hospital.  He had chest pain.

My father is a rhino. He has a tough skin, he can pull anything down, put anything up, stay up all night, stay up all day.  Annually, he personally re-blacktops the parking lot in front of his law firm. We got to the hospital, and he was the one in the bed, and my whole being rejected this notion.  He looked like a paper doll.

He was always the one sitting beside a hospital bed, whether my mother’s, when we kids were born, or my stepmom’s, as she went through various operations, or when I had my appendix out, or when my sister needed an IV for a flu, whatever it was, he was a person who visited people in the hospital, not someone who would be admitted.  I thought they would say, “Not you,” when he went to the front desk.

He had a pulled muscle from his persistent, awful cough that winter.  When he put his arms above his head, the pain stopped. When they noticed this, they sent him home.

I knew it was a mistake.

Image: “Large Blue Horizontal” by Ilya Bolotowsky, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bulbs

So many things happen that you don’t know where to put.

1. I went to a wedding party.  I used to babysit for a family of three kids.  One of them grew up, got sick, and died.  The other two were at the party.  It made me think about how we were alive.  We danced until I was sweaty and woozy.  There was a little boy who danced just as much as I did.  He even did spinning breakdancer moves.  As I was leaving, a man with white hair said to me, “That is a beautiful dress,” and I didn’t know how to take that.

2. I met a friend and we ate hamburgers.  I decided to drink a glass of wine instead of a milkshake.  He drank a milkshake.  I felt I had made the right decision.

3. I asked my niece what she wanted for Christmas.  “I want a microphone.  And a globe.  And I want to be teacher.”

“What do teachers need?” I asked.

“Highlighters!” she said.

4. I opened the ziploc of Christmas ornaments I’d bought, and set them on the mantle.  They are plastic, but look glass.  Red and green, shiny.  When I bought them, my mother said, “This place used to be J.C. Penney, and I bought my first maternity clothes here.”

5. I got up and out to go to church for the first time in a while.  It was only raining, but as I approached the church (two blocks from home, like most things here), someone opened a door and called out, “Church is canceled!”

“Good to know!” I answered, and then I wondered if he thought I was going to church, or going somewhere else, or if my answer sounded like I was being coy with church, like, eh, I didn’t want to go anyway.

I turned the corner and went into the closest coffee place to me.

I sat and picked at my oatmeal, which was not great, as none of the food there is great, though that might be lucky, because if it was great, I’d probably live there. I ended up talking with a guy who was willing to talk my ear off.

I learned about motorcycle gals, teachers accused, people with family money who get away with things, children who were killed and had group funerals.

That was good.  I had an unsocial day ahead, a day of snowing and cancellations.  He was wiling to dish local dirt, tell me a lot of things I probably shouldn’t know.  We were a good conversational match.  I decided to firmly put away my trip-wire fury at having men talk too much and not even notice I was a person, in order to enjoy the admittedly interesting assorted stories he would offer.

We talked and talked and talked.  The owner of the place sat with a buddy and methodically re-bulbed and re-wired a sign that would someday light up to say, “Merry Christmas.”  Their attention to this matter, particularly in contrast to what I knew would be my own response (throw the thing away), was touching.  They checked each bulb, plugged it back in, discussed what else to try.

Image: electric lamp designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The End of the World

 

Saturday morning, I was trained as a poll watcher.  It was a classic meeting of Democrats, mildly disorganized, with people passionate and loving and ready to leap down each other’s throats because we aren’t as good at organizing as the fascists are.  “But when do we…?”  “But who is our…?”  “Do we need to bring our own scissors?” (They cut off columns of this document to tell the home office who voted.  No violence intended.  Smile.)

I was not only on time, I was early.  So were about 40 other Lawrencians, all waiting patiently for the library to open at 9 am.

“What is going on here?” I said to the woman next to me.  “I love it!  People lined up to get into the library!”

“It happens here.  I mean, a some of them are homeless, but….”

Well, where else should homeless people be? (I know, it’s a problem sometimes, librarians, and we should help you with that more.)

Driving off after the training, I felt like things were going to be okay.  It’s been about two years since I’ve felt that way.

I spent the weekend out of town with family.  I left my phone at home.  This frustrated me, but ultimately saved me.  Apart from needing to listen to podcasts as my bedtime stories, and not being able to wander far from family lest I become lost, it was great.  Second thought: maybe not being able to wander far from family was a plus.

I enjoyed the ministrations of my nieces, who are as enthusiastic and adorable and loving as any children could be.

I went south, to a part of the country that is red, red, red.  And somehow, it didn’t matter to me.  I find it odd that we heard the story of Jesus three times in two days, as part of their Christmas celebration.  I found it odd to jump into Christmas before Thanksgiving.  (Usually I don’t approve of that, but it’s easier to travel before it gets snowy or icy.)

On a memorable trip down south, about eight years ago, I was in the midst of having a nervous breakdown.  I had headaches that wouldn’t go away, then panic attacks and anxiety such that I was afraid to leave the house.  I remember watching a stage show, and thinking, “All of these people will be dead someday.”  Which was true, but is not my normal way of thinking when I am on vacation.  Within a year, after a lot of doctor visits and medication and some therapy, I was much, much better.

It’s been too dark, and nothing was worth this, all this fear we’ve been swimming in, having to breathe in this white supremacist, immigrant-demonizing time.  It could end.

The way I’ve been thinking lately is that we have to go in a new way.  When DT was first elected, much of my thinking was focused on how to return the United States to a place where people felt safe.  That’s not enough, now, even if it were possible.

I want to look forward to how we can make things better than they were under Obama, still look forward to making college cheap or free, everyone having okay health care, rather than some people protecting theirs, setting limits on how people buy and use and store guns, celebrating immigration and finding ways to welcome new people to our country, lavishing our people with mental health support and opportunities, to combat racism and -isms of all kinds, and protecting and celebrating our journalists in a nonpartisan way (which doesn’t mean “lacking in values”).  Those are my priorities, anyway.

We have plenty.  We have all we need.  And now we know how strong we are, having gotten up every day during the last hellacious two years and going on, even on the day I pondered how I could protect my fellow Americans on the subway, the days I felt DT’s aggressive and dismissive treatment of women in my body, the day I ached for my student, a Dreamer, who cried and cried during our tutoring session.

We know we can march two years running, for women’s rights, even though many of us were born in times we thought we’d never have to defend women.  We can show up for kids who are scared of gun violence.  We can breathe through a presidency that attacks what we value day after day after day, and still make each other dinner and love people who aren’t like us, and change diapers and give money and make signs and set aside our worry about rent to give a dollar to a homeless dude.

We can start over, and start over again.  No matter what happens in the election, we will start over, because we create our world, it doesn’t create us.  Pat yourself on the back for everything you’ve done.  Good, fucking, job!  I know you already voted and probably did a lot more.  I love everyone who has worked so hard to stay sane, and to help others stay sane.  Thank you, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Image: detail from “Leaf from a Beatus Manuscript, at the Clarion of the Fifth Angel’s Trumpet, a Star Falls from the Sky; the Bottomless Pit is Opened with a Key; Emerging from the Smoke, Locusts Come Upon the Earth and Torment the Deathless.”  Public domain.

November to December

The Kavanaugh hearings made me dangerously depressed.  Everything went grey, like my head had filled with coal smoke.

Polluted times, breath shallow and unproductive, no sea, no mountaintops, all low.

Walking brick sidewalks, lumpy, getting books from the library, slick library covers sliding against each other. Walking under bright orange leaves before blue sky.  Carrying a pumpkin up the stairs, in both arms, a stout 10 pounds.

I’ve been fantasizing about voting for two long years.  I’m going to go vote, and then I will have to go home.  I don’t think it would be right for me to just stand at the booth until the next morning.

I need to arrange to be with other people that Tuesday night, listening, watching, waiting.  What will it mean, how will it feel, if we do not seeing an effort, or results, from people who want to protect this country from its darker nature?  I don’t know.  Translucent future.

Once I had my heart broken.  I had the wind knocked out of me, and then, for about a month afterward, I thought I was enlightened.

It was terrible, and it was good.  I knew there was nothing to hold onto.  I believed there was nothing I could do.  I let anyone love me.  I knew I had a good reason to feel awful, so when I felt awful, I didn’t have to question it.

It lasted a while.  It was winter, and everything seemed white, and was white.

So there could be enlightenment here, too, or somewhere in the future, not the past.  Maybe?  Maybe with the snow?  Maybe the snow will be white?

In the winter, when the cold is crude, the air can also be an unusual, complete clean.

Two years of writing legislators, over and over, making signs, walking, standing, yelling, “This is what democracy looks like.”   And always feeling like I should have been doing more.  More, what more?  Or did what I did mean anything, do anything?

Celebrating my beautiful new place in Kansas, with a crowd of happily drinking and chatting friends, carnations and roses and daisies in vases, bread and chocolates on peacock-colored dishes.

Two guests are kids, and they spend the evening making things with my art on demand.

“A unicorn.”

“A spaceship.”

“A saddle.”

“An alien.”

“A dinosaur.”

“A brush.”

They take these assignments, one by one, work furiously, and return with each piece.  A unicorn made of taped-together paper.  A spaceship from a paper towel roll.  A saddle.  An alien with antennae.  A green dinosaur.  A brush, for the unicorn’s mane, on my mantle.

Image: from “Autumn,” Charles-Francois Daubigny, Metropolitan Museum of Art.