I’m thrilled that the journal I am affiliated with, Elm Leaves Journal, is ranked 130 by the Pushcart Press.
Part of me wants to just give up my own personal “war on Christmas.” It’s not my heritage to ignore Christmas. Sure, my mother hated it. Yes, my ancestors from Germany were probably Jewish. We probably will never know. That’s something I have to live with. And if I’m not converting to Judaism (let’s face it, it doesn’t really groove with me), then why the continued resistance to the Christmas fever? My father and sister and grandmother and niece celebrate it. The fiance’s family celebrates it. Big time.
And yet, I can’t really let myself get into it. It’s not part of my perceived identity. Something about it makes me feel icky all over. Christmas trees tend towards tacky. Wreaths are such surefire cultural markers.
But the lights are so pretty. I used to love Christmas. Before I went to college I absolutely adored Christmas. (Something about learning to shed my assumptions and embrace my atheism — parts of which I learned in college.) Christmas is tied inextricably with the fondest memories of my family. If I really wanted to embrace my heritage, I would be a total Southern charmer around Christmas time, decorating the everloving shit out of this house, and hanging wreaths everywhere, and going nuts on Pinterest, and trimming a tree. I could incorporate new traditions by baking cookies and gingerbread men, something my mother never did.
And yet, I don’t get down with the Jesusy stuff. I can’t. That stuff is not for me. So it falls to be a secular holiday, which then makes it all about consumerism, which I can’t stand either. So everything traditional becomes empty.
It’s been ruined for me. It’s one of the tragedies of my life. Converting to Judaism won’t fix that. Nothing will. I cannot enjoy the holiday. It makes me anxious and gross inside. I am extremely uncomfortable with it.
And yet, this year I am embracing Xmas, as I’ve come to call it. I’m doing a themed tree — rustic white xmas. Mostly white ornaments, jute, and a big burlap bow at the top. I’m hanging wreaths and ribbons, I’m wrapping garland around the stair railing, stringing lights, baking xmas cookies. Why? Trying to be more domestic, now that I’m going to be married for this Xmas. I guess. It comes down to trying to salvage the things I like about the decorating for the holiday, and tying those to some meaning that I’ve made myself.
My future husband is also an atheist, and he is adamant that our kids won’t celebrate Xmas. But while my jury is still out on that, I’m going to celebrate the winter season here in snowy Buffalo, New York, with all the decorations I can find.
(I published this recently in an online journal. Thoughts?)
Your boyfriend’s sister is studying psychology. She says anyone in the room who doesn’t yawn when someone else yawns is a sociopath, so you fake your yawns when you notice others yawning. You sneak into the bedroom while she’s over and swallow your pills with stale water on your nightstand from the night before. You notice how the outlet in your bedroom looks like a face that is always yawning. You feel watched.
The words in your papers swim on the computer screen. You think the language of theory is like reading music. You read the chapters over and over and you begin to wonder how it ever didn’t make sense to you, like trying to remember the way it was before you could read sheet music, when the notation was an incomprehensible tangle of symbols on a plane of mysterious lines. Talking in class feels like singing. You throw in theorists’ names for tremolo, obscure terms for flourishes. You recall prior lessons as you speak. You shamefully vomit into the garbage can of an abandoned classroom. You get lost in your thoughts during the commute from campus and panic when you can’t recognize where you are, if you’ve missed your exit.
Your classmates complain of theory that they’ll never use it. You can’t imagine ever not using it. The world becomes a miasma of terminology. Nobody you talk to understands how Twitter is an illustration of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism. You start retweeting tweets that rhyme; you curate tweet after tweet that happens to be in iambic pentameter. You lose hours composing Twitter symphonies.
You believe people on Twitter start to catch on. They notice that your timeline is a long story comprised of other people’s words. You remember how your professors tell you that you have a gift of ethical engagement, yet you’ve silenced the voices of these Twitter users, severing their tweets from their contexts and forcing them into a running narrative you yourself composed. It’s similar to what critics of Ralph Waldo Emerson say: Emerson’s solipsism becomes apparent when he attempts to constrain all competing narratives under the centrality of his own voice; he violently silences the suffering of others when he uses slavery as a metaphorical device. You feel the critique. Each tweet you read has a new undertone of malice.
You feel your life has been threatened by several Twitterers. You develop insomnia, lie awake reading tweets about the small town you live in, the name of your street. You enter your empty house at night after classes with a hammer held aloft, heart pounding as you open every door, turn on every light. You frantically share your fears with your psychiatrist at every appointment with growing consternation. He prescribes you an antipsychotic to “help you get past this.” You slip into the student bathroom stall to swallow your pills. You begin to hear music and voices in the flush of the toilets, running from the tap, filtering out of the space heater in your room. They are heated conversations but you can’t make out the words. You only know people are angry.
You are late for your theory class. You approach the door and reach for the knob but you can’t make yourself go in. You are unprepared. You can’t face them. You dash into your academic advisor’s open office door. You accost him with your inability to enter your class. He watches you with masked concern, wordless. You hear your theory classmates exiting into the hallway. You crouch behind a chair in his office to hide, not noticing that the chair back has a hole in it.
“I can’t let them see I’m here,” you whisper urgently.
“I understand,” he says calmly.
You graduate Magna Cum Laude, receiving academic awards. You speak to your professors about your intent to earn a Ph.D. Your bag of medications flashes into your head. You wonder what doctoral study has done to these professors’ minds.
You tweet a photo of your diploma, destroying your anonymity. It is an admission of guilt, a paltry excuse: it was all for this sheet of paper, and now it’s over. Now if they want to come for you, they will. You delete your Twitter account.
You lose touch with your professors and take a job as an associate accountant at your boyfriend’s firm. He praises your practicality as you grieve for your academic dreams. The voices stop floating down from the ceiling fan at night. The space heater merely hums warmth. The patterns of numbers on the neatly demarcated spreadsheets warn you that everything is connected, that you are not yet safe. Yours is like the crisis in Emersonianism: all attempts to justify yourself only incriminate you further. You push it from your mind and run profit and loss reports. You enter and classify transactions from bank statements. Each day of data entry takes the edge off your fears.
You build a fortress of Excel formulas and hide behind tax returns. You discuss revenue with businesses and advise them of what can and cannot be written off as an expense. You build a new language. They will never find you here.
One of my favorite features from The Paris Review is their “Art of Fiction” series. The interesting part for me is how the interviewer sets the scene, describing the author’s office or writing loft or what have you. Here are the highlights from their interview with one of my favorite authors. “The Art of Fiction No. 39, Jorge Luis Borges.”
This interview was conducted in July 1966, in conversations I held with Borges at his office in the Biblioteca Nacional, of which he is the director. The room, recalling an older Buenos Aires, is not really an office at all but a large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber in the newly renovated library. On the walls—but far too high to be easily read, as if hung with diffidence—are various academic certificates and literary citations. There are also several Piranesi etchings, bringing to mind the nightmarish Piranesi ruin in Borges’s story, “The Immortal.” Over the fireplace is a large portrait; when I asked Borges’s secretary, Miss Susana Quinteros, about the portrait, she responded in a fitting, if unintentional echo of a basic Borgesean theme: “No importa. It’s a reproduction of another painting.”
At diagonally opposite corners of the room are two large, revolving bookcases that contain, Miss Quinteros explained, books Borges frequently consults, all arranged in a certain order and never varied so that Borges, who is nearly blind, can find them by position and size. The dictionaries, for instance, are set together, among them an old, sturdily rebacked, well-worn copy of Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language and an equally well-worn Anglo-Saxon dictionary. Among the other volumes, ranging from books in German and English on theology and philosophy to literature and history, are the complete Pelican Guide to English Literature, the Modern Library’s Selected Writings of Francis Bacon, Hollander’s The Poetic Edda, The Poems of Catullus, Forsyth’s Geometry of Four Dimensions, several volumes of Harrap’s English Classics, Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and the Chambers edition of Beowulf. Recently, Miss Quinteros said, Borges had been reading The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, and just the night before he had taken to his home, where his mother, who is in her nineties, reads aloud to him, Washington Irving’s The Life of Mahomet.
Each day, late in the afternoon, Borges arrives at the library where it is now his custom to dictate letters and poems, which Miss Quinteros types and reads back to him. Following his revisions, she makes two or three, sometimes four copies of each poem before Borges is satisfied. Some afternoons she reads to him, and he carefully corrects her English pronunciation. Occasionally, when he wants to think, Borges leaves his office and slowly circles the library’s rotunda, high above the readers at the tables below. But he is not always serious, Miss Quinteros stressed, confirming what one might expect from his writing: “Always there are jokes, little practical jokes.”
When Borges enters the library, wearing a beret and a dark gray flannel suit hanging loosely from his shoulders and sagging over his shoes, everyone stops talking for a moment, pausing perhaps out of respect, perhaps out of empathetic hesitation for a man who is not entirely blind. His walk is tentative, and he carries a cane, which he uses like a divining rod. He is short, with hair that looks slightly unreal in the way it rises from his head. His features are vague, softened by age, partially erased by the paleness of his skin. His voice, too, is unemphatic, almost a drone, seeming, possibly because of the unfocused expression of his eyes, to come from another person behind the face; his gestures and expressions are lethargic—characteristic is the involuntary droop of one eyelid. But when he laughs—and he laughs often—his features wrinkle into what actually resembles a wry question mark; and he is apt to make a sweeping or clearing gesture with his arm and to bring his hand down on the table. Most of his statements take the form of rhetorical questions, but in asking a genuine question, Borges displays now a looming curiosity, now a shy, almost pathetic incredulity. When he chooses, as in telling a joke, he adopts a crisp, dramatic tone; his quotation of a line from Oscar Wilde would do justice to an Edwardian actor. His accent defies easy classification: a cosmopolitan diction emerging from a Spanish background, educated by correct English speech and influenced by American movies. (Certainly no Englishman ever pronounced piano as “pieano,” and no American says “a-nee-hilates” for annihilates.) The predominant quality of his articulation is the way his words slur softly into one another, allowing suffixes to dwindle so that “couldn’t” and “could” are virtually indistinguishable. Slangy and informal when he wants to be, more typically he is formal and bookish in his English speech, relying, quite naturally, on phrases like “that is to say” and “wherein.” Always his sentences are linked by the narrative “and then” or the logical “consequently.”
But most of all, Borges is shy. Retiring, even self-obliterating, he avoids personal statement as much as possible and obliquely answers questions about himself by talking of other writers, using their words and even their books as emblems of his own thought.
In this interview it has been attempted to preserve the colloquial quality of his English speech—an illuminating contrast to his writings and a revelation of his intimacy with a language that has figured so importantly in the development of his writing.
Six days ago I posted on IG about my reading Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. I skipped Interview with the Vampire, having recently viewed the film with the fiancé, and plowed right in to The Vampire Lestat. I bulldozed through it and didn’t even pause to blink before hitting Queen of the Damned like a wrecking ball. I couldn’t get enough.
I was intrigued. Rice’s ethereal veil of romance and vampiricism completely enveloped me, to my own dismay. I didn’t want to like it so much. Yet.
Then I arrived at the part of the story — spoiler alert! — where Lestat makes his dying mother Gabrielle into a vampire. This disturbed me, the way he waxed romantic about her and took her as a lover–is this true?–and never wanted to be away from her side (it was Gabrielle that abandoned Lestat for the jungles).
But for all his boy-child weeping over the lost teat, Lestat’s tale is fascinating and often philosophical. For example, I could not put the book down when Lestat, Gabrielle, and Nicolas faced Armand and the coven under Les Innocents in Paris:
“You turn to me for explanations?” [Armand] asked [Lestat]…”I could speak until the end of the world,” he said, “and I could never tell you what you have destroyed here…”
“Since the beginning of time,” he said, “these mysteries have existed…Since the ancient days there have been our kind haunting the cities of man, preying on him by night as God and the devil commanded us to do. The chosen of Satan we are, and those admitted to our ranks had first to prove themselves through a hundred crimes before the Dark Gift of immortality was given to them.”
“Before their loved ones they appeared to die,” he said, “and with only a small infusion of our blood did they endure the terror of the coffin as they waited for us to come. Then and only then was the Dark Gift given, and they were sealed again in the grave after, until their thirst should give them the strength to break the narrow box and rise.”
“It was death they knew in those dark chambers,” he said. “It was death and the power of evil they understood as they rose, breaking open the coffin, and the iron doors that held them in. And pity the weak, those who couldn’t break out. Those whose wails brought mortals the day after–for none would answer by night. We gave no mercy to them.”
“But those who rose, ah, those were the vampires who walked the earth, testified, purified, Children of Darkness, born of a fledgling’s blood, never the full power of an ancient master, so that time would bring the wisdom to use the Dark Gifts before they grew truly strong. And on these were imposed the Rules of Darkness. To live among the dead, for we are dead things, returning always to one’s grave or one very nearly like it. To shun the places of light, luring victims away from the company of others to suffer death in unholy and haunted places. And to honor forever the power of God, the crucifix about the neck, the Sacraments. And never never to enter the House of God, lest he strike you powerless, casting you into hell, ending your reign on earth in a blazing torment.”
“It is finished for my children,” [Armand] whispered. “It is finished and done, for they know now that they can disregard all of it. The things that bound us together, gave us the strength to endure as damned things! The mysteries that protected us here.”
“And you ask me for explanations as if it were inexplicable!” he said.
A very believable mythology constructed here by Rice. Her powers of “creating legend,” as her book jackets usually put it, really dazzle here. But not so much as they do when she flexes her mythological muscles in Queen of the Damned.
The epic, delicious tale of Akasha and Enkil, interwoven with the incredible story of Maharet and Mekare, left me utterly spellbound. Yes, let’s all acknowledge that Lestat’s rock stardom is extra cheesy, but Rice more than makes up for it with the final battle between Akasha and the new coven / Mekare. I really enjoyed Marius’s reasoning with Akasha, as well, and listening to Akasha’s bizarre reasoning:
“The men deserve what will happen to them. As a species, they will reap what they have sown. And remember, I speak of a temporary cleansing–a retreat, as it were. It’s the simplicity of it which is beautiful. Collectively the lives of these men do not equal the lives of women who have been killed at the hands of men over the centuries. You know it and I know it. Now, tell me, how many men over the centuries have fallen at the hands of women? If you brought back to life every man slain by a woman, do you think these creatures would fill even this house?”
“But you see these points don’t matter. Again, we know what I say is true. What matters–what is relevant and even more exquisite than the proposition itself–is that we now have the means to make it happen. I am indestructible. You are equipped to be my angels. And there is no one who can oppose us with success.”
“I shall make the rhyme or reason,” Akasha said, with a trace of anger. “I shall make the future; I shall define goodness; I shall define peace. And I don’t call on mythic gods or goddesses or spirits to justify my actions, on abstract morality. I do not call on history either!”
And then, of course, Marius comes back with his little zinger:
“Akasha, for two thousand years I have watched,” he said. “Call me the Roman in the arena if you will and tell me tales of the ages that went before. When I knelt at your feet I begged you for your knowledge. But what I have witnessed in this short span has filled me with awe and love for all things mortal; I have seen revolutions in thought and philosophy which I believed impossible. Is not the human race moving towards the very age of peace you describe?”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but the climax itself–when Mekare shows up and beheads Akasha and then feasts on her brain and heart–seemed rather, well, anticlimactic. Here was this superpower Akasha, “Queen of the Damned” per Mekare’s curse, who claimed indestructibility, and was fearsome with her psychotic plans of massacre simply because of that indestructibility, and then Mekare rises and in one blow takes her out. She didn’t struggle. There was no last cursing breath. It was just over. Hm.
Then I wonder about the culpability of Lestat for the massacres that Akasha already inspired, for the massacre in the temple and on the mountain. He witnessed if not took part in them. He himself murdered man after man. To what extent was he under Akasha’s power?
We’ll see if Lestat gets any comeuppance for his sins. I am starting The Tale of the Body Thief, and I already have Memnoch the Devil lined up after that.