all the tongues of babylon

I first learned of David Gray and online dating in the same breath. It was early in the morning, pitch black before school, and I was poking through the paper over cereal. I only read the front, Metro, and Outlook sections at the time, and in one of these was an article discussing the first forays into big, heavily-marketed online dating sites. The article described two people, one in Seattle and the other somewhere else, exchanging tentative messages and eventually the David Gray album White Ladder. The people were busy, the article said. In their early thirties, caught up in their jobs, with no time to meet people and tired of being dragged out to meet acquaintances the friend of a friend thought they might have some remote thing in common with. They were wary of this new technology but after the first couple meet-ups–perhaps the other person was in Portland? somewhere where visiting was feasible, if not an every-other-day occurrence–they seemed to be on board.

The article went on to speculate on what this might mean for the future of dating in 1999, but I had less interest in that than in the people they discussed, the way they were described and the exchange that appeared to bring them together. They seemed like people it wouldn’t be terrible if I came to resemble. Busy, dedicated, a little lonely but capable of exiting that state if enough effort was made. “David Gray, huh?” I thought. I bought the album. I loved Babylon. I made everyone switching radio stations stop when it came on. This is adult music, I thought. This is how adults approach love. He’s thinking about someone he loves and not hurting himself or anyone else over it–you will recall, then as now, that the music pedaled to teenagers tended to promote a more visceral reaction to as-yet-unrealized love interests–he’s just watching the colors of streetlights change, and kicking through leaves, and turning around on a stairway and lighting up like a christmas tree at an unexpected encounter with the object of his affection.

Can I just skip to that part? I remember thinking. The social landscape around me was heaving with the predictable nosebleed highs and death valley lows of adolescent relationships. I wanted no part of it. Couldn’t I skip to the part where we already have confidence in ourselves and the respect of those we want to respect us–to where there is already a sense of self-worth, a certain degree of security and faith–to where it isn’t always a panicky rush of grades, driver’s licenses, silly pantomimes like proms and pictures–to where the only thing on the table was what was between the two people in question? Because everything else had already been dealt with?

I can’t stress how definitive this song was for me. This guy could notice and comment on the color of a sunset without getting maudlin about it–who my age could do that? Would do that? He could return home lonely without doing anything drastic–without turning it into anger at everyone who wasn’t sleeping with him, or stultifying self-loathing that was a giant red flag to anyone with half her wits about her? And then that sudden encounter, full of simple joy. God, how I wanted to skip being a teenager. It was a language I didn’t want to learn.

Anyway, I’m having an impromptu 90s music day, so. Here you go. David Gray’s Babylon**:

** To clarify, yes, I realize that “let go of your heart / let go of your head / and feel it now,” isn’t exactly donning some grand mantle of adult restraint. But that’s not what I wanted. I was all for the letting go of this that and the other–but doing that as someone who already felt the world was a place they could navigate seemed so much different, capable of so much greater depth, than doing that as someone who didn’t know which end was up, who lacked the ability or experience to make their own major decisions in life. If you’d already managed to find what you wanted to do and who you wanted to be, I thought, wouldn’t  you then be so much better at giving yourself to someone else? Because you knew what it was you were giving?

Edit: I missed his yell. Here is the radio version where he does it:

excess

Maybe the second week of a freshman history class, my otherwise estimable teacher decide to go around the room and label people either stoic, skeptic, or epicurean. I loathed this process. Mostly because he lumped me in with the 20-or-so-others he deemed Epicureans, and what high school student isn’t hopelessly convinced they’re unique? But I also resented it because he’d only known us a handful of days, and who was he to slap us with a label before we’d even turned in a paper yet? I bristled, and it took lavish praise on papers I’d write to restore my equanimity.

But in hindsight, however uninformed his rationale, he was probably right. At least as regarded me. Because in social gatherings I am the last one to want to wrap things up, call it a night, go home, part ways…I have to actively soothe spikes of protest that arise whenever the humdrum–work, sleep, emails, bank visits, doctor’s appointments, car payments–gets called back to resume its monotonous grip on all our lives.

And it isn’t just social gatherings. When visiting in-laws, or really any relative outside my immediate family, I squirrel away at least a whole box of granola bars in my bag. Because I will be hungry. And they will not. And the women–always the women!–will comment on it. “How can you still be hungry?” “Oh no, I couldn’t eat another bite!” “What, are you eating again?” I’m used to people commenting on the fact of my eating; I don’t like it but it’s old news, and not bound to change if I keep running marathons and eating amongst those who don’t. What bothers me is the sense that you should be preserving yourself for something. Saving yourself for some fanciful future where the fact that you abstained from this one cookie, on this one day, makes you a saint, a “good girl.” Someone worthy of praise.

That day ain’t coming, folks. Get used to it.

But it even goes beyond food–the worst thing you could say to me, the biggest stab in my back, as a kid, would be “now now, settle down.” Bam. Instant mood crash. It wasn’t that I was ADD or even terribly loud or boisterous as a child. My report cards often listed “quiet” and “shy.” But dammit, if I’m going to be unguarded enough, trusting enough, to laugh outright, to run full-tilt, to risk making jokes people won’t laugh at and to expose opinions people will stomp on–if I’m putting all that out there and engaging fully, how dare you call me to task for it. I took a risk and you told me you didn’t give a damn about the effort that cost; you were just concerned about “someone getting hurt.” Well, great. No stubbed toes or blackened eyes, but you sent me right back into my damn shell. Congratulations. When I hear “settle down” now, it still feels like a slap to the face. The last time it was said to me was at a gathering where 20 or so people were jockeying for chairs, a trend arose where people kept offering the seat they’d approached to the next person, and I pushed the joke one second too far, I guess, and received the reprimand, however lightly given. My face flamed and I said not a word for the rest of the gathering.

…what I’m trying to say, however distractedly, is: excess. I keep finding myself in the position of pushing for it. Just one more game, one more drink, one more story. Don’t turn off the lights yet; don’t send everyone home. I’m always the last one to want to throw in the towel, and it’s not diligence! It’s not tenacity. It’s that this–all of this–takes effort. It takes effort. If we’re going to make it, why stop before we are fully spent? And why call each other to task for refusing to do so? What exactly do you think you’re saving me for or from? Dignity? Appearances? Stubbed toes? I’m not yours to preserve. You don’t get to pickle my fun, put it in a jar and call it a good time, memorable, just the right vintage. Memories aren’t going to ripen to a nice golden color, perfect for the plucking later. Or maybe yours will, but I know quite well what will happen to mine. So do not presume to curtail my experiences into neat little orchards ready for future nostalgic indulgence. By the time they’re ripe by your standards, my mind will already be gone.

plague autumn

I left Japan before Fukushima, but I watched friends there try to figure out what to do, how to live under the constant invisible threat every media outlet screamed at them was present among them. People described empty streets, empty trains, traveling for miles and miles outside Tokyo just to find somewhere to stay away from the radiation. One friend described huddling nervous in the cramped confines of a country inn they’d visited when I was there, making me envious with their tales of strolling through cornfields and trying every kind of wine the town had to offer. Now they paid over twice as much for accommodation in the resort town where everyone was too afraid of radiation taint to drink the wine.

I think about this as the panic over Ebola rises. I have been watching the story since July, because any time Ebola gets onto the airwaves I pay attention. I did every childhood project that wasn’t on chemical or biological warfare on the disease. The first non-fiction book I remember reading was on Ebola, and I read The Hot Zone when I was ten. I loved reading about disasters–usually natural, pertaining to tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, with a soft spot for volcano eruptions–but diseases in particular fascinated me. Since my inability to rise to the mathematical and scientific requirements of the sciences led me to table much of that interest as I grew up, I’m no longer sure what it was that drew me to the documentaries on Ebola, dengue fever, and the bubonic plague. But if the way I used to hope for a hurricane is any indication, I relished the chance to flee somewhere with my family on “an adventure.” We would all go somewhere warm and safe, and we wouldn’t have to go to school, was the thought–especially since the designated location for hurricane flight was simply “inland.” I believed in the certainty of warmth, safety and togetherness with a child’s conviction, though–not out of any exposure to actual pandemics, or to preppers who planned for them.

“Preppers” weren’t a thing, then, at least not that I knew of–and indeed I didn’t start hearing about them until first Y2K and then, later, when waves of tea-partiers and the like started burrowing underground, convinced that Obama’s election was a herald of the end-times. As the cultural love affair with zombies took off, and media outlets started playing the zombie card to get people to watch preppers in documentary form and in fiction, my interest nose-dived even further–since, as stated flatly many times, in the event of a zombie apocalypse I’d rather just die outright, thank you very much, than try to fend off the shambling hordes of humanity. Even if you managed to survive, what would be the point? You’d be this guy.

I still have no interest in prepping. But the rising tide of news, none of it good, about Ebola has painted rather plainly how childish was my obsession with disasters and the idea that everyone I loved could be safe, cocooned in a kind of permanent holiday world. I have to fly through two of the airports through which 95% of the incoming passengers from the affected countries pass. I will see my husband, my parents, my coworkers, my dogs–who aren’t safe in the eye of the public, actual diagnosis or no. I imagined my adulthood would be spent alone, perhaps with a large menacing dog for safety, in an apartment of glass, and had this come to pass I might maintain the hope of sparing those I loved with contamination. But of course now I know even had I remained as steadfastly lonely an adult as I was a teenager, I’d still, in such an event as this, have caused my dog to be put down or at least carted off to somewhere dark and lonely for an indeterminate amount of time (I still expect public outcry to doom the dog in Texas, frustrating as that is).

It is difficult to try and take in news about Ebola without being haunted by platitudes. “Enjoy the time you have,” “I’m not going to live in fear,” “Don’t let the media tell you how to feel,” etc. That is what people used to say when the terror alert level took on tinges of scarlet. Usually they were people I respected and otherwise strove to please, so I tried to make their platitudes slide past with little friction within the doggedly conspiracy-free mindset in which I worked. The way they talked was not without its overtones, however inadvertent, of dickish machismo: “Only cowards fear terrorist attacks.” “What, you’re afraid of anthrax? Don’t be one of the sheeple, man.”

But I didn’t plan on an adulthood where my heartstrings would be on the line. And if I am the cause of any of the very many threads of humanity I care about being cut, that is not okay. It will never be okay. No platitude–of another variety, then, the “it wasn’t your fault,” and “there was nothing you could do,” and “no one could predict this”–will make it be okay. I have no great wish to die, but I expect the fever would render my brain into pulp in short order, so I wouldn’t have to endure much pain. If I had to watch others go, though? People I loved? Knowing (or even not) I am the reason they are sick?

I fear that, yes. And I am justified in doing so.

divine disappointment

What caught my attention in this poem is what, upon further research, drove me away:

Still it’s just too great a responsibility to lure the souls
From where they lived attentive to the idea of the hummingbird, the chair, and the star.
To imprison them within either-or: male sex, female sex,
So that they wake up in the blood of childbirth, crying.

That is the last of it, and I sat up, my boredom over the opening’s 1960s dithering over symbols and signs (not because it’s not important but…come on, talk about something else for a change!) forgotten. I get cagey when people want to talk about gender–people whose stance I don’t already know well, anyway. Conversations about gender tend to disappoint. They start out all collegial and exploratory, and before you know it your pal is ranting to you about how bisexual people are greedy sex hogs, or how “everyone falls into this category or this category, they just don’t know it.” Or how not liking labels is “a thing,” probably the fault of hipsters, and as such, deserving of scorn. Or how any non-cis people are just trying to game the system. Or how they’re just part of the grand unifying theory of why you can’t get laid.

Yeah. Stuff like that.

Reading Milosz’s description of the dichotomy as imprisoning, then, had my immediate attention. Which made discovering the religion-laden roots of his reflection so disappointing. Really, sir? Do you have to? “The divine androgyny?” Must you depend upon the hackneyed crutch of godliness to find value in anything?

Worse, this isn’t just a shade of meaning he ascribes to the between-spaces, it’s the only acceptable interpretation of androgyny for him, if the quote he accompanied his 1986 collection can be said to inform on this at all:

Consequently, the whole of creation is FEMALE, and the love of the Lord for himself in creation is the love of man for woman, and the return to God is Conjunction or Marriage…

Are you kidding me? As I recall, your beloved god is the guy who’s really not a big proponent of loving yourself. In any sense of that word. Whether it’s entrenching adolescent cluelessness about one’s own body in a boundless morass of guilt and self-loathing, or soft-selling vampire/cannibal-fetishizing rituals as the only way to wash away ALL THE EVIL THAT YE MOST UNDOUBTEDLY ARE, YE VILE CREATURE, Christianity isn’t exactly known for promoting a positive self-image amongst its constituents. Also, ascribing godhood to the male half of your hopelessly simplistic gender binary, while “the whole of creation’s” (oh, you know, that sinful, hate-yourself-until-you-give-money-to-us-to-make-it-go-away whole of creation, that one) lot as that of “FEMALE,” is just embarrassing. You should be better than that.

So, well, hell. I was so much more on board with your poetry before I got to read its interpretation–not just someone else’s guesses (which could be written off as only one of many readings, its true), but indications, in your own hand, of the stock you put in a poetic reality grossly different from that which I believed you to be trying to describe.

Dammit, Czesław Milosz.