Friday, May 28, 2010

Early Research Breakdown

I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of Kerouac and Ginsberg because they are striving to understand how to know themselves, their personal relationships, and the society they operate within, or against. A large part of this struggle is the quest to master the idea of being and being seen within this nation. Like the New Critics, they are striving for truth, and Kerouac seems to believe he can gain a sense of himself and the world through a physical and spiritual exploration of America. American literature is marked by an urge to pioneer, to discover and determine and Kerouac joins a long tradition of looking to the west with hope.
He explores the wilderness of the unknown to reinvent himself. I see a thread of fashioned selves in American literature, and a communal aspiration to become what one is not yet, to imagine an identity and then assume it. The immigrant status of almost all members of the nation freed us to create in this way, and the physicality of the land helped. I believe the giant expanse of unseen America is a huge part of the literary tradition. The size of the nation is a part of the
national identity and the unknowability of so many parts plays a key role in American-ness. Each American writer is aware that they live within a community that must be alien to others within the country. How does this affect their sense of self? I won’t necessarily focus exclusively on the concept of the nation, but the idea of America will at least influence my research. I want to dig into the way the Beats’ visions of themselves can relate to more recent literary works.

I started off my research during the end of the Spring Semester at which point I had an inkling that I’d like to write something about someone in the Beat Generation. I loved Howl when I read Ginsberg in college and was otherwise completely new to all literary and historical aspects to the period. My first two sources were overviews. First, A Cultural Chronology of Early Beat Generation Literature 1944-1960 on the blog The Beat Page, which was a timeline of key political, international, literary, musical and pop culture events that occurred each year from 1945 until 1960. My second was a copy of The Americans, Robert Frank’s book of photography with a forward by Kerouac. I read through the listing of historical happenings and started to get excited as I started to get an idea of everything happening in America when these ambitious-for-life boys were writing: Mccarthyism, steel protests and national strikes, Cold War Fear, racial tensions and the civil rights movement… I looked through Frank’s photographs and felt like I was catching glimpses of vibrantly alive moments in the dusty bop-ridden canvas of America in 1955 and 56. After a bit more reading and now in between the piles of library books on my desk, I’ve got a long list of possibilities.

You can’t read about the Beat Generation without quickly encountering a note that the label was created by Jack Kerouac, and that it is not exactly accurate, since the ‘generation’ consists of a small social group, not a whole generation of people. Kerouac’s early proclamation of his generation was met with a huge amount of hype and many voices of dissent, which scoffed at the central figures and the writing and coined the term beatnik. I am interested in this preemptive labeling and the idea that Kerouac was knowingly creating a self-enforcing trend, with the insight that the label would help create what it described. This posturing is connected to a lot of what goes on in Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The group’s interest in Herbert Huncke fascinates me, he is a member of the underclass and he seems like a character to him, the kind of person who Neal Cassidy can really dig. He seems to have an advantage in ‘real’ experience over the others because he is a drug dealer and a member of the underclass. They see experience as the supreme meaning; it is almost Godly. There are Marxist implications to their choice to leave the middle class comfort for the experience of hobos and drifters and the unprivileged. Kerouac scrounges for money and work and goes hungry for days, but when his sense of adventure is gone he writes his mother to get her to wire him $50. Their destitute is play poverty. I thought I’d focus on the idea of hypervisibility and appearance and its relation to the spiritual. This might particularly be relevant what I read Desolation Angels, a book written about the fame that Kerouac experienced after On The Road was published, within which I may observe the implications of being seen.

I have another idea that I wanted to propose, though I don’t know if it has any merit. I thought I might compare Zuckerman Bound by Philip Roth to Desolation Angels by Kerouac. But... I’d hate to waste my project drawing an obvious connection or one that is completely off base. Perhaps I might try and compare the Zuckerman Unbound trilogy to Kerouac’s road novels: On The Road, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody. That’s my new idea for the topic, my original was to focus on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and to try to find a more recent text for me to compare it with.

This is the second big idea I have, which is centered on Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg from that period. The change in structure, meter, and the phonic attributes of Howl are intriguing to me. I know the poem’s formal composition is considered rebellious like its content, and the form has been said to form the true voice of the time, unencumbered by what the Beats saw as outdated forms and meaningless grammatical rules. I might look at the differences between his free and explicit style and the materialist and media-saturated world that Ginsberg lived in; in which advertising, television, news, and impersonal urban society stood in for human intimacy and appearances subsumed usurp the place of the real. Again I wanted to explore these issues of the ‘real’ versus the fake and postmodern ideas of questionable meaning, simulacrum, and meta-literature. I would find a novel or poem or maybe even a historical moment to look at in comparison to Howl.

I’m eager to get going, get more specific, get comfortable with something being my one and only topic for the summer. At the least I have a huge number of books to get through so if there isn’t much here I might stumble across it in the days to come.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting Started with The Beats

I'm nervous typing something out without 3 or 4 drafts of editing. That's because almost everything- neh- Every-Single-Thing- on this blog is a draft that has been picked over- they are pieces of art. This little rant? Not so much. However- the idea of having no venue for getting my thoughts out of my head is too scary- unpolished here I come.

Does anyone have any advise for someone who is exploring the Beat Poets for the first time? I have read lots by Allen Ginsberg, work that I loved failing to put my finger on- and now I'm using the summer to write some literary scholarship- probably on the Beat Poets. I'm trying to cultivate my sense of Americanness. I am more aware of it than I was before I lived in England for three years-but I still can't nail it down. Reading, watching on HBO, and helping backstage for Tony Kuchner's Angels in America excited me in a way I still don't quite understand. I want to peer at it some more- this nation. I think I want to see the sense of America from different eras-and Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, a lot of these names were frightened by/fascinated/disgusted/enamoured of this country.

I'm starting with Kerouac's introduction in The Americans, a hugely influential book of photography by Robert Frank. Kerouac, who I have somehow never read, has a fantastic rolling voice, and I'm about to dive into the book of photos. I want to get a sense of the time period before I get into the heady scholarly debate.

The Practice of Waiting

A draft that I'm thinking about converting, working certain elements into a short fiction story.
Very not done- the second half of it is completely absent

My street looks like a snow globe tonight. The air is warm and the snow of past hours has merged into a colorless, crunch-less pulp beneath my boots. The streetlights pick up a swirl of huge lazy flakes tossed against gravity in every direction. It gently coats everything, what was this morning a growling work vehicle is renamed as a part of the landscape. Everything ceases without a whimper or groan and I am alone in this world of hush, silently sifting through the tents of aged light towards home. If I could imagine another in this dark and sepia toned snapshot, I might picture myself through their eyes, a tilted face and a dark figure dwarfed by the sameness dripping down from the sky. Before I stumbled into this non-city I was walking briskly off the Orange Line and shuffling in my black jacket past the waves of other dark coats making their way to Forest Hills.

The music crackling from the headphones of the girl sitting next to me had been stunted by the clamor of machinery. Sitting in the rattling tube with fifty strangers inches away, I wrapped myself in my separateness, closing a door between me and the present company, and choosing to turn this sticky seat into my work chair. I only wasted a moment or two after the train began to shake us home before I had pulled out some of my papers, and began slashing incorrect answers and reaching around in the air for encouraging statements to precede my advice for the freshmen in my class. I was stuffing completed quizzes in one folder, drawing fresh, unspoiled papers from another. I had parceled out my time in as much as I can get done in any moment, hundreds of little projects matched to just meet all the deadlines peppered in the landscape of my future. My brain, meanwhile, reached into the future, planning my next moves once the train pulls into my station, once my walk up the monumental hill has stolen my breath, once I could sigh and sit and stop for a second. And then start working again, typing away at my desk, waiting for when I allow myself to let go and tumble into my bed.

My walk from my station is normally a sensory pothole, a jarring mix of unpleasant sensations squatting down between my A and B. I avert my eyes, nose, fingertips and ears from cat calls, frigid wind and the sickly sweet breath on street corners. Tonight, my winged shields are unneeded, and the snow has nudged and realigned my defensive autonomy. I pass the echoing playground on my left and breathe an unmeasured taste of the night. I can remember days exploring another jungle gym, this one rimmed in lime green paint. I spent my time in elementary school in perpetual awe of the Main Street Middle School students. They were on my walk to and from school, and everything about them was LARGE and fantastic. The school they poured out of was a huge building of four stories, and the students were chic and self-assured as far as I could tell. The girls were pretty and shapely, and the boys were tall and actually had muscles. I’d watch in admiration when I saw mixed sex groups wandering toward downtown laughing and even touching each other. I knew, from Saved By the Bell, that their lives were full of practical jokes, near disasters, dramatic dating antics, and maybe a little schoolwork too. I could barely wait to be a cool and attractive middle schooler, a wise and accomplished adult of twelve. When that disappointment came and went, and I was still the awkward, too-tall, half-Asian girl that couldn’t figure out which Spice Girl to play, I kept looking forward. The parts of my life that were vain and silly and shallow expected, so surely, the arrival of the Hallmark moments at each birthday. For certain body parts to arrive; perk up. Self-confidence never grinned back from that mirror, I had to take it and fight my own tooth and nail, insisting I belong here and will be happy about it, damnit. I’m still working on that cool chic ideal I once watched scamper out of the middle school.

I feel lighter at the top, the flutter in my bright apartment seems far away. From here, the pressures untangle themselves. Before I had these months and years of little increments and a tantalizing horizon of the end of waiting, I had a few Vermont summers, a barista’s apron, and gatherings to explore in peeling barns and smoke filled coal cellars. My mind was sharp and my mouth ready to spread in an incredulous half grin looking up into the eyes of broad-backed young men. I remember nights at the parties that spread across an entire field under more stars than Boston has ever seen, a car stereo crackling, kegs tapped, and EVERYONE there celebrating and skinny dipping and laughing and passing out, passing from elation to nothingness in a moment.

And I remember my first taste of fervor. Evan was a beautiful boy, and I just loved to look at him. I fell for him the first time I noticed him, in a hallway between classes, the truest representation of love I’d seen yet. When I opened the door I interrupted Evan and Carmen exchanging a kiss as they parted ways for 50 long minutes. They pecked each other on the cheek, and Evan ran his hands up and down her arms like he was warming her. They looked at each other for a drawn out breath and parted ways. I was stunned, and hurried off, leaving my mind, that was so useless in Calculus anyways, perched in that hallway, mesmerized. It was the simple sweetness of it, the lack of ostentation, of lust that superseded most romances in my high school. The sweetness of the exchange that I interrupted surprised me more than seeing the girl in the grade above me getting cozy with a boy two years younger than her. Wow. That’s what I want.

At the time, it was not Evan that I wanted, but his sweetness, from someone who would be just as astounded by me. Eventually the outing club made us friends, and Carmen was off at college, presumably out of the picture. And that yearning came back, stronger and more urgently once I knew Evan and decided one of my favorite things in the world was to look at him. Which was nothing compared to having him look at me. I persisted in my addiction for months, knowing he wasn’t over Carmen, but I sustained my end of the gaze for both of us, waiting for his eyes to clear and know me.

And then something amazing happened, and he reciprocated. I was so used to grasping, I couldn’t decide what to do when he slipped his arm down to cover mine. I would pull away and sneak peaks when he bent to kiss me.

What can I say to impress him? I’ll play dynamic and confident tonight.

I was not good enough so I pieced together what I wanted to be; what he wanted. I turned my gaze inward and created “me”, the one that shined and flowed with planned spontaneity. The pauses grew. I had nothing to say and I could feel the creases in my foundation. I never cringed, even if my flaking words might have.

What’s wrong? Why can’t I do this?

And then something terrible happened, and despite my anxiety and plastic smiles, he changed his mind, when I still couldn’t hold him like the shadow of her. He left and our relationship changed only a little after that day. We were friends. No, he was a friend, I was planning, patient, flirting. A manipulator. I was hoping for months. I pushed and tried myself to exhaustion. He still wanted to be around and I was more than happy to be there. I wanted to grab that thread and will myself further. I wanted to hoist myself up by that thin string and climb back into being with him. But the future I wanted evaded me, until I could barely remember why my need was so urgent. I waited myself out. I had to turn my head again, reposition it towards something or somewhere else. I chose Canada and University and the steps leading towards here, the doorstep of my apartment and the beautiful man waiting for me inside. Those red hot days of desperation faded into the Vermont landscape of looming mountains and dipping stars.

I fumble with the lock, the cold seizing my hand as I shove forward and leave the stagnance of the aimless beauty behind me. If I step back and consider all my accomplishments and all my experiences, I would say I am an experienced and able practitioner of waiting. I’ll bide my time with jumbled responsibilities that keep my muscles aching and straining. I’ll take a kiss on my forehead and turn back to the glow of my screen and look forward to you, someone who returns my gaze.

Over The Wall

A fiction essay written in December 2009

The wind sweeps my hair across my face as I walk down the dark cobblestone streets, fixated on each step, absorbing the distinct feel of York at night. The city center echoes with pop music, shouting, and singing; it’s like a playground for those who spend all week in suits. The bars and pubs swell with bass thumping and light pours out onto us as we walk quietly by. To our left, a window displays its wares: a group of men in striped button-up shirts grabbing each other around the shoulders and the waists, swaying, drinking and belting out Oasis anthems. They’re out on the pull, they are boys’ boys, their conversations are punctuated with raucous laughter every other moment as they joke and argue about football and sex. Further down, near the looming shape of the Minster, we pass a group of drunk women, decked out in glitz, who lean on each other as they navigate spiked stilettos between the uneven cobblestones to the next stop on the bar crawl. Their legs shoot up to the fringed edge of tiny skirts, leather and denim, their heels towering, their makeup artfully glowing in the dark spaces between watering holes. Our sneakers bridge the gap between two stones, stepping quickly back into the darkness.

They rush in to order before last call. They rush to work and to spend, a whirl of purpose: sets of small, attainable goals. They enjoy themselves, enjoy the things they have, are satisfied within the moment. The scene of their lives is the office or the bar or the store or the sex, untouched by the things that do not brush up against their arms, they navigate a straight unbroken path, a wall of trees at their sides, blocking the view. We catch fleeting snap shots of their night through the foggy windows as we walk by. Like moments captured in a strobe light.

The light and sound pours out into the dark and damp street, and it feels counterintuitive to ignore these beacons of amusement and pleasure to pass them towards more dark. We could go that way; we could enter and trace the path that promises ease and the company of many travelers whose feet have marked this way through the forest.

My friends, who walk beside, behind, and in front of me steer me on past the parties. Noah and I fall into step, our stride stretched as wide as possible without tipping over, balancing from stone to stone.

The first time I met Noah’s family was a few months into my time at York, heading home to Vermont by way of London. Noah invited me to stay for the few days I had after term ended and before my flight left. His mom, like mine, is a little, red-headed, Irish nurse. Siobhan Riley was visibly disappointed to learn that my mom wasn’t “real Irish”; she can only boast Irish parents, American style. Noah, his two solid muscular brothers, and I crowded around the little table in Siobhan’s kitchen. She was heating up mince pies in the oven while asking me about my parents, my professors, Noah’s behavior in the classes we shared.

“Do you want some mince pies? No, Deirdre? How about you Noah?”

“No, thanks mum, I’m full.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have two, they are very good.”

She plops two little mince pies onto a plate and puts it down next to Noah. As she turns back to her cooking, two husky hands dart out and maneuver the pies away.

“Mum, Noah wants more mince pies.”

She scolds him for not telling her to heat up more, and warms another set of pies, again these are stolen by his elder brothers, again they demand more through Noah, the baby, who can have as many pies as they want.

Our friendship began as a dual narcissistic fascination because we are so similar. A fellow English nerd and ex-victim of Catholic school, with a mostly silent doctor father figure. In the wake of their quiet influence and hordes of Catholic guilt, we’ve used the same buzz of chatter, and always had a lot to talk about. After the first blush of enjoying each other’s jokes, music and trudging across campus to classes together, we became confidants. My old heartbreak. His new girlfriend. How useless our degrees will probably be. How we’d like to be creative and successful and famous all at once and don’t think we will.

We are a clump of glitterless friends, booze and drug laden and excitable, plotting our adventure. We are passing by these warm and bright spots in the night, and even their transient presence enhances the sense that we walk through a dark, damp cavern, with stone on all sides and the raucous cheers echoing far along the winding streets within the city gates. Tall walls, battlements and a barbican ring York’s center. The city’s streets and buildings are tightly drawn around itself with corridors of stone that lead to the towering Minster or the impending city walls. York is one of the most conquered cities in one of the most conquered countries in the world, once a political hotspot that drew the attention of the armies of Danes, Romans, Vikings, Normans and Saxons. The city today is a patchwork of each people who once occupied its walls. The stones laid by each of these warring civilizations surround us completely and send tendrils of echoes of each of our steps; amplifying our excitement, our hushed anticipation.

Up ahead, we see Pizza Express, a chain encased in another edifice that is centuries old, that sits right across from the Yorkshire Museum Gardens. During the day the Museum Gardens is another tourist draw for my college town, helping to ensure that the streets are always flooded with many British, European, and Asian tourists. During the day the gardens are packed with foot traffic, children are everywhere, in prams and racing across the grass. Visitors wander around St Mary’s Abbey, idle near the River Ouse and partake of the vendors selling lemonade and bratwursts. That’s during the day. Tonight the gardens are silent, dark, glistening with dew and potential. We are caged without by a tall dark iron fence and the street outside of Pizza Express is well lit, littered with streetlamps. A quick examination of the fences shows that they could be climbed, despite their twelve-foot height. A foot here, a hand here, lifting to give way for the other foot, a hand clasping the top of the fence spike, and the same way down the other side. We gather by the fence, casting sideways glances around us and begin to climb in a few different spots along the street, an organized procession like ants ascending a wall. Purses are thrown through the bars, breaths are held in, and the lapsed Catholic boys instinctively cross themselves as they balance with one leg horizontal to the ground, their crotch poised directly above the menacing spikes atop the fence. I stand on the street side, watching my friends- artists, potheads, hippies, musicians and actors- scale the fence in quick disciplined movements, a posture I’m not likely to see again. I can’t quite enjoy Ollie’s uncharacteristically serious expression as he considers his next step down because I am dangerously one of the last on the street and visible. Hesitation is definitely not the safest course of action, and in that moment my glimpse of this spectacle is gone.

I can see Ben and Dave retreating from the light that drains through the bars; I know Ella is with them from a low hoot from the inky space beyond the fence. I walk up to the bars, notching my foot in the first horizontal joint about three feet from the ground, grabbing the upper joint. I hoist myself up, stretching my other foot up to my hand’s level. I transfer my weight and center myself, standing for one crystallized moment above the fence, fifteen feet from the ground. I’d love to look around from up here, into the dark and inviting gardens, or maybe back on the town. I don’t. Swinging my legs over quickly I am on the other side of the fence, stepping down lightly, and, like my friends before me, retreating quickly from the last lingering risk of the streetlights.

Done! Check, check, check. My eyes resist the varying shades of darkness around me and I blink and stumble towards the sounds of my friends. Delicious illicit adrenaline races the rounds of my veins now as I consider my unlawful entry. I turn back to appraise my handiwork. Very nice. Tall, scary iron fences, are no match for me. The grounds are beautiful, cloaked in stillness that we promptly stomp though as we explore. We wander around for a while, rediscovering the art that bespeckles the grounds. A group sits down in a loose circle, passing a bowl, and I grab Sam for a swig of his flask. Blood still pumping with my gleeful naughtiness, I pull a clipboard out in my mind and add a line to the slowly growing list of things I’m going to try at least once. A trace of self-satisfaction infuses my smile. Done!

“What are you grinning about, monkey?”

I shrug at Noah, still grinning, and hand the flask back and skip off. He knows me too well; if I give him a chance to guess he’ll read me like a book and then mock me relentlessly. Our banter is dry and harsh, where almost everything said is okay because it’s a joke.

When Noah and I got into our first fight we ended up crying in a haze of tobacco smoke, throwing around words like soul mates.

I’d been feeling the buzz of the night, my castmates, the cocktails running through me, and talking to Jake Canton Powell about sex. We were out with our favorites in the cast of The Tempest, Noah’s production. I played Ceres, one of Prospero’s spirits whose only long-winded speeches took place in the marriage scene that Noah ended up cutting. The scene didn’t add much of anything to the three hour-long performance. Still, it cut me back from Ceres to spirit #3. Jake was playing a small part that involved swinging a sword around. He was a freshman but only a year younger than me/ He had a bit of an infatuation with me, and my head was buzzy with pleasantness besides.

I was sitting next to Jake, speaking in a slight undertone about my interpretation of sex noises, a subject I wouldn’t broach sober. I launched into my thoughts on the matter, and felt the press of an outsider on my eyelids. My face was turned down to the table; I was diplomatically laying out intimate details with the considered detachment of a scientist when I glanced up to my other avid audience member, Noah. I was apparently not drunk enough to be proclaiming my theories on screams versus moans to the entire bar because shame colored my cheeks as I met Noah’s gaze.

“Wait, so you’re saying that when a girl’s tone is all squeaky--"

I silenced Jake with an embarrassed smile and jerk of the head and waited for Noah to lose interest. Well it’s not like I wanted to have this conversation with him! We talked about, well, everything, surface impressions of York Uni, the anxious moments of social awkwardness, his insecurities, mine. Our conversations trekked all over my sometimes showy nature and the related decision to get my undergraduate degree in England, his tendency to dive stomach first into love, and to go crazy with jealous from time to time. We’ve probably been over this exact subject over a drink or two while we hid from our respective significant others and laugh at the absurdity of sex, of love.

But his eyes were making me lose my footing on the gravelly precipice of my self-confidence because I probably wouldn’t be talking about this, this way, to Polly, a girlfriend who borders my other side. Jake’s a guy, a cute young boy who I’m not at all interested in and I can hear a little voice in my head saying that I’m making an ass of myself. And another, whispering that I’m making a bit of an ass of Jake by toying him along, dangling talk of intimacy in front of him, like a joke, just because it’s gratifying. And both voices in my head are Noah’s.

And he won’t look away and Jake keeps trying to pick the shite-stained conversation up from the table I kicked it under. I want to whisper to Noah, “Don’t listen, stop listening this isn’t for you.”

“Go away we’re just having a fun, slightly charged, conversation.”

“It’s boring, I’m being an idiot.”

“It’s stupid I’m being a bitch.”

Instead I draw myself up, look sarcastically, searching his face. I make an impatient sound in my throat:

“What?…. What?!... Fuck off and die, yeah?”

He doesn’t understand what I didn’t say, only the rude, hurtful thing I did say. He gets very angry, shouting and saying nasty things in a sour voice I don’t recognize. All the while blowing smoke into my face. I am shocked by the vehemence of his anger; by the things he’s saying and only briefly try to explain that I didn’t mean it before I get angry too. He gets angrier. We storm out separately. Luckily we can’t ignore it, really let it fester for a few days, because we live together, and dealing with this is contingent to going home.

We end up having to talking it out: why I was feeling exposed, and judged, and lashed out, but expecting him to laugh. How he was sitting there feeling disconnected and unsure of himself and then turned to me, wanting to chat, wanting some support, wanting to voice his binding insecurities so that I could laugh them off, turn them inside out and discard them in the corner. Why it felt like I’d slapped him in the face right when he already felt so raw, how he can’t believe that I was the one humiliating him in front of his cast. I said I didn’t plan on it being nasty whereas his response was a conscious effort to hurt me back. He said that I hurt him first, unprompted. But not on purpose, by accident! But still hurtful! And we talked in circles, we gave in, made allowances, and let go of each other’s offenses as we released each drag of smoke into the air. He said he thinks of me as his closest friend, he expects me to always understand the core of him through and through, and that’s why he flipped out when I said that. I said, he’s right. I do see him.

And now I skip away from his line of sight towards the dim silhouettes at the periphery of my vision. I jog over to the dark huddle I can make out far across the lawn. Vices aside, my friends are all business. They divide into teams, go over the rules once, twice, a third time, and set the boundaries. Ella inches forward from the protection of her ranks, and in a harsh, carrying whisper, “GO!” and my friends begin to stealing forward into enemy territory in our midnight game of Capture the Flag.

I want to give myself up to the exhilaration, the thrill and rush of competition but it doesn’t take long for this expectation to flounder, the promise to fall away, for me to realize that none of these Brits are playing right. A quick survey tells me that the game has fallen into disarray. I pull in the park with a deep breath and wander down the slow sloping hill following the path down towards a crowd of trees. And here’s Noah sitting underneath the weeping beech, a large sprawling tree house of a tree, complete with separate spaces and curtains.

“Hey. What’s up, Noah?”

“Hey. Come here.”

I walk towards the trunk of the tree, where Noah is sitting alone and quiet while the chaos of the splintering game clatters around us.

“What are you doing under here, creeper? Meditating?”

“Please. C’mon, sit down, hang out for a minute.”

I lower myself down and my head tilts up instinctively to greet the full moon peering through a slit in the branches around us. The Gardens are worth it. The risk itself might have seemed worth it, but the reward of this locked up wonderland has eclipsed the achievement. Though fenced in, the gardens surrounding the museum are open for acres. The moon is out, I couldn’t see it in the tightly wound streets of the city, nor the wisps of clouds racing in and out of view across its face. Moisture clings to the whole grassy slope; the dew angel I made after the climb has adorned me with the glitter I lacked before. It’s nice to be still. The ground is dry here and the abbey ruins are illuminated to our right, grass lined shapes that just suggest the colossal monastery that later became a King’s palace, that later became the arena for our haphazard war game.

From under the tree we are at once protected from view and watching, able to witness our friends stalking each other, succumbing, and rushing off again into the safety beyond the hill. Unseen, I can watch Dave creep down the slope and hide behind a shadowy tree trunk waiting as Ella wanders closer and closer to his perch. I grin as Ella yelps with terrified delight, shoving Dave away and sprints after his giggling form. Noah passes the flask to me and turns, placing his gaze on me, low laughter rumbling in his voice.

“Did you see those girls near Dusk?

“Nah, drunk?” I pass the flask back.

“Umm, yea. We walked by this one girl whose standing in an alley totally spread out. She is literally stretching herself as wide and large as possible, with a face on her that is completely casual. Which, obviously, looks really weird, so I’m staring at her and I see her friend crouching down behind her. And this girl, instead of concentrating on what she’s doing, or looking down or facing the wall or something, this girl is looking straight at me, totally nonplussed. She’s just as casual as her friend, peering up at me with these big eyes like she’s not doing anything. Totally innocent, like I can’t see pee streaming down under her skirt. Nothing to see here. I’m just crouching in an alley. Really.”

We’re both laughing now, making the peeing face at each other.

Beyond the laughs and the tears, Noah is a point of comfort in this foreign country. I have no real roots here; all my ties are new and flimsy. He has been someone I could lean on, if and when I need it. Noah feels like a favorite sibling, our loyalty is deeper than common likes, common interests. When we fight we end up crying all over each other because we’re upset that we are upset with each other.

My mom was nervous about me being 3,000 miles away, and liking it. Prodding her for reasons, she once exclaimed, “You’re going to fall in love and get married and never come back!!” Luckily for her, my long-term relationship here fizzled out after a little more than a year, and the break up had left me with no pain, some guilt, and a dizzying sense of relief. 6 months later, my eyes still skim over reasonable-type men, and I wouldn’t consider a real relationship if I tripped over my future husband in the street. Mom wins, I’ll be heading back at the end of this year. And Noah will be my best friend in college, my best friend in England, my was best friend.

“What are you looking at, Yee?”

“Nothing! Gimme that flask.”

I try to press my fingers into the matter around me, to be still again. I look back over at the abbey. I take a quick swig, and lean back and eye the moon again. Noah is looking at me out of the corner of his eyes.

“I guess I’m just thinking about this night, and it being a story later, being a retelling only. And we’re here now and I want to draw it all in, really appreciate it, make a movie in my head that has every taste and breeze and feeling all wrapped up in it, that I can take out and have again. And I don’t want to go back to America and resign all of this to the past, I want to stay at this point, or at least have a clear picture of it. But then I look at that tiny fragment of a wall and I know that this right here is not a moment in its history, it doesn’t even exist in moments, it exists in centuries. And in a few of its moments I will be old and fat and won’t remember the name of this place, or who I came here with, or any of it. And it’ll be the same, maybe an inch or two eroded.”

“Or maybe Ollie will kick it down tonight and destroy it forever. Poof!”

I half smile, but my point is still not made. Not even to me. What am I clinging to?

“Cheer up, Puppet! When you’re old and fat and don’t remember being here, you won’t remember that you are forgetting something.”

“But what if I do? What If I forget and remember that I’ve forgotten it?”

“At least it’ll be a story. And you were here. So you are in its history, really. But I mean, come on, it’s just a bit of rock. It’s not sentient. It doesn’t care, it doesn’t have or want, or anything. And at this point it doesn’t really do anything either, does it? It’s in your story now, that’s all.”

We sit some more passing the flask and talking for a long time while the wind blows and the moon shines down. This moment can’t really end because it already has and hasn’t. If I made a movie I would end it at some point, moment closed, memory complete. Maybe no one will ever be stuck as what they were. Maybe 3,000 miles isn’t that far. Maybe I won’t remember what I’ve lost in time, once I’ve lost it. Maybe not. But we keep talking and drinking and remembering and never quite forgetting about our return trip over the spiked fence.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fakery and Farce Play Out in Shrew

My review of Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of The Taming of the Shrew, published October 20, 2009:

Actors’ Shakespeare Project opens its sixth season with a light, funny and modern production of The Taming of the Shrew, swelling with hoaxes and mockery. In this, one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, we witness a male world of competing and bidding for, winning and taming the perfect wife. The clashing chauvinism of the plot is diminished by the farcical treatment of many of the arrogant wife tamers. We enjoy a play within a play with many layers of assumed identities that lead to hilarious asides throughout, and a surprise ending in which the two most put upon characters outface the fakers.

The production opens with a practical joke played on the drunken rogue, Christopher Sly. Perpetrated by the staff at a speak-easy, Sly wakes from a stupor with an abundance of fake success: social, financial and marital. Convinced that he is a Lord, Sly is presented with a busboy dressed in drag for his wife, and a performance of players who happened to wander into the scene of his prank. ASP expands Sly’s role from the original script. Instead of an insipid, duped drunk who dozes off during the first Act, he is captivated by the performance, stealing lines from the actors and finally jumping into the action. Sly assumes the role of the witty and pretentious Petruchio and secures the prize most coveted by the men in this play—a loving and obedient wife.

Director Melia Bensussen ingeniously maneuvers around the disappearance of Sly after Act I. The beggar who awakes to find himself suddenly surrounded by riches demands some sort of resolution, whether a discovered respectability for this rogue or a return to his former misfortunes. Shakespeare has left us without resolution, and the intriguing induction to the play feels abruptly truncated. By incorporating Sly into the performance, ASP gives the audience answers while remaining true to the text. This also allows Benjamin Evett, who takes the role of Sly in this production, to live up to his character’s name. This device demands that the artifice of the play be constantly reinforced; the players, the busboy, the bartender and the proprietor are all acting. These double or triple parts accentuate the role of imitation and pretense in Shrew. By adding layers of fakery, the production allows for a new perspective on Kate’s final speech of submission and Christopher Sly’s wordless disappearance....

Read on at

Mouth The Words

An essay on faith that is a very, very rough work in progress

I knew my hair was slipping slowly and steadily out of my hair tie. I knew that I had forgotten all my pens in the cup on my desk. My socks didn’t match, my coat was way too heavy and I didn’t care. This morning I was supposed to have woken up with the alarm at 8:00 A.M. and taken a quick shower, gathered my things and trekked across campus to the library. I was supposed to have settled in the rows of stacks, gathered about ten books of critical analysis and to have pushed through them. I was supposed to have done four hours of work already. I was not supposed to be hurrying along to the library in the bright light of midday.

My essay was half formed in my head, scratched out notes in my binder, pieces of thoughts underlined and starred, I had a focus and I needed some serious research; I needed to have spent the morning digging into Russian Symbolist Theatre instead of drooling on my pillow.

Late late late late. Meyerhold’s relationship with the MAT and Stanislavski. Hungry. I would get something at the Fresher’s Café next to the library. I was bounding away from James College towards the bridge that crossed the duck-filled lake. Did I have my post-its? Distracted, I hunched over one of my bags, rooting around as I drew closer to my studious goal. Post-its in hand, I looked up just in time to not barge over the smiling girl planted in front of me. Jerking to a halt, I exhaled a stumbling apology. I squashed my instincts to compare my frazzled overloaded self with her perfect hair, clothes, composure and made to step around her. Her back-lit smile widened and she swiveled towards me, extending a hand to catch the bag that was slipping off my shoulder. Oh no, that wasn’t it, she was handing me a leaflet instead.

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

I caught my shoulder strap on the way down and pulled it up while squaring myself against the empathetic and understanding eyes before me.

“Uh, no. Sorry, I’m on the way to the library.”

“Oh, perfect! We’re having a free lunch in the Alcuin JCR, we’d love to have you join us!”

She pressed her leaflet, my leaflet now, into my hand to accompany the Post its.

“Thanks, okay. See ya.”

“Great! See you there!”

On the other side of her there was more wind to meet my face, less perkiness. At this end of the bridge I saw a handsome boy with perfect hair facing the travelers heading towards the dorms, armed with leaflets and a wide grin. He was facing the other way so I slipped by his earnestness to continue on my secular quest for theatre analysis.

In the library twenty minutes later, before diving into my books on the commedia dell arte, I checked out my present from the Christian Union.

Who was Mary Magdalene? The truth behind the DaVinci Code

Join us for a Hot Potato Lunch! Free baked potato lunch after a quick presentation by a Church leader and some Q and A! Let Jesus into your heart!

The University of York had many clubs and societies available for more than thirteen thousand students roaming the campus. Two of the orientation meetings I skipped in my overwhelming first week at the college were the Overseas Student welcome and the Christian Chaplaincy welcome. As I would learn over my next three years at York, I had opted out of the introduction to the two most powerful groups on the campus. The Oversea Student Association was popular and intimidating with socially volatile cliques of warring Asian social groups whose catfights I heard about third-hand. The Chinese, Korean, and Singaporean cliques competed for control of the OSA’s biweekly cultural events where you could find the most amazing food, dancing and karaoke talent in the entire Yorkshire area. My capricious (automatic) membership in the OSA never caused any tension, it never bothered any of the top dogs that I showed up once a month, partaking in eggrolls and leaving the politics.

The Christian meeting I skipped because it never occurred to me not to skip it. I had no interest in finding a church. What I didn't realize was that they were interested in me. The Christian Union was a powerhouse of an organization. Huge, immensely enthusiastic and powerful, the CU permeated every realm of life on campus. And in my first year at York they were engaged in a revival of Evangelism. The new aim of the hundreds of devout Christians on campus was to find non-Christian souls to save. In Catholic school I was an outsider non-Christian (but at least not a Protestant) who got cut in the bathroom line and straight A’s in religion class. They wouldn’t let me join the kickball game, let alone their church. Later evangelism in Vermont had always taken the form of rampant anti-abortion protesters near the Planned Parenthood. In London I side stepped men and women perched on milk crates with grimy signs that proclaimed the coming Armageddon. But here in York in my freshman year of college it was my sparkly, nice, endlessly enthusiastic peers. It was hard to refuse salvation from the (dare I say) devilishly good-looking tall drink of water who rested a palm supportively on my shoulder to tell me about the comfort of Christ. It was harder to sidestep sincerity in women of like-mind who tried to gently point me toward the path of the Lord. Unlike the typical considered British politeness that I had to break through with all of my real friends, closed until you gave them a reason to open, and then open for good; these girls exuded friendliness, welcome and acceptance. Trade you salvation for a smile!

* * * * *

Katie and Beth were sitting in the kitchen discussing their Bible Studies in Flat Six. I was looking for Polly or Rachel, and, not finding either, I settled down with them. I was an honorary roommate in their flat even though I was supposed to live with the girls of Flat Five. Across the hall I bristled against the snide coldness of the public school girls I lived with. I could never feel comfortable with their girly cattiness, and always wary of veiled snideness, I rushed to Flat Six to escape their shrill, passive aggressive tones. Flat Six was where I could breath unencumbered and shrink off my self consciousness to become sometimes witty, smart and entertaining while supported by the seven lovely girls I could always laugh with and confide in. That Beth and Katie were active members in the Christian Union had nothing to do with their relationship with the rest of the flat. We all ate together, lived together and went out together. I remember when Beth and I had found some untapped reserve of courage to enter a dance competition, and came out the other side with four bottles of Champagne at the Fresher's Ball in the first week. Feigning to be strangers, we tied for first place and received two bottles each instead of the three the winner was promised. Beth was sweet, understanding, hopelessly in love with her boyfriend and a great person to giggle at terribly rom-coms with after a particularly grueling French session. But they would head to bible study daily after class, go salsa dancing with other Christians every other Thursday, and disappear from our world to many other times when the CU called. Even though their Christianity played such a large role in their daily lives it was nowhere in our friendships. The closest spiritual conflict were a few awkward words that Katie exchanged with Polly about her loud gentlemen visitor who woke the whole flat up one morning at around five.

Tonight they were discussing the meaning of a psalm when I came in. They stopped politely when I sat down to join them, and opened the conversation to a more palatable tract. Instead of fascinating them with tales of my seminar I decided to ask them about their understanding of Christianity.

"So what kind of Christian are you guys? Protestant, right? What specific denomination?

"We're both members of the Church of England. Anglican to you."

"Hm. I don't know much about the Anglican faith. I went to Catholic school as a kid and my mom's whole family is Catholic. How is that different than Catholicism?"

"Well, our church doesn't believe in… Ah, let’s say the mystical and excessive parts of Catholicism. We don't follow the Pope, obviously. So ornate churches, saints, miracles, all of that more magical stuff is not in our faith."

"Do you believe in the transubstantiation? Like when the priest-"

"Minister. We have Ministers. And they can get married, none of that crazy celibacy for life stuff."

"Oh, okay. So when the minister gives out the wine and the communion-"

"Yeah, that's just wine and wafers. It symbolizes the body and blood of Christ. But no, I don't believe that the priest says a few words and it magically turns into the actual body of Jesus."

Katie snickered and Beth smiled. It was surprising to me that they thought that this part of the faith I grew up around was ridiculous So I asked more, first on practice, and found they were no fair-weather Christians. Sex before marriage: never and no Lord’s name in vain. I already knew Beth was waiting on dancing tiptoes to marry her boyfriend just after college so that she could remain pure and still get to have him. We moved on to mysticism they could abide. Virgin birth yes. Earth created in seven days. Creationism. We had to go over that point a few times. No evolution, but maybe intelligent design that used evolution. So survival of the fittest was what happened, but not because of the science, because God wanted the fittest to survive. I swallowed it.

"Okay. Hm. So in your faith is there the kind of exclusivity that is so prominent in Catholicism? Like, what do you think about gay people?"

Beth hesitated and Katie turned to her, leaving the floor open for Beth’s answer.

"That- there are certain parts of my faith that I am trying to come to terms with. That's why I got to bible study; to discuss the place for the rules and the reasons and to read the Bible so closely. That's a part of the church I have trouble getting my head around.

"So what does the church say? The part you aren't sure about?"

"That homosexuality is a sin. The Bible says that it is wrong."

"And so practicing homosexuals…. you believe they go to hell?"

Biting her lip, Beth considered her next words.

"That's what I'm trying to come to terms with believing."

* * * * *

Hail Mary, full of grace.

The Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou amongst women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,


Holy Mary, Mother of God,

pray for us sinners,

now and at the hour of our death.


The streets were dark and damp with the previous night’s melted slush and reflected the streetlights on either side of the round about. I was hunched over in my hoodie, my hands cold and plunged deep in my pockets and my feet flying at the fastest non-panicked-walk I could muster. I contemplated the dirty uneven sidewalk beneath my feet, rushing towards the darkness that I registered as the alley ahead. The other end of this alley would spit me out a block from my apartment. The usual press of frisky weekend bodies in Mission Hill had overwhelmed me and forced me out in the street before my friend’s birthday was even over. I knew that they were staying till closing, and that my headache would not abide by another 50 minutes of the bar. I was ten minutes into the return trip of my walk, nearly safe on this sloppy Sunday in Boston. I chose to leave early so I was stuck being out by myself in the middle of the night dressed for the club and armed with a single house key, a limp leather purse and less cash than a taxi ride costs. Typical of this busy road on a sloppy Saturday in the dark approaching three AM, I'd already been shouted at by a few groups of boys whose bulk was obscured by their puffy coats, and now I was steeling myself for the alley. Five minutes in that dark space and I will be home and safe. Five minutes in the dark tonight and I'll be back in the cheery light of my room.

Hail Mary, full of grace... my lips silently formed the words and I stepped down into the alley. I repeated the Ave Maria over and over again in an undertone as I darted through my foolhardy danger and felt just a little bit better about my chances. The words felt like a chant, like a summoning, and the rolling tones centered me. I was fine. This was fine. Step fast and feel fine. I turned and stepped out of the alley and saw the little blue door of my apartment just ahead.

* * * * *

"Is it really annoying that I’m drilling you guys about all this?”

“No, Deirdre, we like it. We are always open to talk about it. It’s better that you know what we believe, rather than not.”

“Hah, okay. No, I mean that makes sense. So, one other thing Catholicism believes in-that I'm wondering if you guys believe this too. They say that if you have heard of Jesus, heard the teaching of Jesus and choose not to follow him, not to worship, you go to hell."

"Yes, you must follow Jesus at least at the end of your life to get into heaven."

"So if there is a woman who is Muslim, who lives a good life, the whole do unto others thing, really is a good person and living christianly, you know, lowercase c, if she dies she goes to hell?

"Well, yeah. We believe that Jesus is our lord and savior and we, people are meant to follow him, and that's kind of why it's our job to spread the faith, so that everyone can have salvation. Jesus is the way and the light. He offers salvation to everyone, to all mankind. All we have to do is accept him in our hearts and we are saved. It’s kind of, it’s really easy. It’s a gift, salvation for acceptance."

"But this woman. She is a good woman, she follows similar teachings in terms of behavior. And she loves God. She worships God and she is pious and kind and humble and giving. But she calls God Allah. What is that? Why is that?”

“Those who have not heard the teachings of Jesus are not condemned to hell. If you are not familiar with the church there is another place for you. It’s not heaven, it’s not salvation, but we’re not saying that someone who hasn’t heard of Jesus burns.”

“But why would there be other religions? Why are there good people practicing good things that are religious but not Christian? Do you both think that they are like Moses’ people before he came down from the mountain. Do you think Islam is a false Idol- some golden calf?”

“We believe Jesus is the path. You don’t have to feel conflicted and confused because the word has found you.”

“Yeah, but- Okay, I have another question, on that same note. Me, Polly, Rachel, Laura, all of us, we are your friends. Even though we're not Christian."

"Of course! I love you guys!"

"Me too!"

"I love you guys too. Of course! But I'm kind of confused because, I think you think we're good people, that we do good. I mean I know we sin, from what I know of sin we do."

"But so do we! Everyone sins, it's part of being human."

"Right, I agree. But you believe that we are going to hell? I mean if I died right now, aneurysm in 30 seconds, Boom, dead. You believe that I'd go to hell?"

"Well. Yes, you have to accept Jesus into your heart to be saved."

"Doesn't that make you sad? I mean I'm not trying to guilt you or anything. But doesn't it make you sad to think of us in hell?"

The next day Katie and Beth presented me with a Bible. The inscription inside said, "For Deirdre- Keep asking lots of questions!" They also started talking to me about religion much more. Beth wanted me to meet her Minister. We spent long hours discussing the things I couldn't accept in her faith, the reason why I couldn't join.

"I just can't ever think that being gay makes someone a bad person. I can't believe that someone would go to hell for it. And honestly, I have a problem with the whole heaven and hell concept. When I think about heaven, it sounds kind of boring. Perfection forever? I appreciate the offer, I'm sure your Minister is a very interesting and nice person, but why the sudden push for me to meet him?"

"Well, Katie and I were talking after you came to us with your questions. And we realized that it was a sign from God. Of course you are right that it makes me sad to think of you in hell. That's why I have to talk to you about the path towards Jesus. The other night, God was letting me know that it is my duty to not abandon you."

Was that God talking? I thought it was me.

* * * * *

When I was seventeen I decided I was going to try to be a Wiccan. An occult store had opened up in my town that May, and by July I was in The Queen of Pentacles every day. The Wiccan Supplies shop was explored by curious tourists and experienced Wiccans alike, who came in to consider between two types of ritual knives, athames and bolines to use in the power circle (or decorate their mantle). My friend Charis and I befriended the owner and would hang out in the back area flipping through the books, filling up notebooks with the wheel of the year, ritual practices, rune definitions, and the magical powers in our spell ingredients. We were fascinated by the unexplored world of knowledge promised by each book in that store. The idea of doing magick, of casting spells and manipulating the world as I please was an excited idea. To play an active role in my fate was so appealing. From here on out- I thought- I would not be at the mercy of the scary world around me. I could make my desires come true if sorcery exists and if I tried. After half a book I realized that Mickey Mouse in Fantasia has nothing to do with the Wiccan religion, and I would not be determining the world any more than any other religious follower is able. In the absence of these self-centered aims, my study of Wicca actually deepened. I was fascinated by the sense of ritual and the tradition in the prayers and invocations of guardians. Each step of the casting of the circle referenced centuries of belief, pagan values in the earth that felt rooted to the physical world in the most complete way. Calling out ancient names that were spoken to deities before history even began, mirroring the gestures and spiritual traditions that were performed millennia before I existed made me feel like a part of something larger than myself.

At some point I had to give up my Wiccan excursion, and go back to being a non-atheist non-agnostic termless believer in something I cannot pigeon-hole, no matter how long I search for the shelf where I fit. This day came when I stopped for a moment before opening my book of shadows to complete a morning Sun greeting and asked myself: Do I think spells work? In addition to the compelling connection to the earth, the rightness of their do unto others type creed, and an intoxicatingly independent relationship with my spirituality that had begun to feel familiar and comforting, there was the spells and the magic to contend with. I could not separate the witch from Wicca.

Did I think spells work?

No I did not.

All religions worship through ritual and place significance on inanimate objects. In Catholicism we stroked the plastic beads of a rosary. In Wicca we ask questions to the swinging pendulum. What did it matter if there is more than one name for God? God is in the natural world; I never once doubted his place in the earth and everything around me. I knew there was something in the human existence beyond deductive reasoning and social constructs. That there was something more and that God or Mother or Maiden or Old Crone or soul or balance exists was always a given for me. Maybe addressing him the way that people first did might be the means that I would finally find spiritual satisfaction. I was tired of my avenue-less faith. Is belief belief if you don’t find a way to affirm it, to practice it? Would someone who really believes in a higher being never address that fact in day to day life?

* * * * *

Hail Mary, full of grace, The Lord is with thee…

I call upon you Elemental Earth, to attend this rite and guard this circle…

The words still can bring me comfort, even though I raise an eyebrow at the meaning. The ritual of calling out for help, of summoning an other to protect me can wrap me up into a feeling of rightness that soothes my jittering body and quiets the endless contention of questions that keep my hands from being able to close around one single faith. My search for a religion to fit into has always left me with the same familiar feeling of internal resistance. When I briefly dated Tom, a Bah’ai boy, my curiosity flared again, and I explored the shape of this faith. Emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind, and accepting the religious messengers Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and most recently Bahá'u'lláh, their faith hopes for a unity of religion and gender equality. For a brief moment, that came too early in the relationship for me to share with Tom, I felt like a light had dawned on me. Here was a path I could follow. Here was a religious community that would support and enrich my life. I read further and found the rules. No sex before marriage. No drinking alcohol. No gambling. No gossiping. No homosexuality. And I let go as the cultural interfered again with the spiritual and felt the hope slip through my fingers again. I will always be a spiritual bubble, floating off alone with only God as company in my undefined faith. Deirdre’s church of no church: Come along, we are always looking for new members.