10-Minute Meditations: Magicicada

Even though I’m a great believer in science, not to mention a skeptic, I do love the concept of synchronicity–the idea that the universe is constantly littering our paths with important symbols and weird coincidences that would have meaning if only we’d stop to read them. Yesterday afternoon, as I left to pick up my son, I found yet another cicada sitting in the middle of a stone beside our front walkway. Dang, the whole world is cicadas! I thought to myself (or something to that effect), and scrambled to find my camera, because you don’t usually find a cicada standing stock still in the middle of a big, flat natural backdrop. Definitely the same kind of cicada as the other day, too: one round red eye on either side of her head, a patch of bright green on either flank, a little white line across the tip of her back end. Like a craft project for someone who craves symmetry and has a hot-glue gun.

The patient cicada hardly moved while I dug out my equipment and started preparations. Picture-taking has become a hit-or-miss exercise since the tremor in my hands has gotten worse and cameras have gotten smaller. But I was determined to take as many pics as possible, even if they came out blurry. Little Fickle would love seeing them. One of the most vivid memories I have of my young childhood is my mother pointing out a newly molted insect standing beside its old shell, which was see-through and cracked down the middle and looked like sepia-colored plastic.

All set, I clicked the power button, and my camera snapped open and shut. Change the battery, read the screen. Change the battery?! With a sigh, I put my camera away and kept walking. Now I had no evidence for my nifty little tale. Now no one would believe I’d had a visit from a cicada, just days after I saved one from a group of passive suburban ice-cream eaters.

It’s only dawned on me in the last hour or so that this is exactly how a myth is made. Evidence? Why would I want evidence? Now the cicada is a story, a quiet acknowledgement that the universe knows what I’ve been thinking about. Or maybe that one insect was the same mama cicada that I rescued, and like the opening of a children’s novel or a folk tale, she’d come to give me a token of her esteem. A lucky charm, a seed, a secret lullaby that would start me on a far-reaching quest or bring back faded memories, some piece of myself I hadn’t realized I lost.

The full scientific name of the North American periodical cicada is Magicicada. Maybe once upon a time in deep summer, I was destined to meet a special creature…

Don’t believe my story? Someday, I’m guessing, I won’t believe it myself.

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The Blind Can See, and Other Miracles

Health shall live free, and sickness freely die.

 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

–You-know-who

Wow, what a difference a couple of days makes. Since my life is a perpetual chemistry experiment, I figured out that a lot of my anxiety was coming from a new pill that I’m now coming off of. And then, just in time for me to start feeling like the world isn’t such a terrifying place, we get news that bad writing doesn’t mean everyone will lose their health insurance AND people who don’t think any two consenting adults should have the right to get married can suck it up or move to Russia. (Yes, all you liberals out there, the world is such a crazy place, we can now tell right-wing ideologues that Russia is the place for them.)

Even Mighty Tiny Bill is celebrating.

“Scalia, thou’rt a villain. And a beef-witted, barren-spirited villain at that.”

 I personally would like to hold on to this feeling of amazement and wonder at the world for as long as it lasts. So here’s yet another antidote to sliding back into Internet Outrage too quickly (or wallowing too deeply in Internet Schadenfreude): the podcast Invisibilia aired an episode that explores how blind people can learn to see through–get ready, Fickle Readers–echolocation. I swear this is completely true. I listened to the program on my way back and forth from one of my many doctor’s appointments, part of the medical structure keeping me alive, moving forward, and sane, and I kid you not, I started thinking differently about my whole life. An absolute Must Listen To for anyone who feels like the world is entirely populated by stop signs, roadblocks, and sadistic, greedy monsters.

Thanks, Alix and Lulu, for your wonderful insight into what humans can be, instead of all the things they can’t.

And thanks to the God of Stories for making this week one for the record books.

Good Shakespeare Quote: February Edition

The February face–it sums up this ugly little stub of a month to a tee. (And the speaker of these lines isn’t even a flat-out evil character! Hooray for consequence-free context!)

Why, what’s the matter,

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?

–William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 5, Scene 4

(Of course, now that I’ve celebrated freedom from consequences, I’m sure to find out that the subtext of this passage is that Don Pedro likes to juggle puppies and eat raw goldfish, and didn’t I learn that in all my years of having my head up Shakespeare’s supremely significant ass? Just like how, in my excitement about Harper Lee’s new book, I didn’t anticipate that the publication might have been set up by Lee’s manipulative lawyer, who may have conned a senile Lee into signing over her first manuscript after her 103-year-old sister, who’d been protecting Lee’s literary legacy, died less than three months ago. Yes, the God of Stories gives, but the God of Painful Irony often loves dunking that gift in rancid mayonnaise and horse manure and seeing how long it takes you to start sobbing from the shame of it all…)

Harper Lee Publishes a Second Novel, and the Literary World Explodes

Like me, perhaps, you woke up this morning to discover that 55 years after she published To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee is coming out with a second novel. Like me, you may also have been leaping out of your chair and thinking what a miracle it is that an 88-year-old woman finally decided to give fiction a second try. Eighty-eight years old! Harper Lee, you rock my world, I thought to myself after the chair hit the floor.

Well, the real story isn’t quite as awesome as that second-blooming-late-in-life tale that I made up for myself. But it is, indeed, worth everyone’s amazement at how sometimes without warning, the God of Stories delivers a treasure to the world. As you may or may not know, Lee only ever wrote one novel. This soon-to-be-published new work, Go Set a Watchman, is actually an old work: it was her first attempt at a novel, and it was about a woman named Jean Louise Finch going back to her hometown to visit her father. Apparently, the editor liked the flashback material so much, he (and I’m assuming it was a he–maybe not, though) encouraged Lee to base a different novel on Jean Louise’s childhood. That story became To Kill a Mockingbird; Jean Louise Finch became Scout, and her father became Atticus Finch, the attorney who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.

It’s hard to say whether or not Go Set a Watchman will be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, what the hell am I saying? Chances are infintesimal that anyone on the planet will believe that this new work–the actual first novel written by Harper Lee–will even approach the greatness of the novel that made it to publication. The Internet will give birth to a bunch of naysayers and reputation-chewers who will whine and complain about why anyone bothered to publish this book in the first place. (Or so I predict, as anyone else might predict given the nature of the Internet.) I’m hoping, though, that the Internet opinion-setters in particular will accept this book for what it is: an experiment, as all novels are; a first shot at creating a story; a chance to see how a brilliant author’s mind works as that mind was captured mid-process.

And who knows? This second novel might tell a good story in its own right. But it doesn’t have to. The mythos that we’ve collectively created around To Kill a Mockingbird, and the way that the book changed our culture, has already made the book valuable to us, no matter how it turns out. So, I guess what I’m saying is, screw you, future Internet trolls! Whatever problems Go Set a Watchman  may have (and I’m not saying it won’t, and I’m not saying it’s bad to bring up valid criticisms if and when they’re found), this book will still be important and Harper Lee will still be one of my all-time literary heroes.

 

Memories of Purple

“We’re all stories in the end.”

“Doctor Who,” new series, season 5, episode 13

Went to my husband’s stepmother’s mother’s funeral today. I don’t know what that makes me to her. I think the only time I ever saw her in person was at my wedding almost ten years ago. But I did hear a lot of stories about her, mostly from the Inspector’s stepmother, Daisy, who fretted a lot about her mother’s living arrangements, her failing physical and mental health, and (in a refrain of resentment all too familiar) her constant disapproval of everything Daisy ever did for her. Even as she was dying, Daisy told me last weekend, her mom was lucid enough to berate her for all the pain she was in. “Now, you have to do something about this, Daisy,” mimicked the daughter in a voice that bristled with the scorn that Daisy’s mother always seemed to relay. “I want to get up. Reverend, you do something. My daughter’s no good.”

Of course, there was no way Mom could possibly get up. She was dying, and although Daisy thought she was much more together, mentally speaking, than she had been of late, it sounded to me like the only awareness Mom had was that she wanted something her daughter wasn’t springing up and providing. Same as always, except that was the last time Daisy spoke to her mother. To the end, mother and daughter sparred, and while I tried to say something consoling to Daisy about how the mind with dementia works in mysterious ways (i.e., trying to soften the blow of how Daisy’s last interaction with her mother was full of the same negativity they always had toward each other), I feel like I missed what Daisy was trying to tell me, some sobering bit of knowledge that you only come to at the end of a loved one’s life. The day after our conversation, Daisy’s mom was gone.

So today I went to Daisy’s mom’s funeral. I didn’t quite know how to prepare for this moment. I found my wedding lipstick–yes, I still have lipstick tubes from ten years ago–and so I wore lipstick for the first time in God knows how long. The Inspector and I drove to the funeral, which was at a nearby Catholic church where the priest seemed controlling and dismissive. (Not the family priest, I soon found out.) Then we went to the reception, where suddenly all these stories came pouring out about Daisy’s mother and what a class act she was, how she had a wonderful sense of humor, how she never went to college but gave herself a good education by reading books and newspapers, how her best friend from grade school became a cloistered nun and how she kept up the friendship for decades by going to visit every week and chatting with her best friend through a barred window (oh, there’s some hefty symbolism in that image, for sure), and how Daisy’s mother’s favorite color was purple.

I had a friend who worked at my college library when I was a work-study student there. She was a full-time employee, middle aged, married, always smiling, making the best of things. I worked for a little while in the area after I graduated. Right before I went off to graduate school, this friend was diagnosed with colon cancer and had an operation to remove the tumor in the hospital down the street from where I was living. (I was renting a room from a rather loony live-in landlord, who would one day paint her house purple. But I didn’t know that at the time.) Because the hospital was down the street, I got up the courage to go see my friend from the library. I brought her a card, because that’s what you did for people who were sick. On the cover was a field of lavender growing in a forest, under a cloudy sky. I wish I knew where that picture was now, because Jeanine loved it. She said that, coincidentally, she really loved that color combination, the purple and green together. And that was the kind of person Jeanine was. At one point, she looked up and gave her husband the sweetest little smile. They seemed happy, and at that point in my life I knew very few married couples who were happy.

I hope they held on to that happiness for as long as it lasted. The oncologist couldn’t remove all the cancer, apparently. Later I learned that Jeanine died almost six months exactly after she was diagnosed, just as the doctor predicted.

I’m not telling this story or the story of Daisy’s mom (now, on my blog, her name will be Lavender) to be morbid. Actually, I really liked that Daisy’s family took time out during the reception to publicly tell stories about Lavender. There’s really so little of us that sticks around after we die. The amount shrinks as time pushes you further back in history. So the stories are important, you see. Even letting go of the bad ones and indulging in a little revisionist history is okay, especially when your parents are involved. You’re re-fashioning the story so that everyone can keep going. You’re letting the dead survive. You’re helping yourself move on.

(And who knew Steven Moffat was a believer in the God of Stories? I’m totally getting that epigram engraved on a bracelet.)

 

Dear God: Please Let California Start the Cascade

My God is the God of Stories.  That may sound blasphemous, or snarky, or stupid, but I assure you it’s not.  Stories are vastly important to human lives.  Stories take raw experience and reveal patterns, form meaning, and communicate realities across wide cultural landscapes, even when the receivers aren’t equipped to understand everything that’s being conveyed.  (The plural, stories, is important, too.  In the same way that there’s never just one teller, there can never be just one Story.)  And I’m not talking only about fictional stories–fairy tales and myths and novels and the like.  We’re always making so-called “real life” into some sort of narrative, be it political or religious or cultural.  We not only want to know what happened at any given historical point in time, we want the background and the fallout, too.  We want our stories whole.

That said, I’d like to make a personal plea to the God of Stories to start sending those of us here in the States some better endings to our narratives about gun violence.  Seriously, God of Stories.  Stronger, more meaningful endings.  We need them desperately, and we need them now.

Here’s a story I only found out about last winter, when a Canadian friend posted a remembrance on his Facebook feed.  Yes, I know, the link is for a Wikipedia entry, and yes, I also know that Wikipedia is not exactly a fount of unfailing accuracy.  Still, at this point in its life cycle, Wikipedia has gotten reliable enough that if you want a quick snapshot of some thing or person or event, you can skim over the Wikipedia entry and then find links to more reputable sources where the anonymous Wikieditors researched (or, in many cases, lifted) their material.  Also, on the Internet, if you’re searching the real world for narrative structure, Wikipedia can’t be beat.  Have a look at the first three paragraphs on the Montreal Massacre (the story at the link) and notice how much information you get on the subject, particularly if you’ve not up on your Canadian history.  I’ll paraphrase here:

On December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked onto the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montreal and, with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle, entered an engineering classroom, separated the men and women, and proceeded to shoot the group of women, nine in all.  He then left the classroom and shot four men and 15 more women until he shot and killed himself.  Throughout the rampage and in his suicide note, he presented himself as an anti-feminist crusader and claimed that feminists “ruined his life.” Fourteen died at Lepine’s hands, all of them women.  After the attack, many Canadians argued about the true meaning of the incident and why it had occurred.  In addition (according to Wikipedia), “the incident led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada.”

Nicely crafted, isn’t it?  The narrative, I mean.  Madman hates women and wants to kill them.  Madman goes to a university and kills and injures over two dozen people with a legally purchased gun.  The horror of the event leads the country’s lawmakers to enact stricter gun laws.  A beginning, middle, and–most importantly–a solid, sober, meaningful end.

Now, on to the content of the story.  For those of you who live in the U.S.: does anything about this narrative strike you as familiar?  Maybe it’s the fact that this past week, a woman-hating madman with a legally purchased gun (oops, no–he had three) went to an area near UC Santa Barbara and shot 16 people before he killed himself.  Maybe the separation of males and females in a classroom reminds you of what Wikipedia calls the Amish School Shooting, when a truck driver named Charles Roberts walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse, dismissed the boys and adults, including a pregnant woman, and tied up and shot the remaining ten girls, aged 6 to 13, before shooting himself.  Maybe the description of Lepine’s legally acquired semi-automatic weapon reminds you of the shootings at Sandy Hook, where in December 2012 Adam Lanza took his mother’s legally acquired semi-automatic Bushmaster to a local elementary school and killed 20 children and 6 adults (all women, and not including his mother, whom he shot before he left home) before shooting himself in the head with a legally owned semi-automatic pistol.

Maybe, however, you’re like me and you get stuck on that first sentence in the third paragraph that someone on Wikipedia wrote about the Montreal Massacre: “The incident led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada.”

So far, nothing like this statement has been added to any of the Wikipedia entries describing any recent mass shooting in the U.S.  Yes, there have been changes in the law, the most notable being those enacted after Seung-Hui Cho shot a total of 49 people on Virginia Tech’s campus. (Note, however, this Washington post article, which states that since the shootings “it is gun rights, not gun restrictions, that have grown stronger” in Virginia.)  Other tweaks took place in Connecticut and a few other states after Sandy Hook (again, see the WP article).  In Pennsylvania, the Amish were apparently so forgiving of the shooter and his family that their amazing act of kindness rendered any new gun regulations unnecessary (or, at least, that’s how the Wikipedia entry makes it seem).  But nothing on the scale of the 1995 Firearms Act in Canada has occurred in response to any of the recent gun massacres in the U.S.

Notice that I’ve only mentioned four U.S. gun massacres, three of which aren’t even called “massacres” on Wikipedia (they’re “shootings” or “killings” instead).  Notice that I haven’t yet brought up Aurora, Colorado.  Or Columbine. Or the two separate shootings at Fort Hood.  Wikipedia even observes that the “Amish school shooting” in Nickel Mines “was the third school shooting in the United States in less than a week, the others being the Platte Canyon High School shooting on September 27, 2006 and Weston High School shooting on September 29.” Who even remembers Platte Canyon or Weston High, apart from the victims and their families?  (Actually, I remember Platte Canyon, although not by name.  It was a case of another woman-hating madman going into a classroom and separating out the female students from the male.  Only one of the female students was shot and killed; the rest were raped by the gunman.)  Do I have to count up the number of dead and injured in these mass shootings and ask why 28 Canadian women and men are worth more reasonable limits on the sale and use of guns than all the U.S. victims put together?  Do I have to start counting up all the “small” gun massacres, where one or two or three are killed, and wonder why no action has been taken to prevent other deaths like theirs, which were just as painful and just as senseless?

You may be thinking that I’m one of these “wacko gun control nuts” who has no respect for responsible, law-abiding gun owners.  Bullshit.  Growing up, I spent every Sunday in my mother’s hometown in the mountains, a town full of hunters and other responsible gun owners.  My cousin is a state policeman.  My grandfather was a hunter and a World War II veteran.  If you think I don’t know and respect responsible gun owners, you’re effectively spitting on the memory of my grandfather, one of the kindest, bravest, and most generous men who was ever, even briefly, a part of my life.  So no, I don’t disrespect responsible gun owners or, for that matter, responsible gun ownership.  But I also believe that the vast majority of responsible gun owners in this country favor responsible gun legislation.  The only people who oppose it, really, are the NRA and their cohort of gun manufacturers (some of which are foreign, or so I’ve heard) who prey on the paranoia of a small group of people so that they can continue to collect money from unfettered gun buying.

The NRA wants you to think the story of their “gun rights” crusade is all about patriotism.  Nope.  It’s about money–your money being funneled into their pockets.

So my prayer to the God of Stories is that California and the tragedy in Isla Vista will finally begin the country’s move toward responsible gun laws.  Since the U.S. Congress is basically useless, I figure changes in gun legislation will have to happen the way the fight for gay marriage has unfolded, state by state.  I’m thinking that an ugly, misogyny-fueled mass murder will carry some weight, especially in a state like California, which almost certainly has the appropriate density of the wealthy and the progressive.  The words of Chris Martinez’s father, Richard, who said of the NRA, “They talk about their rights.  What about Chris’s right to live?” will surely resonate and will prove difficult for the NRA to spin.

Surely.  Certainly.  Finally.  To put it bluntly, God of Stories, I’ve got the ending for this tragedy worked out for you.  The details are all there.  Please, please, please, this time just run with it.