Demise, demise, demise. My kinda singer.

Vladimir Vysotsky was a poet, a singer, and an actor. He was one of Russia’s two bards, the other being Alexander Pushkin, the poet who is credited with reshaping the language itself. When Vysotsky died, the Soviets hoped his fame would too, but millions of people showed up at his funeral that night–this in a time before the internet or cell phones. Vysotsky, really, has never died.

Skip to the 29th second to start:

Stubborn Horses

On the precipice, right on the very edge of the abyss, on the very, very edge,
I lash at my horses with my whip, I drive them on–
But the air grows too thin for me, I drink wind, I swallow fog–
I sense with fatal ecstasy: I’m disappearing! I’m disappearing!

A little slower, horses! A little slower!
Don’t obey the stupid whip.
But the horses that were my lot, they’re so stubborn,
And I haven’t managed to finish living, I haven’t finished singing–

And I’ll give the horses water,
And I’ll finish singing this verse–
Just give me a last moment on the brink.

We’ve arrived. Guests don’t come late to God.
But why are the angels singing with such fiendish voices,
Or is it the bell ringing with sobs,
Or is it me, crying for the horses to stop pulling this sleigh so fast?

A little slower, horses! A little slower!
I implore you: gallop, don’t fly!
But somehow the horses I was given are so stubborn.
If I can’t finish living, at least let me finish singing!

And I’ll give the horses water,
I’ll finish singing this verse–
Just let me linger a moment more on the brink!

* This is a quick translation of the song as sung in this clip. There are various versions. Apologies to poets and lovers of beauty, and also to Vysotsky, for any errors.

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It’s called the scientific method, baby. And I excel at it.

Ever wonder what it’s like to fall while walking on a treadmill?

Yesterday morning, I discovered the answer to this question I didn’t know I had.

One mo’ I’m up, the next my face thumps into the top of the treadmill, and I slam down.

Full body slam. KABOOM slam.

My chin gamely hits “stop” on the way down. The machine stills, my feet long thrown off it.

I lie in shock. My body not at all as I’d positioned it seconds earlier.

And my first thought, when thought returned:

“Well, at least something new happened today.”

leaves in a puddle

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away; Lengthen night and shorten day. ~ Emily Bronte

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My Hero

So, I accidentally had a fire situation. As in, there was a fire on my desk. The actual kind, not the writing kind. The flame kind. With heat. And lack of control.

I grabbed my coffee cup. I paused. And I saved my life–and my writing.

When it was done, ash floating in coffee…

I looked at my mug, and I thought… “Well, there goes the coffee.”

before the fire

before the fire

a new cup, ready for new heroism

a new cup, ready for new heroism. and new candles, for new… fires.

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In which I rant about posers

How safely fashionable self-crowned experts are in their advice. But fashion is not truth. They go to different parties.

“Writing rules.” Give me a break.

If there is one truth–and there isn’t–I’ll take Kafka’s:

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

And if you don’t have the courage to be the axe and destroy yourself, FINE. I get it. I lack courage all the time too, and I destroy myself despite it on some days, and prowl around the outskirts on other days, too afraid I lack what I need to go underwater.

But don’t repeat rules as if… as if there were any.

For chrissakes.

Flaubert broke every last rule when he wrote Madame Bovary. He went to court for it. To court!

I throw at you something his prosecutor said, which may be the single most evocative thing a prosecutor has ever said in court:

History has spoken of a thousand things, but these are merely suspicions.

Apropos of nothing, just because it’s beautiful, I share it with you. And now Yeats, from The Second Coming, on something a lot like talking heads:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

God, I loathe posing.

I guess because it never actually struggles with commodified reality–it’s only someone’s fist tightly, whitely gripping onto their rung of a hierarchy. It is an unstable thing, pretending to itself that it is right. That it is safe, for that reason.

Writing isn’t safe. When has any honest, intimate human expression ever been safe? We take risks when we share our hearts. Risks when we share our weaknesses. Our ugliness. Even our beauty.

You can’t offer a writer safety. You can’t offer safety. It’s not in your purview, it’s not in anyone’s.

A writing rule that’s never broken is a straitjacket. “Interest the reader,” okay. That works. But Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady interested me, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea made me want to shoot myself. So maybe the writer should interest herself. Should inflame herself.

Self-branded experts are invited on TV, and people “RT” them on Twitter, and they seem knowledgeable–because people agree with them, because they talk like they’re right, without equivocation, without doubt.

Why is certainty so applauded? Because we fear our own doubts? Okay, but that’s not brave. That’s fearful. And that’s not writing. And writing isn’t cool, either. Writing is conversation with self, and we shouldn’t all be having the same conversation with our selves. That’s freaky, frightening, and not human.

And change is part of what is thrilling, as well as what is frightening. Flaubert got sued. David Lynch got three thousand raised eyebrows at least.

I look at it like this. Who taught Dostoevsky to write? Not some writing guru. Who taught Shakespeare? Who taught Jeanette Winterson? Maya Angelou? Ralph Ellison? Ngugi wa’Thiongo? Jose Saramago? Flannery O’Connor? Werner Herzog?

No-one. No-one.

I don’t care if any of them went to school for it–no-one taught them to write. You know what did teach them?

Their burning hearts. Their ravenous minds. Their struggles. Their longing. And lots and lots and lots of sweat.

If you have that, you have the material to write, and to live. To ask, and to explore. To live and to die. To write.

No-one else can guide you into yourself.

No-one else can write your stories.

Abandon the given. Assail it.

There is no ground. Jump from it into yourself.

Nothing is the material which formed everything. Both are in you.

Make yourself from your own fragments. Hear no voice above your own. Seek the shapes under your words.

When you die, make sure it’s you they bury. Because you were you. And not some facsimile of what you thought a you should be.

beyond a forbidden door in the sistine chapel

beyond a forbidden door in the sistine chapel

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The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you ~ Rumi


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The Worm

On my first day in my Peace Corps home, there was no water. I was asked if I wanted to go down to the river to bathe.

“No,” I said, “in America we frequently don’t have water every day.”

The second day, again there was no water. Again, the river was proposed.

“No, no,” I said, “no need at all. We frequently don’t have water for two days.”

On the third day, I asked where the river was.

We went to the river together–it was the only time we’d do that. In the future, through the waterless winter, I’d use baby wipes for daily cleansing, and every two weeks or so, we’d have about a bucket or half-bucket of water to use for bathing. It had been pulled from a well in the village, but cleaning the body came behind cleaning dishes and cleaning clothes in terms of priorities.

But my point isn’t how wonderful it feels to be clean. My point is what I saw with jarred eyes that day by the river.

We were there with extended family. The women a bit separate from the men. Our clothes all on; them in their skivvies. The car had been rolled partly into the water too, and was being cleaned upstream from us.

Across the river was another family. Also bathing. Similarly attired and not attired.

One of the people in my group whispered to me, “Azeris.”

Which to me was, like, the coolest thing in the world. After all, I was in the Republic of Georgia, which abutted Azerbaijan and Armenia, and in a region which was primarily Azeri. But how did this person know the others were Azeris, and why the tone?

I asked how the person knew this for a fact.

“They’re dark.”

Again, with tone.

And I felt the horror and revulsion of witnessing oneself in another person’s ugliness. Racism–implicit, explicit, subconscious racism, it runs through all of our social systems, and as a result through us.

To me, the Georgians and the Azeris were equally exotic. Equally different. It hadn’t occurred to me that one could be “worse” than the other. Lesser.

Plus no-one in that river was darker. And what is darker, anyway? A badge of what, lesserhood?

It was horrific, it was brutal, and it opened my eyes to how ludicrous racism at home was. Even more than before.

As a person who’d grown up in Africa and the West Indies, only moving to the States at age 16, you’d think this would already be in my skin. I’d been a racial minority my whole life, with the majority of my friends not being white–but always in places (aka the world) that valued white skin differently than black skin. But I didn’t realize the privileges I had until I was 16, when I looked at my best friend and suddenly realized that her parents didn’t have the right to vote. That racism was real, not an abstract wrong that other people were affected by. That it was everywhere.

Coming here, I’d been so, so disappointed in America. I was young, and thought of America as the land of the free, a place beyond racism. It isn’t, of course. It isn’t free of racism, of sexism, of classism… We swallow these poisons in the daily air we breathe, and we don’t even notice it.

I have a friend I’ll call C. For years, C would periodically tell me tales about being treated differently because he’s black. For years, I would believe him, but would sometimes think he might be imagining things. Can you believe? I, a woman, whose perspective is also downplayed by a society which imagines itself to be clean because it wants to feel good about itself, downplayed in turn the perspective of another human being–whom I know history has targeted.

I don’t know when it happened that I finally listened to C and just listened. Just heard. But when I did, it changed everything.  If you’re open to reading the signs again:

Black kids shot by the police. Black people’s salaries lower than whites. Security guards watching African-Americans in stores. Mortgages higher for blacks. Traffic fine patterns. Expectational differences. TV shows and movies limiting the number of black actors, especially in lead roles. White stories, white pantheons, white leaders, white police.

We may want to believe that we’re past racism–some people point to the fact that our president is not white–but these signs glare a contrary truth back at us.

Racism is so fucking alive, and the worm is squirming under scrutiny, as if open conversation were a magnifying glass concentrating light to fire upon it. Let the fucking worm squirm. We have to be willing to struggle with what we see, if we’re to be sure we’re seeing it honestly.

Those of us who are on the previously easier side of history, yes, we have the uncomfortable duty now of listening to things that are uncomfortable. But how much stronger we’ll be when we have. As a people, as a whole.

We won’t be alive to see that world we create together, the world in which all people are respected equally. But we can build it at the cost of the growing pains of personal growth.

And frankly, it’s not like we’re doing anything else particularly worth our time on earth.


Vasiliy Vereshchagin: The Lost – Funeral Elegy for the Fallen

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When Crossing the Rubicon in a Paper Boat

It helps, as your hair fans in its waters, before the other shore is visible, to make your heart new oaths–ones you’ll drag from your death if the river demands it.

I know my oaths. One is to this damn beast of mine. I’m going to explode it to the place it needs to be. I’m not giving up. The other is to my short stories. Why haven’t I ever tried to hone for publication? Who cares. It’s happening now.

Failure is the gamble of every little paper boat sailing into its Rubicon. The coin of experience would be nothing without failure.

It matters not the outcome
If what you will gain instead
Is a heart deepened in the knowing
That experience carves the soul
And the very thing that empties you
Shall surely make you whole

~ The Cruxshadows

I have given Delilah a pair of scissors, and my head is on her lap. But my power isn’t in my hair. It’s in my ability to keep going without it.

Climbing the Caucasus Mountains

Waking up in the Caucasus Mountains

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