In prehistoric times, millions of bison roamed North America — from the forests of Alaska and the grasslands of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred bison left in the United States after European settlers pushed west, reducing the animal’s habitat and hunting the bison to near extinction. Had it not been for a few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.
From the US Department of Interior blog
I have made the American bison my totem. This majestic bovid, the largest mammal on the continent, is powerful and moody and unpredictable. Bison are stunningly calm up close, and yet they can quickly rise with pique and flatten a car.
I never considered the beast before now, though I remember seeing the diorama on my many trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It depicts a Wyoming prairie in the mid-1800’s, teeming with wild bison shortly before the “great slaughter.” The scene showcases their grandeur, their oddity, their warmth, and their enormity. I read they found prehistoric fossils that put an ancestor’s horn at 9 feet, tip to tip. Though I can sit here and try to describe their majesty, to experience it is better.
Luckily, a small group of caring individuals saved the bison from extinction, so the herd population is growing again. Though their lifespan is about twenty years, the cow starts having babies at the age of two, and as of today, about 10,000 bison inhabit public parks across America. They’re making a comeback.
I suppose my reason for thinking about the bison is related to my current location. I moved to San Francisco last week, choosing a neighborhood that suited my needs, not realizing I couldn’t have planned any spot better than where I landed. Golden Gate Park is across the street and Ocean Beach is a few blocks west and I’m a short bike ride from the Sutro Baths and Lands End. But one of the most fascinating stops within walking distance is the Bison Paddock in the park. Thus, my new fascination.
I almost fell off my bicycle the day I rode past the pasture with the grazing herd of bison. They were so out of place, so unexpected, as rare as they are, I was giddy. The following day I went for my morning jog through the park on my way to the beach and passed them again. This time I was even closer, on the opposite side of the paddock, half a mile from my home.
I’ve seen them almost everyday since moving in. I named them Bob. I suppose I’ve assigned meaning to my bison sighting because it reminds me I am rare, too. That I can see the bison today, knowing they were almost hunted to extinction, reminds me my existence is fragile. No one owes us time, and we can’t earn more. The hours are precious, and so are we.
If you forget that, go find your bison. Seek out the sights that remind you of your rarity. My outlook has improved since my first sighting, since paying witness to the simple propagation of a fantastic beast I almost missed due to man-made extinction. All I can think is thank goodness for everyday miracles.
Do you remember the day you came home from work with a pair of slippers for me? I was probably six or seven at the time, and they were canary yellow with red and white stripes around the trim and a rubber Ronald McDonald head on the toe. It wasn’t even my birthday.
Do you recall summer days at the lake, when you used to swim out into the deep water with me holding onto your shoulders, propped on your back?
Do you have the same memories as me of meeting along the park path on your way home from work so I could be the first to greet you at the end of your day and walk you back to our house?
Do you recollect the time I fell into a small pool of fresh water near Hog’s Back and you swept me up to save me from the fish? Do you ever think about the time we ate lunch and drank chocolate milk in the basement of our new house on Basswood?
Do you remember when we witnessed that star shoot through the night sky from the backyard in New Mexico? Do you ever think about the time you went back into that tourist shop in Santa Fe to buy me a dream catcher, to surprise me with it? Do you ever think about the encouraging words, the outbursts of pride, the unlimited I love you’s?
I do. I think about all of these things. I do my best to remember as many as I can when I think about who you are to me. My picture of you is mosaicked. I’ve fashioned a tapestry woven with threads of remembrance.
I never see you without seeing all the ways you showed me your love over the years. I probably bask in those thoughts whenever I think of you because I’ve inherited your nostalgic bone, along with your jaw line and teeth and nose and ears, and all the expressive modes that make us a rainbow of colors to those who love us.
But also because the peace all my memories of you generate helps me remember I am lucky to be here, that I’m the fortunate offshoot of a whole nother person’s journey. And I’m the daughter of a man who knows sacrifice, a man who eagerly gave his children the good life and every opportunity within his sphere to help us fly.
So let me say, thank you, and that I love you. And that I won’t ever forget.
I like to think everything can be expressed with language. I’m a writer, after all. And despite something like the Sublime, which is often considered ineffable, I’ve always believed using an assortment of phrases to communicate is a reasonable feat.
Until now, as I sit here trying to put into paltry words the considerable impact my mother has had on me. My task is next to impossible. I just can’t seem to find my way, or discover where to start, or uncover the essence of this overwhelming task.
Nothing will do.
No word is effective enough. No sentence, either.
She is more than the thread with which I am knit. She is more than the creed around which I structure my life. She is more than the love that steers my heart.
Because she’s a warrioress who has shared the most intimate part of herself four times, to give me and my three siblings a chance at this grand experiment. We took and she gave all that was necessary for us to dream and sleep and walk and create and soar and talk and think and strive, and strive, and strive for the cosmos. Because she spent some of her own stardust to give us ours.
She went without, while we went with everything. She probably doesn’t realize the impact. How could she? If we can’t grasp it, how’s she supposed to know the magnitude of her constant and perpetual sacrifice, an act that comes naturally to the rare, and only ever to those who aren’t conscious of their depletion.
We don’t spend our days acknowledging our debt to her. We go on with our lives, we make our own contribution to society, we struggle and hope and give to others because she taught us that. It’s a pairing as old as time. It’s the beginning of everything. Woman gives up a piece of herself to birth another into being, teaching her creation to pass it on.
Conception means to take in and take hold, in Latin. Conception also refers to grasping or comprehending something. This is fitting. Mother takes in and holds until the child is … well, understood.
My mother may have been the only one — with the exception of her mother — who understood me when I needed to be heard, when I needed to soar, when I needed to pursue the dream that was the only one for me. She made sure to carry me on her back until I could run on my own.
So it’s been a long, winding road, but I see the trajectory when I look back, where it begins with her unwavering belief in my talent and the push she gave me to go out and spend it. (She’s still pushing me and supporting me and dreaming alongside me.)
She and I reminisce about that early dream pursuit. We laugh about the surreality of my life during those early days as an ingénue in New York City, living in an overpriced residential hotel — on her converted Canadian dime — with cockroaches and shared toilets and yellow caution tape! Those were quite the collect calls. We cried lots when I phoned home, but I thrived with her hand at my back, sharing my life of fantastical toil. And I LOVE her for it. She was the wind beneath my wings and the steel in my spine.
She is the most influential woman in my life. She is the one to whom I am most indebted.
I subbed for one of my colleagues recently. Her composition students were looking at an essay about crafting the personal essay. The essay we looked at gave directives but also emphasized the idea of being a tiny master, a term borrowed from Susan Orlean of The Orchid Thief. (Writers borrow from writers who borrow from other writers, and so it goes.)
In this particular instance, I used an example from my own life to show how an expertise we’ve cultivated may actually divulge meaningful insight into ourselves — thus the personal element of the personal narrative essay. You start discussing something concrete, such as an event or a place, and you end up using that as your springboard to reveal something about yourself, which, if done effectively, will also reveal something universal, which your readers will see in themselves, too.
It’s almost like a confidence trick, but not for manipulation’s sake. Good writers make you think you’re reading one thing and end up revealing something else entirely. Really good writers guide you to discover what that something else means to you, the reader.
The example I gave my students was about my being a tiny master of my husband’s haircuts. I don’t cut hair with any skill, nor do I know anything expert about it, but I do cut his hair with relative expertise. And I’ve been doing so for four years.
His hair is pretty forgiving because it’s fine and wavy and dark. I can cut in any direction and it will still sit the same when I’m finished. I’ve learned how to hold the scissors and manage the clippers and have attained a certain dexterity when handling his hair at the same time as my tool. So I am a tiny master of his hairstyle and the shape of his head.
I started giving him haircuts long before quarantine, and not because he couldn’t find an affordable barber or because I was dying to be one — though I will say I have come to enjoy it — I gave him that first haircut because he asked me to.
He had a fresh scar at the edge of his temple and down his jawline from a procedure at the time, and the idea of a stranger taking shears or clippers to anywhere near that area of his head made him wary.
I was nervous, too. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I started with some hair clips, to section off his head, and went clump by clump, imitating all the hairdressers I’d seen in the salons I frequented over the years. We had him sit on a chair, as high up as we could get him, and I started on the uninjured side, working my way around to the other. I was careful. I was slow. We probably spent an hour and half in the bathroom, with me concentrated as he tolerated mounting piles of hair on his shoulders.
He didn’t protest or grumble, though. He didn’t direct or demand. He didn’t flinch. And I didn’t let him down because he had asked me to do it and I had wanted to take care of him.
He doesn’t often ask for help, so his request humbled me. I’m not sure I ever realized how much he trusts me. I never really thought about it because I know I trust him. It’s easy for me to measure how much I trust him and how much I rely on that trust. It’s a rather big deal, too. But I never considered how much he trusted me because I’m not sure I knew how to measure such an intimate and personal choice.
The trust we give others is a choice, on our part. We can lose someone’s trust, but we can’t take it back unless they offer. Trust is earned. Or maybe it’s cultivated over time and through events. Or maybe we barter for trust. We give a little to test, and offer more if that goes well. I suppose the amount depends on how often that person has broken our trust, if ever, and whether others have abused our trust in the past.
Until I thought about my tiny mastery of my husband’s haircuts, I never contemplated the value of his trust in me. In many ways, it’s everything.
I’m going to keep examining the little moments, the teeny events, all the small stuff — which I hear we’re not supposed to sweat — to remind myself to cherish the trust bestowed upon me. Because that exchange, with the one I’m most intimately involved, helps me become a tiny master of being human, too.
This isn’t really a post about mushrooms. It’s actually about rejection. But my very best friend in the whole wide world — who utters such sagacious advice sometimes I’m pretty sure he’s the reincarnation of some ancient female philosopher — reminded me that if I’m out foraging for mushrooms, I don’t need to worry about anything that isn’t one.
I was facing a heap of rejection at the time, having submitted a manuscript to over a hundred agents with very few requests to read it. I was pining away from those who didn’t make requests, and my best friend said, “But you only want the ones who do, so don’t think about the others.” Then he said the mushroom thing, and the scales fell from my eyes.
Now I’m not saying this shift in perspective — which it is — is easy to do. But I do believe you can make a conscious effort to try it. I think you have to train yourself, in fact. You have to know what you want and why you want it and you have to be able to recognize it when it comes. We’re all served spoonfuls of rejection, sometimes daily, and yet I’m not sure we grant ourselves the grace necessary to digest it.
Once we do though, we see the very thing we thought we wanted wasn’t actually the best thing for us. If we don’t see it right away, we can decide to eventually. We have that power. I can see that with the people whose love I wanted returned, and the programs I wanted to accept me, and the roles I wanted to win, and the jobs I wanted to get. I’ve often been grateful for those rejections in hindsight, for that failure, for all the pushbacks and expulsions and denials. They weren’t mine to have because I wasn’t theirs to get.
Value yourself, your skills, your gifts beyond anyone else’s measure. If you do, you’ll see the mushrooms more readily than the non-mushrooms. And keep going. Let the people, the objects, the experiences that don’t open to you pass by with ease. Let them be droplets in a river. Because you’re looking for mushrooms.
Don’t stand in one place. Accept the rejection and let it move you to action, let it change you, if necessary. But don’t make it what you seek. It’s not. Keep hunting and you’ll find the clusters that have been waiting for you to pick all along. They’ll be there. Trust the earth to push yours up when you’re ready to see them, when you’re ready to fill your basket.
I’m working on that now. I’ve got another manuscript on submission and I’m getting enthusiastic requests. It feels good. But I’m also reminding myself I’m foraging for mushrooms and I can let go of anything else. The stalks and caps will burst forth for me to pick. And I can keep looking until I find them because I know they’re here somewhere.
About four years ago, I gave half of my books to the public library on St. Charles in New Orleans. My donation totaled about 100 books — some brand spanking new with bindings still uncracked. My husband graciously lugged the booty the few blocks to the drop-off box several days in a row. We had moved a few times already and saw a few more moves in the future, so without bookshelves, my collection added too many pounds to our life.
One sticky afternoon, I sat outside on our porch on Chestnut and Bordeaux and combed through my titles to cull the ones I absolutely, positively had to keep. This was a nightmare process. I wanted to keep everything. Some I had yet to read, others were marked with notes, and many were filled with memories of the work I’d put into earning my doctorate. All those exams, all that reading, all those hours and hours and hours of quiet study and contemplation, and enjoyment, lest I forget enjoyment, have made me the writer I am today.
I’ve come to realize that books are like furniture. They accumulate over time to give you an identity. They don’t usually go out of fashion like clothes, and you certainly never grow out of them because they change in accordance with you, as you bring fresh eyes to the work. They are often filled with warmth and goodness, and can feel like reassuring friends at times, so the dearth is palpable.
I don’t know if I can explain just how gloomy the process was for me, except to say I revisit that sadness whenever I want to look up a passage in a book I’m most certain I own, only to discover it went in the donation box. It happens more often than not, and I’ve started to wonder who I was when I gave some of them away. I was surely possessed by some curatorial Fury who didn’t know me all that well. She’s stripped me of some valuable texts.
Just today I was looking for my copy of memoirs of a geisha, which I acquired almost two decades ago, long before I decided to become a writer. I was so miffed when I couldn’t find it and I quickly assumed I’d dumped it in the to-go pile. Luckily, I’d only just forgotten it was a hardcover and didn’t recognize the binding on the shelf when I first looked. I was relieved to find it on my third pass. I should’ve known I hadn’t given it away. I’d never part with that one. It was a gift from Arthur Golden himself.
I met the writer briefly in 2005 in Soho, when I was a cocktail waitress at a private launch party for the film adaptation. It was a small event and he was there to sign books for the guests. I’d my own paperback at home and at some point, early in the evening, I greeted him and told him how much I loved his story, and though I’d never been to Japan, his novel brought it to life for me on the page. I also told him I regretted not bringing my copy for him to sign. Our chat was brief, and he was humble, and I thought that was that until his assistant handed me a signed copy at the end of the evening. I didn’t recall telling him my name, but he’d obviously remembered. His note was simple, but also touching.
From my father, I learned books are thoughtful gifts. He always prints his name in his — Peter T. Ambroziak — and when he gives one he often leaves a note for the receiver with the date. I try to follow his lead and add notes to mine, too, whenever I give them as gifts.
I realize not everyone keeps the books they receive — for some of us, they add too much weight — but because they are a fluid object that flows from hand to hand, sometimes you can be fortunate enough to find a used book that’s been a part of an intimate exchange, one that seems to enrich the text itself. Like my used copy of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Fires. I probably ordered it from Abe Books as is, warned ahead of possible marginalia. I remember I was pleasantly surprised to discover the little note inside. I can only imagine Lisa and how special she was to the giver. I can’t parse the signature but it seems the giver was rather touched by the text and wanted to pass along the sentiment. I have to say, message received.
“There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not, then they’re deemed damaged goods. Maybe my purpose on this planet isn’t to procreate.”
To Baby, Or Not to Baby?
I grew up in the Cabbage Patch era and adopted four of the little people, proud of their birth certificates and adoption papers. I cared for them (with the help of my mom), equipped with a stroller, a baby carrier, a diaper bag, onesies and booties and bottles and sippy cups. So I knew how to swaddle and change diapers, and burp and coddle an inanimate object before I was ten years old. This bit of play came naturally to me and because of it I assumed I’d have babies one day.
I recall, quite distinctly, the moment I knew my body would never be pregnant. I experienced a sort of cathartic hemorrhage and felt the relief in my womb. I was sitting on the floor, stretching after exercising when I sensed a physiological fizzle, like a release of tension in my gut to illuminate the moment of solidarity between my psyche and my body. The two parts of me were making a pact, and I cried. Actually, I sobbed. Then it was over.
Through the years, I’ve found an unexpected joy in being an auntie, especially lately. I’ve got seven nieces and nephews to watch over. The youngest are in their tweens and the oldest are making their way in the world already. One of them recently texted me pictures of her new office in Chicago, with a window overlooking the bean (I can’t say how proud this makes me), another texts me just to say hello with sweet little gifs that make me laugh.
And for one of them, who is as tall as Ajax and soon learning to drive, I was in the delivery room for his first moments, to admire my warrior sister as she tapped into a supernatural strength to bring her little one into the light. He played his part too, of course, and fought to make his debut. I was only a watcher and witness to the gift women possess, but this solitary experience will enrich me forever. Around the same time, I was hoping to conceive, and looking back on that era with fresh eyes I can see my unsuccessful attempts were actually a gift. Our bodies know what we need. They tell us all the time.
Not long ago, I visited a friend after she’d just given birth and I was amazed at her natural ability as a mother. She asked me if I wanted to hold her tiny son and I refused, too frightened. I’m not sure if I was more worried I’d do it wrong and harm him, or that I’d feel too much desire for my own. (I held him a couple weeks later for hours as we shared a glass of wine. He was precious, and I was satisfied once more with my choice.)
But I never considered a fear of being inadequate at motherhood was the only reason I decided not to do it. That desire — that longstanding commitment and superhuman ability that women have to give selflessly to someone else twenty-four seven — was a major factor, too. I enjoy spending time working on the things I like to do, and I will shamelessly admit I just don’t want to be someone’s mom. People often talk about wanting to have children. For me, it was about deciding whether I wanted to be a parent. It’s easy for me to imagine a darling little girl named after some poet or literary character or flower, rushing off to school with a Tupperware filled with sandwiches, but I can’t really picture her mother. That woman — that facet of me — remains a stranger. Maybe it’s a chicken and the egg thing. I don’t know.
That’s okay, I guess. If it sounds like I’m trying to convince myself, I may just be.
I’ve been thinking about location lately, and what it means to a writer. Many writers can produce no matter where they are. I’ve seen plenty in coffee shops and heard tales of those on commuter trains squeezing hours in between jobs, but some writers can only produce in a designated place, a quiet place.
Those of us who nerd out on books are often intrigued at where past writers wrote the masterpieces we’ve come to love. (I’ll never forget how excited I was to catch a glimpse of Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva when I was last in Switzerland — history was made in that little abode in Cologny.)
We landmark writers’ houses and vacation homes and rooms and acknowledge these places as sacred because we understand creative energy. We believe it’s around us, on the outside. That’s interesting to me. It suggests the location of our creativity is relevant.
I certainly understand the need for calm surroundings to produce, but I also believe that the only space a writer needs is in the mind. It’s in us, not around us. Virginia Woolf talks about a room of one’s own, which I believe is right on point. But how much of that real estate is simply found in the head? It’s important to bar the outside stuff, to turn the world’s chaos away, in a sense, to build writing space in your mind.
At least, that’s how I’ve come to see it over the years, and probably the reason I’ve been able to write despite not having a permanent space. You see, I’ve moved around a lot in the last two decades, and in the last ten years I’ve been writing, I’ve noticed that wherever I live, I write at least one manuscript. So for archives’ sake, I’ve decided to take note.
I lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, when I wrote my first novella, The Banished Ones (formerly A Perpetual Mimicry). From there I moved to Oakland, California, and lived in an apartment on Lake Merritt, where I wrote the first book in The Journal of Vincent Du Maurier series. (I was supposed to be writing my dissertation at the time). That was in 2012, during the zombie/vampire craze.
When I moved back to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (same building, different apartment) nine months later, in the three years I was living there, I wrote a lot. First, I started and finished my dissertation (a tedious study of redemption in the Early Modern period, though Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton make appearances so I was enjoying some amazing reading, too). Then I wrote books two and three of the vampire series, a short novel called Venus Fall (formerly El and Onine), a short story called The Piano String, a thriller called The Trinity, and a work of contemporary fiction called All At Once (also known as Boy Exits for a brief marketing attempt). Then I moved again.
I landed in Canada and stayed with family for a six-month stint, where I barely wrote at all. I couldn’t produce, which I think has something to do with quiet in the head. I have a large family, which meant less quiet than usual. But I did write the fourth book in my vampire series — that one happened in a burst of energy after four months of not writing at all.
Next I moved to New Orleans, where I lived in two different apartments in six months. New Orleans was a rebirth. My first apartment was in Uptown on Chestnut and Bordeaux, where I wrote a coming-of-age novel called Love Me First (aka Beneath the Same Sky). I also started a detective noir in that same apartment (still a work in progress), and when I moved to my apartment on St. Charles, I wrote a short story called Snowdrifts. I was teaching full-time then, so my hours to write were limited, as well as my head space.
The following move was to the desert. I lived in Las Vegas for six months, and I’ve got to say the Mojave Desert was rather fruitful for me. I wrote a screenplay from the coming-of-age novel I mentioned earlier (called The Moon in the Attic), and I rewrote The Trinity completely. (It hadn’t been well received after a major promo on Bookbub in 2016, which really shook my confidence. To get back on the horse, at the time, I got up every morning at 5 AM to write 1000 words before I left for teaching. That’s how I wrote All At Once and regained the courage to keep going — ps: don’t let bad reviews rob you of your clarity and writing space. It’s in the mind. Your mind. Remember that.)
I also started a historical fantasy manuscript in the desert, which I completed in San Diego, my next stop on the whirlwind moving truck. I lived in downtown San Diego for two years. I taught full-time as well, but still managed to write a domestic suspense, Breaking Ava Lake, which is the last book I self-published. (I’ve decided to shop every manuscript I write from here on in, until I find the right agent for me.) So in San Diego, I wrote my most ambitious project yet, which is currently on submission with agents. It’s a retelling of Prince Troilus’s story during the Trojan War. I’ve submitted widely and it’s been successfully rejected. Good thing I’m stubborn.
I moved to Los Angeles this past summer, where I currently live. I’m in my second apartment here already. I wrote a manuscript in the first place, in the Hollywood Dell. It’s another historical fantasy, a retelling of Lady Macbeth before she becomes Lady Macbeth. I’ve only submitted that one to a handful of agents. I’m planning a rewrite soon. Now I’m living in downtown LA and just completed a work of upmarket suspense that I’m about to start submitting. (Wish me luck!)
I suppose this has a point?
Not really. It’s all to say I realized since I started writing fiction nine years ago I’ve lived in seven different cities and called ten different abodes my home. I’ve also finished seventeen different manuscripts (excluding some false starts and projects I gave up along the way). The only conclusion to draw is that throughout it all I’ve carved out a room of my own, most definitely in my head, and I’m inclined to think it may very well have made Virginia Woolf proud.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bing Crosby’s line: “I’ll be home for Christmas … if only in my dreams.” As much as I get the sentiment, I think I prefer to say if only in my memories. That’s where all my colorful, childhood Christmases live.
I posted the picture above (despite how blurry it is) because that smile expresses it all. I’ve nothing but joyous remembrances of holidays at our house. Our house was always filled with warmth and happiness and funny grown-ups eating too much food and imbibing fancy cocktails and wine by the boxful. I can picture the table, lined with dinner plates overflowing with gravy laced turkey and twice-baked potatoes and stuffing (mmmm, yummy stuffing) and cranberry jelly and green and orange veggies. And of course once we were already full to bursting, we gorged on a spread of chocolates wrapped in tinselly foil paper and waxy sleeves, and bowls of humbugs and mandarins and mixed nuts you earned with a handheld nutcracker, squeezing with all your might. Homemade fruit cakes and gooey sweet squares and pies—chocolate and lemon meringue and Macintosh apple—and crème de menthe desserts with mint ice cream and chocolate crumble crust, all of them just lying around for the taking. (I can’t even IMAGINE the dishes, washed by hand and towel-dried!)
Everyone was pleasantly sedated with goodies before the adults sat around teasing each other and reminiscing about Christmases past. I recall plenty of laughter and even some tears (sentimental, of course—unless they were crocodile tears from overtired, overstimulated, overstuffed kids). We’d watch you play competitive card games and rounds of Scrabble, and all of this after you’d woken up before sunrise to put an enormous turkey in the oven and watch us ogle at Santa’s delivery.
I’ll never forget that early morning feeling, prefaced by a late night of oysters and crackers and chocolate fondue after an eventful evening at a packed church. I don’t know which I loved more: the last carol before exiting or seeing all the Advent candles lit upon entering. I’m astonished we fell asleep that night, though I’m not sure children actually sleep on Christmas Eve. I think they just float is some stasis, an abyss that keeps them nestled until morning. Waking to the snow outside, we lined the window to see, with Christmas lights blinking and twinkling on the tree.
Our tree was always the same. Every single decoration a testament to our years together. The trimming never failed to remind us this was tradition and we’d see it again next year. We kept those decorations in a great big (broken) wardrobe box, an old moving box from long ago. It was such a pleasure to take it out every year to decorate that tree we’d picked on a magical trip to the tree farm. Dad’s chore to cut and cull our very own!
No, excitement doesn’t quite cut it. That’s too trite a word. Pure glee, that’s the correct expression. Honest hope in the unexpected, too. The circumference of gifts beneath the tree would continue to grow in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We’d always try to figure out who was getting what. You’d write elaborate sphinxlike acronyms (mom, the wordsmith) to keep us from guessing. Despite our daily deciphering efforts, we’d fail to break the code. Partially because you’d change the shapes, too. My Cabbage Patch dolls were placed in footwear boxes. Do you recall being so sneaky? Do you know, that’s not only brilliant but also a testament to your wanting to give us the best Christmases ever. And I’ve the memories to prove your success.
So in a year that’s been particularly difficult for so many, and one that won’t go out with a bang but rather a passive protest against this continued isolation, I’ve got all the warmth of those Christmases. I hope you do, too. We’ll make new ones in the years to come. And this one, via FaceTime, will be added to them. Because I’ll always remember it, knowing how lucky I am to be celebrating my 47th Christmas with you—even if virtual and across 4500 kilometers. Thank goodness for techno-miracles. Ho Ho Ho!
Dark fantasy has got me thinking about my soul. Not in the spiritual sense, or the metaphysical, or even the poetic. But in the aesthetic sense. Let me see if I can make sense of what I mean. We all know the saying, the eyes are the window to the soul. (“The eye is the lamp of the body” Matt 6.22.) Either way you spin it, the turn of phrase is poetic to be sure. But what if the reverse were true? What if we have it backwards and the soul actually captains the eyes, directing them to see? Alters the idea of “seeing,” doesn’t it?
Dark fantasy, horror, the sublime, the fantastic and the creepy challenge our ways of seeing and essentially our soul. But from where do these strange tales come? We certainly find demons haunting the literary landscape well before the first gothic novel. Antiquity is filled with dark figures, manipulating man’s sight for their own means; and Dante’s pit of hell is abundant with perverse and perverted embodiments and bodies blinded to present-day happenings as punishment for polluting their souls; and we could ask Doctor Faustus. He’d tell us a thing or two about losing his soul. Once he’d sold his, he lost all perspective, wallowing in a vat of empty knowledge and blind amusement, playing parlor tricks with Mephistopheles until the devils came for payment, to flay and tear his flesh to pieces …
I’m getting off track. I wanted to talk about our ways of seeing and how they’re tied to the soul.
Literature, like the visual and plastic arts, demands we see what is before us and make sense of what we see. Literature that finds itself on the darker side makes greater demands on us, expecting us not only to see, but also to illuminate what we see. Seeing, in fact, has always been a part of gothic fiction. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as example – that poor creature, monster that he is, is terrorized by how others see him. Until the De Lacey siblings discover him, papa De Lacey, blind to the horror in front of him, is content to converse with his gracious and compassionate guest. Readers can readily sympathize with the creature because we don’t have to look at him. We need only imagine his abhorrent figure, which is not the same as witnessing it with our eyes, our soul. Anyone who doubts Mary Shelley challenges our ways of seeing hasn’t read the same text as me (which is very well a possibility, but that’s for a different post).
Shelley works with sight but also the sublime, a mere by-product of her luscious prose and the time in which she wrote (hanging out with poets like Percy and Byron couldn’t have hurt, either). Frankenstein is evocative of, and reliant on, the terrifying landscape in which its characters live—it is Nature, with a capital N. For her, the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the mystery of the glaciers satisfy, but we know even greater majesties of fear—we ride in airplanes and launch rockets into space. Can you imagine how mad Victor would think our science? We understand the sublime viscerally, though we may not know it. The sublime is about seeing, and yet it’s also about feeling fear upon that sight. Standing on a precipice, looking over the edge, into an abyss, that’s sublime; walking into a room we know is haunted … wait, I digress again. Surely it’s my prerogative to do so, no?
I’m certain a faculty bathroom in the college where I used to teach is haunted. I used to feel it every time I went inside, and it thrilled me to test the eeriness of the atmosphere. I was always alone in there, despite its row of stalls, and I swear each time I walked in the lights flickered just a little. And when I’d see the black garbage bag that’s been wrapped on one of the sinks for repair—every time—I’d hesitate. Like a shadow in the corner of my eye I know is there but don’t want to see. Then there’s the sound the room made, the low hum that came from somewhere far beyond the vents, some place like the bowels of a nineteenth century madhouse … But hold on, this wasn’t a unique experience. I used to live in The Dakota on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. You know the building where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed? I lived alone in the maid’s quarters on the empty and desolate eighth floor, but my only bathroom was one floor up and even more desolate. It was the size of a summer camp latrine. Spooky stuff, I tell you, especially since I’m one to drink a cup of tea before bedtime …
Okay, back to the sublime—sight and soul. I’d say it was the Romantic poets who really got the sublime, the terror and darkness of grandeur. For Longinus, the sublime was great and lofty rhetoric, grand thoughts; and the kind of sublime Kant refers to is that which enlists tall oaks and lonely shadows rather than flower beds and low hedges; night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sublime moves and the beautiful charms. But it’s Burke who says it best: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime … terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”
When I think of terror, I immediately think of sight. What I see (or don’t see, perhaps an even more frightening scenario). Whether it’s bathed in darkness or blown out with light, temporary blindness and visual disorientation stimulate the imagination.
Back to the Romantics who as it goes adopted Milton’s Satan and made him their son, their poetic hero and inheritance, the discarded and unforgivable wretch who warred on his maker. Did you ever wonder how we came up with the Byronic hero? The lonely and sublime figure walking on life’s precipice? Lord Byron, in fact, made no small contribution to dark fantasy. He’s rumored to have penned The Vampyre: A Tale (1819), a short story about a bloodsucker who drains the life from everyone he encounters. But we shouldn’t disregard Polidori, who may very well have written it as fan fiction to Byron’s Fragment of a Novel. And then there’s Lermontov’s “The Demon,” a poem also inspired by the great Lord Byron. His poetry is dark in ways we may not have seen before:
Her eye (I’m very fond of handsome eyes)
Was large and dark, suppressing half its fire
Until she spoke, then through its soft disguise
Flash’d an expression more of pride than ire,
And love than either; and there would arise,
A something in them which was not desire,
But would have been, perhaps, but for the soul,
Which struggled through and chasten’d down the whole.
What is that something that arises in those dark eyes, the thing the soul chokes before it escapes? Pity or fear? Horror? The sublime?
We are haunted not only by what we see, but how we see, if we see. When frightened, we say, “Did you see that?” Apparitions are things we build out of thin air; they just magically appear, forged in the shadowy corners of our imagination. The noun “apparition” first appears in 1500, used as “unclosing” in reference to Heaven, and to epiphany, as in The Epiphany, when the Christ child is revealed to the Magi. It comes from late Latin, referring to “an appearance” or “attendants” and is first recorded in 1600 as meaning a ghost. Appearance versus apparition; the one is expected, the other startles. The haunting of an apparition seems to have its roots in antiquity, as poor Narcissus is tortured by the apparition he sees in the lake. He doesn’t know his own reflection, cursed as he is. But the disappearance haunts him more terribly than its appearance.
Dark fantasy deals in haunted sightings, and E. T. A. Hoffman has mastered this. The Sandman (1816) is all about “The eyes! The eyes!” as Mister Coppola calls out to potential buyers of his lenses. Coppo is Italian for eye-socket and Klara, of course, symbolizes clarity. “Things are as we see them,” has never rung more true as it does in this short story, for even the reader can’t tell if Nathanael is mad or imagining the memory of Coppelius or Coppella. The eyes are of importance here, for they determine how we see, what we see and what our eyes appear to be. How much more may be said of the soul?
And then there’s Guy de Maupassant’s Le Horla (1887), a particular favorite of mine. The story entails a psychological splitting of the self embodied in the spirit, or as some say in madness. The narrator is haunted by a passing vessel out in the harbor and the feeling that arises from seeing it. He is more frightened by the invisible spirit since he can’t tell when it’ll appear. And of course Maupassant can’t help tipping his hat to vampirism when his narrator doesn’t see his reflection in the mirror.
But Poe so beautifully questions sight in the Oval Portrait. If you haven’t read this short masterpiece, you must—you really must! I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it could be a thesis for my current ramblings: There is an art to seeing and seeing is an art; dark fantasy encapsulates both most readily.
So dark fantasy takes me to visual art because, well, quite frankly, I think painters and writers are kinfolk. Just as the painter asks his viewer to see his canvas, so too does the writer appeal to her reader’s sense of sight—only her paints are language and her canvas unlimited. But how again do we get to the soul? If you’ve ever seen a painting that has taken you out of the space in which you stood, sucked you into its landscape, or forced you to look, “To see!” by the very strength of its design, you’ve met your soul. It’s the thing that’s forced your eyes to feast on the visual offering, to sacrifice your common sense to the imaginative caves of the mind, to spill blood on the page so you may pass the feeling along to a reader—any reader, willing to swim in the depths of your darkness.
Now I leave you with a few lines from Phoebe Cary’s “Dove’s Eyes,” to ingest as you see fit:
There are eyes half defiant,
Half meek and compliant;
Black eyes, with wondrous, witching charm
To bring us good or to work us harm.