Thirteen Ways Inside My Apocalyptic Heart

When I was a teenager, I went canoeing in a remote Canadian national park with nine other high school students and two counselors. After three straight days of rain, far from any road or phone, we huddled under a tarp and wondered if the rest of society had suddenly fallen into chaos. We were making campfire biscuits, and as we held the sticks clumped with Bisquik dough over the fire, we wondered aloud, “How would we survive?” The light took on an eerie quality, green and glowing, like the canopy above us. We’d make tools! We’d hunt bear and moose! We’d develop a system of order! We’d sing The Cure all day long! This is stranger than I thought / Six different ways inside my heart… Because no matter what, we’d have each other. Eventually the sky changed, and we were back in our canoes, on to the next campsite, and then back to the van and pizza. But everything looked different after that—temporary and glorious.

All to say, everyone should, at some point in their lives, imagine life after the collapse. Of course, many have. You can readily find lists of post-apocalyptic books and films, but other works have also addressed the end times or something akin to them. Here are not six, but 13 ways inside my apocalyptic heart, across many genres.

1. “Garden of Earthly Delights” — painting (right-hand panel) by Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th/early 16th century
I’ve always loved this wonderfully trippy painting for its Where’s Waldo-esque nature. You can stand for hours and look at it—in Madrid’s Museo del Prado or via reproductions in books and posters. The left panel shows the Garden of Eden, full of animals, just two humans (Adam and Eve), and God standing between them. In the central panel, happy naked people eat giant fruits or sniff flowers (some out of each other’s asses) or ride giant ducks/tiny horses or kiss or get ready to do more than kiss. Then on the final panel, there’s the hellish scene, considerably darker than the first two, where presumably those same hedonists now pay for their sins. Cities burn; people fight; disemboweled animals eat human flesh, demons, and corpses. All the people are now ghostly and deformed, vomiting, shitting, or getting stabbed by sharp objects. I love the grotesqueness of it all. Can you imagine the HBO version?!

2. The Lorax — storybook by Dr. Seuss, 1971
Ah yes, the colorful, rhyming picture book for children that offers a harrowing message about the horrors of capitalism, greed, and industry. Down go the Truffula trees to make useless furry scarf-like things that look kind of snuggly, but no, you don’t need a “thneed.” Or do you? As the greedy capitalist goes on “biggering” his business, the Lorax emerges from a stump to “speak for the trees.” But to no end—soon all the trees are gone, the land denuded and polluted—until a young boy comes along and is given a little seed. You know what happens next. Today’s real-life thneeds could be any of the crap we value over trees, clean air, and oceans—plastic water bottles, Sunday Amazon Prime deliveries, the iPhone 15. Unless, as the Lorax implores, we start doing things differently.

3. “Thriller” — music video by Michael Jackson, 1983
The first night the video aired, I watched MTV huddled on a sofa with tweens and teens from the dance studio where I spent most of my after-school hours. We were rapt. At 14 minutes, it was the longest dance video we’d ever seen. That set, that makeup! The dead, they could dance. We tried immediately to replicate the steps. We knew it was the beginning of something, but we didn’t know yet what. All we knew was that Michael Jackson and his zombies were the best dancers on the planet. But genius sometimes has a flipside. Decades later, it broke our hearts to learn of the terrible, unforgivable things MJ did. That in itself is a kind of apocalypse.

4. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” — song by R.E.M., 1987
One of the best, most recognizable drum intros to what might be the most animated song about the end times out there. Conceived as a dirge based on Michael Stipe’s dreams, the song changed after the audience met it with enthusiastic energy. I get it. The song makes me want to jump around, too. I first heard it on a mix tape. To learn the words, I had to stop and rewind over and over. The litany of tongue twisting, seemingly unrelated statements—inspired by Bob Dylan’s beatnik storytelling—were fun to sing. It still is. And while the lyrics still trip me up, the chorus has gotten wildly easier and, sadly, more apropos with every listen.

5. “April the 14th Part 1” and “Ruination Day Part 2” — songs by Gillian Welch, 2001
I knew April 14 was an auspiciously bad day before I heard Gillian Welch’s haunting songs on Time (The Revelator). “Ruination Day,” she calls it. On that date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot; in 1912, the Titanic hit the iceberg; in 1935, one of the worst dust storms, “Black Sunday” hit Oklahoma and Texas. Welch sings of these unfortunate events in “Ruination Day Part 2”. In “April the 14th Part 1,” she adds to the list the day a young rock ‘n’ roll band from Idaho played a “five band bill” in her town, offering a dim, haunting picture of what life in a band can really be like. It’s slow and droning, and the “girl passed out in the backseat trash” feels specter-like. You can imagine the beer cans and the torn jeans and bone-deep exhaustion—all of it, in a certain light, or maybe at a certain age, seems kind of apocalyptic-chic. April 14 is also my birthday, which, all in all, was a good day.

6. “We’re Back” — Adbusters magazine, Nov/Dec 2004
This issue of the culture jamming magazine imagined a cataclysmic event that brings down the economy and power grid. The issue, published on newsprint six months after the fictional fall, featured dramatic images along with letters from readers about how they were faring. It included scathing critiques of greed and consumerism, clearly the causes of the collapse. But there are also plenty of poetic musings on what ultimately might matter once commercialized desire is gone, as well as a slew of survival tips, like how to make moonshine, practice self-defense, and collect plants for medicine. Two of my favorite entries were a hand-drawn map of the U.S. railroads inviting people to go west on foot, and a letter to a lover—a lament to distance. Inspired by these two entries, I created a character that took up such a cross-country journey to find his distanced lover. Then I wrote The Lightest Object in the Universe, a novel about love in the post-apocalypse world.

7. Idiocracy — film, 2006
What can I say? This film isn’t exactly a tour-de-force, but it’s possible that it portends our future, which means maybe we should pay close attention. A sci-fi dystopia directed by Mike Judge, the story follows two people of average intelligence who participate in a hibernation experiment (think cryogenics). They wake, 500 years later, to an idiotic world. The smart humans stopped multiplying, but the dumb ones didn’t, thereby diluting the average human intelligence with every generation. In the Idiocracy, everyone watches really bad TV and shops at a gigantic Costco. Maybe watch it with a few beers or a joint—you know, get a little primed. Just remember, it’s not a documentary. Although in the last decade I’ve compared contemporary America to the one in the film more times than I can count. Especially since 2016. Sad!

8. “Freedom of Information, Reprised” — dance by Miguel Gutierrez et al., 2008
In 2001 choreographer Miguel Gutierrez challenged himself to move for 24 hours blindfolded in a room in response to the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the tail end of 2008, he did it again, inviting a dancer from each state to join him. I considered being one of them, but wasn’t sure I had the stamina. On grainy, live internet feeds, I watched a handful of my friends do it, though. This was just a few months after the U.S. financial crisis hit and a month after the U.S. signed an agreement to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. There was a lot to be thinking about, moving about. In a blog post after the performance, Gutierrez responded to what people often say about war being inevitable: “Have we really, as individuals, as a group, tapped into our total power as spiritual beings, as thinking bodies? Have we exhausted compassion?” Gutierrez is always pushing limits—of performance, choreography, the notion of dance itself. The reprise of FOI intentionally stretched the limits of compassion, making space for the thinking and spiritual body, even in solitude, to find community and solidarity.

9. “Midway: Message from the Gyre” — photographs by Chris Jordan, 2009-present
These images of dead baby albatrosses will make you weep, but you should look at them. In 2009 the photographer began documenting the birds on the Midway Islands, 2,000 miles from any continent. The young birds died of starvation or from choking, and autopsies showed why—their insides were filled with plastic, fed to them by their parents who’d mistaken it for food floating in the Pacific Ocean. The amount of plastic inside the birds is beyond belief. But the photographs stand as proof. There’s a film, too, if you can handle it (I couldn’t). If this doesn’t signal the horrific and deadly dominion humans have over the world, I don’t know what does.

10. The Walking Dead — TV series from AMC, 2010-present
This is the zombie apocalypse at its best. I binge-watched the first five seasons one stifling Tucson summer during a bad case of heartache. Aside from cinematically displaying everything I was feeling inside, the storyline also taught me a lot about how we might cope if and when the zombies come. Some will hold on to the past, some will run, some will get power-hungry, some will be kind, and some will turn on their neighbors. What will you do?

11. “The New Plague” — short story by Frankie Rollins from The Sin Eater & Other Stories, 2013
It’s hard to pull off an apocalypse in a short story, but Rollins does it delightfully, which might be a strange way to describe a story about plague, but there it is. Likely transmitted by a stray cat the narrator lets inside, the illness starts with sores on the body. The narrator and her husband, Chas, are soon quarantined in their house, subject to prodding and chemical spray-downs by doctors in hazmat gear. With this particular plague, the end is heralded by the arrival of the “Visitor,” a smelly, gaspy, grunting Grim Reaper-like figure. And so, our couple is left to wait inside their marriage, with her guilt and his derision. Little joys arrive, the way they can in the midst of illness and fear. A friend smuggles them Chinese food, and they savor every bite. An art project in the basement delights the narrator: “The gestures of these hands, their movements and shape and heat, these things will be gone soon. There will be nothing left of them, no mark, this life I’ve lived nothing more than a breeze, a long exhalation.” Sadly for you, Rollins’s exquisite collection is out of print, the book’s publisher—Queen’s Ferry Press—is now defunct. A few copies remain on Amazon. But maybe the end isn’t really the end. Might we get a second printing?

12. Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — scientific report, 2014
This comprehensive assessment of the climate represents the voluntary work of thousands of scientists and experts across the world, and it reveals the unequivocal consensus about the existence of climate change, its impacts on humans, and its acceleration because of us. The first sentence: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of green-house gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” To see the impacts in real time, of course, all you need to do is watch the daily news. One year after the release of the report, 175 parties signed the Paris Climate Accord, pledging to keep global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. But when President Donald Trump entered office, he announced he’d be pulling the United States out of the accord. Follow-up reports to the Fifth Assessment reveal the continued harrowing impacts posed by human-induced climate change and forecast many more. Trump continues not only to deny the science but also forbid it. Meanwhile, in 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that one million plant and animal species now face imminent extinction, more than in any other period in human history.

13. Matieres Fecales — fashion designers/Instagram phenoms/musicians, 2016-present
I learned about the Canadian artist duo Matieres Fecales or “Fecal Matter,” on Instagram while making this list. I’m typically distrustful of fashion, but this work helps me understand it in a new way. Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran are millennials, but their work carries us right into the post-human future, making us question who we might become. Their looks, to me, are a blend of goth, zombie, cyborg, alien, BDSM, and Avatar. In welcome ways, they push the definitions of gender and fashion, in response to the child labor, low wages, and throwaway culture on which fast fashion often depends. “Calling our platform Fecal Matter was really a stab at the heart of the industry—showing that all of these material belongings we are all collecting and harvesting is all just shit at the end of the day,” says Dalton in ArtSlant. You can shop their provocative and affordable line on DePop, where you’ll find such wearables as a Facetox Harness, “a metal ring system that is applied on the mouth to pull it back to create a puckered face” (and can also be worn as a necklace), or a Hardcore Harness made with metal handcuff and designed to represent “the restrictions we feel sometimes within the system.” They also make grinding, industrial, futuristic music, to which you can dance in their special barefoot high heels. Trippy!

And because some say 13 is an unlucky number, here are a few more:

14. The Day After — made-for-television movie, 1983
Before this movie, we ducked under our tiny desks in classroom drills because our teacher told us to. After the movie, we knew why and we trembled.

15. Hadestown — album/folk opera by Anais Mitchell, 2010
Before the Broadway version won eight Tonys in 2019, this modern adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice was a folk opera sung in voices so achingly beautiful you can feel the underworld and its opposite come alive in your body.

16. “Inventory” — short story by Carmen Maria Machado, 2013
In this gorgeous chronicle of one woman’s inventory of sexual encounters, before, during, and after a flu pandemic, Machado explores the meaning of intimacy within the inherent fragility of life as we know it.

Image credit: Unsplash/Cata.

Another Person’s Words: Poetry Is Always the Speaker

Blessedly, we are speakers of languages not of our own invention, and as such none of us are cursed in only a private tongue. Words are our common property; it would be a brave iconoclast to write entirely in some Adamic dialect of her own invention, her dictionary locked away (though from the Voynich Manuscript to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, some have tried). Almost every word you or I speak was first uttered by somebody else – the key is entirely in the rearrangement. Sublime to remember that every possible poem, every potential play, ever single novel that could ever be written is hidden within the Oxford English Dictionary. The answer to every single question too, for that matter. The French philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot enthuse in their 1660 Port-Royal Grammar that language is a “marvelous invention of composing out of 25 or 30 sounds that infinite variety of expressions which, whilst having in themselves no likeness to what is in our mind, allow us to… [make known] all the various stirrings of our soul.” Dictionaries are oracles. It’s simply an issue of putting those words in the correct order. Language is often spoken of in terms of inheritance, where regardless of our own origins speakers of English are the descendants of Walt Whitman’s languid ecstasies, Emily Dickinson’s psalmic utterances, the stately plain style of the King James bible, the witty innovations of William Shakespeare, and the earthy vulgarities of Geoffrey Chaucer; not to forget the creative infusions of foreign tongues, from Norman French and Latin, to Ibo, Algonquin, Yiddish, Spanish, and Punjabi, among others. Linguist John McWhorter puts it succinctly in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, writing that “We speak a miscegenated grammar.”

There is a glory to this, our words indicating people and places different from ourselves, our diction an echo of a potter in a Bronze Age East Anglian village, a canting rogue in London during the golden era of Jacobean Theater, or a Five Points Bowery Boy in antebellum New York. Nicholas Oster, with an eye towards its diversity of influence, its spread, and its seeming omnipresence, writes in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World that “English deserves a special position among world languages” as it is a “language with a remarkably varied history.” Such history perhaps gives the tongue a universal quality, making it a common inheritance of humanity. True with any language, but when you speak it would be a fallacy to assume that your phrases, your idioms, your sentences, especially your words are your own. They’ve passed down to you. Metaphors of inheritance can either be financial or genetic; the former has it that our lexicon is some treasure collectively willed to us, the later posits that in the DNA of language, our nouns are adenine, verbs are as if cytosine, adjectives like guanine, and adverbs are thymine. Either sense of inheritance has its uses as a metaphor, and yet they’re both lacking to me in some fundamental way – too crassly materialist, too eugenic. The proper metaphor isn’t inheritance, but consciousness. I hold that a language is as if a living thing, or to be more specific, as if a thinking thing. Maybe this isn’t a metaphor at all, perhapswe’re simply conduits for the thoughts of something bigger than ourselves, the contemplations of the language which we speak.

Philosopher George Steiner, forever underrated, writes in his immaculate After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation that “Language is the highest and everywhere the foremost of those assents which we human beings can never articulate solely out of our own means.” We’re neurons in the mind of language, and our communications are individual synapses in that massive brain that’s spread across the Earth’s eight billion inhabitants, and back generations innumerable. When that mind becomes self-aware of itself, when language knows that it’s language, we call those particular thoughts poetry. Argentinean critic (and confidant of Jorge Luis Borges) Alberto Manguel writes in A Reader on Reading that poetry is “proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay;” it is that which demonstrates the eerie significance of language itself. Poetry is when language consciously thinks.

More than rhyme and meter, or any other formal aspect, what defines poetry is its self-awareness. Poetry is the language which knows that it’s language, and that there is something strange about being such. Certainly, part of the purpose of all the rhetorical accoutrement which we associate with verse, from rhythm to rhyme scheme, exists to make the artifice of language explicit. Guy Deutscher writes in The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention that the “wheels of language run so smoothly” that we rarely bother to “stop and think about all the resourcefulness that must have gone into making it tick.” Language is pragmatic, most communication doesn’t need to self-reflect on, well, how weird the very idea of language is. How strange it is that we can construct entire realities from variations in the breath that comes out of our mouths, or the manipulation of ink stains on dead trees (or of liquid crystals on a screen). “Language conceals its art,” Deutscher writes, and he’s correct. When language decides to stop concealing, that’s when we call it poetry.

Verse accomplishes that unveiling in several different ways, chief among them the use of the rhetorical and prosodic tricks, from alliteration to Terza rima, which we associate with poetry. One of the most elemental and beautiful aspects of language which poetry draws attention towards are the axioms implied earlier in this essay – that the phrases and words we speak are never our own – and that truth is found not in the invention, but in the rearrangement. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that we receive “the word from another’s voice and filled with that other voice.” Our language is not our own, nor is our literature. We communicate in a tongue not of our own creation; we don’t have conversations, we are the conversation. Bakhtin reasons that our “own thought finds the world already inhabited.” Just as the organization of words into enjambed lines and those lines into stanzas demonstrates the beautiful unnaturalness of language, so to do allusion, bricolage, and what theorists call intertextuality make clear to us that we’re not individual speakers of words, but that words are speakers of us. Steiner writes in Grammars of Creation that “the poet says: ‘I never invent.’” This is true, the poet never invents, none of us do. We only rearrange – and that is beautiful.

True of all language, but few poetic forms are as honest about this as a forgotten Latin genre from late antiquity known as the cento. Rather than inheritance and consciousness, the originators of the cento preferred the metaphor of textiles. For them, all of poetry is like a massive patchwork garment, squares of fabric borrowed from disparate places and sewn together to create a new whole. Such a metaphor is an apt explanation of what exactly a cento is – a novel poem that is assembled entirely from rearranged lines written by other poets. Centos were written perhaps as early as the first-century, but the fourth-century Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius was the first to theorize about their significance and to give rules for their composition. In the prologue to Cento Nuptialias, where he composed a poem about marital consummation from fragments of Virgil derived from The Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, Ausonius explained that he has “but out of a variety of passages and different meanings,” created something new which is “like a puzzle.”

The editors of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory explain that while forgotten today, the cento was “common in later antiquity.” Anthologizer and poet David Lehman writes in The American Scholar that “Historically, the intent was often homage, but it could and can be lampoon,” with critic Edward Hirsch writing in A Poet’s Glossary that they “may have begun as school exercises.” Though it’s true that they were written for educational reasons, to honor or mock other poets, or as showy performance of lyrical erudition (the author exhibiting their intimacy with Homer and Virgil), none of these explanations does service to the cento’s significance. To return to my admittedly inchoate axioms of earlier, one function of poetry is to plunge “us into a network of textual relations,” as the theorist Graham Allen writes in Intertextuality. Language is not the provenance of any of us, but rather a common treasury; with its other purpose being what Steiner describes as the “rec-compositions of reality, of articulate dreams, which are known to us as myths, as poetry, as metaphysical conjecture.” That’s to say that the cento remixes poetry, it recombines reality, so as to illuminate some fundamental truth hitherto hidden. Steiner claims that a “language contains within itself the boundless potential of discovery,” and the cento is a reminder that fertile are the recombination’s of poetry that have existed before, that literature is a rich, many-varied compost from which beautiful new specimens can grow towards the sun.

Among authors of centos, this is particularly true of the fourth-century Roman poet Faltonia Betitia Proba. Hirsch explains that one of the purposes of the cento, beyond the pedagogical or the parodic, was to “create Christian narratives out of pagan text,” as was the case with Proba’s Cento virgilianus, the first major Christian epic by a woman poet. Allen explains that “Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature;” what Proba’s cento did was a more literal expression of that fundamental fact. The classical past posed a difficulty for proud Roman Christians, for how were the faithful to grapple with the paganism of Plato, the Sibyls, and Virgil? One solution was typological, that is the assumption that if Christianity was true, and yet pagan poets like Virgil still spoke the truth, that such must be encoded within his verse itself, part of the process of Interpretatio Christiana whereby pagan culture was reinterpreted along Christian lines.

Daughter of Rome that she was, Proba would not abandon Virgil, but Christian convert that she also was, it became her task to internalize that which she loved about her forerunner and to repurpose him, to place old wine into new skins. Steiner writes that an aspect of authorship is that the “poet’s consciousness strives to achieve perfect union with that of the predecessor,” and though those lyrics are “historically autonomous,” as reimagined by the younger poet they are “reborn from within.” This is perhaps true of how all influence works, but the cento literalizes that process in the clearest manner. And so Proba’s solution was to rearrange, remix, and recombine the poetry of Virgil so that the Christianity could emerge, like a sculptor chipping away all of the excess marble in a slab to reveal the statue hidden within.

Inverting the traditional pagan invocation of the muse, Proba begins her epic (the proem being the only original portion) with both conversion narrative and poetic exhortation, writing that she is “baptized, like the blest, in the Castalian font – / I, who in my thirst have drunk libations of the Light – / now being my song: be at my side, Lord, set my thoughts/straight, as I tell how Virgil sang the offices of Christ.” Thus, she imagines the prophetic Augustan poet of Roman Republicanism who died two decades before the Nazarene was born. Drawing from a tradition which claimed Virgil’s Eclogue predicted Christ’s birth, Proba rearranged 694 lines of the poet to retell stories from Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels, the lack of Hebrew names in the Roman original forcing her to use general terms which appear in Virgil, like “son” and “mother,” when writing of Jesus and Mary. Proba’s paradoxically unoriginal originality (or is its original unoriginality?) made her popular in the fourth and fifth-centuries, the Cento virgilianus taught to catechists alongside Augustin, and often surpassing Confessions and City of God in popularity. Yet criticism of Proba’s aesthetic quality from figures like Jerome and Pope Gelasius I ensured a millennium-long eclipse of her poem, forgotten until its rediscovery with the Renaissance.

Rearranging the pastoral Eclogues, Proba envisions Genesis in another poet’s Latin words, writing that there is a “tree in full view with fruitful branches;/divine law forbids you to level with fire or iron,/by holy religious scruple it is never allowed to be disturbed./And whoever steals the holy fruit from this tree,/will pay the penalty of death deservedly;/no argument has changed my mind.” Something uncanny about the way that such a familiar myth is reimagined in the arrangement of a different myth; the way in which Proba is a redactor of Virgil’s words, shaping them (or pulling out from) this other, different, unintended narrative. Scholars have derided her poem as juvenilia since Jerome (jealously) castigated her talent by calling her “old chatterbox,” but to be able to organize, shift, and shape another poet’s corpus into orthodox scripture is an unassailable accomplishment. Writers of the Renaissance certainly thought so, for a millennium after Proba’s disparagement, a new generation of humanists resuscitated her.

Cento virgilianus was possibly the first work by a woman to be printed, in 1474; a century before that, and the father of Renaissance poetry Petrarch extolled her virtues in a letter to the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, and she was one of the subjects of Giovani Boccaccio’s 1374 On Famous Women, his 106 entry consideration of female genius from Eve to Joanna, the crusader Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily. Boccaccio explains that Proba collected lines of Virgil with such “great skill, aptly placing the entire lines, joining the fragments, observing the metrical rules, and preserving the dignity of the verses, that no one except an expert could detect the connections.” As a result of her genius, a reader might think that “Virgil had been a prophet as well as an apostle,” the cento suturing together the classic and the Hebraic, Athens and Jerusalem.

Ever the product of his time, Boccaccio could still only appreciate Proba’s accomplishment through the lens of his own misogyny, writing that the “distaff, the needle, and weaving would have been sufficient for her had she wanted to lead a sluggish life like the majority of women.” Boccaccio’s myopia prevented him from seeing that that was the precise nature of Proba’s genius – she was a weaver. The miniatures which illustrate a fifteenth-century edition of Boccaccio give truth to this, for despite the chauvinism of the text, Proba is depicted in gold-threaded red with white habit upon her head, a wand holding aloft a beautiful, blue expanding sphere studded with stars, a strangely scientifically accurate account of the universe as the poet sings song of Genesis in the tongue of Virgil. Whatever anonymous artist saw fit to depict Proba as a mage understood her well; for that matter they understood creation well, for perhaps God can generate ex nihilo, but artists must always gather their material from fragments shored against their ruin.

In our own era of allusion, reference, quotation, pastiche, parody, and sampling, you’d think that the cento would have new practitioners and new readers. Something of the disk jockeys Danger Mouse, Fatboy Slim, and Girl Talk in the idea of remixing a tremendous amount of independent lines into some synthesized newness; something oddly of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in the very form of the thing. But centos proper are actually fairly rare in contemporary verse, despite T.S. Eliot’s admission that “mature poets steal.” Perhaps with more charity, Allen argues that reading is a “process of moving between texts. Meaning because something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates.” But while theorists have an awareness of the ways in which allusion dominates the modernist and post-modernist sensibility – what theorists who use the word “text” too often call “intertextuality” – the cento remains as obscure as other abandoned poetic forms from the Anacreontic to the Zajal (look them up). Lehman argues that modern instances of the form are “based on the idea that in some sense all poems are collages made up of other people’s words; that the collage is a valid method of composition, and an eloquent one.”

Contemporary poets who’ve tried their hand include John Ashbery, who weaved together Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Byron, and Elliot; as well as Peter Gizzi who in “Ode: Salute to the New York School” made a cento from poets like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Ashbery. Lehman has tried his own hand at the form, to great success. In commemoration of his Oxford Book of American Poetry, he wrote a cento for The New York Times that’s a fabulous chimera whose anatomy is drawn from a diversity that is indicative of the sweep and complexity of four-centuries of verse, including among others Robert Frost, Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Taylor, Jean Toomer, Anne Bradstreet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Robert Pinsky, Marianne Moore, and this being a stolidly American poem, our grandparents Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Lehman contributed an ingenious cento sonnet in The New Yorker assembled from various Romantic and modernist poets, his final stanza reading “And whom I love, I love indeed,/And all I loved, I loved alone,/Ignorant and wanton as the dawn,” the lines so beautifully and seamlessly flowing into one another that you’d never notice that they’re respectively from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Butler Yeats. Equally moving was a cento written by editors at the Academy of American Poets, which in its entirety reads:

In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man is King
Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree
Day after day, I become of less use to myself,
The hours after you are gone are so leaden.
Take this rather remarkable little poem on its own accord. Its ambiguity is remarkable, and the lyric is all the more powerful for it. To whom is the narrator speaking, who has been trusted and apparently violated that loyalty? Note how the implied narrative of the poem breaks after the dash that end-stops the third line. In the first part of the poem, we have declarations of betrayal, somebody is impugned as “Brute. Spy.” But from that betrayal, that “great pain,” there is some sort of transformation of feeling; neither acceptance nor forgiveness, but almost a tacit defeat, the “vulturous boredom.” The narrator psychologically, possibly physically, withers. They become less present to themselves, “of less use to myself.” And yet there is something to be said for the complexity of emotions we often have towards people, for though it seems that this poem expresses the heartbreak of betrayal, the absence of its subject is still that which affects the narrators so that the “hours… are so leaden.” Does the meaning of the poem change when I tell you that it was stitched together by those editors, drawn from a diversity of different poets in different countries living at different times? That the “true” authors are Charles Wright, Marie Ponsot, Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Beckett?

Steiner claims that “There is, stricto sensu, no finished poem. The poem made available to us contains preliminary versions of itself. Drafts [and] cancelled versions.” I’d go further than Steiner even, and state that there is no individual poet. Just as all drafts are ultimately abandoned rather than completed, so is the task of completion ever deferred to subsequent generations. All poems, all writing, and all language for that matter, are related to something else written or said by someone else at some point in time, a great chain of being going back to the beginnings immemorial. We are, in the most profound sense, always finishing each other’s’ sentences. Far from something to despair at, this truth is something that binds us together in an untearable patchwork garment, where our lines and words have been loaned from somewhere else, given with the solemn promise that we must pay it forward. We’re all just lines in a conversation that began long ago, and thankfully shall never end. If you listen carefully, even if it requires a bit of decipherment or decoding, you’ll discover the answer to any query you may have. Since all literature is a conversation, all poems are centos. And all poems are prophecies whose meanings have yet to be interpreted.

Image credit: Unsplash/Alexandra.

Thirteen Songs That Prove Lou Reed Was a Literary Master

Intriguing both bibliophiles and music geeks in one gesture, the New York Public Library recently established a Lou Reed archive that makes accessible hundreds of hours of the man’s labyrinthine audio and video recordings, many photographs taken of and by Reed himself, press clippings from his notorious concerts, artwork, and selections from his personal papers. For those (like me) who insist on giving the best of rock lyrics the same respect as literature, seeing Reed’s personal archive get the same rollout that acclaimed writers such as John Updike or Toni Morrison might receive is pretty exciting. And there’s no better place than the NYPL to give a proud New Yorker like Reed—who made a long career out of writing about the city’s strange, eccentric, and marginalized—this kind of attention. The bleary, blurry image emblazoned on the limited-edition library cards are taken from Mick Rock’s iconic cover shot for Transformer, arguably Reed’s most popular solo record. It’s a creative way of bridging the gap between the bookshelves and the streets, which is a natural space for Reed’s work to live.

What made Reed’s songs special went beyond his notorious obsession with decadence, his caustic dry wit, and his sneaky romantic vulnerability. He was also one of the most literate of musicians and wasn’t shy about making his literary influences known. As a college kid, he was mentored by the brilliantly mad poet and critic Delmore Schwartz and took inspiration from the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, Shakespeare, and Poe. Lulu, his odd later-period collaboration with Metallica, is perhaps best passed over—but basing a metal record on a 19th-century Austrian play is something very few writers would have even imagined, let alone attempted. Reed brought an informed, sophisticated writer’s eye to the kinds of underworlds he inhabited and observed, and his sense of language was as keen as a journalist’s. Reed made sure all the who, where, what, how, why bases got covered, using his own laconic, inimitable language.

Below is a mixtape-style selection of a few of his most literate and literarily engaging songs. As the man himself put it, between thought and expression lies a lifetime. Here’s a sample of what went into that lifetime.

1. “I’m Waiting for the Man
Never has an anecdote about heading uptown to cop some dope been this Hemingway-esque. It’s all in the extremely sparse but very detailed language, incorporating the random snippets of street talk (“hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?”) and the time-honored truisms of the drug game (“he’s never early, he’s always late/first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait”). The way the half-spoke, half-sung lyrics change the article in the title—“waiting for MY man” rather than just “THE” man—adds a bit of a homoerotic overtone, which make the song even more narratively complex for the mid ‘60s.

2. “Heroin
Probably The Velvet Underground’s single greatest song, and one that Reed would revisit at various points in his career. Everything that made the band revolutionary comes together, lyrically and musically. From the forlorn thesis statement in the opening—“I don’t know just where I’m going/ But I’m/ Gonna try for the kingdom if I can”—about escaping the ugly realities of urban life “where a man cannot be free/ of all of the evils of his town/ and of himself and those around” to the dreamlike fantasies that intoxication brings: “I wish that/ I’d sailed the darkened seas/on a great big clipper ship.” The song’s hypnotic melody and propulsive rhythm immerse the listener in an experience that has rarely been produced in pop music, then or now.

3. “The Gift
What other band would set an entire short story to music? This darkly funny little anecdote of long-distance romance gone awry is one of the hidden gems of White Light/White Heat, the band’s pitch-black second record. It’s a short story Reed wrote as a creative writing student in college. Lovelorn Waldo Jeffers longs for Marsha, his sort-of girlfriend during a break from school. Tortured by his visions of her falling for someone else, Waldo takes unexpectedly drastic measures to surprise her. John Cale reads the story in his lovely Welsh voice in one stereo channel while the band grooves away in the other. And lucky for us: we now have clearer recordings to help make this mash-up work.

4. “Candy Says
One of Reed’s unique skills as a songwriter was being able to create a fully-fleshed character within mere minutes. This opening track to the band’s third record is one of his most poignant. Inspired by one of Warhol’s superstars—also referenced by name in “Walk On the Wild Side” as the one who hails from “the islands” and doesn’t lose her head even when…you know the rest—it’s a song about the emotional quandary Candy finds herself in as a trans person in a world that won’t see or hear her on her own terms: as she explains by way of introduction: “I’ve come to hate my body/ And all that it requires from this world.” Velvet Underground member Doug Yule sings it with a touching innocence. Reed once generously described Candy’s state of mind in terms of the universal experience of not liking what one sees in the mirror: “I don’t know a person alive who doesn’t feel that way.” Here, he takes that emotion and applies it to someone whose whole life hangs in the balance.

5. “Pale Blue Eyes
This is what I was talking about when I mentioned romantic vulnerability before. Reed always had attitude to burn, and he was infamous for being as surly and unforthcoming as possible in interviews. It’s fair to say that Reed kept his guard up as often as possible in public, though in his music it was sometimes a very different story. In terms of putting your still-beating heart out on a slab for all to see, this song is about as naked and vulnerable as it gets: “It was good what we did yesterday/ And I’d do it once again/ The fact that you are married/ Only proves you’re my best friend/ But it’s truly, truly a sin/ Linger on/ Your pale blue eyes.”

6. “Perfect Day
Of course, pretty much everyone already knows this one. But instead of that being a reason for exclusion, I think it shows how universally relatable Reed’s writing could be. It was sung by a series of prominent musicians after Reed died and remains one of his most emotionally affecting songs. The beauty is in the simplicity: a walk in the park, a trip to the zoo, taking in a flick, and then heading home. Nothing terribly dramatic about any of it on the surface but “it’s such fun.” It’s a lovely reminder of the luminous beauty of everyday experiences, with a little extra touch of Biblical wisdom (“You’re going to reap just what you sow”) added for good measure.

7. “Berlin
When making a list like this, you just can’t not add something from Berlin. This is the romantic prologue to one of Reed’s bleakest records, which, given his discography, is saying something. While he hadn’t actually been to Berlin before writing and recording the record, Reed was compelled by the idea of a divided, war-torn city and he used it as an ambient backdrop for some of his most gut-wrenching material. A drug dealer and a woman in distress emotionally slug it out over a series of songs—while the premise is anything but romantic, there’s something poetic amid all the darkness. The title track is all hushed but evocative minimalism, delivered in a breathless whisper as if a harsh word would shatter the illusion of peace: “In Berlin/ By the wall/ You were five feet ten inches tall/ We were in/ A small café/ You could hear the guitars play/ It was very nice/ Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice/ It was very nice/ Oh honey it was paradise.”

8. “Street Hassle
One of the overlooked masterpieces of Reed’s solo career, this song is maybe better understood as a trilogy of three different songs in one. It begins with a random hookup—“Ooh baby, you know that I’m on fire and you know that I admire your body, why don’t we slip away?”—that turns into something else entirely: “he made love to her gently/ It was like she’d never, ever come.” The surging cello lines underline the poignance of this tough-minded narrative as fleeting bliss turns morbid. The story unfolds via overheard dialogue: another person’s sketchy response to the woman’s fate throwing some gritty shade on the surprise romance. And none other than Bruce Springsteen appears in the midst of the story as a kind of Greek chorus, reciting some lines that play off of the title of one of his best-known songs. Reed once said that his ambition for this song was “to write a song that had a great monologue set to rock. Something that could have been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler.” By the end of the song, you might think that he just might have pulled it off.

9. “Busload of Faith
Anything from 1989’s New York could make this list—there’s a reason why it’s considered one of Reed’s greatest solo efforts. As a concept album, it was intended to be listened to in one sitting, the way a novella or a movie might be consumed—all the better to give Reed’s jaundiced tales of Gotham’s high and low life their due. This song offers an almost journalistic immersion into life on the mean streets, which at the time were still ravaged with urban decay: “You can depend on the worst always happening/ You need a busload of faith to get by.”

10. “The Trouble with Classicists
Not many singer/songwriters could boast of having been close with one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Andy Warhol was a patron for the Velvets and encouraged the young Reed to “leave all the dirty words in.” Years after their acrimonious split, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs for Drella their tribute to the pioneer of pop art. Drella was their nickname for Warhol, combining Cinderella and Dracula. Snippets from Warhol’s notebooks and journals inspired the lyrics, including an excerpt from Warhol’s papers, which is recited by Cale and becomes something like a posthumous monologue. This song offers a look into Warhol’s—and by extension, Reed’s and Cale’s—contentious relationship to the mainstream: “The trouble with a classicist he looks at a tree/ That’s all he sees, he paints a tree…I like the druggy downtown kids who spray paint walls and trains/ I like their lack of training, their primitive technique/ I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school.”

11. “Magic and Loss
After two of Reed’s close friends—the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus (who gave Reed his start as a songwriter-for-hire) and a not-so-legendary person known as “Rita,” who was most likely Rotten Rita, a former member of the Warhol crowd—suddenly died, Reed responded with this album-length song cycle. How perfectly Reed-like to be equally wounded by the loss of an American musical legend and a marginal figure in the New York art underworld. The songs consist of mournful and hauntingly simple explorations of death and the survivor’s emotional aftermath. The whole record is a moving and somber meditation on life’s transience, finished with some hard-won wisdom that comes out of the other side of heartbreak. The concluding track from Reed’s arguably most vulnerable period sums it all up as well as any song can: “There’s a little magic in everything/ And some loss to even things out.”

12. “Set the Twilight Reeling
In the mid ’90s, Reed was something of an elder statesman of rock. He’d been in the game for decades, inspired countless important bands, gotten extremely high in the ’70s and yet by this point had managed to maintain a lengthy sobriety. He was newly in love with Laurie Anderson, who was to be his companion up until the very end of his life. The title track from this mature record talks frankly about how age hasn’t softened or flummoxed him and instead how he has grown to “accept the new man/ and set the twilight reeling.” The live clip here is especially life-affirming in its intensity.

13. “The Raven
It takes some serious guts to rethink the works of Edgar Allan Poe, especially his most famous poem of all. And it’s kind of awesome that a remake of the poem should include a phrase like “arrogant dickless liar.” As Reed explained in an interview with Greil Marcus, the goal wasn’t necessarily to rewrite Poe but to be inspired by his writing and see what kind of songs could be written and performed using his morbid obsessions as a starting point. The record is often overlooked in Reed’s discography, contains some airballs, and takes a little getting used to but contains some powerful moments. Famous friends like David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, and Willem Dafoe also add their distinct voices into the mix of Poe’s obsessive topics: guilt, paranoia, and the voluptuousness of doom.

Image credit: Unsplash/Andrey Konstantinov.

Why We Need Memoirs

I’ve been a practicing psychologist for more than 40 years and an experience I had recently with a client gave me some insight about memoirs, maybe not about why I chose to write one, but about the value of that kind of project. A kind of retrospective view.

My client had somehow come across my book, read it, and had some questions and thoughts. His first statement to me was, “I thought you were evolved.” I know it can be tempting to see one’s therapist as a person who has arrived, spiked the ball, and done the victory dance. The structure of the relationship kind of supports that falsehood. So I was very happy to disabuse my client of that misimpression, telling him that I believe we are all flawed, all mucking around, doing the best we can; that there is no “evolved,” but that I hoped to be evolving. (Sidebar: A good book to read on this topic is the oldie but goodie When You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.)

The next thing my client said was that he didn’t think my story merited a full-length book. You can be the judge if you end up reading it, but I knew in that moment—and after the time I’d spent working with him—that my client’s lack of empathy for my history had little to do with me and much more to do with the very significant challenges he faced as a child. When I presented that observation to him, he cried for the first time in his eight decades about the pain of childhood. I think my book humanized me in his eyes. I think it might have been easier for him to own his pain because I was owning mine. Memoirs can do that: remind us that we are all flawed and complicated, all doing the best we can, none of us free from suffering.

I’m not sure I can articulate or even remember the reasons why I chose to write my memoir, what my initial motivation was. I don’t think I fully understood my desire to tell my story. Over the years, I’d read articles and books that try to answer the why-should-you-write-a-memoir question. Not one of them says: It’s because you are a special and unique snowflake and the world is holding its breath and waiting for you to tell your story. Of course, we’re all unique, and each of us has a story to tell. But I’m pretty sure no one wants to read a memoir written by an author motivated primarily by self-importance. The same goes for authors writing to impress readers with the severity of their woe-is-me narratives.

Another subcategory of the genre is the memoir-as-personal-catharsis, i.e. writing as a therapeutic experience. I’m in favor of journaling; in fact it’s something I often recommend to clients. But writing a memoir as a means of screaming into a pillow or crying on a therapists couch? Maybe. But I have a bone to pick with that sort of memoir. My old writing teacher always stressed the importance of fully digesting material—events from one’s life, painful experiences, etc.—in order to acquire the necessary distance to tell a good story: one that has broad appeal rather than one that reads like a diary entry. I was almost 70 when I started writing my memoir. I’d had tons of therapy, had thought about and worked on and turned over the issues from my childhood. I did not set out to write my book as a form of personal therapy. Rather, I wanted to write what I had learned after all that work. But, a strange thing happened when I finished writing. I learned new things about myself; I saw my experience in a different way; I was changed. Sounds like therapy to me. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between writing as a therapeutic undertaking and discovering that the writing process has been therapeutic once you’ve finished.

To me, memoirs that are brave, that reveal our vulnerabilities and deepest humanity are instruments of public service. I come at that from both the personal and the societal viewpoint. If someone does the hard work of examining her experiences and, in the end, grows as a person, that’s a spectacular result. And as people evolve and grow, they are more likely to engage with the world in an enriching way. Really, the only way for societies to evolve is for its individual members to grow. Individual change has a societal ripple.

So, why do we need memoir? In this world, and in our country—where so many of us feel a lack of connection, where the challenges seem so large—writers who dare to tell the brutal, honest truth about their humanity offer us a gift. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I feel despair and rage. When I read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, I feel admiration and kinship. When I read Darkness VisibleDarkness Visible by William Styron, I feel sorrow. When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I feel seen. When I read these books, I feel my inner experience reflected back to me. They remind me that we are all part of the human family. They echo the heartache, love, grief, despair, shame, longing, ambition, joy that we all experience. They remind us that we are more alike than different. They make us feel less alone.

Image credit: Unsplash/Cathy Mü.

Ten Ways to Change Your God

“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” —Bob Dylan (1979)

1.Walking Cambridge’s Trinity Lane in 1894, Bertrand Russell had an epiphany concerning the ontological proof for God’s existence, becoming the unlikely convert effected by logical argumentation. In Russell’s essay “Why I Became a Philosopher,” included in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s anthology The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt, the logician explains how his ruminations turned to fervor, writing that “I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: ‘Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.’” An atheist had a brief conversion—of a sort.

Not exactly Saul being confronted with the light that (quoting Euripides’s The Bacchae) told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” or Augustin in his Confessions recounting that after a ghostly young voice told him to “Take up and read!”, he turned to Paul’s epistles. Russell’s conversion was a bit more abstract—of the head rather than the heart. In his flat-cap, tweed jacket, and herring-bone bowtie, he was converted not by the Holy Spirit, but by a deductive syllogism. Envision the co-author of Principia Mathematica, which rigorously reduced all of mathematics to logic, suddenly being moved by the spirit.

Derived by the medieval monk Anselm of Canterbury in his 1078 Proslogion, the ontological argument holds that since existence must be a property of perfection, and God is a priori defined as a perfect being, than quod erat demonstrandum: God must exist. Russell explains this metaphysical trick in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Western Philosophy: a “Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if he does not He is not the best possible Being.”

From Aquinas to Rene Descartes, there is a venerable history of attempting to prove the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity, though as Nathan Schneider writes in God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, these arguments are “taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither.” In defense of Anselm, nobody in the 11th century doubted God’s existence, and such proofs weren’t designed to convince, but rather to glory in divinity. As a subsequent defense, his proof has endured in a manner that other proofs haven’t. Cosmology and evolution have overturned most others, making them seem primitive to the point of adorableness, but Anselm endures.

Still, the syllogism can’t help but seem like a bit of a magic trick, defining God into existence rather than establishing even what type of God we’re to believe in. Critics of Anselm maintain that existence isn’t a property in the same way that other qualities are. We can imagine all sorts of characters with all sorts of qualities, but that doesn’t mean that they have to exist. Defenders of Anselm would claim that God isn’t like any other character, since a perfect thing that doesn’t exist can’t be said to be a perfect thing, and God is a perfect thing Critics of that would say that it’s possible to conceive of a perfect city, but that doesn’t mean you can buy an Amtrak ticket there, nor would a benevolent God allow Penn Station to look as it does. As the puzzle-writer (and theist) Martin Gardner notes in his delightful The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, “I agree with the vast majority of thinkers who see the proof as no more than linguistic sleight-of-hand.”

Eventually Russell’s new faith diffused like incense from a swinging thurible. If philosophy got Russell into this mess, then it also got him out. Russell explains that Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason would “demolish all the purely intellectual proofs of the existence of God.” But what faith had Russell gained on Trinity Lane? It wasn’t a belief in God whom that street was named after, nor was it the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What Russell’s faith was in, had always been in, and would always be in, was the power of reason, and in that he was unwavering.

David Hume, another of Russell’s antecedents, wrote in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” We’re going to believe what we’re going to (dis)believe, and we’ll concoct the reasons for it later. For his part, late in life, Russell was asked how he’d respond if upon death he was brought before God’s throne, and asked why he had dared not to believe? Russell said that he’d answer “Not enough evidence!”

2.According to mercurial family lore, when my paternal grandmother’s grandfather, August Hansmann, boarded a New York-bound steamship two years after the American Civil War and one year before his native Hanover would be subsumed into Prussia, he brought along with him a copy of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, denounced when it was printed in 1677 as “a book forged in hell…by the devil himself.” Like Spinoza, Hansmann was a Jew who lived among gentiles, and like Spinoza, he understood that being Other in a narrative not written by yourself had tragic consequences.

Born illegitimate, Hansmann was raised Jewish even though his father was Christian; a man who understood how being two things sometimes meant that you were seen as nothing, he also knew the strange freedom of how dictated faith is no faith at all. Similarly, Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew of converso background whose Portuguese ancestors practiced their Judaism in secret until Dutch freedom allowed them to reinvent their hidden faiths. Hansmann encountered Spinoza’s celebration of religious liberty, “where everyone’s judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things.” For the pious lens grinder, content to work by the tulip-lined canals of red-brick Amsterdam, religious truth can only be discovered without shackles, divinity only visible if you’re not compelled by Church or State.

When the Jews of Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism, many secretly practiced the mitzvoth, venerating the Sabbath, abjuring treyf, and kissing mezuzah’s surreptitiously concealed within the ceramic blue slipper of the Virgin. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in The Battle for God, these were people who “had been forced to assimilate to a…culture that did not resonate with their inner selves.” When finally able to practice their religion in Holland, many of them then discovered that the Judaism of the rabbis was not the same Judaism that they’d imagined, and so they chose to be something else, something completely new —neither Jewish or Christian, but rather nothing. Armstrong writes that such persecution ironically led to the “first declarations of secularism and atheism in Europe.”

Many of those slurred as swinish Marranos found it more honest to live by the dictates of their own reason. Spinoza was the most famous, condemned by his synagogue for writing things like “I say that all things are in God and move in God,” holding that nature is equivalent with the Lord, so that either nothing is God or everything is. Such pantheism is what made some condemn Spinoza as an atheist, and others such as Russell later describe him as a “God-intoxicated man” who saw holiness in every fallen leaf and gurgling creek, his very name, whether “Baruch” or “Benedict” meaning “blessed.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity, asks if he can “be considered…a Jewish thinker?” She argues that his universalism derives from the Mosaic covenant, the monotheism of the Shema extended so that God is Everything. As a result, he is the primogeniture for a certain type of rational, secular, progressive, liberal, humane contemporaneity. On that steamer crossing the Atlantic, Hansmann may have read that “freedom [can] be granted without prejudice…but also that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish.” My great-great grandfather lived his life as a Jew, but the attraction he saw in Spinoza was that each individual could decide for themselves whether to be Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or nothing.

Hansmann worked as a peddler on the Lower East Side, until the Homestead Act enticed him to Iowa, where he married a Huguenot woman who bore him 10 children, while he worked as a trader among the Native Americans. He refused to raise his children in any religion—Jewish or Protestant—preferring rather that they should decide upon reaching adulthood. And so, a union was made between the Jewish and the Low Church Protestant, rejecting both baptism and bris, so that my grandmother born on the frontier had absolutely no religion at all.

That such things are even possible—to be of no religion—is due in no small part to Spinoza’s sacrifice, his congregation having excommunicated him by extinguishing each individual light in the synagogue until the assembled dwelled in darkness. From that expulsion, Spinoza was expected to find refuge among the Protestants—but he didn’t. I’ve a photo from the early years of the 20th century: August Hansmann surrounded by his secular, stolid, midwestern progeny, himself siting in the center with a thick black beard, and a kippah barely visible upon his head.

3.A long line of Spinoza’s ancestors, and my great-great-grandfather’s ancestors, would have concluded Pesach evenings with a “Next year in Jerusalem,” praying for the reestablishment of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century. Less known than the equally exuberant and plaintive Passover declaration is that, for a brief period in the fourth century, it seemed that the Temple might actually be restored, ironically by Rome’s last pagan emperor. Born in Constantinople only six years after the Council of Nicaea convened there to define what exactly a Christian was, Julian the Apostate would mount a failed revolution.

His uncle was Rome’s first Christian emperor who conquered by the cross and who turned his Rome over to Christ. Julian was of a different perspective, seeing in the resurrection of Apollo and Dionysius, Jupiter and Athena, the rejuvenation of Rome. He bid his time until military success foisted him onto the throne, and then Julian revealed himself as an initiate into those Eleusinian Mysteries, a celebrant of Persephone and Demeter who greeted the morning sun and prayed for the bounty of the earth, quoted in W. Heinemann’s The Works of the Emperor Julian as having written “I feel awe of the gods, I love, I revere, I venerate them.”

In Julian’s panegyrics, one can smell the burning thyme and sage, feel the hot wax from votive candles, spy the blue moonlight filtered through pine trees in a midnight cedar grove. If Plutarch recorded the very heavens had once declared “the great god Pan is dead,” then Julian prayed for his return; if the oracles at Delphi and the Sibyllines had been silenced by the Nazarene, then the emperor wanted the divinations of those prophets to operate once again. Julian wanted this paganism to be a new faith, an organized, unified, consolidated religion that bore as much similarity to the cohesion of the Christian Church as it did to the rag-tag collection of rituals and superstitions that had defined previous Roman beliefs.

Classicist Robin Lane Fox makes clear in Pagans and Christians that this wasn’t simple nostalgia. Fox explains that those who returned to paganism normally did so with “an accompanying philosophy” and that apostasy “always lead to a favor for some systematic belief.” The emperor’s conversion was a turning back combined with a the reformer’s desire for regeneration. In paganism, Julian approached origin, genesis, birth—less conversion than a return to what you should have been, but was denied.

Julian the Apostate endures as cipher—duplicitous reactionary who’d see Christian Rome turn back, or tolerant visionary who theologically elevated paganism? Christian thinkers had long commandeered classical philosophy, now pagan thinkers were able to apply the same analytical standards to their own beliefs, developing theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity. The American rake and raconteur Gore Vidal repurposed the emperor as a queer hero of liberalism in his unusual 1964 novel Julian, having his protagonist humanely exclaim that “Truth is where ever man has glimpsed divinity.” Where some had seen those intimations in Golgotha’s sacrifice, the Apostate saw them in the oracles of Chaldea or the groves of Athena.

Far from banning the new faith, Julian declared that “By the gods I do not want the Galileans to be killed or beaten unjustly nor to suffer any other ill.” Julian was rather interested in monopolistic trust-busting, and in part that included funding the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple that would have been destroyed by the emperor’s ancestors. The building of a Third Temple would be terminated when, as a Roman witness to the construction attempts wrote, “fearful balls of fire [broke]…out near the foundations…till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more.” The Christians attributed the disaster to God; the Jews and Romans to the Christians.

The desire for a pagan Rome would similarly end with Julian’s defeat on the battle fields of Persia, an emperor who longed to see old gods born again now forced to declare that “You have won, Galilean.” Hard to reverse an eclipse, and so, we supplicate on another mournful and deferred day—“Next year at Delphi.”

4.The titular character in Julian claims that “academics everywhere are forever attacking one another.” During the fourth century, the academic debates were theological, all of those schisms and heresies, excommunications and counter-excommunications between exotic groups with names like the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians, the Arians and the Trinitarians. By the middle of Vidal’s 20th century, such disputations were just as rancorous, but theology was now subsumed into politics. Vidal’s own politics were strange, broadly left but with a sympathy afforded to the anti-establishmentarians of any ideological persuasion.

Vidal is most celebrated for calling the conservative founder of the National Review William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during a debate on ABC News scheduled to coincide with the 1968 Democratic convention; even the pyrotechnic rainbow of early television was unable to conceal the pure hatred between those two prep school grads. If the earliest years of Christianity saw bishops and monks moving between ever nuanced theological positions, than the 20th century was an era of political conversion, liberals becoming conservatives and conservatives becoming liberals, with Buckley’s magazine a fascinating case study in political apostasy.

Buckley’s politics were cradle-to-grave Republican conservatism, even as he garnered a reputation for expelling acolytes of both Ayn Rand and John Birch from the movement as if he was a medieval bishop overseeing a synod (they’ve long since found a way back in). Entering public life with his 1951 God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” Buckley understood better than most how ideology is theology by another name (even as I personally revile his politics). Into this midst, National Review was the stodgy, tweedy vanguard of the reactionary intelligentsia, defining a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.”

The problem with a manifesto that defines itself entirely by anti-progress is that such a doctrine can be rather nebulous, and so many of the bright young things Buckley hired for the National Review, such as Joan Didion and Garry Wills, found themselves moving to the left. Such were the subtleties of conversion that Wills could be both the author of Confessions of a Conservative and a journalist placed on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”

As people become harder of hearing and their bone-density decreases, movement from the left to the right does seem the more predictable narrative. For every Gary Wills, there’s a Norman Podhoretz, an Irving Kristol, a David Horowitz, a Christopher Hitchens. Leave it to the arm-chair Freudians to ascertain what Oedipal complex made those men of the left move towards the Big Daddy of right-wing politics, but what’s interesting are the ways in which they refashioned conservatism in a specifically leftist manner. Their migration was not from milquetoast Democratic liberalism, for they’d indeed been far to the left, several of them self-described Trotskyites. And as the Aztecs who became Catholic kept secretly worshiping their old gods, or as basilicas were built atop temples to Mithras, so too did those doctrines of “permanent revolution” find themselves smuggled into neoconservatism.

If politics is but religion by another means, than it’s the ideological conversion that strikes us as most scandalous. We’ve largely ceded the ground on the sacred—what could be less provocative than abandoning Presbyterianism for Methodism? But politics, that’s the thing that keeps us fuming for holy war, and we’re as titillated by stories of conversion as our ancestors were in tales of heresy and schism. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer observes, in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, that “belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined. But do we really know it? Do we feel it?” Strange to think that Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican, and the man whom she will beat for the presidency was once a Democrat, but such are the vagaries of God and man, whether at Yale or anywhere else.

5.For all their differences, Buckley and Vidal could at least agree on the martini. Buckley would write in 1977 that a “dry martini even at night is a straightforward invitation for instant relief from the vicissitudes of a long day,” and Vidal in his novel Kalki published a year later would rhapsodize about the “martini’s first comforting haze.” On the left or on the right, one thing WASPs concurred about (and though Buckley was technically Catholic he had the soul of an Episcopalian) was the cocktail hour. I’ve no idea if the two had been drinking before their infamous sparring on ABC, though the insults, homophobia, and violent threats make me suspicious.  

Better that they’d have followed the path of conversion that another prep school boy who moved in their social circles named John Cheever did: When on April 9, 1975 his brother checked him into New York’s Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit, he never took another drink. Cheever had lived up to the alcoholic reputation of two American tribes—High Church Protestants and Low Church writers. From the former he inherited both the genes and an affection for gin and scotch on a Westchester porch watching the trains from Grand Central thunder Upstate, and from the later he took the Dionysian myth that conflates the muse with ethanol, pining for inspiration but settling for vomiting in an Iowa City barroom.

Cheever was one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century, his prose as crystalline and perfect as a martini. Such was the company of those other addicts, of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” is one of the most perfect distillations of how alcoholism will sneak up on a person, and he avoids the laudatory denials you see in a lesser writer like Charles Bukowski. With the repressed self-awareness that is the mocking curse of all true alcoholics, Cheever would write in his diary some two decades before he got sober that “When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand,” no doubt understanding how a single drink is too many since a dozen is never enough.

His daughter Susan Cheever, herself a recovering alcoholic, notes in Drinking in America: Our Secret History that “My father’s drinking had destroyed his body, but it had also distorted his character—his soul. The restoration of one man through the simple measure of not drinking was revelatory.” The ancients called them spirits for a reason, and in their rejection there is a conversion of a very literal sort. Cheever—along with his friend Raymond Carver—is the happy exception to the fallacy that finds romance in the gutter-death of literary genius, and he got sober by doing the hard work of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The central text of that organization was compiled by Bill W., the founder of AA; its title is technically Alcoholics Anonymous, but members informally call it “The Big Book.” Past the uninspired yellow-and-blue cover of that tome, Cheever would have read stories where he’d have “found so many areas where we overlapped—not all the deeds, but the feelings of remorse and hopelessness. I learned that alcoholism isn’t a sin, it’s a disease.” And yet the treatment of that disease was akin to a spiritual transformation.

A tired debate whether Alcoholics Anonymous is scripture or not, but I’d argue that anything that so fully transforms the countenance of a person can’t but be a conversion, for as the Big Book says, “We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees.” I once was lost, and now I’m found, so on and so forth. When Cheever died, he had seven sober years—and they made all the difference.

6. Conversion narratives are the most human of tales, for the drama of redemption is an internal one, played out between the protagonist and his demons. Certain tropes—the pleasure, the perdition, the contrition, the repentance, the salvation. Augustine understood that we do bad things because bad things are fun—otherwise why would he write in Confessions “Lord, grant me chastity—but not yet.” What readers thrill to are the details, the rake’s regress from dens of iniquity, from gambling, drinking, and whoring to some new-found piety.

For Cheever’s Yankee ancestors, the New England Puritans in whose stead we’ve uneasily dwelled for the past four centuries, “election” was not a matter of personal choice, but rather grace imparted onto the unworthy human. Easy to see some issues of utility here, for when accumulation of wealth is read as evidence of God’s grace, and it’s also emphasized that the individual has no role in his own salvation, the inevitable result is spiritual disenchantment and marginalization. By the middle of the 18th century, some five generations after the first Pilgrim’s slipper graced Plymouth Rock, the Congregationalist pastors of New England attempted to suture the doubts of their flocks, coming up with “half-way covenants” and jeremiads against backsliding so as to preserve God’s bounty.

Into that increasingly secular society would come an English preacher with a thick Gloucester accent named George Whitfield, who first arrived in the New World in 1738. Technically an Anglican priest, Whitfield was a confidant of George Wesley, the father of Methodism, and from that “hot” faith the preacher would draw a new vocabulary, dispelling John Calvin’s chill with the exhortation that sinners must be born again. Crowds of thousands were compelled to repent, for “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.” On the Eastern seaboard, the Englishman would preach from Salem to Savannah, more than 10,000 times, drawing massive crowds, even impressing that old blasphemer Benjamin Franklin at one Philadelphia revival (the scientist even donated money).

Such was the rhetorical style of what’s called the Great Awakening, when colonial Americans abandoned the staid sermons of the previous century in favor of this shaking, quaking, splitting, fitting preaching. Whitfield and Spinoza shared nothing in temperament, and yet one could imagine that the later might smile at the liberty that “established fractious sectarianism as its essential character,” as John Howard Smith writes in The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in American, 1725-1775. Whitfield welcomed worshippers into a massive tent—conversion as a means towards dignity and agency.

So ecumenical was Whitfield’s evangelization that enslaved people came in droves to his revivals, those in bondage welcomed as subjects in Christ’s kingdom. Such was the esteem in which the reverend was held that upon his passing in 1770 a black poet from Cambridge named Phyllis Wheatly would regard the “happy saint” as a man whom “in strains of eloquence refin’d/[did] Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.” Whitfield’s religious charity, it should be said, was limited. He bemoaned the mistreatment of the enslaved, while he simultaneously advocated for the economic benefits of that very institution.

Can we tighten this line. As different as they were, Whitfield and Malcolm X were both children of this strange Zion that allows such reinvention. Malcolm X writes in a gospel of both American pragmatism and American power, saying that “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against…I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” Conversion can be a means of seizing power; conversion can be a means of reinvention.

Activist Audre Lorde famously wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and for a young Harlem ex-con born Malcolm Little, the Christianity of Wheatly and Whitfield would very much seem to be the domain of the plantation’s manor, so that conversion to a slave religion is no conversion at all. Mocking the very pieties of the society that Whitfield preached in, Malcolm X would declare “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock—Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Malcolm X’s life was an on-going narrative of conversion, of the desire to transform marginalization into power. As quoted by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the political leader said “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up.”

Transformation defined his rejection of Christianity, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and then finally his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam. Such is true even in the rejection of his surname for the free-floating signifier of “X,” identity transformed into a type of stark, almost algebraic, abstraction. If America is a land of conversion narratives, than The Autobiography of Malcolm X is ironically one of the most American. Though as Saladin Ambar reminds us in Malcolm X at Oxford Union, his “conversion was indeed religious, but it was also political,” with all which that implies.

7.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an apostate in possession of a brilliant spiritual mind, must be in want of a religion. If none of the religions that already exist will do, then it becomes her prerogative to invent a better one and convert to that. Critic Harold Bloom writes in The American Religion that “the religious imagination, and the American Religion, in its fullest formulations, is judged to be an imaginative triumph.” America has always been the land of religious invention, for when consciences are not compelled, the result is a brilliant multitude of schisms, sects, denominations, cults, and communes. In his Essays, the French Renaissance genius Michel de Montaigne quipped that “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozens.” Who, however, if given the choice between a worm or a god, would ever possibly pick the former? For America is a gene splicing laboratory of mythology, an in vitro fertilization clinic of faith, and we birth gods by the scores.

Consider Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew in 1886 to former North Carolina slaves who lived amongst the Cherokee. Ali compiled into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America a series of ruminations, meditations, and revelations he had concerning what he called the “Moorish” origins of African-Americans. Drawing freely from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the free-floating occultism popular in 19th-century America, Ali became one of the first founders of an Afrocentric faith in the United States, his movement the original spiritual home to Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Ali writes that the “fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self. This is the uniting of the Holy Koran of Mecca for teaching and instructing all Moorish Americans.”

Ali drew heavily from mystical traditions, combining his own idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam alongside Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. Such theurgy was popular in the 19th century, a melancholic era when the almost million dead from Antietam and Gettysburg called out to the living, who responded with séance and Ouija Board. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust recounts in The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that “Many bereaved Americans…unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin…turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism.” The 19th century saw mass conversions to a type of magic, a pseudo-empirical faith whose sacraments were technological—the photographing of ghostly ectoplasm, or the receipt of telegraphs from beyond the veil of perception.

Spiritualism wasn’t merely a general term for this phenomenon, but the name of an actual organized denomination (one that still exists). Drawing from 18th-century occultists like Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, the first Spiritualists emerged out of the rich soil of upstate New York, the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening (sequel to Whitfield’s First). Such beliefs held that the dead were still among us, closer than our very breath, and that spirits could interact with the inert matter of our world, souls intermingled before the very atoms of our being.

Peter Manseau writes in The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, that “It was a time when rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of supernatural obsessions, but an encouragement…Electricity had given credence to notions of invisible energies…The telegraph had made communication possible over staggering distances, which raised hopes of receiving messages from the great beyond.”

Among the important founders of the movement were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, N.Y.; three siblings whom in 1848 claimed that they’d been contacted by spirits, including one named “Mr. Splitfoot,” who communicated in raps, knocks, and clicks. Decades later, Margaret Fox would admit that it was a hoax, since a “great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion.” Despite the seeming credulity of the movement’s adherents, Spiritualists were crucial reformers, with leaders like Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph embracing abolitionism, temperance, civil rights, suffragism, and labor rights. When the cause is good, perhaps it doesn’t matter which god’s vestments you wear.

And of course the great American convert to a religion of his own devising is Joseph Smith. America’s dizzying diversity of faith confused young Smith, who asked “Who of all these parties are right, and how shall I know?” From the same upstate environs as the Fox Sisters, Smith was weened on a stew of evangelicalism and occultism, a child of the Second Great Awakening, who in those flinty woods of New York dreamt of finding shining golden tablets left by angels. Writing in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, scholar Fawn M. Brodie notes that for the New England and New York ancestors of Smith there was a “contempt for the established church which had permeated the Revolution, which had made the federal government completely secular, and which was in the end to divorce the church from the government of every state.”

Smith rather made America itself his invented religion. Stephen Prothero writes in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Hero that there is a tendency of “Americans to make their nation sacred—to view its citizens as God’s chosen people.” Yet it was only Smith’s Mormons who so completely literalized such a view, for the Book of Mormon describes this as “a land which is choice above all other lands.” The effect was electrifying; Brodie writes: “In the New World’s freedom the church had disintegrated, its ceremonies had changed, and its stature had declined.” What remained was a vacuum in which individual minds could dream of new faiths. Spinoza would recognize such independence, his thin face framed by his curled wig, reflected back from the polished glow of one of Moroni’s tablets excavated from the cold ground of Palmyra, N.Y.

8.“In the beginning there was the Tao, and the Tao was God,” reads John 1:1 as translated in the Chinese Version Union bible commissioned by several Protestant denomination between 1890 and 1919. Appropriating the word “Tao” makes an intuitive sense, arguably closer to the Neo-Platonist language of “Logos” as the term is rendered in the koine Greek, than to the rather confusing terminology of “the Word” as it’s often translated in English.

Read cynically, this
bible could be seen as a disingenuous use of Chinese terminology so as to make
Christianity feel less foreign and more inviting, a Western wolf in Mandarin robes.
More charitably, such syncretism could be interpreted as an attempt to find the
universal core between those two religions, a way of honoring truth regardless
of language. Conversion not between faiths, but above them. Perhaps naïve, but
such a position might imply that conversion isn’t even a possibility, that all
which is needed in the way of ecumenicism is to place the right words with the
right concepts.

The earliest synthesis between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity is traceable to the seventh century. At the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a cache called the Jingjiao Documents penned during the Tang Dynasty and attributed to the students of a Syrian monk named Alopen were rediscovered in 1907. Alopen was a representative of that massive eastern branch of Christianity slurred by medieval European Catholics as being “Nestorian,” after the bishop who precipitated their schism at a fifth-century church council (the theological differences are arcane, complicated, and for our purposes unimportant).

During those years of late antiquity, European Christendom was a backwater; before the turn of the first millennium the Catholicus of Baghdad would have been a far more important cleric than the Pope was, for as scholar Philip Jenkins explains in The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died, the “particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm…For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with power representations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.”

In 635, Alopen was an evangelist to a pluralistic civilization that had a history that went back millennia. His mission was neither colonial nor mercantile, and as a religious scholar he had to make Christianity appealing to a populace content with their beliefs. And so, Alopen converted the Chinese by first converting Christianity. As with the translators of the Chinese Version Union bible, Alopen borrowed Taoist and Buddhist concepts, configuring the Logos of John as the Tao, sin as karma, heaven as nirvana, and Christ as an enlightened Bodhisattva.

Sinologist Martin Palmer, writing in The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, argues that Alopen avoided “what many missionaries have tried to do—namely, make people adapt to a Western mind-set.” Rather, Alopen took “seriously the spiritual concerns of China.” Alopen was successful enough that some 150 years after his arrival, a limestone stele was engraved in both Mandarin and Syriac celebrating the history of Chinese Christianity. With a massive cross at the top of the Xi’an stele, it announced itself as a “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Rome.” During a period of anti-Buddhist persecution in the ninth century, when all “foreign” religions were banned, the stele was buried, and by 986 a visiting monk reported that “Christianity is extinct in China.”

Like Smith uncovering his golden tablets, workers in 1625 excavated the Xi’an stele, and recognizing it as Christian sent for Jesuits who were then operating as missionaries to the Ming Court. Portuguese priest Alvaro Semedo, known to the court as Xie Wulu, saw the stele as evidence of Christian continuity; other clergy were disturbed that the monument was from a sect that the Church itself had deemed heretical 1,000 years before. German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner supplied a Latin translation of the stele, enthusing in his China Illustrata that Xi’an’s rediscovery happened by God’s will “at this time when the preaching of the faith by way of the Jesuits pervaded China, so that old and new testimonies…would go forth…and so the truth of the Gospel would be clear to everyone.” But was it so clear, this strange gospel of the Tao?

Much of Kircher’s book was based on his colleague Fr. Mateo Ricci’s accounts of the Ming Court. Ricci had taken to wearing the robes of a Confucian scholar, borrowing from both Confucius and Lao-Tzu in arguing that Catholicism was a form of those older religions. The Dominicans and Franciscans in China were disturbed by these accommodations, and by 1645 (some 35 years after Ricci had died) the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled against the Jesuits (though this was a process that went back and forth). Maybe there is something fallacious in simply pretending all religions are secretly the same. Prothero writes in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, that we often have “followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one.” Catholicism is not Taoism, and that’s to the integrity of both.

But Ricci’s attitude was a bold one, and in considering different beliefs, he was arguably a forerunner of pluralistic tolerance. We risk abandoning something beautiful if we reject the unity that Alopen and Ricci worked for, because perhaps there is a flexibility to conversion, a delightful promiscuity to faith. Examining one of the Chinese water-colors of Ricci, resplendent in the heavenly blue silk of the panling lanshan with a regal, heavy, black putou on his head, a Roman inquisitor may have feared who exactly was converting whom.  

9.In the painting, Sir Francis Dashwood —11th Baron le Despencer and Great Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762 to 1763—is depicted as if he was St. Francis of Assisi. Kneeling in brown robes, the aristocrat is a penitent in some rocky grove, a hazy blue-grey sfumato marking the countryside visible through a gap in the stones. In the corner is a silver platter, grapes and cherries tumbled onto the soil of this pastoral chapel, as if to remind the viewer of life’s mutability, “Vanity of vanity” and all the rest of it. Some tome—perhaps The Bible?—lay open slightly beyond the nobleman’s gaze, and with hand to breast, Dashwood contemplates what looks like a crucifix. But something is amiss in this portrait painted by Dashwood’s friend, that great notary of 18th-century foibles William Hogarth. The crucifix—it’s not Christ on the cross, but a miniature nude woman with her head thrown back. Suddenly the prurient grin on the stubbly face of Dashwood makes more sense.

If you happen to be an expert on 18th-century French pornography, you might notice that it’s not the gospels that lay open on cracked spine next to Dashwood, but a copy of Nicolas Chorier’s Elegantiae Latini sermonis; were you familiar with the intricacies of Westminster politics in the 1760s, you may have observed that rather than a golden, crescent halo above the baron’s head, it’s actually a cartoon of the Earl of Sandwich in lunar profile.

Already raised in the anti-Catholic environment of British high society, Dashwood’s disdain for religion was incubated during his roguish youth while on his fashionable Grand Tour of the continent—he was expelled from the Papal States. In the anonymously written 1779 Nocturnal Revels, a two-volume account of prostitution in London, the author claims that Dashwood “on his return to England, thought that a burlesque institution in the name of St. Francis, would mark the absurdity of such Societies; and in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practiced, substitute convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity.”

To house his “Franciscans,” Dashwood purchased a former Cistercian Abby in Buckinghamshire that overlooked the Thames, and in dazzling stain-glass had inscribed above its entrance the famous slogan from the Abby of Thelema in Francois Rabelais’s 15th-century classic Gargantua and Pantagruel—“Do What Thou Wilt.” Its grounds were decorated with statues of Dionysius—Julian the Apostate’s revenge—and the gothic novelist (and son of a Prime Minister) Horace Walpole wrote that the “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church.” Within those gothic stone walls, Dashwood’s compatriots very much did do what they would, replacing sacramental wine with liquor, the host with feasting, and the Mass with their orgies. The Monks of Medenham Abby, founded upon a Walpurgis Night in 1752, initiated occasional worshipers including the respected jurist Robert Vansittart, John Montague 4th Earl of Sandwich, the physician Benjamin Edward Bates II, the parliamentarian George Bubb Dodington, and in 1758 they hosted a colonial scientist named Benjamin Franklin (fresh from a Whitfield revival no doubt).

Such gatherings were not uncommon among the bored upper classes of European society; Black Masses were popular among French aristocrats into the 17th century, and in Britain punkish dens of obscenity like Dashwood’s were known as “Hell-Fire Clubs.” Evelyn Lord writes in her history The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies that long before Dashwood ever convened his monks, London had been “abuzz with rumors of highborn Devil-worshipers who mocked the established Church and religion, and allegedly supped with Satan,” with the apparently non-Satanic members of Parliament pushing for anti-blasphemy legislation.

That’s the thing with blasphemy though—there’s no Black Mass without first the Mass, no Satan without God. Irreverent, impious, and scandalous though Dashwood may have been, such activities paradoxically confirm faith. Lord writes that the “hell-fire clubs represented an enduring fascination with the forbidden fruit offered by the Devil…But the members of these clubs faced a dilemma: if they believed in Satan and hell-fire, did they by implications believe in a supernatural being, called God, and a place called Heaven?” Should the sacred hold no charged power, were relics simply bits of rag and bone, than there would be no electricity in their debasement; were a crucifix meaningless, than there would be no purpose in rendering it pornographic. A blasphemous conversion, it turns out, may just be another type of conversion.  

Geoffrey Ashe argues in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Rakes and Libertines that Thelema is an antinomian ethic that can be traced from Rabelais through the Hell-Fire Clubs onto today. He writes that such a history is “strange and unsettling. It discloses scenes of pleasure and laughter, and also some of the extremist horrors ever conceived. It introduces us to cults of the Natural, the Supernatural; to magic, black and otherwise.” Dashwood’s confraternity encompasses figures as diverse as the Marquis de Sade, the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (who had Rabelais’s motto carved above the entrance to his own monastery in Sicily), and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Fear not the blasphemer, for such is merely a cracked prophet of the Lord. As Master Crowley himself wrote in Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers, “I was in the death struggle with self: God and Satan fought for my soul those three long hours. God conquered – now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God?”  

10.When the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, lily of the Mohawks and the sainted maiden of the Iroquois village of Kahnawake, laid her head upon her death-bed one chill spring in 1680, it was said that the disfiguring small-pox scars she’d contracted vanished from her beautiful corpse. There in the dread wilderness of New France, where spring snows fall blue and deep and the horizon is marked with warm smoke from maple long-houses and fallen acorns are soggy under moccasin slippers, America’s indigenous saint would die. A witness recorded that Tekakwitha’s face “suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful.” A fellow nun records that the evening of the saint’s death, she heard a loud knock at her door, and Tekakwitha’s voice saying “I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven.”

Tekakwitha’s short decades were difficult, as they must by necessity be for anyone who becomes a saint. She was victim of a world collapsing in on itself, of the political, social, economic, and ecological calamities precipitated by the arrival of the very people whose faith she would convert to, one hand holding a bible and a crucifix, the other a gun—all of them covered in the invisible killing virus. Despite it being the religion of the invaders, Tekakwitha had visions of the Virgin and desired conversion, and so she journeyed over frozen Quebec ground to the village of the “Black Robes” who taught that foreign faith.

When Tekakwitha met with the Jesuits, they told the Iroquois woman not of the Tao, nor did they speak of heaven, rather they chanted a hymn of Karonhià:ke, the realm from which the father of all things did send his only son to die. Of her own accord, Tekakwitha meditated on the words of the Jesuits, her confessor Fr. Cholonec recording that she finally said “I have deliberated enough,” and she willingly went to the baptismal font. She has for the past three-centuries been America’s indigenous saint, a symbol of Christ reborn on this land, the woman of two cultures whom William T. Vollman describes in his novel Fathers and Crows as “Tekakwitha…praying besides the Cross of maple wood she had made.”

Much controversy follows such conversions: are we to read Tekakwitha—who endures as a symbol of syncretism between Christianity and indigenous spirituality—as a victim? As a willing penitent? As some cross between the two? In his novel Beautiful Losers, the Canadian poet, novelist, and songwriter Leonard Cohen says of Tekakwitha that a “saint does not dissolve the chaos.” Tekakwitha is not a dialectic to resolve the contradictions between the Catholic and the Iroquois, the French and the Mohawk. She is not an allegory, a parable, a metaphor, or an example—she is Tekakwitha, a woman.

If we are to draw any allegorizing lesson from her example, it must be this—conversion, like death, is something that is finally done alone. Who can we be to parse her reasons for embracing that faith, just as how can we fully inhabit the decisions of Julian, or Spinoza, or Hansmann, or Ricci? Nothing can be more intimate, or sometimes more surprising, than the turn of a soul, the conversion of a woman or man. We aren’t known to one another; we’re finally known only to God—though it’s impossible to say which one. When Tekakwitha’s appearance changed, was this an indication of saintliness? Of her true form? Of the beatified face when it looks upon the creator-god Ha-wen-ni-yu? All that can be said of conversion is that it’s never final, we’re always in the process of being changed, and pray that it’s possible to alter our broken world in return. Converts, like saints, do not reconcile the chaos, they exist amidst it. In hagiography, we find not solution, but mystery—as sacred and holy as footprints on a virgin Canadian snow, finally to be erased as the day turns to night.

Image credit: Unsplash/Diana Vargas.

The 11 Best Elizabeth Bishop Poems

Elizabeth Bishop published only 100 poems in her lifetime and yet is still considered one of the most important and distinguished American poets of the 20th century. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 and a National Book Award in 1970.
Her poems are characterized by careful, detailed observation and the refusal to give in to the confessional impulse of her contemporaries, Plath, Sexton and Lowell.
At first, the poems can feel detached from experience, so cool and remote is the speaker’s voice, but this impersonality reveals strong emotion below the polished surface. These 11 poems depict Bishop as a traveler, both literally and metaphorically, as someone who moved restlessly between the domestic and the exotic, between the unknown and the familiar, elsewhere and “home.”

1. “The Map”
A map is of course one of a traveler’s most necessary possessions. No surprise, then, that this is the first poem in Elizabeth Bishop’s first collection. The poem serves as a kind of map to Bishop’s stylistic moves, such as parenthetical statements, rhetorical questions, and repetition. The poem’s last line, “More delicate than the historians’ are the map maker’s colors,” provides a view of Bishop’s ideas about geography, as expressed in a letter she wrote in 1948: “…geography is a thousand times more important to modern man than history. I always like to feel exactly where I am geographically all the time on the map.” Bishop began this poem when was she was alone and sick—and clearly homesick—in New York on New Year’s Eve in 1934.

2. “The Imaginary Iceberg”
“We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship” begins this poem, which is itself very like an iceberg: cool, imposing, a bit dangerous below the surface. This poem was the first Bishop published after college. It’s often read as a quiet battle between the attractions of the imagination and reality, resolved by the “we” of the poem waving goodbye to the iceberg and sailing back to warmer, more familiar climates. The poem might also be an early explanation for Bishop’s refusal to write confessional poetry: The introspective was not, for Bishop, as attractive as the literal. For many years, I carried in my wallet a picture of an iceberg, cut from a glossy magazine. I couldn’t figure out my attraction to the image until I read this poem.

3. “Paris, 7 A.M.”
The poem, from which my new novel takes its title, begins with the confusion of the many clocks telling time in Clara Longworth de Chambrun’s apartment at 58 rue de Vaugirard. It reflects Bishop’s observation of the winter weather in Paris as “really sinister…a sort of hushed, frozen ash heap,” as well as her life-long obsession with the passage of time. Bishop’s mentor Marianne Moore disapproved of the word “apartment” in the first line, but Bishop defended her choice, wanting, she told Moore, the sense of a “’cut off’ mode of existence.” Throughout her life, Bishop felt a distrust of both time and houses; time was the enemy, and houses could be unsafe, not built to last.

4. “Arrival at Santos”
The opening poem of Bishop’s third collection, Questions of Travel. The poem begins in certainty, with strong statements of location: “Here is a coast; here is a harbor; here….is some scenery.” The speaker arrives at the coast of Brazil by ship, having endured 18 days at sea. But certainty dissolves when a small boat, called a tender (and I feel sure Bishop enjoyed the pun), comes to take the passengers to “the interior” of the country. This was a new start for Bishop; in Brazil she would meet Lota de Macedo Soares; their relationship, though fraught, would last 16 years, until Lota’s death. Interestingly, Lota was an architect who built Bishop a house in the mountains above Rio, which she lost after Lota’s death.

5. “Questions of Travel”
Why do we want to travel? this poem asks. Why not stay home and imagine? “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come/ to imagined places?” The middle of the poem, though, lists all that might have been missed: exaggeratedly beautiful trees that seem to gesture, the music of mismatched clogs, songbirds in bamboo cages, the sound of rain and then the “sudden, golden silence” after. The poem answers its own question in the last two lines, by looking at its questions from the other way around, and invoking the uncertainty and instability of ‘home.”

6. “Sestina”
The orderly sestina form requires dexterity and precision. It’s hard to write a good one because the repetition of six words over the course of six stanzas and a three-line envoy can become dull. Bishop’s sestina describes what seems like an ordinary domestic scene: a child drawing a picture, a grandmother making tea, a stove, a farmer’s almanac hanging on the kitchen wall. But underneath there’s disorder, an atmosphere of sadness and longing for stability. The poem seems to depict the time after her mother’s final hospitalization, when Elizabeth was five. She would never see her mother again.

7. “In the Waiting Room”
This poem describes the moment when a child (“an Elizabeth”) begins to have a sense of herself as an autonomous being. The child begins as an outsider in this scene—not a patient, not a grown-up. When she looks into the National Geographic, what she sees is unfamiliar, horrifying: an erupting volcano, a dead man strung on a pole, naked women. When she hears a cry of pain from her aunt, the poem starts to collapse differences and distinctions. Her “foolish” aunt, the women in the magazine, herself—all frightening versions of womanhood. The child feels this vertigo, and to try stop it, reminds herself of what defines her: her birthday and her name. After the publication of this poem in 1976, Bishop was concerned about her inaccurate portrayal of the actual contents of that issue of National Geographic.

8. “Crusoe in England”
This poem is a kind of elegy for travel. Bishop gives us Robinson Crusoe as an old man, long ago rescued from his island, alone and bored in civilization. He misses the oddities and eccentricities of his life on the island—lumbering turtles, waterspouts, a violet blue tree snail, a red berry that makes a potent drink, goats and gulls, as well as his companion, Friday. At home in England—another island that doesn’t seem like one—his handmade possessions have lost their meaning, their urgency—his parasol looks to him like “a plucked and skinny fowl,” and the knife on which his survival depended “won’t look at him at all…it’s living soul has dribbled away.” The last line reveals that “Friday, my dear Friday” has been dead for 17 years, shifting the poem from elegy to eulogy.

9. “The Moose”
An ordinary bus ride at night through rural Nova Scotia is interrupted by the extraordinary appearance of a moose. The passengers, who have been quietly discussing the troubles in their lives—“deaths, deaths, and sicknesses…the year (something) happened”—are stunned into happiness by the spectral appearance. I’ve always loved that the moose is, as one passenger exclaims, “a she.” She’s “grand, otherworldly,” perhaps an image of female power, but not dangerous, inspiring in the passengers a “sweet sensation of joy.” Bishop herself was on a bus trip in Nova Scotia in 1946 when a moose stepped out of the forest.

10. “One Art”
One of Bishop’s few first-person poems, in which the “I” is central and revealing. The stanzas detail the speaker’s losses, which increase in magnitude as the poem proceeds, culminating in the most personal “even losing you.” The form is a villanelle, which is based on very specific repetition of two lines that rhyme, in this case the dueling between “master” and “disaster.” The tone is falsely light, blithe, an echo of the grandmother in “Sestina” who is “laughing and talking to hide her tears.” In the last line, the revealing parenthetical (Write it!), Bishop seems to be forcing herself away from her own natural reticence and stoicism to admit that this loss is disastrous and perhaps can never be mastered.

11. “The Fish”
Bishop lived most of her life within sight of water and loved to fish and sail. She said later that Ernest Hemingway’s praise for this poem meant more to her than praise from literary magazines. It’s her most widely anthologized poem, and she grew tired of its celebrity, once telling an editor he could have any poem except this one.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Meditation on Exclamation Marks in Contemporary Poetry (!)

“I always got the exclamation mark at the end— / a mere grimace, a small curse.” Luljeta Lleshanaku, in her poem “Negative Space,” writes how she would wait her turn during a reading circle in first grade: “A long sentence tied us to one another / without connotation as if inside an idiom.” Other children would get nouns, verbs, and pronouns, but she was stuck with that vertical punctuation. Likewise, for many contemporary poets, the exclamation mark is a mere grimace; for others, a small curse. It was not always this way.

The Italian writer Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed to have invented the exclamation mark in the 1360s as a way to enunciate admiration rather than a question. In his book The English Grammar (1640), Ben Jonson again stresses the element of admiration, and quotes from Chaucer: “Alas! what harm doth appearance / When it is false in existence!”

Eric Weiskott, in his consideration of how translators shift the punctuation of Beowulf, told the wider history of the exclamation mark: “As the novelty of pointing common interjections wore off, writers reinterpreted the grammatical criterion as a tonal one, and the point of admiration became the point of exclamation.” He credits the “marketing of the first commercial typewriter in 1870” and the “rise of the modern psychological novel, with its penchant for expressive pointing in dialogue” as completing the punctuation mark’s shift from admiration to exclamation.

Older poems teem with the mark. William Wordsworth used three exclamation points in “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” all in the sonnet’s final four lines: “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! / The river glideth at his own sweet will: / Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

Emily Dickinson used them often in her early poems. Cristanne Miller thinks Dickinson’s exclamation marks were similar to her question marks: “As conclusions to poems, both indicate that what appears to be true is not always to be trusted, that surprising events may disrupt impressions or assumptions.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a stylistic wonder, littered his poems with punctuation. He was an aural poet, and knew punctuation could pinch the page—lift his words at the right moments. His poems are full of exclamation marks. “The Windhover,” dedicated “To Christ our Lord,” includes two line-ending exclamations, perhaps the only way Hopkins saw fit to communicate the sincerity of his faith.

Yet other poems, like “Pied
Beauty,” were comparatively muted. Hopkins was a master of pacing, and it seems
like he’s going to end his poem with an exclamation point, but the tease is
without the expected satisfaction: “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle,
dim; / He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.” It makes
perfect sense: Hopkins is talking to his readers, and not God—for whom he saves
his exclamations.

Exclamation marks are not exactly
rare in contemporary poetry—but they are occasional enough for us to take
notice. For all their ubiquity in texts and emails, exclamation marks call
attention toward themselves in poems: they stand straight up.

One of my favorite exclamation marks in recent poetry is in the poem “Undressed” by Kristen Tracy from Half-Hazard. “Part of me wants to throw this ring back,” a woman narrates, “but part of me is happy to have a diamond. / Is love sad?” There is a part of her that wants “to chew the ring up // and die,” and it is that part of herself that most attracts her: she wants to “mend its mittens / and kiss it on the mouth.”

She wavers. Does she want to
stand at the altar? Could she really share a closet? She hears the “clamor of
my lover’s / shoes” traveling across the floor, and “they vibrate in my ring.”
There’s no way his steps could cause such shaking “unless my lover travels like
/ King Kong,” but the implication is clear: he’s home now, and she’s taken out
of the reverie. In the poem’s penultimate line, Tracy adds a parenthetical: “(I
think I love this ring!). It is an interjection within her thoughts. A push
back against the part of her that doesn’t want to get married. It’s a perfectly
timed injunction against the self; a demonstration of how an exclamation mark
can make an entire poem work.

Another recent poem, “Sunset on 14th Street” by Alex Dimitrov, has six exclamation points, and each one feels just right. The opening lines of the poem, “I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately,” are parallel in length and rhythm, and set the tone. When the narrator says “I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself,” we know that he can, but he doesn’t want to—and often those two things are the same.

Dimitrov’s exclamation points
serve as enunciations—observations about the world, us, and the narrator, as
when he says “I’m broke and lonely / in Manhattan—though of course / I’ll never
say it—and besides / it’s almost spring. It’s fine / It’s goth. Hello!” The
poem accumulates toward an exhortation for us to stop “performing our great politics”;
after all, we are “Still terrible / and awful. / Awful and pretending / we’re
not terrible. Such righteous / saints!” Yet Dimitrov’s poem ends with a gentler
declaration: “Look at the sky. Kiss everyone / you can for sure.”

I love when poets use punctuation to control us, to slow us, to focus us. Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”: “Some of the passengers / exclaim in whispers, / childishly, softly,”. Maybe exclamation marks are not shouts. Sometimes a whisper is the loudest sound.

Image credit: Flickr/James St. John.

Against the Odds: Publishing My #MeToo Story

As a woman and survivor of sexual violence, speaking my truth has always felt important. But when it came to publishing my first book, a work of narrative nonfiction that deals in part with overcoming the effects of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, I found myself on a long journey with many roadblocks.
Mine is a story I was told not to tell—by my family, by the publishing industry, and by society itself. While writing, revising, and submitting my book to literary agents and editors, I had to fight against my fears and the beliefs I’d acquired growing up in an abusive home: that the world was going to shun me; that I was going to be silenced or disliked or otherwise rejected because of my truth. And yet, for a long time, that is what happened. Sexual violence is prevalent in our lives, but there has been, and continues to be, a culturally conditioned fear around acknowledging it, speaking about it, hearing about it, dealing with it, and doing something about it. The #MeToo movement has started to create receptivity, an openness for such stories, but change is slow.
During many years of workshopping my manuscript, I received a wide range of reactions to the content, including fear, anger (toward the survivor for speaking, not the perpetrator for perpetrating), and denial, reactions that were unrelated to the writing itself. I knew I needed to disarm these conditioned responses to sexual violence through my approach to the content on the page, by utilizing writing techniques including pacing, reflection, language choice, and description, to ground and educate my readers. I’ve gone through my traumatic experiences, but my audience has not. I’m not writing for therapy or myself; my job as a writer is to guide my readers and help them navigate difficult terrain. I knew I needed to find a way, through my style of storytelling, to deal with my audience’s conditioned responses to sexual violence. Otherwise my manuscript would remain buried in a drawer or be tossed in the trash—something many agents and editors, who praised my writing, told me to do with the book.

I was urged to wipe my book clean of what one famous author and teacher deemed “the ick” factor, which I was told would be a major roadblock—if not a complete dead end—to finding an agent or publisher. A prominent editor on a Boston Book Festival panel told the audience that nonfiction manuscripts about sexual abuse should not be pitched to her or anyone. A story about murder, however, was acceptable. Other publishing professionals said they wouldn’t acquire abuse stories because the market was flooded with them. Or they said the opposite: there was no readership. These were paradoxical statements that I soon realized were deflections—they weren’t factually true; they were, in my opinion, excuses that reflected the stigmas society places on disclosing #MeToo stories. Fictional accounts, such as those in The Lovely Bones or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, were welcome, but there was a problem if the story was real.
I didn’t know whether to call myself masochistic or determined, but I didn’t listen to those agents and editors. I just kept writing and trying to put my work out there. I knew my story was much greater than “the ick” factor. Yes, sexual abuse was a part of the obstacles I’d faced and overcome in my life, but it wasn’t the whole story. I had faith I’d find industry people who would understand that.
For a decade, I queried more than 300 agents. I was asked by about half to submit my manuscript or proposal for consideration. More than two dozen asked to chat by phone after they’d read my materials—most declined to represent me after phone calls for a variety of reasons, some related to the risk of trying to publish material about sexual trauma—and I signed with three (not simultaneously and with different manuscripts),and received much editorial praise for my writing. But publishers declined to acquire my book.

I could see there was interest, but fear seemed to dictate publishing decisions. I got so used to rejection that I anticipated it with every submission. In late January of 2018, when my then agent decided to stop submitting my latest book to publishers after 11 rejections, I considered giving up. I fell into a very serious depression for many weeks. A writer friend encouraged me to write an essay about my experience in the publishing world. I didn’t think it would change anything, but writing always gives me a sense of purpose, so I wrote the thing as a way of climbing out of my depression. To my surprise, Publishers Weekly accepted and published the piece, and Ms. Magazine reprinted it. That’s when the editorial director at Skyhorse Publishing reached out to me—he’d read the essay and was interested in reading my manuscript. Two weeks later, I was offered a book deal.

My self-help book-cum-memoir, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life, is a story of persistence—in dating, in life, and in publishing. One of the many big lessons I learned was not to let the naysayers—in writing or in life—ever define my worth or my potential for success.
Now that my book is out, I’ve been surprised by how welcoming the world has been (my old fears of rejection are still a bit reflexive). I hear frequently from readers when they are just a couple chapters in, telling me they can’t stop reading. I get protective of these readers and recommend they slow down because there are some pretty intense parts to this story. They don’t listen to me, and the next day or so I’ll hear from them again; they’ve finished the book, they stayed up all night reading and couldn’t put the book down. And they tell me all the ways they related to my story and share their stories of overcoming hardships. To have readers feel so invested and connected continues to remind me just how much writing is about being in community and empowering ourselves and each other.
Image credit: Unsplash/ Patrick Fore.

The Sex Worker Next Door

I’ve been interested in prostitution ever since a “deathbed revelation” in 1998. As my beloved maternal grandmother lay dying, my mother, an only child, cried her eyes out. She said to me: “You have no idea how much she has suffered: the famine, the Nanjing Massacre, all these political movements, and she was a working girl in the ’30s.”

A working girl? I had a hard time reconciling the image of a sex worker with my grandma, a devout Buddhist who chanted Amitabha all day long and who raised me. A strikingly beautiful woman, she had high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes. Dimples danced on her cheeks as she talked, always softly. As a traditional woman, she insisted on wearing a Chinese-style cotton jacket with a high mandarin collar, fixed by butterfly buttons. In the morning, she plaited my hair and, in the evening, she cooked for me and the family.

My mother explained that grandmother had become an orphan as a child and was later sold into a local brothel in Yangzhou, a small town in Eastern China. She worked for 10 years until—while on the job—she met my grandfather, a small-time grain dealer.

I kept wondering what her life was like inside the brothel. How did she cope? I quizzed my mother about grandma’s former life, but she was unable to enlighten me; she said the brothel was a middle-class establishment set in a traditional courtyard house named Pavilion of Spring Fragrance, its front always lit up by bright red lanterns. My grandma had never liked to talk about herself.

I keenly read books, both fiction and nonfiction, on prostitution in China. I became fascinated with the subject. In China, the oldest human profession was wiped out after the Communists took power in 1949. Prostitution, in their view, was the vice produced by evil capitalism. In the reform era, however, it has made a spectacular return due to growing wealth, relaxed social control, and a large and mobile population. Although illegal, in every city in this vast country, there’s at least one “red light district” where working girls operate from massage parlors, hair salons, or bathing centers—all of them fronts for brothels

As it happens, months after the passing of my grandma, I successful pitched a story on the so-called ernai— meaning “the second wife” in Chinese, the term refers to women who are kept by rich men as mistresses or modern-day concubines—to a British magazine. There are a large number of such girls in Shenzhen, a manufacturing base and prosperous city across the border from Hong Kong. Several ernai I interviewed came from poor hinterlands in China and had slaved on production lines before being snatched up by married men. For me, ernai fall into the category of sex worker, as the base of the union is money instead of emotional needs.

I decided to write a novel exploring prostitution because it touches upon some serious issues that China is facing today: modernization, migration, the rural-urban divide, growing gender inequality, and the tug-of-war between tradition and modernity.

As part of my research for Lotus, I interviewed many sex workers in Shenzhen; Dongguan, a neighboring city; and Shenyang, up in the north—all of them situated in China’s industrial rustbelt where many women took up the “flesh trade” after being laid off from ailing state-owned enterprises.

Knowing the broad strokes of the girls’ lives wasn’t good enough. I needed to know every little detail: the first thing they did after sleeping with a man for money; what they thought about when they opened the eyes in the morning; what food they craved. I tried to make friends with the working girls but it was difficult because their lives were transient. So I signed up as a volunteer for a NGO devoted to helping female sex workers in Tianjin, a well-developed port city just south of Beijing where I am based. The NGO is one of the few such organizations like it in the country.

My main task was to visit the working women and distribute free condoms. On a sticky hot afternoon in the summer 2012, I set out for the first time with a staff member named Sanjie, to a street packed with half a dozen massage parlors and hair salons. I briskly walked beside Sanjie, excited to take a peek into a secret world that had eluded me.

The women usually wait by the front doors of their establishments, smiling their red smiles at every passing man. They have to be discreet because the police raid their places randomly, like some odd summer storm. On my first day, I met Little Flower, a spirited woman in her 30s who dared to sit openly on a stool outside her massage parlor. When we approached, her twig-like body, clad in a tiny low-cut black satin dress, was bent over a piece of stitch work—an image of a European church. Her frizzy hair was piled up dramatically, decorated with a pink silk butterfly.

I asked her if she deliberately picked this pattern to work on. Yes, she said, explaining that looking at the church somehow brought a sense of peace to her mind. Little Flower then led us to her parlor in the basement of the building. A moldy smell hit us as we entered the dimly lit room, furnished with two massage beds. On the cracked whitewashed wall, a large glossy picture of a semi-naked blond girl looked down flirtatiously.

Looking around the shabby parlor, I remembered a poem by 19th-century poet Yu Qingzeng about his love affair with a courtesan:
A brush of evening clouds.

The perfume of flowers in the darkness.

A harp melody

Accompanies the chanting of poetry.

Smoke rises from the incense clock’s seal characters.

We lock the silk sliding doors.

And let down the curtains of the bed.
The difference between the poem’s fantasy world and Little Flower’s was like the difference between heaven and earth.

Over a cup of jasmine tea, Little Flower, in a matter-of-fact tone, told us how after her husband deserted the family, she left her two children under the care of her parents and ventured out on her own. She sent them money every month but the teenage children often asked for more, thinking their mother had a lucrative sales job in the city.

As Sanjie handed out dozens of condoms, she urged Little Flower to be careful.

“Absolutely,” Little Flower said in a loud voice, nodding repeatedly. “Ever since you told me about the danger of unprotected sex, I’ve used one for each transaction.” She disclosed that just the other day she had kicked out a cheeky client who offered more money for unprotected sex. When we left, Little Flower returned to her stool in the street, her face almost buried in the stitched church.

Like my grandma, the lead character of Lotus is a Buddhist. I met quite a few women during my research that frequently visited temples and churches. My interviews found that many sex workers are religious. This makes sense because religion is one of the things people rely on to deal with internal conflicts and trauma. Also, it offers a ritualized cleansing. I believed that Buddhism helped my grandma swallow the bitterness of her life.

My grandma was sold into prostitution, like a common commodity. In today’s China, apart from rare cases in which women are trafficked and sold into prostitution, the vast majority of the working girls enter the trade of their own free will. Few are controlled by pimps. But women who go down that slippery road often have few other options, as in the case of Little Flower.

Another typical story is that of middle-aged Dajie, or “Big Sister,” as she was known among her colleagues at the NGO. She told me that some 15 years ago, when she’d gathered enough courage to leave her abusive husband, her own conservative family refused to take her in. Dragging her young daughter with her, she escaped to Tianjin where she had only one friend. Big Sister, originally from a conservative rural community, was unpleasantly surprised by the nature of her friend’s work, but she had to support herself and her daughter. As Big Sister recalled those early days, an expression of self-loathing and disgust contorted her wrinkled face.

From the women I met, who mostly come from impoverished rural areas in China, I heard plenty of stories of misery and suffering inflicted by bitter fate as well as by clients and policemen. But their lives are not filled with total bleakness. While waiting for clients, they would chat, crack sunflower seeds, and joke; usually at the expense of their clients, about their good fortune in having a “Mr. One Minute” the night before. Some learned to appreciate what the city could offer, enjoying milk and jam on toast, the sort of foreign food they could only dream of as village girls. Some found sexual pleasure they didn’t experience with their husbands.

I courted the friendship of Lanlan, the founder of the NGO, a perceptive and articulate woman who had received limited education. Over time, she revealed to me her own past.

In 1997, a chance meeting with a massage parlor owner on a crowded train changed the track of Lanlan’s life. Twenty years old and unmarried at the time, she had just left her four-month-old daughter with her mother in their village in the far northeast, and was on her way to take a factory job. Clicking her tongue in disproval, the fellow passenger declared that factory life would be poorly-paid, too hard, and too boring for such a pretty young thing.

The prediction proved to be true. Lanlan quit her job from the production line after a few months and turned to the parlor owner. After a brief training, she started to massage clients, mostly men. For a one-hour session, she earned 60 yuan, enough for a meal at a semi-decent restaurant.

Before long, Lanlan slipped into full-sex service, pocketing 600 yuan per hour, which had been her monthly salary as a factory worker. With each client, she told herself that she was doing this work for her daughter, to give her a better future. Yet, at quiet moments, questions would nag her consciousness: Would my daughter survive without my flesh trade? What kind of person am I?

My grandma wouldn’t have been able to leave her brothel of her own free will, whereas today’s working girls often have the freedom to do just that.. Lanlan did. Having received a pamphlet handed to her by a staff from an AIDS NGO in 2008, she realized the danger of her profession and saw more clearly than ever the ugly side of the trade. She decided to wash her hands of it and, one year later, she set up her own NGO to help her sisters.

By then, she had saved enough money to buy a flat for her mother and daughter in the town close to their ancestral village. It was a struggle for Lanlan to launch an NGO, and she had to learn to apply for funding from international organizations to keep the organization going. Although she missed the income, she says she was happy that she could finally look at herself in the mirror.

When writing my novel, I made use of this mirror detail: a potent symbol of self-image and internal conflicts. One day, when Lotus is putting on make-up in front of her mirror, she sees the reflection of the Guanyin Buddha portrait on the wall. And then, she quickly shifts the mirror.

Sex workers in China are commonly referred to as ji—meaning “chicken”—a degrading homonym for the word prostitute. It speaks volumes about how sex workers are stigmatized in society, about how it is presumed they are immoral women who only care about money.

My experience of working with those vulnerable women allowed me to glimpse into their lives. It made me appreciate more the hardship my grandma suffered as a sex worker.

Once, Little Flower invited me to stay for dinner. Her slender hands expertly turned each dumpling, a specialty of her region, into a perfect flour flower. She was still wearing a black georgette dress, as thin as cicadas’ wings and her frizzy hair was piled up as usual. She then boiled the dumplings over an electric stove. Sitting around a low table in her damp basement, we ate them. When I complemented how delicious they were, a smile blossomed on Little Flower’s face: “Both my son and my daughter love my dumplings, too!” She said she wished she could make them food every week instead of once every year when she visited home. But, she took comfort in the fact that the money she sent home was providing them with a decent education.

Eating dumplings with a working girl again turned my thoughts to my grandma, who used to make dumplings for us at Chinese New Year. These days ready-made dumpling are available everywhere, but grandma had to prepare everything from scratch. My tiny grandma would mince pork with a large chopper in each hand, crashing out a rhythm on the chopping board. Bang. Bang. The New Year’s Eve dinner was the only time she’d allow herself to sit with the family. Ordinarily she would sit on a low stool in the kitchen, as if she were a servant.

From my mother, I understood that grandma never managed to escape the shadow of her past. She had a very low opinion of herself and a sense of shame haunted her until her death. Grandma treated people with extreme kindness, out of her goodness, as a principle of her Buddhist faith—and, perhaps this was her attempt to redeem herself.

Image credit: Unsplash/Olha Zaika.

States of Strangeness and Wonder: A Great American Road Trip

I grew up in South Africa with a particular idea of what America was. What kind of a place, what kind of people. The U.S. for me—as for countless others living in far-flung places across the globe raised on a steady diet of American culture—was almost more familiar to me than my own country.

It was the place of my favorite books and TV shows and movies, my comic books and the woefully out-of-date Teen magazines my sister and I bought, cheap and in bulk, from the newsagents. South Africa didn’t get television until 1976, and it was largely primitive when I was a teenager. Mercifully, we had Beverly Hills 90210, shown on TV with the original voices dubbed in Afrikaans (Luke Perry was only lightly less of a heartthrob with an Afrikaans accent). The original English-language soundtrack was broadcast over the radio, and I would tune in religiously, ignoring the poor syncing, and reveling in this weekly dose of American high school students who looked like grown-ups and drove convertibles to class.

My idea of the U.S. was, in the ’80s and ’90s, predominantly white, a prosperous America of happy families and sparkling suburbs and incongruously perfect teeth. An America where people loved their country in ways that, to me, seemed deeply unfamiliar and strange: standing to pledge allegiance every morning, hanging flags outside their front doors. In apartheid South Africa, there wasn’t much to be patriotic about. When I went abroad for the first time at 14, my parents told my sister and me in hushed voices that if anyone asked, we were to say we were Australian.

“But why?” I said.

“Because the rest of the world hates us,” was the reply.

Growing up under apartheid is another story for another time, but the point is, here was another way that Americans were different. Americans had reasons to be proud, to feel superior. Because they were, weren’t they?

In the years between that first trip and my first visit to the U.S., I had American friends and an American boyfriend. For my master’s degree, I majored in American Studies, a whole course of study just for America. Our professor was enamored with the country and to each class, she wore a different tourist t-shirt bought on her travels in the U.S.; one for every state. Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri. We laughed sometimes at these faded old shirts, but she was passionate about America’s mythology—and I became all the more fascinated by what it meant to be an American, and how those founding myths still dominated an entire nation’s concept of itself.

I was at the American Embassy in Cape Town on the morning of 9/11, trying to get a tourist visa for a visit. By the time I got back home, the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. I never went on that trip, and I didn’t visit the country until I was in my 30s. By then, it was 2015. A lot of things had changed, in America and the wider world, but seeing New York for the first time still felt like a homecoming of sorts: It looked and smelled and sounded just like I had always known it would. So, it was easy, for the most part, to continue thinking about the country in those old ways. Big and bold, the land of dreams and personal freedom and boundless possibilities. The greatest nation in the world, and the only one that dared to call itself that. Around New York City, I visited the icons of American greatness: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the newly constructed Oculus, rising up against the skyline, a vision of the triumph over evil.

In 2017, I had an idea for my second novel, All the Lost Things, and I set off for another trip to the States to conduct my research. The novel unfolds during a father and daughter road trip, from Queens to Texas, and I wanted to see with my own eyes what my characters would encounter along the way. The people and places, the motels and strip malls and road signs. A story of failed dreams, All The Lost Things details a family breaking apart, two sides unable to reconcile and driven into chaos. It seemed to me like a particularly American story: The United States is so imagined to be a place where dreams come true; where fortunes are made; where if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, success is virtually guaranteed. Only it’s not, of course. And America is rife with countless people whose dreams will never come true for reasons that have nothing to do with how hard they work. In All The Lost Things, the young protagonist, Dolly, uses fantasy and imagination as a means of survival but also as a retreat from truth—and this too, seemed to me to be a particularly American strategy.

In New York, where I started the trip, friends made faces at the mention of the places I planned to visit.

“Flyover states,” they said.

But they asked for pictures, because these were parts of the country they’d never seen, and likely never would. This was April 2017, a few months into Donald Trump’s presidency. In retrospect, they seem like the golden days, before Charlottesville and children in cages and ever more restrictive abortion rights. But already then, there was a sense that some irrevocable shift had occurred. Not just the election of a reality TV president with a distaste for truth, but the stark revelation that there existed not one America, but two, and that each had a vastly different notion of what the country was or ought to be.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting to see as I travelled through Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi over the course of a few weeks, driving on the interstate and back roads, stopping in towns along the way. It wasn’t a comprehensive visit by any means, but it was certainly a window into another side of America.

I didn’t imagine that the country would be as vast as it is or, in so many places, as beautiful. Staggeringly beautiful: the mountains, the wide open space, the endless sky.

I also didn’t imagine that so many parts of the country would be so poor, so derelict, so empty, like a vision of some post-apocalyptic world. In parts of all the states I visited, there were signs of loss. Factories shut, main streets with boarded-up storefronts, Walmart’s about to close. There were schools without children, overturned train carriages without passengers. There were homes, crumbling and broken, not the homes of the TV shows of my childhood, but ones that spoke of unimaginable and unfathomable poverty. Here, in America of all places.

Other things, too, seemed to signpost all the ways the country contains more than one version of itself. At times, it was like playing the opposites game. All the things that divide Americans most—gun control, abortion, race, religion, the economy, and of course, Trump—were literally signposted along the way. ABORTION IS MURDER bumper stickers, billboards advertising gun stores and shooting ranges, old Trump for President banners and Truckers for Trump stickers and Bikers for Trump motorcycle jackets. Churches, more than I’ve ever seen in my life, and confederate flags staked—in many parts—in front of almost every home. Sometimes beside an American flag, but mostly not.

GOD BLESS AMERICA, illuminated signs declared; GOD IS WATCHING.

In Louisiana, in the basement of an art gallery, there was a small exhibition on the prison industrial complex. It described how prisoners in that state, the majority of them African Americans, are sent to pick cotton in the fields. Later, in Tennessee, I went to see one of the old plantations. White retirees toured around the grounds on Segways, and there was a wedding being set up in the old barn for later that evening.

In a bar in Nashville, two pretty blonde singers paused between their set. “We thank God for President Trump,” they said, and everyone applauded. At Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park, crowds rode rollercoasters as old-timey bluegrass played over the speakers, and in the gift store, t-shirts emblazoned with the American eagle implored: Be an eagle not a chicken!

Along the way, the people I met were friendly sometimes, and other times not. I had the impression that some were tired of outsiders passing through, casting judgment on their lives and choices. Hillbilly Elegy was a national bestseller; the Alabama-set S-Town was the podcast everyone was binge listening. Neither painted a great picture of these parts.

Almost no one I met had only one job. Almost everyone was smart and hard-working and kind. Resilient, too. Single mothers working three different jobs. Uber drivers in New Orleans still waiting for homes after Hurricane Katrina.

A lot of people appeared to be deeply unwell, in ways you don’t see in places where healthcare is free and the social net wide. I saw evidence of the opioid crisis, the obesity epidemic, mothers who looked like children themselves. A family meal at McDonald’s cost next to nothing; a single salad and a piece of fish at Whole Foods cost $50.

In spite of the country’s many problems, most of the people I spoke with still viewed America as the greatest place on Earth. All of them believed that the dream was within reach. Almost relentlessly so. Ruthlessly so.

And maybe that is the essential truth about America: there’s no giving up on it. There is always the possibility of reinvention and rebirth, renewal and change, better times and a brighter future.  It is the very Americanness of America—the ability to imagine a nation so great that it stands as a beacon to all others. It’s a marvelous notion, and it may have enabled greatness, at home and abroad. But there is always a fine line between telling ourselves the stories we want to believe and deluding ourselves to the point of dangerous ignorance.

My trip ended in Los Angeles, in the newly renovated home of a woman I’d met years earlier at an artist’s residency. Perched high above Silver Lake, her beautiful mid-century home was purchased with money inherited from her grandfather’s generous estate. He had made his money in timber, or sugar, or one of the other stalwarts of America’s post-war economic expansion. His was a classic tale of the self-made man: Raised in a small Midwestern town, he had risen up from rural poverty to make his fortune—enough of a fortune to last three generations and counting. His descendants didn’t have to worry about affording health insurance and mortgages and college tuition; theirs was to be a story of plenty and privilege.

We ate dinner dwarfed by two larger-than-life portraits of my friend’s grandfather and his wife, who gazed down upon us, triumphant and grand: American winners. In the distance, the Hollywood sign flickered, that other eternal beacon of light and another symbol of a quintessentially American dream, promising that everything you want is just on the horizon.

Image credit: Unsplash/Victor Lozano.