Understanding Poetry

Dear Reader,

April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry.  At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival.  Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets.  In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird.  His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.

The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways.  Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem.  Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.

The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry.  Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting.  My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade.  My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth.  One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class.  I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember the entire poem even now.  But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon.  It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.

I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students.  1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it.  Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this.  Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.

I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks.  In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry.  When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.”  In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that.  Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia.  For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.

© Ryna May 2016

 

FrankenTrump

“I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” – Mary Shelley

Today’s Republican party has created what you might call the abominable candidate, Donald Trump.  In the tradition of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, this primary frontrunner is a conglomerate of the worst possible parts of a person – racism, xenophobia, willful ignorance, entitlement, and bravado all wrapped up in one very ugly bully.

Boris Karloff in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.
Image from Mother Jones
As horrible as Trump is, he is the fitting harvest of all the acrid seeds sown by the most cynical and opportunistic people in the GOP in the last 50 years or so. Trump was sown by Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater, and Ronald Reagan in their not-so-subtle race baiting that was so genteelly nicknamed the “Southern Strategy.” This strategy helped gradually convert the south to a Republican stronghold, primarily by appealing to deeply held prejudices among voters there through the use of coded language.  If you think that strategy is dead, then ask yourself why Trump had such a hard time rejecting the support of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in the days leading up to Super Tuesday when several southern states were about to vote.

 

frankentrump
Image from The Denver Post
Trump was sown by the Tea Party whose incendiary rhetoric has led to moments like the one where Congressman Joe Wilson, with a stunning lack of decorum, yelled “Liar!” at the President during his State of the Union address.  From the Republicans in Congress, President Obama has faced blatant racism throughout his tenure.  They questioned his legitimacy because of his foreign-sounding name and the fact that he was born in Hawaii.  Yet somehow the party faithful can pretend not to know (or care) that one of the Republicans running now to succeed Obama, Ted Cruz, was actually not born in America, but in Canada.  Where are those “birthers” now? The behavior of these GOP leaders emboldens the members of the base.  Lack of courtesy, lack of respect, lack of decency abounds.  The loudest mouth wins.  Enter Trump.

 

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” – Hosea 8:7

Trump was sown by the years and years of lip service the GOP gave to the concerns of religious voters.  In his article “Jesus is not a Republican” from The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2006), Randall Balmer makes the case that Republican politicians have repeatedly disavowed fundamental teachings of Jesus such as helping the poor, the use of torture, and the value of life all while courting religious voters.  The religious political machine has focused more on punishing those who are down on their luck, ridiculing and humiliating them, calling them “moochers” and freeloaders.  The machine has stood by while wars are prosecuted for false reasons and stood behind an administration that believes waterboarding is an ethical interrogation strategy.  Trump has called for a return to the use of torture, even as he has said, “beyond waterboarding,” which is horrible to imagine. That’s not a position consistent with valuing life, and Trump has backpedaled on that position somewhat, but he has also said that we should target the families of our enemies – their wives and children.  That’s something straight out of Macbeth, not the New Testament. We can’t pretend that these are Judaeo Christian values – they just aren’t.  But this is the man who would lead the Republican party.

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” – Mary Shelley

 

lucy-football
Image from Slate.com
The chickens are coming home to roost.  The poor of the country, especially those in the south, are tired of Republican politicians taking their money and their votes and failing to deliver on any of their promises.  The religious right are sick and tired of seeing their social issues used as a political football.  Every four years, like Charlie Brown, they run out onto the pitch where Lucy waits, only to end up flat on their backs.  Good Grief!  Maybe not this year. You can’t blame voters for feeling that enough is enough and looking for an alternative, an outsider, a non-politician.

 

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example” – Mary Shelley

So where does this leave moderate Republican voters?  There are many of them who are people of good will who believe in things like small government at the federal level and a greater role for local governments and who have specific ideas about fiscal policy that don’t include destroying the middle class.  There are many moderate Republican voters who do not hate Mexicans and Muslims and who do believe in the American Dream that so many immigrants come here to find.  But this is not their Republican Party – for some time it has been slipping away. For years they have turned a blind eye while the party grew more and more extreme.  If Mitt Romney’s desperate speech doesn’t tell the truth of it, then I don’t know what else does.  It’s all hitting the fan now.  Fox News viewers can hardly stomach it anymore. The former nominee basically begged voters to go out and vote for anyone but Trump, betting on, hoping for a brokered convention where the delegates can rally together and choose someone more palatable. In doing so, the party will basically slap the face of their own voters, saying, in effect, thanks for voting – that’s cute, but we’ve got this from here. As I wrote a few months ago, this is a crossroads for the GOP as we know it.  Will they be defined by their new standard-bearer, Trump?  Or will they have the courage to watch the thing they gave their lives to, broken, and find a way to build it new? In a surreal moment at the end of the Republican debate in Detroit, after spending 2 hours slamming Trump and declaring him unfit and unqualified to be president, we watched as these same men, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, all pledged to rally behind and support the eventual Republican nominee, even if that is Trump.  If that is true, they have no one to blame but themselves.

© Ryna May 2016

Required Reading

Dear Reader,

In college, one of the things I was most excited about was all of the great books I was going to read.  Even between semesters, I sought out reading recommendations from my favorite professors – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  Over summer break, I averaged 2 books a week – a habit that, until I went back to school for my doctorate, I was able to maintain long after graduation.

Today, I read an article about the books that most frequently appear on college syllabi, and it got me to thinking about the best books I’ve ever read.  If I were ever to design my own course in reading “Great Books,” these are the 7 works I would have on my 15-week syllabus, with explanations.  Note: I fully admit that some great books are not on this list, and I’ll also admit a serious Western Lit bias, but this is an impossible project; however it also a fun one to think about.  So, in 15 weeks, this is what we would read:

1. The Great Gatsby

I have great affection for Fitzgerald’s most popular book.  I love the era it is set in, and I do believe that it is the quintessential narrative of the aspiration, excess, and fallacy of “The American Dream.”  An alternative to this on the same theme: Death of a Salesman.

2. Beloved

No other novel honestly spooked me as much as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  It is a haunting story of slavery and the impossible, regrettable moral choices the protagonist faces.  Shivers.  Also in this lane: a contemporary novel called The Known World.

3. Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe’s novel is a postcolonial masterpiece.  It was one of the first books I ever really read about another culture, and it was fascinating to consider the alternative view of Christianity in the world.  In this same vein, also a good bet: The Poisonwood Bible.

4. Hamlet

Of course there is Shakespeare on this list!  My favorite play to watch may be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my favorite play to read and sit with is definitely Hamlet. I love this play because, even though I have read it dozens of times, I always find something new it in.  I have never read another play like it.  Its depths resound.  Sorry – can’t find anything really comparable – except maybe Macbeth.

5. The Things They Carried

Of all the books and stories about war, this one is the one I always come back to.  Tim O’Brien is an amazing storyteller.  I remember the first time I ever read “On the Rainy River.”  I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, and was a real gut-punch.  If you like this one, you’ll also love Dispatches – a non-fiction story about a reporter in Vietnam.

6. 1984

I probably like Animal Farm better, but 1984 is just scary.  It’s scary because it’s so true.  I think even George Orwell would be surprised at how right he was about the world to come.  When I first read the book, I kind of laughed at the idea of “Big Brother.”  Not so funny now.  Huxley’s Brave New World is also frighteningly on the nose.

7. Last but not least, Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel raises all of the questions we are still asking about the limits of human knowledge and achievement along with the ethical responsibilities we bear when we push those boundaries.  The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells provokes these questions as well.

So what do you think?  If you were assigning “Great Books,” what would be on the list?

 

© Ryna May 2016

Change is Gonna Come

Dear Reader,

Of course, this is the time of year when everyone makes resolutions to make changes in their lives. Most of the time, these changes fall along the lines of losing weight, saving money, getting fit, quitting smoking, etc.  However, as we well know, most of us do not keep those resolutions – why not?  Maybe we think changes are impossible.  Maybe we just aren’t ready for change.  I know it’s a cliche, but the only constant in life is change – so I want to think more about how to embrace it.

Dr. Art Markman, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says we don’t keep our resolutions because many of us who make resolutions fail to make a realistic plan to achieve our goals.  Perhaps we believe too much in the magical power of January 1st, as if putting up a new calendar on the wall wipes the slate totally clean.

Dr. Markman recently wrote an article for Time wherein he laid out a few pieces of practical advice for keeping those resolutions.  In summary, here they are:

  1. Prepare before New Year’s Eve.  Oops – too late for us on that one because the new year is already here.  But perhaps the point is to make a decision to start something and not worry about what the calendar says.  As the saying goes, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
  2. The only way to really change is to change our habits.  Our lives are governed by routine.  If you want to jumpstart your career, you can’t just binge on Netflix every day – you have to change some behaviors.  You won’t get healthy by ordering pizza every week – you’re going to have to shop and cook.
  3. Focus first on positive goals rather than negative goals – a positive goal is something you want to do whereas a negative goal is something you want to stop.  This is perhaps my favorite bit of Dr. Markman’s advice.  It is much easier to gain some momentum toward things you want to do – such as taking more walks.  I love the idea of creating some success that will give me confidence in tackling some of the more difficult behaviors to change.
  4. Be specific about your plans.  This is also important.  It’s why we have schedules and calendars.  If you want to read more, choose a night that is the night you plan to read and schedule it.  This is how something becomes a routine.
  5. Change your environment to accommodate new habits.  The idea is to make it easy to do desirable things and hard to do undesirable things.  So if your goal is to eat better, don’t buy junk snacks for the house – instead buy, say, apples and carrots.  That way, when you want a snack, the desirable behavior will be easy.
  6. Finally, Dr. Markman advises that you should not be too hard on yourself.  Change is difficult for everyone, so odds are even if you plan well you won’t end up keeping all of those resolutions.  But maybe you achieve one or two of them. It’s best to celebrate the ways in which we are successful rather than beat ourselves up for the times we fall short.

The fact is, whether we resolve it or not, change is going to come in some form to all of us in the coming year.  Some of it will be good and some won’t be.  In looking back over the past year, there were some definite high points and some definite low points, but life is definitely not the same as it was one year ago today.  I was not always ready for change to happen, but we can’t always control things in our lives – change happens whether we like it or not. All we can control is how we react. And when circumstances do change in ways we don’t like, we have the power to decide what we are willing to accept and what we won’t stand for. 

I normally don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions because I think they are destined to fail, but this year I do have some changes I’d like to make.  I’d like to return to health.  This time last year I was training for a half-marathon and running up to six miles at a time.  After the half-marathon

IMG_0564
At the starting line of the Rock N Roll Half Marathon in DC, March 2015
in March, I backed off running to give myself some recovery time, and then I had a freak encounter with a stair that left me with a torn meniscus in my knee.  I have not been able to exercise for months and I don’t feel terribly healthy.  So I’d like to be able to exercise again.  I never thought I’d miss running, but I really do.  I don’t think I’ll ever run a half-marathon again, but I would love to do some more 5ks this year, and I’ve always wanted to do the Warrior Dash.  If I can keep recovering from the knee injury, I would love to do that this year.  I think the Maryland Warrior Dash is in May.  That’s a specific goal I can challenge myself with.  To get there, I have to focus on things other than running for the immediate future so I can start to regain some strength.  Nothing is going to happen overnight, but I have to have some specific plans in order for anything to happen at all.

The other change I want to make this year is to be open to change.  A lot of us have had that feeling in life of being in a rut or staying in a pattern because it’s easy or comfortable.  I don’t want to do that this year.  I want to be more Zen about what has been and let go of regrets and things that disappoint me.  This year, I want to be open to the possibility of new things, even if the new things seem scary. Everything changes eventually: jobs, people, locations, dreams.  As Hamlet said, “the readiness is all.”  This year, I want to be ready.

© Ryna May 2016

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Dear Reader,

Hey!  Is it the First Friday already?? Okay, so off the top of my head, this is what I’m thinking about.  Today, I saw a movie called Krampus.  It’s a Christmas-themed light horror movie in the spirit of Gremlins that also invokes the familial horror of a film like Christmas Vacation.  The movie opens with the dulcet tones of Andy Williams singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” while a dumbshow plays of people trampling each other for Black Friday sales: a terrified store employee falls helplessly to the ground, shoppers slug each other in their efforts to obtain a starbucks reddiscounted toaster, and store security guards taser a couple of middle aged yuppies with a look of wild excitement in their eyes. This is what signals the start of the holidays now: frenzy.  And yet, that’s not how it has always been.  I don’t think there’s a “War on Christmas” or anything, and I have no problem with plain red cups at Starbucks, but I do feel a shift in the way Christmas feels.

Christmas has become a bit of a paradox.  On one hand, I get excited about the season – I look forward to the idea of it.  On the other hand, I get inexplicably vexed by seeing Christmas trees and decorations in stores before I have even handed out my Halloween candy. Perhaps the presence of all these decorations so early in the year just reminds me how different the experience of Adult Christmas is from Kid Christmas.

Kid Christmas was awesome.  I can’t remember anything bad about it.  I know that’s just how memory works – we amplify the things that are good and diminish the things that are not – but I really did always think of Christmas as being kind of magical.  It wasn’t just because of Santa – I mean, that’s part of it, sure, but it was also the time that our families all were together.  On Christmas Eve, we went to my mom’s parents’ house.  My grandfather played Santa and passed out gifts to everyone.  We all waited while the gifts were opened and we “Ooohed and Aaahed” over everything that everybody got.  Then we went to our aunt and uncle’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and there were more presents, but mostly it was the chance to see each other all at once and love on each other in a way that we never really did any other day of the year.

Christmas Day was even better.  We went to my dad’s parents’ house, and Grandma Odum made amazing food for us: biscuits, gravy, ham, potatoes, cookies, and pies.  We spent hours eating and laughing.  We got to see

Ryna and Grandma
“Kid Christmas” with Grandma Odum

cousins that we hardly ever saw.  The house was so warm and happy on those Christmas mornings, and my aunts got us the most awesomely bad gifts, but I loved it.  The worst: a purple sweatshirt with a hand-knitted orange cat on it.  One of the best gifts though: the year my grandparents bought all of us, even cousins, bicycles.  My uncle Frank taught me to ride it in the street that day. That was the real gift – not really the bike but that time with my uncle, even the part where I crashed in the ditch.

Adult Christmas just doesn’t reach the same emotional highs.  It’s not bad or anything, but there are so many things that escaped my notice as a kid.  My wife and I were stringing the lights on the Christmas tree the other day and talking about how much real work goes into creating that ethereal magic.  When we were kids, we just showed up and ate the food and appreciated the lights – we never really thought about the fact that someone (mostly grandmothers) put a lot of effort into creating that experience for the whole family. And dealing with family can be trying – there was nothing more exciting about Kid Christmas than the people we shared it with.  But Adult Christmas comes with a lot of strained relationships that the best adults are able to smooth over. Tongues are bitten and cheeks get turned for the greater peace of the holiday.

Something that you also don’t realize as a kid is that Adult Christmas comes with a certain amount of financial anxiety – big feasts cost money and so do presents and gift wrap and lights and things.  A whole lot of investment that goes into creating the experience of a single day.  There is a payoff, but not on the level of what used to be. It’s stressful to find the perfect gifts for everyone every year. And most disappointing of all, the feeling of the holiday fades really fast.

I am haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in the way that nostalgia messes with all of us and makes us hope that Christmas will be more than it really is: a day.  It’s a day that, if I am lucky, I will get to spend with some people that I really love.  It’s not really a great movie, but the point of Krampus is that if we don’t cherish the things like family and tradition that are the real treasures of Christmas, then it can become little more than a horror that we have to endure.  Krampus is the shadow of Christmas that looms over us, threatening to destroy any real joy we have for the season.  But the better we can remember and embrace the Kid Christmas mindset, the better chance we have to love the season and all that goes with it. So that is what I want to be more mindful of this year.

I wish you all a Merry Kid Christmas.  See you in the new year!

 

© Ryna May 2015

 

Music and Memory

“No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—”

– from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

The other day I was working on my laptop while a popular singing competition played in the background when I heard the first few plaintive piano notes of the song “Walking in Memphis”  and I suddenly started seeing a memory play in the movie theater of my mind of a time I was stranded with a bunch of my friends in a Myrtle Beach hotel twenty years ago, January of 1995.  We had gone to Myrtle Beach for a business conference, and the morning we were set to leave, we got the news that I-95 was shut down through most of northern Virginia by a massive snowstorm.  There was nothing to do but stay a few more days and wait it out.  There was an entire floor of the beachfront hotel, the “Captain’s Quarters,” that was given over to entertainment: a bowling alley, a pool table, several arcade games, and a jukebox.  I remember playing that song on the jukebox several times while we were there.  I know I have not thought of this in at least a decade, but now here it is, just as if it happened yesterday.  It’s strange how we can be pulled so immediately into the past by music.

Actually, the more I think about it, it is not strange at all.  Music and memory are powerfully related. I used to give my creative writing students an assignment that starts with the line “The first time I heard [insert song title here], I was…”  They were always great stories because the memories were so clear – students could recount things with startling detail and emotion.

I associate certain days with certain songs.  I remember being in the living room of our house in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee on a pile of blankets with my brother and sister and hearing the spooky song “In the Air Tonight” on the radio.  I was eight, and it was the night my father died.  There are so many things about that day that have faded from memory, but not this thing. Even now, when I hear the song, it’s as if I slide down a rabbit hole right into the middle of that room.

I also remember in the months after my father’s death lying on the floor of our new house back in my mom’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee and playing the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey over and over again.  I would crawl out of my bed journeyat night when I was sad or scared and could not sleep and go huddle right in front of my mom’s living room stereo.  The first night I did it, I just pushed play on the tape deck and the sound came out at me like a warm blanket, wrapped me up, and hushed me to sleep.  After that first night, whenever I found myself too traumatized to sleep, I crawled to the stereo in search of that peaceful lullaby. Play.  Rewind. Play. Rewind. Until sleep came over me. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a friend who was learning to play it, and I could not get enough of listening to her play those first few measures. Even today the song elicits a physical reaction – a deep breath and warm tingle that runs up the spine.

Music has been shown to help elderly people with memory recall.  This is important to on a personal level because my grandmother suffered from alzheimer’s and dementia, a disease with a genetic predisposition.  Perhaps I will face that too someday, but even if I am lucky enough to avoid it, I know that it is a fact of getting older that our memories become less distinct over time, and there are some things that I definitely want to remember, good and bad.  I want to remember working on a paper once about Virginia Woolf sitting in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland with my little portable CD player and finding that for some reason, I felt most inspired when listening to “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams.  I want to remember my sister, when we lived on Andrews Air Force Base, sitting in the backyard with her junior high friends dangling their painted toes in a baby pool while George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” blared through the speakers of her pink boom box as they sang along in the worst possible tableau you could imagine for preteen girls.

I have so many memories of my brother that are connected to music, such as the songs by Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister that he used to play in his room, the Tesla tape that he used to play every morning as we drove to high school in our red Nissan Sentra (we were beyond cool), and the black Metallica t-shirt he was buried in.  It was his favorite. But there are two that are the most powerful.  One is from when we were kids living in Florida.  He was probably around thirteen years old, and I walked into his room unannounced – something you should never, ever do to a teenaged boy by the way – and he was jumping around on his bed wearing shorts and these white tube socks singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” by James Taylor.  It was funny then, and he was kind of embarrassed, but now it feels different.  Those white socks, for some reason, get me every time.  The way they were flopping off the ends of his feet, too big for him.  It kind of breaks my heart.

But the one that really breaks my heart is from the day after he died.  I just had to get out of the house for a little while, get away from all of the sadness, but that really wasn’t possible to do.  So I drove to the restaurant where he used to work and I just sat there in my car.  This song “One” by U2 came on.  Then the tears really came.

When I am old I still want to remember the things that have broken my heart along with the moments that have filled it.  I want to always remember “Lovely Tonight” by Joshua Radin but as performed by my friend Will at my wedding.  We stood at the top of the stairs and I gave my soon-to-be wife’s hand a squeeze before I walked down the aisle with this song drawing us to the altar, drawing us into happily ever after in front of all of our family and friends.

We are so lucky to live in this time where our life’s playlist is so easy to access, catalogue, and replay.  Our music tells our history in a way that words cannot quite reach, and for that I am grateful.  Sweet as any madeleine shortbread, these songs comfort and fortify me and summon up the remembrance of things past. As long as I can hear these songs, I am always in touch with who I am, who I’ve been, and who I want to be.

© 2015 Ryna May

Strange Bedfellows

caliban
Caliban from the 2013 Utah Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the shipwrecked sailor Trinculo looks upon the mysterious island creature Caliban and says “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”  From this, we also get the idiom “Politics makes for strange bedfellows.”  Both of these expressions flashed to the forefront of my mind when I read the headline “The Pope Just Handed Kim Davis a Huge Win.” The Obstinate Clerk and The Bishop of Rome.  Strange bedfellows indeed. So strange as not to be believed.

At the tail end of his much hyped visit, The Pontiff inadvertently waded directly into the cesspool of American culture wars.  Of course, it is implied that the Pope was talking about embattled Kentucky government employee Kim Davis – he never actually mentioned Davis directly – when he said that government officials have a “human right” to refuse to discharge a duty if they feel it violates their conscience. The story that was given out was that the Pope’s people arranged a clandestine meeting with Davis inside the Vatican embassy where Davis’s attorney alleges that the Pope told her to “stay strong” in her ongoing fight to deny other people their Constitutional rights.

In one of my classes, we just finished reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Antigone play called The Burial at Thebes.  For those of you who may not remember, Antigone is the tale of Oedipus’s daughter who is sentenced by her uncle, Creon, to death for burying the body of a traitor.  The traitor happened to be her brother, Polynices, who brought an army against Antigone’s home city of Thebes, igniting a civil war that led to the death of Polynices and his brother Eteocles as well.  As Greek plays often are, it is a hot mess for everyone involved.  And it doesn’t end well for anyone.

Antigone’s dilemma is that she feels compelled to bury her brother because it is what she believed the gods wanted.  She knew it was against the law of Thebes, but she just felt that it was the right thing for her to do.  On the other hand, Creon created a law for the city to restore the unity of Thebes.  He wanted to send a message that it was important for citizens to obey the law because law is a social contract that ensures the protection and safety of everyone.  Antigone is aware that citizens have a duty to the law – citizenship was extremely important to the Greeks.  But for Antigone it is a deep matter of faith to ignore this particular law. But here’s the rub: Antigone knew there were legal consequences to her actions even though she felt she had a moral duty that was higher than any mortal duty that might exist.  Her deontological worldview commanded her to obey that moral law even though the consequences would be bad for her.  In fact, she viewed the consequences as beyond her control and even as part of the bargain for standing up for her choice, and there is honor in that choice.  My students could not help but note the similarities between Antigone and Davis; however, these same students also believe it would be wrong to equate the two women.  As we discussed this play in this contemporary context, the students pointed out that Antigone’s actions impacted her whereas Kim Davis’s actions impact others.  In their opinion, that’s where things go over the line.  Kim Davis denies the rights of others in choosing to ignore the law. In ignoring the law, Davis is free to obey what she feels is a moral duty, but she must face the consequences.

Pope-Francis
Pope Francis – photo from GLAAD

But wait, there’s more to the story.  Contrary to how it was initially reported, it seems that the meeting didn’t go as Davis claims it did.  The Vatican is pumping the brakes and saying that, while Davis was in the room with Pope Francis, she was hardly alone and was part of a group of people arranged in a receiving line that the Pope spoke to briefly.  His Holiness had no desire to comment on how we ought to conduct our business, and that is a good thing, because religion and politics are a toxic mix.  It is a bedrock belief that in the United States of America, people may live free of the restrictions of religion – see the Pilgrims – but they may not live free of the requirements of the law. The law is part of our social contract.  In the First Amendment, it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  In simplest terms, this means that we may not impose a particular religious worldview on others.  We are free to believe what we want.  Others are free to believe what they want.  Both perspectives are protected under the law and law is independent of religion. This is in fact what the Pope was speaking of – freedom of religion as a human right.  

I sympathize with Davis – it’s a tough spot.  I don’t doubt her religious conviction, green as it is, but this is an outright lie to make more of this meeting with the Pope than there actually was.  It feels particularly wrong to manipulate him in this way, and sadly, this is not the first time her supporters have tried to pull something like this.  Still, my sympathy for her comes from the way she is being exploited by her deranged lawyer and presidential pretender Mike Huckabee.  She is the one who has to face actual repercussions for these choices while these politically religious opportunists scramble to take photos with her as “Eye of the Tiger” blares in the background.  There is really only one way to get through this with any honor now: she should embrace God’s love and God’s word as a reason to do her job. She should embrace some actual scriptures such as the ones where we turn the other cheek or Matthew 7:12 that exhorts us to treat others as we want to be treated – in other words, equality. 

This argument does not need to be won on religious grounds because ultimately it is not and must not be a religious argument.  But if you insist that it must be a religious argument, then fine.  James 2:8 & Galatians 5:14 both invoke Jesus’s words that we should “Love [our] neighbor as [our]self” which implies that we should extend love and courtesy and respect to one another. But the last word on this really comes from Romans 13:10 – “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Loving others is the fulfillment of the law.  The law is changing as we change culturally, and this is a good thing.  It means we are more tolerant, more inclusive, more like Jesus wishes us to be. Welcome to the brave new world.

© 2015 Ryna May

Phantom Balls

This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother.  Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others.  That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.

“Awrgh – my balls!”

I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.

This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”

Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.

A tomboy from the start

Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.

Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.

If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.

ryna and bryan
Ryna and Bryan – Thick as Thieves

At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.

There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.

I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.

What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.

The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.

Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.

© 2015 Ryna May

Trumped!

“By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes” – W. Shakespeare, Macbeth

Dear Reader,

I can’t remember the last time I got excited about watching a Republican primary debate. Oh wait, it was…never.  But this week’s Fox News debate was must-see TV for political junkies and, it seems, for the casual observer as well.  Donald Trump has injected some hysteria into this soul-sucking process.  He offers no specifics for how he will “Make America Great Again” (as his campaign slogan promises).  When asked about the economy, the business mogul who has declared bankruptcy several times answers, “I’m really rich.”  When asked how he will fix immigration, he says he will build a wall along the Mexican border with a “beautiful door” for legal immigrants, and I don’t know, spider monkeys to chase away the illegal ones?  When asked about jobs, he says he will drag all the jobs back from China – but some of those workers make Trump’s own products.  He is a traffic accident, and we can’t look away.

Trump certainly strikes a nerve.  For two-thirds of the country, he is an ogre.  He’s rude, supercilious, uninformed, and just, well, un-presidential. In Thursday’s debate, he roundly dismissed one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly, and suggested via some “angry tweets” after the debate that her tough questioning of him might be related to her menstrual cycle.  Yikes.

He claims to love the military, but he said that Senator John McCain, a Navy veteran who was shot down over Hanoi during the POWVietnam War and held captive at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for over two years is not a hero.  Trump says McCain is not a hero because he let himself get caught and Trump thinks heroes don’t let themselves get captured.  Military friendly?  Yeah, I don’t know about that.

During the debate itself and throughout his campaign, Trump has been hostile to the other candidates, calling them “Losers” and mocking them.  Trump most famously claimed that all Mexican immigrants are murderers, drug dealers, and rapists.  For a party that has had trouble convincing the country that it is a party of inclusion, Trump is a nightmare.

And yet, Trump is leading the polls for his party’s nomination.  Just let that marinate for a second.  For the nomination of one of the country’s two major political parties, Donald Trump is the leading candidate.

Nate Silver, the brilliant New York Times columnist and political prognosticator, believes that Trump will eventually flame out.  But in the meantime, it’s worth asking why his flame is burning this brightly.  One of the reasons, I think, is something Trump himself mentioned in the debate: political correctness.  Trump is unapologetically not PC, and the Republican base loves him for it.  Trump represents the ethos of the “angry white man” – the lower middle-class, limited information voter that believes others are to blame for their own struggles and romanticizes a past when America was greater than it is now.  Trump is the mouthpiece for this, and it’s playing pretty well.

Unfortunately, Trump is drowning out more moderate voices in the crowded candidate field.  It was not an electric moment, but Ohio Governor John Kasich had a very good moment answering a question about gay rights in which he sounded authentic, compassionate, and logical.  But no one is talking about Kasich, a dark horse and late entry into this race who nevertheless managed to make the cut for the 10-candidate main event debate.  Another Republican candidate who did not make the prime time debate, Senator Lindsey Graham, delivered a solid performance in the so-called “Happy Hour Debate” that occurred before.  In particular, when talking about Social Security, Graham was empathetic and rational, acknowledging the need to get out of the entrenchment of party ideology to move toward a solution to save the critical entitlement program.  Candidates like these who display authenticity as well as compassion and good will, are what the Republican party really needs.  Maybe not these guys exactly, but a version of them.

This is a critical moment for the GOP.  As a liberal-minded progressive voter who has voted for the Democratic nominee in 5 of 6 elections since I became eligible to vote, there is a part of me that wants Trump to win the nomination because, first and foremost, he won’t win the general election.  No independent voter will choose Trump no matter who he’s running against.  But I also think that, if nothing else, his candidacy might finally force a sea change within the Republican party.  I know some Republicans who are socially progressive but fiscally conservative.  There is a middle ground where outliers of both major parties sit.  In truth, I think this is where much of the Republican party is.  But the base of the party controls the primary cycle, so it’s hard to gain the nomination without pandering to the social issues and anti-everything rhetoric that are dominated by the party’s extremists.  If the GOP isn’t careful, they will get Trumped! in this election – and the party as we know it now may never recover.

© 2015 Ryna May

This I Believe – Part Two

Dear Reader,

This I Believe: To Believe in God is to Believe in People

When we study literature, especially poetry, I always teach my students about denotation and connotation. The denotation of the word is what it actually means-if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find a precise definition of the word along with where it came from and other uses. The connotation of a word is what it actually means to us. The connotation of the word evolves and is defined over time through usage and through cultural applications of the word. Normally, the connotation of a word allows for a lot more possibility than the original definition.  For example, “gay” used to just mean happy – now it has a different meaning for most people, one that encompasses a lot more. For me, “Christian” is a word that has evolved quite a bit.

I grew up with very religious (Southern Baptist) grandparents, and my first understanding of what it meant to be a Christian crosscame from them.  My mom was not too strict about taking us to church, but whenever we stayed with my mom’s parents, we did the whole thing: Sunday School, morning worship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer services. Mostly being a good Christian meant being still and quiet in church so my grandmother didn’t get upset.  My grandfather sang in the choir, so he didn’t really sit with us.  If we were good, we could have gum.  I never really considered church that much when I wasn’t with my grandparents – until high school.  When I was in 8th grade, my stepfather got assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland.  After learning that the schools in Prince George’s County weren’t too highly regarded, our parents decided to put us in private school, a religious school.  Having gone to public school all my life, it was quite an adjustment.

Since I was a small child when I went to church with my grandparents, I really learned what Christianity was about in high school.  Through a consistent Bible-tinted filter, we were taught basic subjects and how we were supposed to view the world.  We attended chapel sermons a few times a week.  We had an active youth group, and we were strongly encouraged to attend church every Sunday.  I did go to church – first at my school and then at another church down the road.  Initially, I was drawn to the compassionate message of Christianity: that God is love, that he made the world for us, that he died for us – and that we should spread that message to others.  I loved coming together to worship.  But we were also inundated with the messages that hell awaits us with fire and suffering.  There is no such thing as a good person, only sinners who need redemption.  Nothing you can do in this life is good enough to save your soul. And weirdly, it is a sin to vote for the wrong person.  The longer I was involved, the more I began to notice that in church people judged other people based on their clothes and other superficial things. I learned that it was important to have the right costume, say the right things – as if being a good Christian was like acting a part in a play.  I was totally immersed, and it gave me a somewhat hard view of the world – so much of the dialogue in church was “us against them” and what base creatures we humans are and what judgment awaits the world.  But I was a full participant.  I passed out literature to strangers in shopping malls inviting them to “Consider Eternity” and things like that.  I shared my testimony with others, implored them to accept Jesus, and I even told people that I believed they would go to hell if they didn’t.

When I first went to a secular college and got out of the Bible Bubble I had lived in during my high school years, it was a culture shock to learn that other people didn’t see the world exactly as I did.  I mean, what could they be thinking?? But it helped me to start to consider the things I had been taught and to consider what Christianity looks like from the outside.

Sometimes people ask me if I consider myself a Christian anymore.  This is a hard question because of the connotation the word Christian has acquired and how my belief in God has evolved.  I still believe in God, but I don’t believe what I grew up believing. My faith has gotten bigger than that.  I think God is bigger than that.  We are the ones who limit him because we are limited by language.  When we can name something we understand it.  We want so much to understand.

When it used to thunderstorm outside when I was a kid, my great grandmother said it was God moving furniture in heaven.  She could have said that it was the sound made by the electrostatic charge of lightning, but she didn’t have that vocabulary.  Instead, it was God moving furniture.  It reminds me of Greek Mythology.  The Greeks made up myths because myth is what we tell ourselves about our world so that our lives make sense.  Rough seas mean Poseidon is restless.  Thunder means Zeus zeus_lightningis angry, etc. We do that too – we have given God a human face: a large, old white man with a beard.  We do that so we can understand him.  He’s a father.  He cares for us.  The Bible itself is full of metaphor – the King James Version of the Bible was transcribed by poets commissioned by King James I of England in 1611.  It has come a long way from its original language.  It’s fair to think that some things have been lost in those translations.  Have you ever played the game of telephone?  Whisper a phrase into one person’s ear in a group of people, and by the time it gets whispered around the room, even in a room of people who all speak the same language, it will be a different phrase, maybe even unrecognizable.  How can we expect the Bible to remain the same through hundreds and hundreds of years, many different languages, and several translations?  How can we cling to every word of it literally when we know poetry isn’t meant to be literal?

Today we have reduced Christianity to a set of political views on what we should be allowed to do with our bodies and our guns.  I don’t see those things I was first drawn to: compassion and love.  This is what I mean when I say that God is bigger than we have described him.  We ourselves have created rules in God’s name, but we ignore some of the logical inconsistencies of those rules.  Jesus said help the poor, but many people who claim to be Christians look at the poor as “moochers” who don’t deserve compassion. In the book of Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus said that we should not judge others – we are not worthy to do that, but there is a lot of judgment going around.  We have created a framework that we are comfortable in, we use it to hide behind and condemn things (and people) we don’t understand or are afraid of.  We have taken the poetry of men and made it our absolute North Star.

The word “Christian” has a decidedly un-poetic connotation now.  Too often in today’s society, to be a Christian means to deny, to reject, and even to hate. It means being a part of a narrow political group or being proud of the things we don’t do, what we resist, and who we exclude – that is not something I want to be associated with. The sad thing is, the negativity is the result of the loud mouths of 1% of people who call themselves Christians.  There are many Christians who aspire to live a life of love, peace, and tolerance.  I know some wonderful Christians who don’t resemble the Mike Huckabee/Pat Robertson/Duggar Family mainstream connotation of that word at all.  But their message is not the one that gets played and replayed.  I want to be associated with a way of believing that measures goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.  

These days, I guess I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual person.  Our faith matters because what we believe is a fundamental part of our identity and self-concept. Our religion is a public profession, a badge of courage that announces what we value and what we live for. I don’t belong to any particular denomination and I accept that there are more possibilities than I rainbows and doveswas originally taught.  To be a spiritual person is to let things into my world, not leave things out. I do believe in God, but this is what I believe: to believe in God is to believe in good.  To believe in God is to believe in people, to choose to believe that people have the capacity to do and be good, not believe that people are inherently bad or that those who are different should be feared and shunned.  To believe in God is to believe in what is possible.  In that way, maybe there is some poetry in the idea if we can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, learn to “dwell in possibility / a fairer house than prose.”

© 2015 Ryna May