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A Ring

January 21, 2019

A friend of mine, Al, died last Saturday. He is the first person to die who I knew well and was not from my parents’ generation, bringing the idea nearer. I think he was ten years older than my friend who married him.

My friend, Miriam, met him on the day after she turned thirty. I remember this because her father, a Lutheran pastor, had called her up on her birthday and asked her how it felt to be an “old maid” and the closest I’ve ever come to believing in a god is the kind of karmic delight Ron and I felt when she went to church the next day and met Al. We were sharing a house then, the three of us, and when Al and Miriam moved to California she gave us custody of her beloved cats, who were also beloved to us.

img_1731We visited a few times, in California and then when Al and Miriam moved to Colorado, and they came out to the beach in South Carolina with us a couple of times, and to our tea and poetry readings when we had them. The last time I visited was last summer, in Colorado. We walked around the Cheyenne Mountain zoo one day and another day Al and I drove up Pike’s Peak, with him telling me around each curve where he used to judge various kinds of races going up the mountain.

I loved Al for the same reason I loved Ron’s grandmother as soon as I met her, because it was clear that here was a person who loved the person we both loved really hard. And then I got to like him, too. He was smart and curious and kind, and he liked to sing. He talked to me about things no one else talked to me about much. Even theology, occasionally–I wasn’t as prickly about it with him as with other people, since he would pick it apart to see how it worked.

I thought of Al when I read this poem, about what we know, and what we can’t know but still long to hear about from those who have had to go on before.

A Ring
W.S. Merwin

At this moment
this earth which for all we know

is the only place in the vault of darkness
with life on it is wound in a fine veil

of whispered voices groping the frayed waves
of absence they keep flaring up

out of hope entwined with its opposite
to wander in ignorance as we do

when we look for what we have lost
one moment touching the earth and the next

straying far out past the orbits and webs
and the static of knowledge they go on

without being able to tell whether
they are addressing the past or the future

or knowing there they are heard these words
of the living talking to the dead.

img_1769Al did not go gentle into that good night. But he did go, and so he has made that real to me the way he’s always led the way, pointing and striding on ahead, resolute, determined.



The Girl in the Tower

January 20, 2019

When he handed me a copy of Katherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower, book two of “The Winternight Trilogy,” following on from The Bear and the Nightingale, Walker—who had pre-read it for my enjoyment—said that it was a pretty good story up until the last part, and then it got great. And I agree. So many things come together at the end of this book that it’s a positive conflagration of surprise and delight, although it does not end altogether happily. It does end, however, even though there’s a third book in the series.

In her review at Rhapsody in Books, Jill says:
“Morozko, the Russian winter demon who was seen as sometimes a force of good and sometimes of evil, in this book becomes an increasingly sympathetic character; in many ways, he is the best character of the second book. The only mystery is what draws him so much to Vasya. She, like many teen heroines it seems, is annoyingly bratty, stubborn, and disagreeable even though she is spirited, brave, and more devoted to justice for the people in her country than its rulers.”
But because the story is set in medieval Russia, I didn’t really think of Vasya as a “teen heroine.” She left any vestige of childhood behind at the end of the first book, and she is now making her way in the world on her own terms, as an adult. She has no safety net, with the possible exception of Morozko, and how reassuring is it to have a personification of Death as the only one you can turn to for help? Especially since one of the first things he says to her in this book is “you are talking like a child. Do you think that anyone, in all this world of yours, cares what you want? Even princes do not have what they want, and neither do maidens.”

We hear news of Vasya’s brother Sasha and her sister Olga, both living in Moscow under the protection of the Grand Prince Dimitrii, whose “father had died before Dimitrii reached his tenth year, in a land where boy-princes rarely saw adulthood. Dmitrii had learned early to judge men carefully and not to trust them.” When he meets Vasya and is introduced by Sasha as his heroic brother who has rescued three little girls from outlaws in the forest, Dmitrii doesn’t suspect that Vasya is anything other than what she seems, a young warrior with a magnificent horse, Solovey, or the nightingale.

Morozko, in addition to keeping Vasya from dying, offers her bits of fairy-tale wisdom like “things made by effort are more real than things made by wishing” and “men are both vicious and unaccountable.” But he is not an all-powerful figure in the background. He complains to his horse that “every time I go near her, the bond tightens. What immortal ever knew what it was like to number his days? Yet I can feel the hours passing when she is near.”

Vasya’s brother and sister demand at several points that she tell them “the truth,” but the truth is so unbelievable that she knows there is no point in trying to tell it: “Vasya swallowed, licked her lips and thought, I was saved from my dead nurse by a frost-demon, who gave me my horse and kissed me in the firelight. Can I say that?”

Arden’s descriptions of medieval Moscow work almost like part of the plot:
“The gates of Moscow were made of iron-bound oak, soaring to five times her height and guarded above and below. More wondrous still were the walls themselves. In that land of forests, Dimitrii had poured out his father’s gold, his people’s blood, to build Moscow’s walls of stone. Scorch marks about the base gave credit to his foresight.”

The last part of the story begins with a boyar named Kasyan who seems to serve Dimitrii and challenges Vasya to what initially seems to be a friendly horse-race. Knowing that no mortal horse can defeat Solovey, she accepts, but then Kasyan’s horse turns out to be more-than-mortal and Kasyan himself a sorcerer who, Morozko tells her “has hidden his life outside his body, so that I—that death—may never go near him.”

Vasya unwinds the mysteries, unleashes a firebird, and saves most of Moscow by making Morozko care enough to make snow fall. It was a lovely ending, full of fire and ice, to read by a fire on an icy winter night in Ohio.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

January 15, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant, in Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, initially reminded me a little of the character Olive Kitteridge in the stories by Elizabeth Strout. She’s a strong, no-nonsense, uncompromising first-person narrator. It would be hard to describe her as “naive,” but there are things she narrates that she doesn’t fully understand. I loved her horrified reaction to getting a “Hollywood” bikini wax. When she sees what has been done to her, she says “the man in whom I am interested is a normal adult man. He will enjoy sexual relations with a normal adult woman. Are you trying to imply that he’s some sort of pedophile?”

Soon, however, it becomes clear that Eleanor has more going on than just acting as a stubbornly independent-minded woman. She says that her goal is “successful camouflage as a human woman.” She does occasionally sound like some kind of space alien visiting earth: “If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

Eleanor’s relationship with her mother is obviously dysfunctional, as all she does is accept verbal abuse from her. It’s fun to see her make a friend from work, Raymond, and get a little more involved with the lives of the people around her. Raymond’s mother, in particular, seems to be a revelation to Eleanor:
“Mrs. Gibbons regaled us with tales of her neighbors’ various eccentricities and illnesses, along with updates on the activities of their extended family, which seemed to be of as little relevance to Raymond as they were to me, judging by his expression. He teased his mother frequently and affectionately, and she responded with mock annoyance, gently slapping him on the arm or chiding him for his rudeness. I was warm and full and comfortable in a way I couldn’t remember feeling before.”

The aspect of the plot that seems most forced into place to show the development of Eleanor’s character is a chance meeting for Eleanor and Raymond with a man on the street who needs hospital care. They “save” him and then develop a relationship with his family.

There are occasional juxtapositions of Eleanor’s matter-of-fact tone with hints of the horrors that she has experienced, horrors that are not fully revealed until the end of the novel:
“I would have to go out again later to get my vodka. Why couldn’t you just purchase it in the same way that you bought, say milk—to wit, at any shop at any time that it was open? Ridiculous. I suppose it’s to ensure that alcoholics are protected from themselves for at least a few hours each day; although rationally, that makes no sense. If I were chemically and psychologically addicted to alcohol, I’d ensure I had a ready supply to hand at all times, buying in bulk and stockpiling. It was an illogical law; really, what was the difference between buying vodka at ten past nine in the morning and at ten past ten?
Vodka is, for me, merely a household necessity, like a loaf of bread or a packet of tea. The very best thing about it is that it helps me to sleep. Sometimes, when night comes, I lie there in the darkness and I can’t prevent myself remembering: fear, and pressure, but mostly fear….”

Her matter-of-fact tone often reveals much more than she is aware of. After she has made a suicide attempt, Eleanor is surprised that Raymond continues to visit her:
“It was surprising that he should bother with me, especially given the unpleasant circumstances in which he’d found me after the concert. Whenever I’d been sad or upset before, the relevant people in my life would simply call my social worker and I’d be moved somewhere else. Raymond hadn’t phoned anyone or asked an outside agency to intervene. He’d elected to look after me himself. I’d been pondering this, and concluded that there must be some people for whom difficult behavior wasn’t a reason to end their relationship with you. If they liked you—and, I remembered, Raymond and I had agreed that we were pals now—then, it seemed, they were prepared to maintain contact, even if you were sad, or upset, or behaving in very challenging ways. This was something of a revelation.”

One of the most touching scenes in the novel is when Raymond brings Eleanor a stray cat that needs looking after. We know and have guessed enough about what happened to Eleanor, by this time, to be extremely affected by the description of the circumstances of the cat’s rescue and Eleanor’s reaction to her behavior: “the cat squirmed in my arms and landed on the carpet with a heavy thump. She strolled over to the litter tray, squatted down and urinated loudly, maintaining extremely assertive eye contact with me throughout. After the deluge, she lazily kicked over the traces with her back legs, scattering litter all over my freshly cleaned floor.
A woman who knew her own mind and scorned the conventions of polite society. We were going to get along just fine.”

In the end, Eleanor is well on the way to being “completely fine,” and we see that making a single friend was the beginning of her uncompromising triumph over the circumstances of her past.


To the One Who is Reading Me

January 9, 2019

I went to Argentina and brought in the New Year in Buenos Aires. It’s not a place I’ve ever particularly longed to go, but my family has a tradition of going on graduation trips together, and it’s the place my niece picked when she graduated from college. She does ballroom dance, so we all went to a tango show and then had a lesson. The lesson was most useful to me for making me appreciate more of what I’d seen at the show, so I recommend trying the lesson first if you’re intrigued by tango.

49104210_10216265804110845_5975071387373535232_nLearning to tango was not the only physical thing that I was barely able to do but tried anyway during the trip. I walked more miles than seemed possible, rode a horse, and walked down and then back up 220 stone steps to get to a speedboat ride that went under some of the Iguazu falls. I used a set of metal stairs to mount the horse and got a lot of help from my son, my brother, and a nurse from a red cross station on the stone steps.

It was summer in Argentina! So much color and light! The water went the other way down the drain, and Orion looked upside-down in the night sky!

We walked around Recoleta, which is the part of the city with the most European architecture. The Recoleta cemetery is a large necropolis with a maze of narrow walkways in between above-ground mausoleums. Evita Peron’s body is there, in the Duarte family tomb. I do not, of course, approve of the lengths some people will go to house the bodies of their loved ones after death, but do understand the impulse, senseless as I find the results.

49248405_10216265726228898_2701888313014353920_nWe went to La Ataneo bookstore, which is in an old theater, although it looks like a regular little bookshop for the first hundred feet before it opens out into the full glory of bookshelves and balconies. There’s a café on the stage.

49560051_10216259035941645_2709398454173433856_nThe evening after we went to the bookstore, we saw a performance of The Nutcracker at the Colon theater, which was the most spectacular theater I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them, since my theater professor father toured every one he could get us to). Our seats were on the main floor, and each one was like a throne. I’ve never been as comfortable in a theater in my life, with more-than-adequate hip and leg room. And there were so many gilded and lighted balconies–the applause, when it came, was thunderous. The stage was so big and so deep that the spectacle of the ballet, with elaborate costumes and scenery, managed to surpass the spectacle of the theater itself.

We walked around on cobblestones through the Caminito in La Boca and through the market in San Telmo. The horse-riding took place during a visit to a ranch in the pampas, south of the city. On New Year’s Day we took a boat ride up the river from the Tigre Delta to the enormous Rio de la Plata estuary, which looks like the ocean but is still fresh water. Along the way, we saw how the Argentinians celebrate New Year’s—like how Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, with picnics and swimming. We had empanadas for lunch every day, and beef with Malbec for dinner most evenings.

49393981_10216298464567336_6113624330808066048_nFrom Buenos Aires, we flew to Iguazu to see the falls, first from the Argentinian side and then from the Brazilian side. This was the right way to do it, as we got to see some of the falls close up and then got a panoramic view of them the next day. We began very early in the morning on the first day, before it got too hot, with a trek through the national park to the first train of the day that took us to a very long pedestrian bridge over the wideness of the river that leads to the falls that produce so much spray that they are called the “Devil’s Throat,” because from a distance the spray looks like smoke rising. This was the first of several sweaty hikes through the sub-tropical rain forest that culminated in cooling spray from one waterfall or another. 49530441_10216298464167326_7316479249752260608_nThere are so many! I’ve been to Niagara Falls, and it is mighty impressive. Iguazu has falls that are as impressive and also hundreds of others. Amazing vistas everywhere you look.

49769210_10216288567279910_7938914109381148672_nEverywhere in the park, we saw coatimundis. At first we were charmed, but by the second day it became clear that these animals are like raccoons that aren’t afraid of people and come out in the daytime. Most of them act like extra-aggressive pigeons or seagulls, but with sharp teeth. We saw enormous orb spiders on their webs between the trees at the edge of the forest and hundreds of brightly-colored butterflies and birds.

49289573_10216298470447483_3217183379493486592_nThe morning we got up early to get to the Devil’s Throat, I was crossing the rope bridge between our part of the hotel and the main part with the lobby, and a hotel employee motioned to me to look up. I did, and I saw a toucan tapping on a window of the hotel with his beak. After a few minutes, he flew back into a tree and I saw there were two toucans up there. Then they flew off together, and the employee and I went our ways. I didn’t have a chance to get out my camera, although I did get some shots of the same kind of toucan the next day, when we went to the Parc d’Aves in Brazil.

I got away with everything that I was barely able to do—I didn’t fall off the horse, get heatstroke climbing the steps, or fall too far behind on the walks. For this trip, at least, I was, to use Borges’ word, invulnerable.

To the One Who is Reading Me
By Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Tony Barnstone)

You are invulnerable. Didn’t they deliver
(those forces that control your destiny)
the certainty of dust? Couldn’t it be
your irreversible time is that river
in whose bright mirror Heraclitus read
his brevity? A marble slab is saved
for you, one you won’t read, already graved
with city, epitaph, dates of the dead.
And other men are also dreams of time,
not hardened bronze, purified gold. They’re dust
like you; the universe is Proteus.
Shadow, you’ll travel to what waits ahead,
the fatal shadow waiting at the rim.
Know this: in some way you’re already dead.

On this trip, I had the sense that it was the last time I could try to do some of the things I barely managed this time. For now, though, I’ll keep traveling to what waits ahead. We have another graduation trip coming up, this summer, for my younger niece.


Ghost Quotations

December 25, 2018

I don’t much like ghost stories or anything scary; I’m against necromancy, you know. So my family’s annual holiday writing assignment on the theme of “ghosts” had me stumped, this year. What could I say? I decided to go with my usual Mrs.-Who-from-A Wrinkle in Time approach to a topic and think about how what I’ve read has formed my idea of what ghosts are, what they mean, and why people think about them.CgQKbl8UUAAkiIY

Do you remember the Dr. Seuss story about the pale green pants with nobody inside them? I think that image was one of the earliest ideas I had about ghosts, along with this four-line verse:
“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.”
Hughes Mearns

As I got older, I thought about why ghosts would want to haunt the living. I hadn’t yet read any of Richard Siken’s poetry, but he has one answer:
“What is a ghost?
Something dead
that seems to be alive.
Something dead
that doesn’t know it’s dead.”

To not know you’re dead. That’s a scary thought and a theme in ghost stories, I believe, the ghost who repeats an action over and over, often the action performed right before or at the moment of its death.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe that, as Hamlet says, “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So I’d probably be agreeing with the Cowardly Lion if I were in his shoes when he declares
“I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks! I do, I do, I do, I do!” The Wizard of Oz

I most assuredly believe that there are some kinds of thoughts that happen only in darkness. Othello kills Desdemona after a long dark night of the soul, just before dawn. The characters in the TV show How I Met Your Mother know that “nothing good happens after 2 am.” Lewis Carroll says
“And as to being in a fright,
Allow me to remark
That Ghosts have just as good a right
In every way, to fear the light,
As Men to fear the dark.”

I’ve read that midnight used to be the most fearsome time of night but now we’ve shifted that to 3 am. Certainly that correlates with my reality. There are some thoughts that only come into my brain when I’m awake at 3 am.
“’Twas now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards groan, and graves give up their dead,
And many a mischievous, enfranchised sprite
Had long since burst his bonds of stone or lead,
And hurried off, with schoolboy-like delight,
To play his pranks near some poor wretch’s bed,
Sleeping, perhaps serenely as a porpoise,
Nor dreaming of this fiendish Habeas Corpus.”
Thomas Ingoldsby, “The Ghost,” 1837

In a simpler time, when midnight was the “witching hour,” people thought they would be safe from ghosts in a holy place, or while praying. I don’t have the consolation of religion to hide me from scary thoughts, or a wooden cross to hold up against the appearance of an unholy creature.
“The moon is hidden behind a cloud…
On the leaves is a sound of falling rain…
No other sounds than these I hear;
The hour of midnight must be near…
So many ghosts, and forms of fright,
Have started from their graves to-night,
They have driven sleep from mine eyes away:
I will go down to the chapel and pray.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Neighbouring Nunnery”

Even though I’m not conscious of passing on superstitions to my children, they’ve managed to read or hear about ones like holding your breath while you pass a graveyard.
“Ye who, passing graves by night,
Glance not to the left nor right,
Lest a spirit should arise,
Cold and white, to freeze your eyes…”
James Russell Lowell, “The Ghost-Seer”

And yet there are people who visit graveyards because it helps them feel close to the spirit of one who lies buried there.
“The garment he wore, as a covering,
While he lived on the earth plane, here,
With love and reverence was laid away,
As you grieved at his earthly bier.
He is freed, my dear friend, from all sorrow,
From all disappointments and pain;
And he wants you to know that he’s living
And comes to you, time and again.
You cannot see him, as yet, it is true,
Nor hear the voice that was so dear;
But cannot you feel his presence, so close,
And know that your loved one is near?!”
Gertrude Tooley Buckingham, “To One In Sorrow”

Imaginative people think about the history of the places they pass through, and that must include people who died in that place. It’s hard for me not to think about this in European castles, Southern plantations, and midwestern retirement homes.
“Those forms we fancy shadows, those strange lights
That flash on dank morasses, the quick wind
That smites us by the roadside—are the Night’s
Innumerable children. Unconfined
By shroud or coffin, disembodied souls,
Uneasy spirits, steal into the air
From festering graveyards when the curfew tolls
At the day’s death…
And wheresoever murders have been done,
In stately palaces or lonesome woods,
Where’er a soul has sold itself and lost
Its high inheritance, there, hovering, broods
Some sad, invisible, accurséd Ghost!”
Thomas Bailey Aldrich

When such fancies take me too far down the road towards believing in some kind of psychological reality for ghosts, I take the extraordinary step of looking for some non-fiction ideas about what ghosts are:
“It’s possible that the reason I’ve never experienced a ghostly presence is that my temporal lobes aren’t wired for it. It could well be that the main difference between skeptics (Susan Blackmore notwithstanding) and believers is the neural structure they were born with. But the question still remains: Are these people whose EMF-influenced brains alert them to “presences” picking up something real that the rest of us can’t pick up, or are they hallucinating? Here again, we must end with the Big Shrug, a statue of which is being erected on the lawn outside my office.” Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

But I think that a shrug is not the usual response for a person who is in a house alone at night:
“A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snib of the window, the latch rises. Ghosts were created when the first man woke in the night.” J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister

It’s a rare person who has never woken up in the middle of the night and felt scared of an imaginary presence:
“Everything is worse…if you think something is looking at you.” Shirley Jackson

So even for skeptics, I think that it is true that
“With regard to ghosts, while we have never believed in them, we have always been afraid of them.” Don Marquis, Archyology: The Long Lost Tales of Archy and Mehitabel

Of course, it might be possible to be too rational about whether there is such a thing as ghosts. Rules about how long a ghost can last, for instance (in Supernatural, the writers once tried to explain why there are no ghosts older than the Victorian era in America). Or rules about how many ghosts there must be at this point in history:48373835_284509912269256_3653620475596111872_n
“Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Especially funny are the rules about what ghosts must look like:
“Oh, very good,’ interrupted Snape, his lip curling. ‘Yes, it is easy to see that nearly six years of magical education have not been wasted on you, Potter. ‘Ghosts are transparent.” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The excesses of 19th-century ghost stories now appear overwrought and almost comical to our 21st-century sensibilities. Not having grown up in a house with siblings who died and a graveyard in the front yard, I think many modern readers find Heathcliff’s soul-wrenching despair at being unable to see Cathy’s ghost a little bit over-the-top:
“The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Nor do we think of seeking out ghosts for intellectual stimulation, like Percy Shelley:
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

A credulous boy like Huck Finn, who does believe in spooks, seems young and ignorant to most modern readers:
“The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

We react to Huck’s superstition like we react to Jem’s and Scout’s when they tell Dill about the danger of ghostly breath-sucking “hot steams”
“‘A Hot Steam’s somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too, an’ you’ll go around at night suckin’ people’s breath—’
‘How can you keep from passing through one ?’
‘You can’t,’ said Jem. ‘Sometimes they stretch all the way across the road, but if you hafta go through one you say, “Angel- bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath.” That keeps ‘em from wrapping around you—’”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

The danger posed by a ghost is always hard to assess. Sometimes they seem not to pose any danger at all but to be like something half-remembered or half-seen, a flicker out of the corner of the eye or a whiff of something that might be familiar but can’t quite be identified. Sometimes a faint whiff can even be reassuring, if there are good memories associated with it:
“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.” Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Or a flicker can seem like part of a dream:
“The dream was haunting me: standing behind me, present and yet invisible, like the back of my head, simultaneously there and not there.” Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Like a dream, the idea of a ghost can be hard to get rid of:
“A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.” Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

And as with other kinds of unwelcome visitors–maybe a cockroach that flies suddenly at you or a spider that disappears down a crack right beside where you’re sitting–part of the scariness of ghosts is their unpredictability. Even those who claim to be able to summon spirits usually don’t claim to be able to summon a particular one or make him stay for longer than he likes:
“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?”
Henry IV, Part I

Why a dead soul would appear to one person rather than another is also unpredictable:
“I have heard (but not believ’d) the spirits of the dead
May walk again: if such thing be, thy mother
Appeared to me last night; for ne’er was dream
So like a waking.”
The Winter’s Tale

When your defenses are down, when you’re half-asleep or grieving, is when the idea of ghosts can take hold, as it does with Hamlet. Grieving the death of his father might be what makes him see his father’s ghost:283219-7193454d18bf333177960a2b1c7139c0
“What may this mean.
That thou, dead corse, again, in complete steel,
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon.
Making night hideous ; and we, fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition,
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this?”

For loved ones and children, we often pretend to know more about the spirit world than is actually possible, reassuring them about where and when a ghost is likely to appear in terms of why now is not that place or time:
“For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

When we think about mortality, we often think about our place in history, and maybe about those we have wronged, as if we might meet them again and have to atone for the sins we’ve committed:
“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth….
[W]hat can we bequeath,
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?…
[N]othing can we call our own, but death…
[L]et us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:—
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d…”
Richard the Second

So to escape our own guilt and fear, in addition to reassuring others, we try to limit the number of places that we suppose that ghosts are most likely to be found:
“Some places speak distinctly. Certain dark gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Sometimes, when we can’t escape our guilt, we eliminate the fear that comes from uncertainty by just giving in and expecting to live with ghosts all the time:
“Nobody but a Southerner knows the wrenching rinsing sadness of the cities of the North. Knowing all about genie-souls and living in haunted places like Shiloh and the Wilderness and Vicksburg and Atlanta where the ghosts of heroes walk abroad by day and are more real than people, he knows a ghost when he sees one, and no sooner does he step off the train in New York or Chicago or San Francisco than he feels the genie-soul perched on his shoulder.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Or we try to eliminate the fear of uncertainty by fitting ghosts into our picture of how the whole universe works:
“No? You don’t think so?” Svidrigaïlov went on, looking at him deliberately. “But what do you say to this argument (help me with it): ghosts are as it were shreds and fragments of other worlds, the beginning of them. A man in health has, of course, no reason to see them, because he is above all a man of this earth and is bound for the sake of completeness and order to live only in this life. But as soon as one is ill, as soon as the normal earthly order of the organism is broken, one begins to realise the possibility of another world; and the more seriously ill one is, the closer becomes one’s contact with that other world, so that as soon as the man dies he steps straight into that world. I thought of that long ago. If you believe in a future life, you could believe in that, too.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

We suppress our fear by imagining that what haunts us is already familiar, as if ghosts are merely regrets:
“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” Arthur Conan Doyle The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Or we manage our expectations by imagining that a ghost is a pale shadow and that when we hold it up next to the vivid and actual living being, maybe we’ll see what we have been missing and can fill in the blanks:
“Then one night he saw her, looked at her. She spoke suddenly and savagely of marriage. It was without preamble or warning. It had never been mentioned between them. He had not even ever thought of it, thought the word. He had accepted it because most of the faculty were married. But to him it was not men and women in sanctified and living physical intimacy, but a dead state carried over into and existing still among the living like two shadows chained together with the shadow of a chain. He was used to that; he had grown up with a ghost. Then one evening she talked suddenly, savagely. When he found out at last what she meant by escape from her present life, he felt no surprise. He was too innocent.” William Faulkner, Light in August

If ghosts are comprised of what we imagine, then you and I can spend from now until the day we die describing what we think a ghost is like and never come to any agreement.

We want to know what comes next, but there’s only one way to find out for sure:
“I look for ghosts; but none will force
Their way to me. ‘Tis falsely said
That there was ever intercourse
Between the living and the dead.”
William Wordsworth, “Affliction of Margaret”

So we speculate and hold up our own stories to compare to the stories of others:
“Oh, of course they’re not show ghosts—a collector wouldn’t think anything of them…Don’t let me raise your hopes…their one merit is their numerical strength: the exceptional fact of their being two. But, as against this, I’m bound to admit that at any moment I could probably have exorcised them both by asking my doctor for a prescription, or my oculist for a pair of spectacles. Only, as I never could make up my mind whether to go to the doctor or the oculist—whether I was afflicted by an optical or a digestive delusion—I left them to pursue their interesting double life…. As far as I knew I was simply bored…” Edith Wharton, “The Eyes,” Tales of Men and Ghosts

If we’re skeptics, we think others credulous:
“It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Some of us believe we’re too modern to believe in such things as ghosts:
“Our forefathers looked upon nature with more reverence and horror, before the world was enlightened by learning and philosophy, and loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and inchantments. There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it, the church-yards were all haunted, every large common had a circle of fairies belonging to it, and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit. “ Joseph Addison, The Spectator, Volume the Sixth, No. 419

And then there are those who classify ghost stories with fairy tales and traditions like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, stories only for children:
“[T]here were several young girls… sitting about the fire… telling stories of Spirits and Apparitions…. I seated my self by the candle that stood on a table at one end of the room; and… heard several dreadful stories of Ghosts as pale as ashes that had stood at the feet of a bed, or walked over a church-yard by moon-light; and of others that had been conjured into the Red-Sea, for disturbing people’s rest, and drawing their Curtains at midnight…. I took notice in particular of a little boy, who was so attentive to every story, that I am mistaken if he ventures to go to bed by himself this twelve-month. Indeed they talked so long, that the Imaginations of the whole assembly were manifestly crazed…. I took the Candle in my hand, and went up into my chamber, not without wondering at this unaccountable weakness in reasonable creatures, that they should love to astonish and terrifie one another. Were I a Father, I should take a particular care to preserve my children from these little horrors of imagination, which they are apt to contract when they are young, and are not able to shake off when they are in years.” Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 12

Contemporary rationalists try to explain away ghost stories by assigning them some kind of psychological reality:
“There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious.” Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Sometimes these rationalists use the idea of ghosts as a kind of metaphor:
“It’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts … maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts … these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed … They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped … High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.” Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

The idea of psychological reality for ghosts means that there’s nothing in the world to be scared of except what we ourselves create inside our own heads:
“In one aspect, yes, I believe in ghosts, but we create them. We haunt ourselves.” Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls

Even authors who make a living telling stories about the supernatural occasionally fall into the camp of those who believe that ghosts are merely manifestations created by our own brains:
“It was haunted; but real hauntings have nothing to do with ghosts finally; they have to do with the menace of memory.” Anne Rice, The Queen of the Damned

And we can explain even the way previous generations believed in ghosts by looking backwards with our theory of the psychological reality of ghosts:
“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.” Liam Callanan, The Cloud Atlas

It makes us feel more like we’re in control of our own destinies to see ourselves as haunted by the ghosts of the past as we surge forward into the future:
“It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them.” Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts

Setting the table for Christmas dinner with my grandmother’s set of dishes and my parents’ crystal goblets makes me think of those who are gone. Hanging my mother’s birds and pears on our Christmas tree and putting up the stockings with the names she knitted in for my children is touching something she touched, not so many years ago. Imagine still living in the same house where you grew up, maybe one that had been in your family for generations:
“For who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is for ever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?” Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

In the end, we each have to decide if we believe in ghosts:
“Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves…” Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

And then we live for the rest of our lives testing that belief:zz2a9459eb
“Why do you doubt your senses?” asked the Ghost.
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them — a slight disorder of the stomach. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are. Humbug, I tell you — humbug!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We laugh at the disbelief of Scrooge, because we know the ghosts are coming to visit him whether he believes in them or not.

And that is, of course, the scariest thing of all, that there really might be more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of, no matter how much we’ve thought and written about what haunts us and why.


Furiously Happy

December 18, 2018

Back in the 80’s, when we lived in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., we would get on the Metro at New Carrollton on a Saturday afternoon and ride to Foggy Bottom, where we’d get off and walk the rest of the way to Georgetown. Often we’d make the trip with our friend Ashley, and she and I would stop at the Four Seasons Hotel to use the restroom. While we were in there, we’d pretend that the toilets in this particular restroom at that particular hotel were singing toilets. We would comment on what lovely singing toilets the place had while we washed our hands and walked out the door.

I’ve been reading Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy, and when I got to the part about Japan, I knew that the Japanese toilet maker must have been through The Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown in the 80’s. Lawson says she was “too afraid to try out all of the buttons because just sitting on it triggered something that made it break out into song.”

I wasn’t sure that I was going to write about reading Furiously Happy, but today, when I’d finished sending an email to Ashley about the singing toilets part and then gotten the urge to read another part out loud to my daughter, I figured that all of you needed to hear about it. What’s a blog for, anyway, except to figuratively read the good bits out loud to the world?

Here’s the part I thought about reading out loud to Eleanor (but then didn’t because tempting as it is to talk to your adult children the whole time they’re staying with you over the holidays you have to resist or they’ll feel crowded and won’t want to come back):
“The closest equivalent women have to pocket-pants are pocket-books and honestly that’s just insulting. Pocketbooks aren’t pockets or books. They’re liars. Basically they’re pockets you have to carry around with your hands until you get tired of it and give up and buy a purse to put it in. It’s as if the clothing industry just came out of a bad breakup and was brainstorming during a bitter drunken rage and was all, ‘Hey, you know how girls hate carrying purses and they just use you to carry their lipstick and shit in your pocket and then they leave you for Brad? Let’s make a purse in the shape of a pocket. But we’ll make it too big to fit in a pocket so you have to buy another purse. AND WE’LL CALL IT A POCKETBOOK. THOSE BITCHES WILL NEVER SEE IT COMING, AND THEY’LL PAY FOR IT.’ I might be overreacting but it feels like they did it on purpose.”

The book is full of zany stories about stuff Jenny did and what she thinks and how what she terms her mental illness affects the day-to-day, and so I found it self-involved (yes, I do realize the irony of this, as I also write a pretty self-involved blog—is there really any other kind?). I could enjoy it only in small bits, reading a chapter a night over a few weeks. There’s something for almost anyone to identify with, although Jenny’s is always the worst case ever.

I’ve been increasingly lactose intolerant since I was pregnant with Eleanor; evidently this is a thing that can change permanently during pregnancy. I take a pill with lactose enzyme whenever I think I’m eating anything that might have diary in it (that means pretty much anything I didn’t cook myself). So I enjoyed the part about why Jenny can’t eat canapes, although I’ve never heard of lactose intolerance sending anyone to the hospital. Usually the result is a few uncomfortable hours followed by the need to stay close to a bathroom. Here’s Jenny’s version of why people who are lactose-intolerant often refuse fancy party food:
“because I’m dangerously lactose intolerant and I’m always afraid there will be some sort of cream hidden in there that will send me to the hospital, but what sucks is that the waiters keep walking around asking you over and over if you want a canape now even though I just said two minutes ago that I couldn’t eat them, and now it’s like they’re just taunting me with food I can’t have. I recently fixed that problem though because I realized that the secret to not having to continuously say no to delicious food is to loudly say, ‘No. Sorry, I can’t eat that BECAUSE DIARRHEA.’”

I found a lot of what Jenny says a little precious because she’s so self-conscious about how wild and free she is all the time. It’s kind of how I react to friends who call themselves “nerdy” or “geeky.” I see no need to preen yourself about it.

My low point in reading this book came when Jenny tried to give writing advice. Having spent the entire fall semester urging undergraduates to try writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” and do all of the kinds of freewriting Peter Elbow recommends to help separate the creative urge from the critical, I was not amused by hearing Jenny’s personal opinions about writing:
“Now, some people will say that if you have writer’s block you should just start writing anyway because ten you’ll at least accomplish something. However, I’ve never liked anything I’ve ever been forced to write so I’m pretty sure all that accomplishes is a bunch of shitty writing, and I already have enough of that even when real inspiration hits. Good writing cannot be forced.”

But then—and this is the charm of reading a book like this in small bits—the next time I picked it up, I’d find something funny, like her opinion on Christmas caroling:
“’We wish you a merry Christmas’ is the most demanding song ever. It starts off all nice and a second later you have an angry mob at your door scream-singing, ‘Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it RIGHT HERE. WE WON’T GO UNTIL WE GET SOME SO BRING IT RIGHT HERE.’ Also, they’re rhyming ‘here’ with ‘here.’ That’s just sloppy. I’m not rewarding unrequested, lazy singers with their aggressive pudding demands. There should be a remix of that song that homeowners can sing that’s all ‘I didn’t even ask for your shitty song, you filthy beggars. I’ve called the cops. Who is this even working on? Has anyone you’ve tried this on actually given you pudding? Fig-flavored pudding? Is that even a thing?’ It doesn’t rhyme but it’s not like they’re trying either. And then the carolers would be like, ‘SO BRING US SOME GIN AND TONIC AND LET’S HAVE A BEER,’ and then I’d be like, ‘Well, I guess that’s more reasonable. Fine. You can come in for one drink.’ Technically that would be a good way to get free booze. Like trick-or-treat but for singy alcoholics. Oh my God, I finally understand caroling.”

When I was reading the book, this was funny. When I quoted it just now, I found it less funny because it seems part and parcel of the recent movement to separate the lyrics of Christmas songs from their historical context. So it goes with this book. If you’re in the mood, you’ll find some of it funny. There might be parts you want to read out loud to your loved ones. Or you could skip reading it and do some research on the historical context for references in Christmas songs instead.

Remnant Population

December 10, 2018

Remnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon, was recommended to me by my friend Elizabeth, and it was balm to my soul in many ways, not least because it was such a page-turner that I stayed up really late one night finishing it.

Remnant Population is about a 70-year-old woman named Ofelia who has lived on a colonized planet for 40 years and decides to stay after the company who sponsored the colony, Sims Bancorp, declines to invest any further. They send ships to evacuate the colonists, but Ofelia stays behind. She enjoys being free of the rules, which sound like they were established by some kind of fundamentalist religious group. She resented her daughter-in-law’s “determination to enforce on her mother-in-law all the petty rules intended to preserve the virtue of virgins” including covering every inch of skin and her hair. More than the petty rules, however, Ofelia resents the way her natural curiosity and creativity have been continually confined to what her male relations consider appropriate to the low-status jobs they assign her–taking care of children, cooking, and sewing.

As the novel begins, the younger colonists, who’ve never had to move before, are puzzling over how to pack their clothing, and Ofelia designs luggage they can make with the material and sewing machines they have at the Center, a community building. “She had always enjoyed figuring out ways to do things, though usually someone just gave her directions.” Ofelia helps with the sewing and “when her shoulders tired, someone always noticed, and came to knead them and take a turn at the machine. Ofelia sat for a while in a padded rocker in the passage, telling stories to small children. They were not her grandchildren, but she had been telling stories to small children for so long it didn’t matter.”

After hiding in the forest for a couple of days while the spaceships take off, Ofelia makes the colony her own, turning on the power plant, cleaning out everyone’s refrigerators, and checking on the livestock. She lives alone as she pleases for months, until she hears an attempt to land another human ship on a different part of her planet go wrong, with what seem to be indigenous aliens attacking and killing all the humans.

Occasionally, then, we get a few pages of narration focusing on the way the indigenous people of this world see the humans. They were defending their nests, and they saw the ship as a “monster” and the people who came out of it as “monsters in gray and green….A lively debate followed, whether the stinking corpses of great flyers had been shells or garments or separate creatures, allies of the monsters.”

Eventually the indigenous people find Ofelia. She first meets them outside, in a street where she has come to look at the sky during the eye of a tropical storm–which she is used to and they are not, as her colony had settled in an area of the planet with dangerous seasonal storms. Rather than let them die, she invites them inside one of the houses, thinking “Killers. Aliens. Troublemakers. She hadn’t wanted them, any more than she’d wanted the other colony. But she would feel guilty if they died because she barred them out—and if they survived, they would be angry.”

Because Ofelia has lived with hardship, she isn’t too cowed by her first contact with aliens. When she shows them how to turn on the running water inside the house, “the creature reached out to the controls; its hard nails slipped on the metal control. Ofelia put her hand out to help, and the creature slapped her aside, hard enough to sting, but not a damaging blow. Ofelia glared, but years of marriage to Humberto suggested that the best thing to do was stand there looking subdued.” She continues to show them things and they begin to cooperate, demonstrating ingenuity and understanding, until Ofelia is so tired that “even as panic told her that they would kill her in her sleep, that she must not sleep, exhaustion dragged her down.”

During the next few days, the indigenous people and Ofelia discover that they can get nourishment from different kinds of food, but they share water and information. At first she thinks “they were like children, prying into everything. They tried the water controls of the sinks—so they had remembered what she taught them in the house. They opened cabinets, picked up and put down everything they could move, and even turned on the light in the other pantry. One of them came to her side, and very slowly touched her hand on the stirring spoon. It grunted softly.” The third-person narrator suggests that these two kinds of people are so different from each other that they can’t tell how softly they must reach out to touch each other or which utterances might be speech.

The two kinds of people begin to understand each other better when Ofelia warns them against touching buttons in the control room. “Did they know about electricity? ‘Zzzzt!’ she said, pretending to touch something and then jerking back, shaking her hand. ‘Zzzzt. . .’ It was the first sound of hers any of them had copied.” She capitalizes on that success, showing them that
“’the wrong place will go Zzzzt’….She walked over to the outlet where the cables linked to the power system. ‘Here it will make anyone go Zzzzt.’ Again she pretended to touch it, made the noise, and jerked back. ‘But here—IF you know what you’re doing, I can touch it.’ As she spoke, she mimed: finger tapping head…knows…a careful approach, looking all over the control board before deciding which button to push…a careful touch with one finger on one button. No zzzzt. The lights blinked; she had enabled a warning circuit that put all the center lights on slow flash.
Squawks and grunts and gabbles, restless stirring in the hall behind the frontmost creatures.”

After hearing about the attempts at communication from Ofelia’s point of view, we get a short section in which we see her from their point of view:
“Ornaments. It had ornaments hanging on it, ornaments it changed from day to day. What did that mean? A way of counting, a way of responding to the weather….If it had not been for the monster’s ornaments, they might have believed monsters cared only for boxes: they lived in boxes, kept things in boxes, cooked food in hot boxes, kept food in cold boxes, had pictures and noises in boxes.”

And then we get a section from the point of view of the human “Contact team” on its way to the planet to evaluate the potential intelligence of the indigenous species: “What little data we have suggests that the native (?) culture responsible for the recent debacle is a social nomad living in one region only, and herding the local equivalent of grass-eating cattle. Since neither grow in the tropics, it may not yet have found the Sims Bancorp site. But if it should, and if that powerplant is indeed functional (as Captain Vasoni’s data suggest) then we have a crisis. Such an aggressive, hostile species must not be handed advanced technology too soon.”

About halfway through the story, the indigenous people send an ambassador that Ofelia calls “Bluecloak” who “seemed so much more responsive than the original creatures. Was this why they had brought it? If they were anything like her own people, if the first ones who found her were scouts of some kind, then Bluecloak might be a specialist of some kind. A specialist in languages?” Bluecloak and Ofelia make great progress with language, enough to get across complicated concepts. “Bluecloak,” she explains, is a “nest guardian, most sacred of mortal beings,” and she also confers this title on Ofelia, who has clearly been a nest guardian of her own people. Soon they ask Ofelia to take on that role with their people, as one of the original scouts is about to give birth. Ofelia is asked to become the nest guardian for the new babies; she is told that her role will be “the click-kaw-keerrrr, equivalent to the aunt in the storybook, [who] protected nestlings from the various threats, and between times held the nestlings, soothed them, sang to them.” She agrees.

Just as the babies are about to be born, the Contact team lands and gets in the way. They have little regard for Ofelia, dismissing her as an ignorant and backwards former colonist, and give her little opportunity to share what she has learned with them. The linguist says to her one day after they’ve been on the planet for about a week “’you’re wise, even if you don’t have an education.’ The arrogance in that almost yanked a reply from her, but she managed to squeeze it back. Wise even if she had no education? What did wisdom have to do with education? Besides, she had an education; she had spent hours studying, nights and early mornings studying, long before this child was born. This…this chit of a girl who hadn’t known how to repair the pumps, who had blithely walked between a cow and her calf.”

The Contact team assume that the indigenous people and Ofelia will do as they are told, and one of their rules is that technology must not be shared with the indigenous people. This precipitates a crisis. As Bluecloak explains it to Ofelia,
“the good nest-guardians…wanted the nestlings to learn all they could about everything, to be ready for—eager for—new things. Bad nest-guardians wanted to make life easy on themselves by keeping the nestlings content with sameness. These humans, Bluecloak said slowly, watching Ofelia’s face. They destroyed nestmass. Now they want to keep us from learning new things. They are bad nest-guardians. Not like you. And they do not properly respect you.”
The indigenous people make it clear to Ofelia that they will treat with the humans only through her, and “she must make the other humans understand this.”

This is my favorite part, when Ofelia contemplates the enormity of what the indigenous people are asking her to do: “They were supposed to listen to her, to the person they thought of as a nuisance, almost an embarrassment….She had no education; she had no profession; she had no powerful family. She was bringing a message they would not want to hear; neither messenger nor message would please them, and she would be the one to take the brunt of their displeasure. They would laugh at her; they would be angry; they would ignore her.
The baby in her lap sat up, and tapped its right foot. She glanced down, and it stared at her, still tapping the right foot. Disagreement. Dissent. What was it disagreeing with? The bright eyes stared into hers, unblinking. Ofelia sighed.
This time, with this child, she would do it right. This time she would give what she had never really wanted to withhold. ‘You,’ she said to the baby, feeling a real smile relaxing her face. ‘You want me to do the impossible, don’t you?’
Now it blinked, once, and the left foot drummed. Impossible. Do it. It couldn’t possibly understand; it was only days old. But other humans thought she couldn’t possibly understand, because she was too old, too stupid. Maybe all the humans were wrong—she about this child, the others about her. But these are aliens, the old voice argued. No. These were people, people with babies and children and grandmothers who took care of the babies, and she could not refuse the eagerness in those bright eyes, the desire in those little taloned hands.”

Together, the indigenous people and Ofelia accomplish the impossible, and Ofelia becomes what the humans term “the human ambassador to the first nonhuman intelligence encountered in Man’s inexorable advance across the stars.” The People continue to call this important position “nest guardian.”

I thought this was a good way to imagine first contact, and a great character to experience such a thing, an old woman who still has lots to offer, if people can manage to give her the time and space to be useful.

It was balm to my soul because a woman who has been in support roles all her life gets in the habit of being needed and misses it when it’s gone. Like many women before my time, I’ve lived a life mostly without titles or recognition. No one ever thought my life was worth insuring. Now no one even wants to have to stop and hold a door long enough for me to get through it; it’s so easy to shove someone out of the way and so excruciating to have to wait and see where she is going and whether maybe she has had a roll of the kind of tape you really need at that very moment in her pocket all along.

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