93 If I profane with my unworthiest hand
94 This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
95 My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
96 To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
July 27, 1890: Vincent van Gogh shoots himself.
He died two days later, at age thirty-seven. In late 1888, van Gogh, desperate and growing increasingly unstable, had confronted his friend Paul Gauguin with a knife, before using it to cut off part of his own ear. He was taken to a hospital, where he remained in a delirious state (the locals called him “the redheaded madman”) before committing himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Here, the artist painted one of his most beloved works - The Starry Night. And ironically, it was while van Gogh was in an asylum that interest in his work actually began to build, drawing attention from men like Monet and Pissaro. He left Saint-Rémy in May 1890 to stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he spent the last days of his life.
On July 27, 1890, van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver, though the initial impact did not kill him; in fact, he walked all the way back to the house where he had been staying before an infection began to take effect. His brother Theo, one of the few people with whom van Gogh remained in close correspondence with all his life, visited him before his death. His last words were, according to Theo:
The sadness will last forever.
In his entire lifetime, Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting (Red Vineyard at Arles).
Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, and I wanted to say something about it, but I couldn’t find the words. The internet was already full of words. Many of my friends on Facebook were celebrating their reproductive freedom, saying never again will we return to the back alley and the wire hanger, posting welcome reminders of the important work queer women and women of color in particular have done in the fight for reproductive justice for all, choice, true choice, for all. Posting reminders that forced pregnancy is not the only form of reproductive injustice; to never forget or deny that people of color have long faced forced sterilizations, every bit as terrible a violation as a forced pregnancy. Blogs I follow spoke of the limitations of Roe, the ways in which state abortion restrictions have made abortion difficult, sometimes impossible, to obtain, even if it is technically legal. There have been voices calling for pro-choice, pro-abortion rights people to remember that not only women can become pregnant, that exclusive language and services alienate — and can actively harm — trans* people. That calling reproductive rights women’s rights necessarily excludes all women who cannot reproduce. There are the calls for economic justice, racial equality, gender equality; without these, it is true, genuine freedom of choice cannot really exist. There are the voices of people who have had abortions, sharing their stories in a world too full of stigma for a straightforward and important and personal medical procedure; these are the voices whose lived experiences are all too often ignored, and who we must listen to above all.
And then there are the other voices. The ones who every year on this anniversary call it a day of tragedy, a day of sorrow. Who light candles and hold crosses and say prayers because fetuses have been aborted, but who don’t care about all of the botched abortions in unsafe conditions that have killed so brutally.
I ignore these people as best I can, I excise them from my life because I have no need for their moralistic cruelty, but I do wonder how they haven’t realized it yet: Abortion is a fact of life. It’s been around since the dawn of time. Every culture in the world, at every point in history, has some abortifacient, some method of ending a pregnancy. As long as pregnancy involves carrying a fetus in your body for most of a year, as long as it comes with severe social and economic implications, as long as it is a risk to health and life, as long as parenthood is a social contract with your children and with society, then of course there will be people who do not wish to remain pregnant.
Abortion has always existed, and it will always exist. I’m not sure how anyone can dispute that.
But if we, as a society, can make abortion safe and easily accessible, both physically and financially, then why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we prevent people from death, mutilation, and infertility? Why wouldn’t we prevent them from being forced through the traumatic and potentially life-threatening experience of an unwanted pregnancy? Why wouldn’t we prevent people who don’t wish to parent from being forced into parenthood? And, for that matter, why wouldn’t we prevent people from being shamed for making decisions about their own lives and their own bodies? If we’d just reject the stigma of abortion — if we’d just listen to the stories of those who’ve had abortions, if we stopped making assumptions about who has abortions and why and what they mean — lives, real lives, would be improved. Lives, real lives, would be saved.
I didn’t make a post yesterday because I didn’t know what words to use, and I still don’t, not really. I could cry and yell and curse. I could recount all the sad stories, awful, real stories of unwanted pregnancies and dead victims of a society that outlaws abortion. But you’ve heard all those stories before, and, for now, I am out of tears.
I’ll just say this. Yesterday I saw a young woman, my age, maybe a little younger, buy a pregnancy test at the pharmacy down my street. I don’t know her, I don’t know if she wants a child, I don’t know if she’s been planning for one, I don’t know if she has a boyfriend, I don’t know if she’s already a mother. I don’t even know if she was buying the test for herself. I know nothing about her — and I don’t need to. All I know is this: I will trust her, implicitly, to decide for herself what she needs, what she wants, what her life should hold, what her body should experience, and I will work as hard as I can to make sure the world around her gives her the space to make those decisions and the freedom to follow through with them, to build her own life, whatever she wants it to be.
It is tempting to ask why does fiction matter? but the only question of importance right now is why does fiction matter to me? We can debate the value of the humanities and of storytelling all we like, and I’ve touched on the topic before, but here is my truth: fiction and literature and words are valuable because they bring my life into focus, shine a bright spotlight on all the things too subtle for me to take notice of otherwise. Fractals of life shatter out from the prism of fiction. I can see the continuity of one human being to another, yes, but I also see the variations, the sharp and insurmountable differences, differences that need never be bridged. Your life is not my life, my life is not this character’s life, and yet somehow in this one life I can see life-as-a-whole, life-as-a-gift, life-as-meaningful.
Why does fiction matter to me? I am lazy, confused about what I want (if I want anything), alternately too easily bruised and too numb to feel anything at all, and sometimes I think, I am responding to incorrectly to the world. Maybe there’s no such thing, but all I know is that I look at the world, all the good, all the bad, and I don’t feel it, it doesn’t touch me — I don’t feel wonder, heartbreak, or love the way that people do, people must, if anything I think I understand about anything is true at all — and I’ve learned to accept that. Maybe one day it will change, and my heart will not beat behind brick walls, but for now I feel so much of life through writing, through emotions invented, playacted through the characters who can become real, realer than me, even, as long as I keep dreaming them and writing them and letting them peel themselves from the flat world of paper and build themselves up with flesh.
Maybe that’s a shitty reason to write. Probably it is. All the writers we remember, didn’t they feel too deeply and live too fully and wasn’t that their curse? Wasn’t that what made them great?
So I may not ever be great. Even if all of life comes flooding in all at once, love and rage and obsession, even then there is no guarantee that I can be great. Greatness is a scent on the wind: I can chase it, but no matter how fast I run I won’t catch it.
Humanity, though, authentic emotion and genuine feeling: these are not so elusive, and the rewards are greater, I think, in the long run. If writing — imagination, creative empathy, storytelling — can bring me closer to the kind of life-living that I want for myself, then it is worth pursuing. Others may have better reasons, may see what is lacking in the world of art and wish to fill the void, may have it in them to tell the greatest story ever imagined, but my reasons are selfish and even a little sad. I only want to be human, truly human. Deeply human.
I want to know, when you dig past the layers and layers of bullshit, apathy, excuses, past the scar tissue and the barbed wire, what does my voice really sound like?
(Part of my resolutions series.)
To clarify how this works, because I’ve seen a few people (not Audrey, but others) misunderstanding what Better World Books does: people donate or sell (at extremely low prices) books to BWB, which then resells them at a profit and donates some portion (haven’t been able to determine what portion, but I hear it’s not large) to literacy charities. It is not itself a charity or a non-profit organization. Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t almost certainly still better than Amazon if you have the money to buy physical books, but you might consider buying from local bookstores first. And donating books directly to literacy organizations (consider local ones too! illiteracy is not just a problem in Other Places) or even to local schools may do more good, if you’re wanting to get rid of books.
BWB also seems to have a book-for-book program, in which they donate one book (to Feed the Children, Books for Africa, or READ International) for every book you purchase, but I haven’t read or heard much about it. Seems like a nice idea, and I’m in favor of giving everyone in the world more books if possible. (While recognizing that maybe not everyone considers engaging with written literature a deeply important humanizing act, most of us can probably agree that literacy is crucial to many modern educational systems, paths of success, and even certain forms of personal safety.) I’m curious about whether this book-for-book program has at least some of the same problematic implications of the TOMS shoe program. In terms of encouraging the white-savior complex, probably, but it’s not a one-to-one comparison in other ways and if they’re selling recycled books then at least they aren’t actually subjugating black Africans in order to sell a product that will help white westerners feel good about helping those poor sad black Africans (ugh). I can’t seem to find anybody critiquing the book-for-book program on grounds of racism/fraud/uselessness, so that’s a good start, though I’d still like to know more.
All that said, BWB is probably a good alternative to Amazon if you want something easy with a generally net-positive (or at least not net-negative) effect. If you’re actually wanting to benefit literacy work, I don’t think I’d recommend BWB, and buying books from there (vs. a local bookshop) is not something to get too excited about in terms of helping the world, unfortunately. I’m waiting for the day that a capitalist venture can lessen the horrors of poverty and colonialism, but, um, I don’t think that day will ever come, because capitalism, along with its friends white supremacy and blatant disregard for human life, created the situations that have led and continue to lead to low literacy rates and high poverty rates.
(As a sidenote that feels somewhat related: I also get hives at the thought of “shopping for the cure,” because I wish we would stop commodifying tragedy and the attempts to combat that tragedy, but that’s a bit of a different discussion and is better saved for another day.)
In any case, many of us still want to buy books (because books are GREAT), so I think it’s worth seeking out a variety of ethical places to buy books (in addition to BWB, which, like I said, seems like a decent alternative, especially if its book-for-book program is as non-awful as it seems on the surface). Find your local and independent bookstores, including used bookstores, especially since used books in particular can be as cheap or cheaper than some Kindle e-books, so price need not necessarily be a barrier. (Though there can of course be other barriers to shopping for or reading physical books, which I am not disregarding.) Also, through some quick googling, I have discovered Powell’s, which is a unionized bookstore based in Portland but which seems to offer online shopping; if you shop by clicking through the link on this page, 7.5% of all sales go to the ILWU Local 5’s strike fund.
If you’re buying from Amazon for Kindle, consider buying from freelance writers who are making their start through self-publishing. Your money will really make a difference with these writers.
And here’s a literacy charity that has been given an A grade by CharityWatch.
And, I guess, don’t forget to support your local libraries. Libraries are so, so, so important, and I am guilty of completely ignoring them in favor of loading up my Kindle with whatever I want to read, especially when loving relatives bestow me with Amazon giftcards for Christmas, but I think it’s good to get in those stacks and remember what a treasure it is for so many people, children and adults alike, to be able to read books completely free of cost.
I fully recognized that this has become a bit unmoored — or possibly has been all along — so I will come to an end with just a few more loose thoughts and probably a few more parentheticals. First, this has been a very long response to a very short post and that was not exactly intentional; approximately zero of this is directed at the original poster (whom I know to be a local bookstore shopper who has strong ties to her local library, and who didn’t make any claims about BWB that were incorrect) and much of it is in fact an exhortation to myself to try to Do Better. I have been dragging my heels on becoming a more ethical consumer, and it’s time for that to stop. Second, if you have information about Better World Books (and the book-for-book program) that confirms or contradicts what I’ve said, please make it known; it’s hard to get much clear (or current) information about the business, unfortunately. Third, thank you to everybody who helped teach me to read and write, all those years ago; you basically made my life what it is today. And fourth, seriously, for the love of god, don’t buy TOMS.
I have mixed feelings about New Year’s Resolutions. I think people often use them to demand unreasonable and unnecessary things of themselves. You see the end of one year and the start of a new one as a place to break from your old self and become some new person, and this person will be skinner and happier and sexier and smarter than the awful person you used to be. You use a new year and the hope of a “new you” to hate the person you have been every year before, and in a world that rarely encourages true, radical, unconditional self-love, I think that can be very harmful. Especially because if you spend a huge amount of emotional energy hoping to separate yourself from the you of 2012, and then three weeks or three months into 2013 you find you can’t keep up your exercise regime, or you really do miss cheesecake even though you swore it off, or you can’t actually always get through two books a week because sometimes life happens — well, now what? You’re back to the you of 2012, the person you so emphatically dismissed in favor of a glimmering possible future, and how can you love the real, live person you are, with real bumps and real appetites and real problems, when you’ve still got that magazine glamorous future self in the back of your mind?
Resolutions can be dangerous.
But sometimes, for some people, I think they have a use. You see, I believe in goals, and I think goals can be especially important for people like me, people who are young and confused and honestly have no clue what they want from life. Goal-making requires me to sit down and really think about what I want. What is it that I hope to achieve today? This month? This year? How do I hope to feel and what do I have to do to get that point? These are the kinds of questions I tend to avoid because, hey, I’m employed and I’m content and maybe I’m not always happy in the strictest sense of the word, and certainly I’m not productive in any sense of the word, but life is easy and so why bother with the hard questions.
A new year is a good opportunity to make myself answer these kinds of questions. The format of the New Year’s Resolution makes goal-setting a kind of communal activity, and there is something refreshing about the sense of starting anew on January 1.
Here’s the thing, though. If you are a person who considers goal-setting useful, if it helps you focus on what you want and direct your energy in those ways, then you should be constantly checking in with yourself about those goals. It shouldn’t be a once a year kind of deal. And you should be making goals that are actually about you as you really are. You certainly shouldn’t be adopting goals just because you’re told they should matter to you: weight loss, dating, dieting, don’t worry about that stuff if it’s not the stuff that makes your heart sing. Your goals should be about you, not the you society wants or the you your mother wants or the you you imagine some future sex partner might want. It’s about what you want, and what you want may change, evolve, deepen in unexpected ways. You should think about your goals regularly, and you should consider them in a way that takes into account the person you actually are, a person whose worth you respect, and not just the dream person you think you’d like to become.
I’ll be using this space in the coming days, weeks, and hopefully months to reflect on some of my goals — mostly related to my creative output — and why they matter to me, and the ways in which I am working to achieve them. Maybe they will change along the way. Maybe I’ll change my approach to achieving them. Either way, I want to challenge the idea that I need to become a brand new person overnight, and instead reflect on how I can be an even better, even truer, version of myself, the me I am right now, today and tomorrow and every day for the rest of my life.
Look at the kind of people who most object to the childishness and cheapness of celebrity culture. Does one really want to side with such apoplectic and bombastic bores? I should know, I often catch myself being one, and it isn’t pretty. I will defend the absolute value of Mozart over Miley Cyrus, of course I will, but we should be wary of false dichotomies. You do not have to choose between one or the other. You can have both. The human cultural jungle should be as varied and plural as the Amazonian rainforest. We are all richer for biodiversity. We may decide that a puma is worth more to us than a caterpillar, but surely we can agree that the habitat is all the better for being able to sustain each. Monocultures are uninhabitably dull and end as deserts.Stephen Fry (via bridgettelizabeth)
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The story of Achilles and of the Trojan War, passed down (so we are taught) by the blind poet Homer and revisited again and again throughout history, by everyone from Virgil to Brad Pitt, is one of the best-known stories ever told. The maybe-sorta-subtextual-but-not-historically-unthinkable relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is, perhaps, not so well known — especially when movies like Troy confuse the issue by making Patroclus Achilles’ very beloved, uh, cousin — but it’s easy to see why the story would be ripe for reinterpretation. Whether or not Homer intended us to think Achilles and Patroclus were just close compatriots or something more, if we are to imagine that Achilles and Patroclus really were in love, eros or agape rather than just philia, then the story becomes a tragedy. And everyone loves a tragedy — or at least I do, anyway.
(A note: I’m no linguist and I don’t speak Greek, but apparently the classical Greek word agape, meaning a deep or “true” love, later came to be used by Christians to mean the divine and unconditional love of man for God and God for man. It seems to fit with the way Miller describes Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship, as powerful and unalterable and divine.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Maybe you’ve never read the Illiad, and even if you have, The Song of Achilles is not a book entirely about the Trojan War. It is a book about love. It is lushly romantic, beautifully written. Patroclus, a relatively minor character in the Illiad, narrates, and he is rendered in such realistic detail, from his early childhood as a prince, a disappointment to his father, to his exile to Phthia, where the young, golden, half-god Achilles is prince, and at last to war, that it is easy to see why Achilles loves him as he does. Why he goes to the lengths he does. From the very first chapter, the very first sentence, I knew I trusted Patroclus and I would follow his tale to the end. I wanted to know what he had to say, I wanted him to tell me everything from his perspective, even though I knew much of the original story already.
This is Miller’s real gift, in this novel — the ability to work with the reader’s expectations. Most readers, though not all, will pick up this book having read Homer, or watched Troy, or learned the story, at least, in an English class along the way. But the book isn’t redundant for it. It isn’t dull. It forges ahead with its own myth-making and allows the reader to realize, as the story continues, where that myth aligns and where it doesn’t with all the versions of the story that already exist.
I won’t spoil the whole end, for those who don’t know, for those who never went through a phase of watching all of Orlando Bloom’s films. But I will say that this novel was a real treat, start to finish: written in gorgeous prose that is never needlessly ornate or archaic, populated by three-dimensional characters making all kinds of mistakes, a morally complex and emotionally challenging book. A love story that feels nothing less than immortal.