Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blue Moon Birthday

Me and time, we have an uneasy truce. Since it insists on passing, I insist on tracking it. Anniversaries, ends and beginnings of months, new moons, solstices, equinoxes, half-birthdays, even the very passage of the day‘s hours, I am tuned in to frequencies both natural and arbitrary.

To give an example: 24 hours ago I wandered the French Quarter, sipping an iced coffee and Kahlua, cozy beneath a bright white scarf and furry boots in the meager wintry sunlight. One week ago I introduced my boyfriend to the women of my family as they chopped, rolled, grated, dipped, and simmered the Christmas delights we feasted on for the next three days. Two seasons ago I swam in the Mediterranean off the coast of Turkey as the sun sunk low. A year ago I bought champagne and raspberries for my 30th birthday party. I ate a savory brunch and pondered what it actually meant---what I should feel---why it felt so essential to feel---that it was my last day of being 29, my last day as a 20-something year-old.

So here I am again. Only get this: this year, my last day of being 30 is the 30th. Tomorrow, my 31st birthday is the 31st of December. This will happen but once in my lifetime. There's more: tomorrow night is the first full winter moon (and a blue one at that!) How can I possibly honor/record/appreciate/celebrate this unthinkably profound day?! How can I relish the fun without imbuing it with such meaning that all meaning slips from my desperate fist?

Around puberty my birthday started to feel burdensome, a too-warm blanket, a too-full stomach. Why did I have to be born on the last day of the year? Why did I have to share my birthday with THE most significant time-tracking holiday? Just six days after Jesus, fellow Capricorn, I bear the cross of order: my age perfectly aligned with the new year. It's not just 2010, it's the year of being 31, no longer in contact with the 20s, no longer a newbie to this decade of the 30s. Here is where Fear flaps down from her perch and insinuates: What are you doing with this one precious life?

Typically I've answered her by imposing the utmost order on the day itself, minutely mapped out, time tables strictly adhered to. Anticipation and anxiety double-team me. Except this planning denies my essence: I thrive on spontaneity; I find inspiration in the unknown spaces (the silent pauses)that life has yet to fill in. Too often my birthday is so hyped with expectations of PERFECTION that inevitably it winds up being just another sweet day: never special enough, never long enough, sunny enough, cool enough, active enough, contemplative enough, loved enough.

How can it be anything when it has to be everything?

Time gives me a piggyback and I remember: puberty ushered in more than braces and perms. It was when I first became aware of my obsessions and compulsions. Mailing letters was a minefield loaded with potential mistakes. Wearing perfume too risky---it might wear off. My room so sacrosanct that not even friends were allowed in---who knew what they might do while I was in the bathroom? Order became my saving grace, a cushion floating me above a sea fraught with mistakes, incongruities, sabotages. Curse the messy waves that spilled into my lap! I had to navigate to shore; I had to save myself somehow.

This year I've already received a blessed birthday present. On Christmas evening, sated and slow, Mom went digging into the VHS archeology and unearthed a long forgotten tape. There I was, in eighth grade, 13 years old. Me plus three best friends equals Silly. We sang Christian pop songs, we danced, we bashfully (except for me) revealed our crushes to the camera. We laughed constantly and hard. We poked sugary fun at each other, savoring our wit and embarrassment, our clever spoofs, our effortless goofs.

Mom watched with rapt attention, her face pure joy. At first I cringed at my blemished face and shiny metal smile and thick Louisiana accent (still lurking, I now gladly realize). I scrutinized my body: were my legs thin enough to pull off those short basketball shorts? Why did I wear such baggy T-shirts? But as the tape rolled on, from backyard trampoline to Kart Ranch to Jeannine's room, I let go my fear that I would say something to incriminate my pubescent self.

And I noticed happiness. Innocent happiness. I saw a 13 year old who loved her life and her friends, who felt at home in her (always moving) body, who wasn't cowered by adults, who relished each opportunity to laugh. I heard a 13 year old confident in her voice as she exclaimed: I am a Louisianan and proud of it! I saw a girl living every moment, not striving for anything, least of all perfection.

Now, on the eve of my 31st birthday, may I surrender to life as faithfully as she did. May I continue to know how perfect she already was.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Colored Arrows: A Tribute to Sylvia Plath and Jenna Dur

Reading and teaching Sylvia Plath has been an unexpected treat, like warm cookies on a rainy day, like a found twenty crumbled in a pocket. Sure, I had read the anthologized poems in college, knew the whole head-in-the-oven suicide. But there was so much I didn't know, like the brilliant balance of darkness and playfulness in "The Bell Jar," like Plath's deep reverence for villanelles.

Plath's autobiographical novel captures the stale stage upon which women were supposed to perform in the 1950s. The heroine, Esther Greenwood, is pressured to learn short-hand and get married, but she would rather write and read. Her desire for men is less about the physique--- "The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed"---but about "discarding" a virginity that weighs "like a millstone" around her neck. Even at the ripe age of twenty, she challenges the gender specific sacredness of virginity. The novel is full of these sharp moments of cultural critique as Esther is seduced by suicide and slips further into a debilitating mental illness. When Esther's mother advises that she put her institutionalization behind her, like a "bad dream," she reflects on the absurdity of such dishonesty, recalling her painful memories, noting that "They were my landscape."

Plath finally succeeded in killing herself (a wish that her body, with its insistent heartbeat, trumped for years) when she was thirty. She'd already published a novel, grieved a failed marriage, and given birth to two kids. Now that I am thirty, I take stock of my own landscape---I can't deny the jagged mountains of regret and the sea of shame. But, thankfully, in sharper relief: a meadow vibrant with wildflowers, a trail of curiosity winding through June-green forest.

I realize that I need to be grateful that I'm a blogger with a few (minor) publication credits to my name, still giddy about my romantically budding relationship, still dreaming about kids. Is it a blessing that I haven't "succeeded" as Plath had? Perhaps. Then again, I surely can identify with her intense need for validation, her fear and self doubt. But it is this sentiment, from "The Bell Jar," that made me sit up, grab for my pen, and decorate the margins with exclamation points:

"I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket."

Inspired by Plath's use of form as a way of grounding and ordering her fierce dreamy words, I wrote my own villanelle about my arch nemesis. And then one about liquid rainbows running bright through moonscapes. And then one about the writing craft. And then one for my youngest sister, Jenna, who turns eighteen years old today. The thirteen years and hundreds of miles that separate us are dwarfed by the ancient, sturdy bridge of reading and writing where we meet above that swift moving river of time. Here's to Jenna, and the budding of her own landscape:

Blooming, blooming as her birthday nears
A wordsmith, a phoenix, a bohemian doll
Hard to believe she's breathed eighteen years

The last to be born in the kingdom of tears
Shivers warmed by curiosity's shawl
Blooming, blooming as her birthday nears

Like cave-cradled crystals, insight so clear
Humbled since birth, an ego grown small
Hard to believe she's breathed eighteen years

Safe is she who can see through her fears
Calmly answering panic's call
Blooming, blooming as her birthday nears

She slices lies with the sharpest of sheers
For peace to build, the Empire must fall
Hard to believe she's breathed eighteen years

A childlike madcappery she engineers
Join her party, she's open to all
Keep blooming, blooming as each birthday nears
Hard to believe you've breathed eighteen years

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Shame on You, Obama

The term "blowback" first appeared in a document entitled "Operation Ajax," the CIA's now declassified plan to overthrow Mohammad Mossadeq, the popular nationalist prime minister of Iran, in 1953. Even though Mossadeq was appointed prime minister of his country by the Shah (king), and the people overwhelmingly supported him, Britain asked for the U.S.'s help in getting rid of him.

Why? Because Mossadeq, with the support of Parliament, voted to nationalize Iran's oil, which meant that the revenue from Iran's greatest natural resource would directly benefit the Iranian people. The British had established the Ango-Iranian Oil Company decades before and were not happy about losing their enormous profits. (Not only were the British siphoning oil profits from Iran, but they were treating the Iranians like second-class citizens, having established "British-only" water fountains at the company's site.) The U.S. complied and the CIA undertook a coup that resulted in Mossadeq's imprisonment and the Shah's heightened power.

When the Shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979, a ferocious revolution nipping at his heels, the country exploded into spontaneous excitement as Iranians danced in the streets and cut his image from their bank notes. The Iranians were thrilled to be rid of this greedy, ostentatious American puppet. Who knows what might have happened had the CIA not interfered with the fate of their government back in 1953. What we do know is that the CIA was well aware that their coups (and Iran is just one of many) would probably blow back to the American people, in the form of retributive attacks.

So why is it that 56 years later, the U.S. government is still involving itself in unpopular wars against countries in the Middle East? Why is President Obama sending more troops to Afghanistan? If the goal is to get rid of tyrannical governments, then why hasn't the U.S. invaded Saudi Arabia or Sudan?

We are told that Al Qaeda perpetrated the attacks on 9/11. Is the U.S. military really going to be able to sleuth out and kill every Al Qaeda operative? Could there be any other reason for increased troops in Afghanistan? Isn't the U.S. invested in an oil pipeline that runs through the country to the Caspian Sea? If the U.S. government had no qualms about taking out Mossadeq in order to ensure a steady flow of oil, despite the possibility of blowback, then doesn't that prove that the American people's safety is not the number one priority of the military?

And finally, is there anyone else out there who finds it unbearably ironic that the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize is authorizing increased military force against a country?