When the Matches Go Out

When Marie-Henri Beyle visited Florence, that city named for its place among waters, he thought the art he came across might kill him. Visiting the Basilica Santa Croce in 1817, he wrote that he “was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart…the wellspring of life was dried up within me. I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”

When I first heard of what is now called Stendhal’s syndrome (Beyle’s penname was Stendhal), I was overcome myself, with envy. I was studying English literature and art history in college, but I had never been so undone by my subjects.

The summer after learning about Stendhal’s syndrome, I bought a collegiate Eurail pass, starting my travels in Italy. I went to Rome and Florence. I saw the Sistine Chapel, and I thought it was beautiful, but other than slight nausea from the summer heat and dehydration, I had no physical reaction. I considered my failure to experience this ecstasy a deficiency; a true art lover, surely, could have brought herself to such a place with the appropriate knowledge and awe.

I left my art history on the sun-soaked campus in North Carolina when I joined the Army. The art I carried with me was music, from one choir to the next in North Carolina, Bosnia, Korea, Texas, and finally Seattle.

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Walking Toward Forgiveness

Outside our trailer park, a set of railroad tracks ran from east to west, dividing us from the police station that sat half a mile down the road. When you drove over the tracks, and felt the car pull itself over the split asphalt, it seemed like you were being locked in or released, depending on which way you were driving.

I used to walk along the tracks at dusk, singing and talking to myself, the fields stretching westward behind me as the sun sank behind the Walgreens. I practiced lines for my high school plays; I imagined what it would be like to walk with whichever boy at school I liked at the time. I tried to keep myself occupied as long as I could, tried to fill my mind with anything besides the dull dread that I knew would be waiting for me once I got back home.

What is poignant about this scene is that it is one of the few memories I have where the sensory detail is so vivid—I have bits of images, movements, but it is hard to place whole memories. I know that so much of what happened has been buried deep within me, and when something surfaces, I have to try to catch as much as I can.

What I remember, mostly, is walking: walking to the curb to meet the police officer before my mother’s boyfriend knew I had called; walking my mother to her bed with her lips against my ear, drunk and sorry and heaving sobs so big that I almost lost my grip on her shoulder. Walking in the fiery shafts of light that cut across the tracks, my voice carrying over the cornfields: But it wouldn’t be make believe / if you believed in me.

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Waking My Mother: Lost and Found

When someone dies, we say to the surviving family members, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And we mean it. But there are other ways than death to lose someone dear—or someone who should be dear.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell explores these varieties of loss in her latest poetry collection, Waking My Mother. The poems reflect on her mother’s dementia and dying; on her mother’s relation to Angela and her siblings when they were kids; on the emotional complexities of living, after her mother’s death, with memories of a mother she wasn’t loved by.

Yes, this is the tough stuff that O’Donnell takes on in these poems. And she takes it on with grace.

One of the hardest things to take on—perhaps the hardest to read about—is her memory of her mother’s succession of lovers after their father died.

Other girls’ mothers

sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware.

 

My mother took lovers.

Young ones. Dark ones. True ones.

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Writing My Mother’s Icon

Blessed Santa Barbara, / Your story is written in the sky, / With paper and holy water.

December 4 marked the feast day of St. Barbara. An early martyr, St. Barbara announced her faith to her pagan father by having three windows—a sign of the Trinity—cut into a wall of her private bath. It is said that the torches St. Barbara’s father used to torture her would extinguish themselves before they could be pressed against her skin.

My mother, also named Barbara, spent her summers cleaning the rooms of my grandfather’s motel; memories of the task still make her shudder. My grandfather refused to wash sheets or towels, and was either too drunk or angry for my mother to ask for a clean washrag.

“I cannot stand dirt,” she says, filling her sink with soapy water, reaching for the spoon I used to spoon sugar into her coffee. Her cigarette rests on the sink’s aluminum edge, its ash hovering over the sudsy water, which she will use to wash the spoon and the rest of the day’s dishes. It is a better spot for the cigarette than the counter by the stove, which, she has mentioned, is now miraculously free of grease stains.

“Baby oil! A little bit just rubs the grease away,” she exclaims, somehow forgetting how flammable baby oil is, how easily it could set her small kitchen ablaze, the file cabinet holding her life’s paperwork sidled next to the stove, the first thing to go should the oil spark.

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He Loves Me Anyway: Black Nativity

Guest Post by Christine A. Scheller

What good is a shepherd
that goes to sleep? Suppose a wolf would come,

and steal your lambs away,

what you gonna tell

your master next day?

—Langston Hughes, Black Nativity

Who is the shepherd? Who are the sheep? Those were a couple of my questions about a new film adaptation of the 1961 Langston Hughes play Black Nativity after seeing it twice and then reading the short play for myself.

Is the reverend who drives his daughter away the bad shepherd? Or is it the man from whom he tries to protect her? Maybe it’s her, as she deprives her child of his heritage because she refuses to forgive. Or the mother, who enables her father’s dysfunction.

I didn’t think about these things until I compared the film with the play. I also didn’t realize how entirely different they are—the word adaptation may be a stretch. The film is metaphor for the play, I think. Or as its writer/director Kasi Lemmons said at a Los Angeles press junket, it is a “container” for Hughes’ work, which appears toward the story’s end as a Christmas pageant in the wayward pastor’s church.

“If you tell a lie your tongue might slip. If you tell the truth he might bust you in the lip…. You can’t preach one thing then up and do another, look out for yourself but try to con your brother. No-good shepherd! No good-shepherd!” wrote Hughes.

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