I Know why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream 
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks 
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze 
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Different Kinds of Happy

“Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story.”
Sweet Land

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I can’t just give one answer. There are at least ten. This is one of them. It is about a young German woman who travels from her home in Norway after World War I to marry a man she’s never met. She finds herself in the middle of Minnesota, where anti-German sentiment is unbridled.

This isn’t a political film, though. It doesn’t dissect the social norm of mail-order-brides from our modern perspective or try to convince us of the need for the burgeoning socialism. It’s a love story, the kind that makes you want to sit at home with someone you love, after working all day, or bake a pie and drink black coffee. It’s a story about community that reminds me, in this big and sometimes disjointed city, how important it is to help each other out. It is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.

At several points in the film, there are references to a conversation Olaf has with his best friend Frandsen while taking a photo of his bride to be, Inge. Frandsen asks Olaf what the word for happy is:

Olaf: Lykkelig
Frandsen: Lykkelig’s happy? I thought glede was happy.
Olaf: That’s more like delighted.
Frandsen:…What’s the difference?
Olaf: There’s no difference.
Frandsen: So why have two words, then?

When Inge is older, Frandsen poses the same question to her, to which she replies, “Different kinds of happy.”

In the midst of struggle—being an outsider, not being able to speak the language, a difficult harvest, and losing loved ones—this is a story about people who experience different kinds of happy; like the smell of grass and feeling the sun on your face; friendship and good pie; dancing to familiar music; building trust, forging bonds, and creating memories; the simple gesture of holding hands. This is the story they so beautifully pass on to their children and grandchildren.

This is my story too, not just because my parents have given me a love story to aspire to. If there has ever been anything compelling about the story of my faith, it is this: we were created in love, redeemed for love’s sake, transformed by love, and remain here to love. We are all preceded by a love story, a story of perfect love. And that love creates in me different kinds of happy.

On the Occasion of Another Birthday

By Fern Hill

Stored up in the brimming caverns of my heart
is an innocent plead that once I made.

Solitary, on my back in the whispering mid-afternoon grass
I let the spring winds caress and bless me.

There the perfume of my sacrifice rose, amply laden
with hope, to forgo the fires of youth in quest of truth.

Stipulating little, I knew only a vague shape would await me:
redolent with kindness and a heart that burned.

I bring it forth now to abate my lonesome sorrow,
a traveler reminiscing their first steps, though still far from
  the end.

 

Oh, Marianne!

One of my favorite stories is Sense and Sensibility. This is not because it’s a fairy tale where everyone gets to live happily ever after, and completely unrealistic events transpire for that to be the case (a misguided critique of Jane Austen’s work). It is not because of the beautifully done commentary on society and biting wit. It’s not even because of the regency era costumes found in adaptations of the piece. It might be a little bit because Emma Thompson stars in a film version of it alongside Kate Winslet. Principally, my love for this story comes from how well I see my life reflected in it.

The long and short of this story, which is a must read (or watch), is that Marianne and Elinor Dashwood are turned out of their house when their father dies because their half brother from a previous marriage is to inherit their father’s fortune. Their misfortune drives them into the path of a couple young men, each sister falling for one. Elinor is reserved (sense) and does not express her emotions openly. Marianne is fiery (sensibility) and wears her heart on her sleeve. In the process of events, both sisters get their hearts broken and then put them back together again.

Of course, it is tempting to take sides. Which is better: Marianne’s passionate openness or Elinor’s quiet reserve? As a child, I sided with Elinor (After all, she’s played by Emma Thompson who also plays Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing). Not only did I side with Elinor, I wanted to be like her. I wanted to have the internal strength it took to get her through her difficulties, being kind to the man who was ruining all hopes of her happiness (remember, her financial well-being was tied into this as well).

___________

It was a harsh reality one day, at the age of 18, when I experienced my first heartache. I was not Elinor. I was Marianne. I had been taken in by flirtation and lost my heart to someone who didn’t want it in the end. I cried, letting all my feelings take over, knowing he was a completely lost cause. This is when I first started referring to the men who rejected me as Whiloughby (the man who broke Marianne’s heart). I would whisper Sonnet 116 to myself as I lay in bed, feeling all the potential draining from my imagination.

I built up an idea of men based around the fact that I was Marianne. Either they were a Whiloughby or a Colonel Brandon. Colonel Brandon is the man who Marianne eventually marries. He’s calmer than Whiloughby, older, considerably more selfless. He slowly heals Marianne’s heart until she falls in love with him, to be happier than she could ever have been with Whiloughby. After all, Whiloughby turns out to be a libertine.

So, inevitably, I would ask myself in the course of a relationship whether the man I was dating would have what it took to be Colonel Brandon, to heal my broken heart and nurse me back to health. Even my friends agreed.

“Oh yes, you are Marianne!” they’d exclaim, encouraging me to wait for my Colonel Brandon and not to waste any more time on the most recent Whiloughby, of whom there have been a few.

This is a useful tool and indecipherable code that women use to talk about relationships. Every relationship, every event has a parallel in some Jane Austen novel or another. Because women are well aware that men in general have an aversion to Jane Austen, we use her as our secret language and sigh when we muse that if men read her books too, relationships would be much easier.

In some ways, it’s true. Plain and simple: Don’t be Whiloughby. Don’t be Mr. Elliot. Don’t be Mr. Crawford. Don’t be Wickham. I suppose you can’t help it if you are Mr. Collins, but try to avoid that as well.

I wish that life were so static, that the only options for me were to be with a Whiloughby or a Colonel Brandon. I wish that some man or other would fall madly in love with me as he silently waited for me to be single and then oh so tenderly care for me in my time of need. Oh wait. No I don’t. I don’t want to be so crippled by heartbreak that I nearly lose my life to it. I don’t want to become morose and despondent just because someone who I thought would love me doesn’t. I don’t want my happiness to so depend on a man’s love that I am overcome with depression and grief until someone else comes along to love me. Where is Marianne’s agency in this? Certainly her character grows from being foolish, trusting sweeping romantic gestures instead of looking hard at someone’s character before losing herself completely to love. For all of Marianne’s love of poetry, whimsy, and excitement (things that we do indeed have in common), I still find myself wanting to be Elinor.

_______

Elinor’s story is quite different from Marianne’s. She is quiet and principled, taking care of an aging and widowed mother when they are reduced to poverty and keeping meticulous track of finances. She becomes the backbone of the family, taking on responsibility while her mother grieves and her younger sister pouts. When Elinor falls in love, it is with a man who loves her as well, but he has a previous obligation to marry a woman he made a promise to when he was younger and more foolish. Being a man of his word, he denies his heart and Elinor, intending to follow through (again, remember that these things happened because a woman’s financial security depended on whom she married, and breaking an engagement, even a secret engagement would do a great deal of harm to the woman) with his marriage.

Elinor endures this burden in silence. Even when she learns of the engagement, she swallows her pain and her pride, being genuinely kind to Edward’s secret fiancee. Then she does the unthinkable.

When Edward’s secret engagement is exposed (much to his shallow and mean family’s disapproval), Edward is disinherited. Suddenly finding himself with no money and no occupation, Edward is unable to marry his fiancee but refuses to break the engagement. It is Elinor who delivers the news to him that his dream of joining the church can be realized, giving him an occupation, a place to live and the ability to marry. Just to clarify, Elinor brokers the deal that enables the man she loves to marry another woman.

This is still astounding to me. How gracious, how kind, how forgiving. She takes charge of the life she has and keeps going, despite her pain and frustration.

At first glance, we might presume that Elinor loves less deeply than Marianne, that her ability to move forward is evidence of not caring very deeply. This is not it at all the case.

In a remarkable scene from a film adaptation, Marianne asks, “Elinor, where is your heart?”

Elinor finally unleashes the fullness of her pain, “What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering? For weeks, Marianne, I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultations again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.”

_______

In one sense, I will always be Marianne. I will always love poetry, whimsy, and art. I am bad at concealing my feelings. However, I have more agency, more grace, more responsibility. I can be kind, even to those whose actions hurt me. I can be patient, I can be strong and take care of the people I love. I know how to manage my money independently, how to survive on my own.

What’s more, I have come realize that not every man is a Whiloughby or a Colonel Brandon. Some of them are Edwards. Some of them have prior engagements. Some of them are bound to something outside of their control. These are not bad men. Edward is not a bad man. Edward is kind, caring, loving, principled. Much like Elinor, he does what is right, even when what is right is inconvenient.

Elinor finds fulfillment and contentment without Edward. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jane Austen novel if the heroin didn’t get her man in the end. Edward’s fiancee turns out to be considerably less principled than he is and marries his brother (the one who got all the money). This frees Edward to follow his heart. And he follows it right to Elinor.

The marriage is somewhat insignificant, though, for my purposes. In most cases, this doesn’t happen. The life circumstances that get in the way of the Edwards in the world being with their Elinors usually don’t conveniently go away, at least not before Elinor has moved on and married someone else. Most relationships don’t get that second chance, and I am no exception to this rule. The important thing about Elinor is that she learns to keep going, despite her wounded heart. She accepts her life circumstances, not because she doesn’t want to fight for what she loves, but because she recognizes how useless it would be. She realizes that she doesn’t want Edward if he is actually willing to break his word to someone else. With Elinor, the feminist inside me is satisfied. More importantly, the Marianne in me who wants to embrace all that is beautiful in life, to throw myself into it and never look back, recognizes that some circumstances call us to be Elinor. 

You are Already Alive

On a day like today, when I feel the mercurial dissonance of in-between, when solitude is becoming more and more normal, when the ache for Home becomes more distant, while its absence still cuts a dark shadow on my soul, I need to read this.
Today, I am already alive.

the wild love

I tell her this as she sits in my office, my feet tucked up under me, a habit of mine that is designed for stillness but really just makes me fidget more, an unwelcome thing when I am trying to listen. I tell her how this past weekend, in between a flying back and forth and the worry that sat with me on the couch those mornings, my Bible open, my heart sounding a gong in my bones.

I tell the story like it is something I came up with on the fly but the truth is I’ve been out there looking for it for years, this answer that finally comes to me, a gong to beat next to my heart, in time with it: you are already alive.

You are already alive. You do not become alive when you get into grad school or when you get married. You…

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Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell

This…

By Marty McConnell
leaving is not enough; you must
 stay gone. train your heart
 like a dog. change the locks
 even on the house he’s never
 visited. you lucky, lucky girl.
 you have an apartment
 just your size. a bathtub
 full of tea. a heart the size
 of Arizona, but not nearly
 so arid. don’t wish away
 your cracked past, your
 crooked toes, your problems
 are papier mache puppets
 you made or bought because the vendor
 at the market was so compelling you just
 had to have them. you had to have him.
 and you did. and now you pull down
 the bridge between your houses.
 you make him call before
 he visits. you take a lover
 for granted, you take
 a lover who looks at you
 like maybe you are magic. make
 the first bottle you consume
 in this place a relic. place it
 on whatever altar you fashion
 with a knife and five cranberries.
 don’t lose too much weight.
 stupid girls are always trying
 to disappear as revenge. and you
 are not stupid. you loved a man
 with more hands than a parade
 of beggars, and here you stand. heart
 like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.
 heart leaking something so strong
 they can smell it in the street.

To Hope

By John Keats

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my ‘mind’s eye’ flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of nights,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When like a cloud he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound pray to dart:
Chase him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
They heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

In the long vista of the years to toll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed-
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppressed,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds th bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half-veiled face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving they silver pinions o’er my head.

After the Storm

This is one of the best songs I have ever listened to, sung in the shower, or based a clothing line on.

When I was about five or six, I somehow inherited a white, lacy dress. To my memory, it was beautiful, not one of those bad 80s dresses with huge shoulder pads. The lace was delicate. I really only have one memory associated with it, though, because I don’t think it lasted for very long.

I wanted to play outside, and I wanted to wear my fancy dress. I remember my mom telling me not to play in the mud while wearing the dress. I remember ignoring her, thinking I could play just a little without getting the dress dirty. I didn’t even come close. The entire dress was covered with mud, ruined. And I was so mad at myself, especially after my mom had warned me. Why hadn’t it been obvious to me that playing in the mud in nice clothes would ruin them?

——

Hope is hard. I don’t always know what to hope in or who to trust or whether my plans will work out. I don’t know if the risks I take will bear fruit or if I will find myself wearing a white, lacy dress in the middle of a mud puddle. I find myself in a lot of mud puddles—actually, mud puddles would be a relief by comparison. I try to do something new, tell myself I can, I work hard, and I fail. And while the fault isn’t always mine, it’s still hard to know what to hope for.

But there is hope. Remember the chorus:

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears,
and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

While there are plenty of mud puddles after a storm for me to slip into, leaving me feeling disappointed and embarrassed, this reminds me to hope. It reminds me that my failed attempts at love and connection will end. Someday love will win. It hints at eternity, hints at resurrection, hints at the life of the world to come.

Today, I am still in the storm, and it doesn’t show any signs of breaking. Today, I am at the bottom of the hill, and I can’t see what comes next.

Yet, there will come a time…

There are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves

By James Kavanaugh

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who prey upon them with IBM eyes
And sell their hearts and guts for martinis at noon.
There are men too gentle for a savage world
Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who anoint them for burial with greedy claws
And murder them for a merchant's profit and gain.
There are men too gentle for a corporate world
Who dream instead of candied apples and ferris wheels
And pause to hear the distant whistle of a train.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who devour them with eager appetite and search
For other men to prey upon and suck their childhood dry.
There are men too gentle for an accountant's world
Who dream instead of Easter eggs and fragrant grass
And search for beauty in the mystery of the sky.

There are men too gentle to live among wolves
Who toss them like a lost and wounded dove.
Such gentle men are lonely in a merchant's world,
Unless they have a gentle one to love.