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Beth Adele Long Posts

Prufrock and the Dark Cottage

My dad died four days after my birthday.

There’s a bittersweet balance to that. I’m born; my father dies.

I’ve always been aware of mortality. I’d chalk it up to Calvinism but really, you can only blame so many things on Calvinism. For whatever reason, I was always pretty aware of my own expiration date. Then came the cancer diagnosis; getting cancer at thirty will certainly put you in mind of death. Not always in a productive way. You know: “My elbow feels a little funny… oh gods, maybe it’s elbow cancer. What are the survival rates for elbow cancer?” But of course fixation is not awareness. Quite the opposite.

For years, if you pressed me to name my favorite poem, I’d’ve named “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” One section in particular could always tighten my throat and sting my eyes:

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And then of course:

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Even now those words pierce right through my breastbone. That yearning, so confident of disappointment. So confident of loneliness.

So. This was my theme for many years. But last week, someone read to me another poem, inspired by something I had said, and I realized this: my theme has changed. The poem was “When death comes” by Mary Oliver.

I’d really like you to read it; you can read it online here: “When death comes” by Mary Oliver

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

My cancer was mainly in my chest, you see. A mass of a tumor, the size of a Nerf football. I like to say “the size of a Nerf football” because it feels fun and squishy, but really, it was an iceberg. Cold and hard and sharp. Right before I started chemo, the tumors had started to hurt. It felt like someone was taking an icepick to my chest. Or between my shoulder blades.

So for me, this poem is not theoretical.

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

I stood with my mother and siblings while my father died. I held his hand. Already cold, “as cold as any stone.” We stood and wept and clenched our fists while he stepped into that cottage of darkness. No way for him to send back word.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

Last Sunday I turned 39. Yesterday I mourned the third anniversary of my father’s passing. Tomorrow, I will do my best to step through the door full of curiosity. Not yet the door of that cottage of darkness, but still. I’ll step into the cottage of my own fears, and yearnings, and disappointments, and joys. Working to make something particular, and real. To love each lion of courage I meet. To take the world into my arms. Because

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

You Guys!

Earlier this year, I decided to see how long it would take me to expunge the phrase “you guys” from my daily vocabulary.

The experiment started in February. Here’s the funny thing: I often bristle when someone includes me in a group addressed as “ladies,” but I’d been resisting the complaints I’d been seeing about “you guys.” I found myself saying things like, “I don’t mean it in a sexist way when I say it. It’s just a phrase.”

Ah. “It’s just a phrase.”

Most people don’t say sexist (or any -ist) things with the conscious intent of being sexist; they say them because those phrases are woven into the fabric of their speech. The very fact that they don’t think about those phrases is part of the problem. Sexism is a systemic problem, not necessarily a problem of people sitting at home twirling their moustaches or lady-staches or whatever and scheming up ways to piss off an entire demographic. (Although apparently there are people who do sit at home scheming ways to piss off entire demographics. These people are not likely reading my blog.)

So I decided to see if I could do it, to stop saying “you guys” altogether. And here I want to digress for a moment, because in order to understand some of my deep-seated resistance to language policing in any form, you have to understand my quirky personal history.

As kids raised in a very conservative Presbyterian house, we weren’t allowed to use profanity, or anything that hinted at profanity. Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” etc. etc. So no “oh my god” or “jesus christ” or “good lord” (or even “Jesus H. Christ in a handbasket,” which genuinely impoverished my speech for many years). “Goddammit” was out, and so was just “damn it” because “only God can damn.” (When you believe in the eternal flames of hell, these issues become much more pressing.) Euphemisms were no good because they made you think of the original phrase, so no “gosh” or “golly” or “gee” or “darn.” (One time I got in trouble for saying “darn it” because I had to leave a Christian death metal concert early. This is 100% true.)

Unlike my Mom’s generation, we were allowed to say things like “oh my goodness” even though “goodness” is an attribute of God and so really, saying “oh my goodness” is questionable. Profanity by proxy, or some shit like that. Oh yeah, definitely not allowed to say “shit” or “piss” or “fuck.” Also, no “butt” or “booger” or “that sucks.” And for good measure, we weren’t allowed to say “shut up” or opine that we “hated” something. “Hate” is too strong a word, you see. You should say you “dislike” it.

Good lord but I fucking hated those rules. And I’ve been swearing up a storm ever since, in large part because I can, and no one can tell me not to anymore, goddammit.

Where was I? Oh. Right. “You guys.” So yes, despite my resistance to “not being allowed to say” a particular phrase, I decided to ditch the default American plural second person. Except this time I wasn’t changing my speech because someone had commanded me. I wasn’t sanitizing my speech because some deity would be offended, or because it would get me in trouble. I was changing it because a phrase that has no actual purpose to me, beyond its convenience, can cause actual living human beings to feel excluded. Unseen. Erased.

And that shit doesn’t fly with me.

So. I set out on my mission to de-you-guysify my speech. I thought it might take a month or two to see a significant change.

animated GIF of the Dalai Lama laughing

 

Yeah. Funny.

Nine months later, I’m finally seeing consistent results, but it’s been a slog. I know I used “you guys” a few times in September. In October, I’m pretty sure I haven’t used it once. At some point this fall, the neuronal connections to “you guys” finally atrophied enough that I just don’t say it anymore.

In general I now use “y’all” or “folks” or “everyone.” I sometimes get a little more flowery, especially when I’m teaching: “beautiful people” or “brilliant people” or “amazing folks” or things along those lines. (This seems like an upgrade. I’m happy the experiment has opened me up to more creative ways of speaking.)

Factors that seemed to make it more likely that I would revert to using “you guys”:

  • Speaking to a small group of people, most especially a couple. I wonder if my brain interprets “y’all” as too big for just a couple of people, while “you two” feels weird to say. Now I generally say “both of you” or “you both” or just “you.”
  • Speaking to people I know well. On the one hand, for a while I was more conscious of a sense of “I’m changing my speech patterns, will they notice? will they think I’m a weirdo? I mean more of a weirdo than they already think I am?” And on the flip side, I was more likely to relax into existing patterns with people I know. With strangers or acquaintances there’s already significant verbal filtering happening, so it’s relatively cheap to add another filter.
  • A stressful situation. (Ah, stress.)

Some things I’ve noticed along the way:

  • When I first started the experiment, I focused on just noticing when I said “you guys.” And I realized: I said “you guys” all the time. Like, constantly. Way more than I realized. Also, everyone says it. All. The. Time.
  • I had a lot of resistance to saying “y’all” in particular. There is a certain social stigma to phrases that sound “Southern” (which is a whole other topic). Eventually I got over it. I still favor “folks” but “y’all” is a perfectly serviceable gender-neutral plural.
  • I’m not one to address a group as “ladies” or “girls,” so I didn’t have the added burden of training myself out of other gendered terms for groups. I imagine for someone who often says things like “ladies” or “girls” or “gals” (or “boys” or “dudes” or whatever), this exercise might be even more challenging. (Note to the interested: I’m not a fan of being addressed as “ladies.” Especially by male-identified people. Unlike my overall neutral feeling about “you guys” earlier this year, this is a hot button for me, for reasons that will be explored in a separate post. If you’re male-identified in particular, please stop saying “ladies.” If you’re female-identified, at least start paying attention to how and when you use it; is it possible that the people you’re addressing feel a sense of dissonance that you’re not aware of? If you’re non-binary-identified… we should hang out.)
  • The less I say “you guys,” the more I notice other people saying it.

The experiment was even more fruitful than I expected. And as “you guys” fell out of my vocabulary, it exerted a gravitational pull on a lot of other gendered language and pulled some other phrases out of use. Things like “sir” and “ma’am” and “mister” and “lady.” This wider language shift feels even less like I’m policing my own language, and more like a natural consequence of taking off the ubiquitous gender filter. Which is just as well; mine was blurry anyway.

Which is a whole other topic. For now, I just want to thank you folks for reading.

Ukelele Nights

My neighbor is playing a ukelele and singing a little song. It’s a truly little song, consisting of two notes, both of them flat. The notes being sung bear little relation to the chords being strummed on the ukelele, which I imagine saves a lot of unnecessary neural activity on the part of the instrumentalist. Also, the order of both the sung notes and the strummed chords is erratic and apparently random, a kind of musical Brownian motion.

I was alerted to the incipient concert by the sound of a ukelele being tuned. I admire someone who sings a two-note song to random accompaniment and takes the care to tune their ukelele beforehand. That’s commitment to craft. I’ve never been skiing in my life, but I might display a similar optimism by adjusting my gear and swinging myself back and forth energetically at the top of a run before toppling down the mountainside ass over teakettle. Useless, but if you’re going to do a thing badly, at least set it up with style.

This little audio enchantment would become unbearable sooner than it does if it weren’t so utterly Portlandia. Much like hearing the Star Wars theme song played on bagpipes by a Darth Vader behelmeted unicyclist in a kilt, so too listening to your neighbor warble over their ukelele has a certain “isn’t Portland a quirky town” charm for about four and a half minutes, which is four minutes and twenty-eight seconds longer than I’d otherwise be able to tolerate it.

When the charm expires, it does so suddenly, and a deep existential angst slides into its place. The five minute mark finds me searching the apartment frantically for my headphones (which are hiding in plain view on the arm of my sofa). A few more seconds and Fiona Apple soothes my auditory cortex, preventing possible ukelele-related brain injury. You are my good defense, Fiona.

There’s a break, and then the concert starts up again. This time I’m able to drown it out with a box fan so that I’m not anchored to my laptop by my headphone cord. Of course, the box fan doesn’t drown out the competitive encyclopedia-toss event happening in the apartment above me.

But that’s a different story.

May the Lord Be With You

“And also with you.”

Today I saw Christ at work in the world. And if you know me well — the queer pagan who gets anxiety attacks in church buildings — that will sound odd, but it’s true. I saw the Christ I knew as a child, before doctrine and TULIP and fear and shame and orthodoxy clouded my eyes. The Christ who walked out into the world, who met the world in all its painful messiness, who accepted and healed and pitched a fit worthy of a diva in the temple.

I met her at a bus stop, because I had locked myself out of my office and was walking home. We walked together. I mostly listened, because I didn’t have anything useful to say.

Are you reading this? You called me an angel, but perhaps we were angels for each other. Bringing a glimpse of what the other person needed to see on this one day. Go here and re-connect.