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how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Psalms, part three

bell tower

My last semester in graduate school I took a class called Poetics. It was one of those classes that shook me to my foundations– intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. The class discussions were heavy and illuminating, and exposed to me to so many ideas I’d never had the opportunity to work through before. We talked about the intersection of our lives with literature, and why that mattered to us. Why were we all a bunch of literature grad students, sitting around gabbing about Chaucer and Dante and Camus? What did any of that mean, really?

The breadth and depth of what we covered is too enormous to get into right now, but I’ll never forget the first time something we were talking about really connected with me. The professor had asked us to read a few articles about sublimity, and we read Peri Hypsous by Longinus. According to Longinus, the “sublime” is something in literature, or art, that is capable of evoking “ecstasy” in the reader. It is primarily a spiritual and emotional response, and Longinus argues that the presence of the sublime in writing elevates the piece to “art” or “greatness.” This has gradually evolved into aesthetic literary theory: studying literature for its beauty– its sublimity.

I was staring down at my desk, listening to the discussion, fiddling with my pen and trying to refrain from doodling. The reading had been extremely difficult for me, as I hadn’t really understood anything Longinus had argued, and it seemed inherently biased. How could he possibly make the argument that some literature is “great” because of what is essentially an emotional response? Emotions are subjective, and no reader is going to have the exact same response to a work as another reader. There’s no possible means of quantifying an emotional response. It’s a useless way of examining literature.

Something the professor asked caught my attention– she asked us when we had our first “sublime” response to literature. What was the very first piece we read that demanded that we engage all of our attention, emotional and intellectual? I tried to come up with something– but nearly all the supposedly “great” literature had never really stirred me in the way that any one in the room was talking about. I’d never had that kind of response. Plus, the kind of reactions they were talking about just sounded so . . . melodramatic. They were tossing around words like “awe” and “breathless” and “wonder.” No book had ever taken my breath away.

But, like a starburst, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” sprung into my mind, so fully-formed I could almost see the words springing up at me off the page– I could see my English Literature textbook from 11th grade in perfect detail. And the words from section IV were on the tip of my tongue, waiting to spill out.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

And then I was not in classroom DH 2009. I was in the rickety office chair with the padding falling out the bottom and the chipping layer of cream spray paint flaking onto the torn vinyl. I was sitting at my school desk in the office, picking at the exposed particle board on the corner, reading “The Hollow Men” for the first time. The introduction in my textbook had labeled the poem “post-modern” and was using it as an example of how post-modern poets didn’t care about communicating anything, just wrote their words into meaningless, empty space.

But when I read it . . . it struck a chord buried so deeply inside of me it was a tone I’d never heard before. It resonated, and I felt my whole body thrum like the lowest bell on a campanile. My fifteen-year-old brain had no idea what to do with the poem– there was no “literal” meaning I could grasp, although my textbook included footnotes on some of the symbolism and imagery and allusions. Nothing about it made logical sense, but somehow . . . somehow, I just knew what it meant– but it was a sightless, stumbling, expressionless knowing. I read it countless times that day, over and over again, and I could feel the words soaking into my bones and changing me. I could see “sunlight on a broken column.” I could hear whispering “as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass.” I could hear the faint echo of children singing “here we go round the prickly pear.” I could touch the “raised stones” in the desert.

The present snapped me back, and returning to that moment jarred me, put my teeth on edge. Something about sitting in that room suddenly felt so tiny and cramped and airless.

“The Hollow Men.” I think I might have interrupted someone in the middle of a sentence. “T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.'” I met my professor’s eyes, and I felt tears stinging the back of my throat, threatening to make me cry in a room full of people. “The only way I can even begin to understand it is through the sublime, through my emotional response.”

Joy leapt into her face– I don’t know if she knew what I’d just experienced, just remembered, but she understood. “Yes!” she exclaimed, her whole body coming alight with life and energy. “Yes, I know just what you mean. ‘The Hollow Men’ is a perfect example for this.”

At this point, the memory fades out into a ambiguous golden glow. I sat through the rest of the class, beaming to myself.


Even now, when I read “The Hollow Men,” I can feel the same inexorable tug in my viscera. There’s just something there that sings when I read it, and, to this day, I still consider it one of the most beautiful, haunting poems I’ve ever read.

It took me a long time to realize this, but the questions I had about the sublime and Longinus when I walked into that classroom were the absolutely wrong questions. Every person’s emotional response will be different, and yes, this response is completely unquantifiable.

That doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t matter at all.

Emotions, and emotional responses, are treated as less than. As insignificant. As unimportant. As incapable of contributing to a productive discussion. Emotions, and the people that have them, are denigrated, mocked, belittled, and shamed. Reason and intellect are the only things that can make a difference. It’s “just the facts, ma’am,” because how we feel about those facts is beside the point. Or, even daring to have feelings about the facts somehow removes some of the “fact-ness”.

This is wrong. This is completely and utterly inhuman. There’s no dichotomy here. Emotions don’t pose a threat to reason. The best example I can think of is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n____,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

That single, beautiful sentence is emotion. It is emotion begging to be heard. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t ultimately begin to succeed because of any one person’s logic, or any lawyer’s ability to debate. It started here– when we, as a nation, looked into the eyes of a six year old girl.

That is what emotion can do, and that is why it is feared and controlled. Because emotion demands a response. Emotion can’t be ignored, or shouted down. Emotion is part of all of us, and when we dismiss it, we fail everything about ourselves.


laughter and letting it go

[at my wedding reception during my father-in-law’s toast]

If you’ve been around for any length of time, you probably know that I spent the majority of last week . . . well, pretty angry. And then being shamed and belittled for it. It was a difficult week for me– on top of all of what happened, two of my best friends are going through an extremely difficult time. So, by the time I made it to Thursday night, I was one big ball of emotion and utter exhaustion. I just wanted to go to sleep. I was puttering around before going to bed, and was chatting with a friend on facebook. She’s about to graduate from the college I attended for undergrad, and she told me that they’d decided to hire a man we both know for being… well, not to put too sharp a point on it, but he literally got his degree in Islamaphobia, no joke. So… I tweeted about it. (Seriously, you guys, twitter is like unicorns and puppies and kittens and so much awesomesauce it’s incredible.)


Let’s see… In 16 consecutive mentions, I was practicing “feminist rage” (not sure what that had to do with anything, but ok); I “struggle with reality”; obviously, all my claims are “suspect” unless I report my rapist (which I’ve never specified if I’ve done that or not, it’s really nobody’s damn business); I’m “pontificating” and “spreading misinformation” (his own website bio substantiates what I’d said); I’m “delusional” and I have OCD, and, apparently, the “docs have meds 4 me.”


I read these right before I went to bed. I rolled over onto my back and stared up at the ceiling. I was so utterly exhausted, I didn’t even really have the energy to react. I turned my phone off at Handsome’s suggestion . . . but I was emotionally unsettled. So I prayed.

I am so sick and tired of being angry. I don’t want to be angry at this, there’s no point. I just want to laugh. I just want to be able to ignore this man. Nothing that he says matters– he doesn’t know me, he just makes his living off of hating people. I want to be able to see this for the absolute ridiculousness this is. Please don’t let me take this personally.

I woke up the next morning . . . and, unexpectedly, it was hysterical. Seriously, his tweets were some of the funniest things I’d read on the internet– at least, it felt that way all day Friday. As I type this, I’m sitting here giggling. Every time I’ve thought about it, my lips quirk, I shake my head, and I laugh. It doesn’t hurt that his tweets were so far over the top that they made fun of themselves. I mean, who says that kind of thing outside of a roast or a comedy? It also doesn’t hurt that anything he had to say wasn’t new– I’d heard it all before. It wasn’t the first time I’d been accused of being crazy– but this time, it was out of the mouth of a fool. And I do mean fool in the biblical sense.

It’s funny– and that’s all it is.

I shared what had happened with a few friends, we had a good laugh about it, I tweeted back at him tongue-in-cheek, and then I went grocery shopping. Handsome came home, we ordered pizza and watched Star Trek. Saturday and Sunday were equally as relaxing. We went to a museum here, got Starbucks, went out to the flight line… and through it all I laughed.

I’ve been thinking about these two emotions since then. The anger I felt earlier last week was justified, and I still believe it was appropriate and necessary. What I was reacting to was wrong— but I wasn’t reacting for myself. I was reacting, in anger, for every single person who’d ever been hurt like I had. I wrote what I did in order to help someone who’d been lied to the same way I had to recognize the wrongness about what was happening. My anger was not just an overly emotional reaction that was clouding my better judgment. I’ve calmed down since then– it’s only been a week, but when I think about it now, the only thing I feel is calm.

But just because I’m calm now doesn’t mean that my initial anger was somehow a less appropriate response.

And just because I can laugh and shake my head at the tweets doesn’t invalidate my anger toward David Cuff. One reaction is not “better” than the other. One reaction is not intrinsically more healthy, or more productive, than the other. Both responses, I feel, are the proper response to the situation. In one situation, being angry and bringing it to the attention of my readers was the only right thing to do. In the other situation, his tweets weren’t hurting anyone– they weren’t even hurting me. The only thing he was doing was clearly making an ass of himself. That doesn’t deserve a reaction besides laughter.

I’m learning, oh so very slowly, how to have emotions, and how to deal with them productively. I’m learning to recognize emotions for what they are– until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even able to put a name to what I now know is anxiety. I can allow myself to be angry, and storm and rage and stomp and wave my arms and yell and clean everything in my house. I can be calm, settled, peaceful, and stand with my husband on the beach and watch a storm front come in over the Chesapeake Bay. I can even be happy. Allowing myself the full spectrum of human emotion is an ongoing process, and probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn, but I’m doing it.