Letter to Cam

November 17, 2013

I found you on Facebook. Your face rougher and scrunched up, almost unrecognizable, your eyes little slits, your long brown hair mashed to your head by a blue knit winter cap. You have hidden your information, as you’ve wiped away most of your Web tracks over the years, holding your privacy to you as a cloak.

I found Andy, his face surprising but vaguely recognizable. You’ve moved to Chicago from New Haven. For his job? You are a freelance writer, working for the Latin University and Fortune 500 brands. So far from a small schoolhouse poetry teacher.

And through Andy I found Cleo. Infant when I last saw her, now a teenager, her hair a kaleidoscope of colors as she searches for her identity. She lacks my nieces’ exuberance in these photos. I wonder if she wonders about her birth parents, if you have found them, if she feels comfortable in this world. There is a photo on Andy’s wall of her at camp and she is on the fringes, holding back? Holding in? A friend of hers posted endlessly on her wall, but she reveals next to nothing about herself. Did she learn that from you?

Didn’t you have another daughter? Biological or adopted, I wasn’t sure. But at some point over the years I thought Google had yielded more.

I found you on LinkedIn. We are three degrees apart. Only two if you consider Charlotte Zietlow. We are so close, separated by an invisible wall. I stared and stared at the “Connect” button for so long, tears streaming down my face, cursor hovering seductively, knowing I cannot reach out to you when I promised that you would be left alone. You and Andy and Cleo and your possible other daughter. Alone. I. Alone.

I found you on YouTube. Your body (taller than mine) draped in shapeless garments. Your voice exactly as I remember it. I wear triangle shapes when I perform. Edges. You are poised, curvy, soft. I explode off the screen. You inhabit it. I cut my hair short. You grew your hair long. Outward signs that we are no longer the women we once were. I have started writing; are you learning WordPress?

You are reading a newer poem, more jagged in construction than the ones I read all those years ago; I didn’t quite get it. I remember fried eggs like eyes painted on the windows, light flashing from my rings, fishing a piece of glass from your arm on Easter. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I’ve read your poetry but still I remember. I have forgotten almost everything in the intervening years, but I remember you.

I found the poem you wrote about me. The poem of our time in England. Study (With Ocean). And I cried. I haven’t cried since you left. My spirit walked out on me as surely as you did and I haven’t cried since. Sometimes I get a few tears when I think of you, sometimes I cry for two minutes at a sad movie, but even at my worst I never cry for longer than ten minutes. You left, my spirit left, my humanity left. I am too dried up to cry.

I remember. I remember Whitby (didn’t I just tell that story of the dock in my very first Story Theatre class this semester?). I remember the Napoleanic prisoners of war carving bones into ships. I remember the ruined cathedral and the cemetery. I remember London and the Tube. And oh, how I remember Avebury. The room with the loud pink flowers all over the walls. The dramatic readings of the Book of Revelation to peals of giggles. The hysteria of “dlied aplicots.” The sacred silence I held in the Long Barrow as you spoke to Roonie, the silence I broke when I couldn’t bear your coldness to her. “Where will she go?” I crooned. You stopped. You changed. You warmed. And you welcomed her back with loving arms.

Candlelight. Have to pee. Hungry. Holy. Our ears ringing with the sound of my booming Earth chant. Staring into your “I will take this risk” love-filled eyes. My second handfasting. Wrapping the post office string around our hands, fingers clasped into one being. “No one knows what to do with the string,” I laugh. That string puts tens of thousands of miles on it as we send it back and forth on our missives between Bloomington and China. All in the future; for now, I am spellbound by your brown, brave eyes. My sister. Bound in holy vow, in the holiest place I know.

All is grey since that moment when my soul left, when I lost you. I live in a fog. There are bright moments here and there when I seem to come alive: The Summit—so many memories—where I became the Goddess and blessed each sister and brother individually in sacred Circle. September 11th. The audible “crack” that broke me, when I discovered I was three weeks past the deadline for ever selling my eggs. So much revolves around that. The slow, steady spiral downward until I lost my mind completely, total insanity, babbling utter gibberish on my bedroom floor for who knows how long. The absolute terror of going into the asylum. Finding asylum there, and the miracle of Klonopin, which finally silenced the voices without my having to gouge open my wrists.

And then—small sparks here and there during ritual. Hints of love for the strong girls in my life, for my sister. But not feeling. Not feeling. The years go by and without my feelings I am unstuck in time. It passes because I have a birthday each year (although sometimes I have to use a calculator to determine my age because I can no longer remember), but I don’t actually live it. I have gained my house and my land and my music but I have lost my family and my community and my self and you, you, you.

How I loved you. How you loved me. I read your poem and I am sobbing, my heart crying out, “Yes! Yes! This is how it was! This was true—this was real! I was loved once. And I loved in return. How I reveled in her luminous being.”

Who could look at me and believe I was ever loved? That I ever had anything to give in return? That was long ago, another me, when I still had a soul and was capable of anything. And then “anything” truly became “anything.”

I think I broke first. I said I would not move East with you. I felt it would put too much pressure on, that if I couldn’t find a job I would resent you for taking me from a good life and giving me only risk in return. I knew, no matter how many times you called me sister, that I was outside your family and could be discarded at any time. Which ended up being true.

Abegunde, a Yoruban priest, tells me that we have come together across many lifetimes to try to resolve something. And in this lifetime, like so many others, we failed. I don’t believe in past lives but I have never heard anything that so perfectly describes the profound sense of recognition we had for each other and the superglued sense of our bond. The reckless abandon with which we loved each other. The deep-seated need to be bound as one. And then how the two of us, enlightened, educated, psychologically savvy, and highly articulate, couldn’t stop hurting each other. Star-crossed lovers. Fated to come together, fated to break apart. And how I broke.

Did you submit this poem after you left me? Do you look at it as just a piece of good work or have you come to peace with my presence in your life? Have you blocked it out or chalked it up to Saturn returns? Do you diminish it in your mind? Do you miss it? Do you miss me? Can you ever—please, Goddess, please please—can you ever, ever forgive me?

I tried to forgive myself at Oidche Samhna. I tried to say, “Okay, I’ll never know if she has mercy for me, perhaps I can have mercy for myself,” but I couldn’t do it. I have little experience with forgiveness. And there are some things that cannot be forgiven. There are some things we have to remain accountable for. “Doesn’t she want to be forgiven?” She turned and walked away from the chalice of forgiveness. Will I always do the same? Can I, can I ever be released from this in-between state of Not Knowing?

I roam the Earth in darkness, occasionally lighting matches, wishing for torches, but underneath it all yearning for the dawn. Something broke in me, Cam. Something broke when you said, “Never again.” And everything that came after came from a broken human being, not from the strong, capable woman you knew. I observed myself from a distance and couldn’t recognize this strange, hurtful creature. I knew I was Edward Scissorhanding you but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t. And I would give everything I have, every piece of me, to throw myself at your feet and beg for your mercy. To somehow make things whole with you. I would risk everything. I would move mountains. I would take madness again if it meant you would forgive me. Because then there would be hope. Even if I never heard your voice again, never saw your beloved face, never read another of your words, there would be hope for me. Hope that someday my soul will come back and I will be made whole. Because honestly, there’s not a whole helluva lot to be living for without it.

I never imagined you would excise me so completely. I thought we would take a break, get some perspective, leave it lie with the Goddess for a year or two, and then see who and where we were. Just check in periodically over the long course of our lives. Now? How about now? Maybe now? And maybe, at some point, the hurt would be overshadowed by the love, mellowed by time into something powerful enough to transform us into greater beings.

I have never stopped loving you, Cam. I never will. We were not good for each other there at the end, and it was right to have some separation, but I want there to be peace between us. I want us to come to some rest. I want to release old hurts and find a way to let each other live in love. Maybe you’ve already done that. Will I ever know? I am Demeter, searching for Persephone. Will she ever be restored to my sight? Will I ever know mercy? Will I ever be able to lay down this burden? Will I ever live again?

I am waiting.


The enduring appeal of Xena

May 26, 2013

{Let me preface this by saying I hate adding images to these posts because WordPress always makes the formatting funky. Apologies for the weirdness.}

For the last few months I’ve been working my way through the Xena series, mostly skipping the first and sixth seasons but delving in deep to the superior second through fifth seasons. And it’s blowing my mind how many women there are in these stories! And none of them are defined by their relationship to men. Men are friends, allies, rarely lovers, and in one case, husband (one episode where Garielle marries Perdicus only to have Callisto murder him). They are “gods, warlords, and kings” but they don’t rule the destinies of the women in the series. This is unprecedented and, to my knowledge, has never been repeated in popular film or television.

One need only look at the other popular “girl power” series of the ’90s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In stark contrast to Xena, Buffy rarely goes a single episode without a love interest. Her friends are also constantly linking up with lovers. They aren’t necessarily defined by those relationships, but the show’s creators obviously saw those relationships as essential to the series’ effectiveness. When they aren’t talking about slaying, they’re talking about their relationships. Xena’s creators had no such bias. And they seem to be the only creators in popular media who believed that.

Xena-Warrior-Princess-xena-warrior-princess-16076576-1024-768

Xena
While almost anyone will tell you that Xena is defined by her relationship to Gabrielle, I think her primary relationship is to her path. As “Evil Xena” she saw over a reign of terror that lasted ten years. She was driven by her lust for power. While at first just a petty warlord after her brother was killed in a territorial dispute, her encounter with Julius Caesar changed everything. She was enraptured by him and he returned the favor by betraying her, breaking her legs, and crucifying her. When her (female) rescuer M’Lila was killed by Caesar’s men, Evil Xena was born. And she wanted power. After ten bloody years wreaking havoc from Greece to “Chin” to Norway, she was turned by Hercules. She starts her series by trying to come to terms with the damage she’s done. The rest of the series is about redemption. She is a warrior, but pledged to fight for good and to make amends. But it is never enough. She is haunted by her past and feels she cannot be forgiven for the mistakes she made. Gabrielle saves her soul and is her guiding light and constant reminder of goodness, but when Xena’s past comes calling, she often leaves Gabrielle behind to go deal with the consequences.

I could go on. I adore Xena. I identify with that feeling of having done wrong, trying to do right, and coming up short. She is a flawed hero, much more compelling than the tripe served up in summer blockbusters. Onward!

Gabrielle, the Battling Bard

Gabrielle, the Battling Bard

Gabrielle
While Xena is all action and mind, Gabrielle is heart and spirit. It is her influence that keeps the two in an almost constant dialogue about the role of violence. This is also unprecedented in an action genre. What movie or TV show questions whether violence rules the world and whether destiny must only be shaped by warriors? Who tells stories where the sidekick commits to “the path of love” (non-violent resistance as personified by the Jesus figure Eli)? Gabrielle eventually embraces her path as a warrior but she is lit by a deep spiritual love that Xena doesn’t have. She doesn’t have Xena’s past so she’s less burdened. As the sidekick, her character is defined by her relationship to Xena, but it’s totally different from the standard role of “virgin, girlfriend, mother, whore” that’s standard fare in contemporary storytelling.

Callisto

Callisto

Callisto
A recurring character and everyone’s favorite villain, Callisto is Xena’s constant reminder of her past. Evil Xena killed Callisto’s family and burned her village to the ground. Callisto then embarked on a mission of revenge. She has an army of male warriors but she explicitly turns down both male companionship and alcohol—certainly not something you see at the movies. (Callisto is as complex a character as Xena is—she’s ruled by a thirst for vengeance but when she finally triumphs she discovers all her hatred has left her “just empty.” By then she’s immortal, so she endures the living hell of hating her existence.)

Alti

Alti

Alti
This recurring character still gives me the creeps, no matter how many times I see the series. She is a shaman, completely amoral, interested only in the pursuit of power. Evil Xena falls under her spell because Alti promises to make her “Destroyer of Nations.” Instead she practically destroys Xena’s soul. She wants spiritual power more than physical domination but she’ll take anything she gets. She has no male companions.

Ephiny

Ephiny

Ephiny
One of everyone’s favorite recurring characters. Ephiny is an Amazon and, unlike most of the other recurring female characters in the series, takes a husband. But I’m not sure if he even shows up or if they just talk about him. If he does show up, it’s only in one episode and he’s completely tangential to the plot. Ephiny has a son but her identity is first and foremost as an Amazon, not a mother or wife.

Aphrodite

Aphrodite

Aphrodite
Unlike the Hercules series (Xena was a spin-off that ended up being more popular than its parent), the Olympian gods don’t show up much in Xena. Ares and Aphrodite are the most commonly appearing characters. Aphrodite loves to be worshipped by hot men but her primary relationship in the series is with Gabrielle, whose life she saves during one of Xena’s big showdowns with the rest of the Olympians.

Amazons
In an early episode, Gabrielle is given “the right of caste” by an Amazon queen, and so is considered an Amazon leader wherever she goes. Xena is not considered an Amazon but is always welcome to fight at their side. Amazons are recurring characters in the series, possibly because they prep for battle by dancing in skimpy costumes. (A friend once told me the scriptwriters would put in these scenes with notes saying, “This will drive viewers wild!” They were trying to appeal to men and lesbians, not something a typical Hollywood demographic mix). There are tons of Amazons in the series, none of whom have relationships with men. Amarice, Variya, Cyane (I love love love her), Otere, Velasca, Melosa, Chilapa, Marga, Gwyn-Teir, Mawu-Ka, and Yakut are just a few.

Livia

Livia

Eve/Livia
Xena’s daughter and Callisto’s reincarnated soul. Her birth heralds the death of the Olympian gods, so she’s under constant attack. While she’s still an infant, Xena makes a deal with Octavian (who she made emperor of Rome) to take Eve while she and Gabrielle fake her and their deaths. Unexpectedly, Ares steps in at the last minute to try to stop Xena from killing herself (he’s “got a thing” for her). She defies him and takes the poison which counterfeits her death. And then Ares ruins everyone’s plans by taking Xena and Gabrielle’s bodies to an ice cave and burying them there. It takes 25 years for them to come back to life, which allowed the scriptwriters to bypass all that messy childrearing stuff and focus on adult relationships among Xena, Eve, and Gabrielle. But since Xena never came for Eve, Octavian raised her as Livia, a Roman warrior, to protect her from the Greek gods. She turns into a monster, combining Callisto and Xena’s worst traits. While she says she will marry Octavian, she’s really working with Ares (who doesn’t realize she’s Eve) to take over the empire. Xena and Gabrielle eventually turn her back to the light side of the Force (oops, wrong saga) and she renounces violence for Eli’s “path of love.” Aside from her flings with Octavian and Ares for the sake of gaining power, she has no relationships with men.

Boadiccea

Boadiccea

Boadiccea
Based on the historical Boudica, Boadiccea is a British fighter who leads the rebellion against the Romans. The historical Boudica took up the fight after her husband was killed, but Boadiccea’s only relationship with men in the show is as the leader of their army.

Cleopatra

Cleopatra

Cleopatra
Ruler of Egpyt and friend to Xena. She shows up a couple times in the series and Xena impersonates her to Mark Antony after Cleopatra is assassinated. Cleopatra is very sexual but it’s clear she will not subjugate her empire to the Romans or anyone else. She has a brief fling with Autolycus, “King of Thieves.”

Cyrene

Cyrene

Cyrene
She is Xena’s mother, so you’d expect her to have a relationship with a man, but no, she killed Xena’s father herself when he threatened them with violence. She runs a tavern in Xena’s hometown of Amphipolos but has no romantic relationships.

Hope

Hope

Hope
Gabrielle’s daughter, the product of a rape by Dahak, an evil spirit. Hope proves to be a killer as an infant and is the cause of much friction between Xena and Gabrielle. She kills Solon, Xena’s son, just as the two are getting to know each other (Xena left him with the Centaurs as an infant—long story) and before Xena has a chance to tell him she’s his mother. Hope has a fling with Ares to create a bizarre-o spawn that kills everyone in its path but both Hope and her offspring are strangely driven by love for their mothers. Hope continually talks about manifesting her father’s reign on Earth but she also wants to understand how Gabrielle could have abandoned her. So in a way she’s a servant of a male figure but since he only ever appears as a column of fire, her primary relationship is with Gabrielle.

Lao Ma

Lao Ma

Lao Ma
If you wanted to understand the appeal of Xena without watching the entire series, you could just watch the two episodes of “The Debt” to get what all the fuss is about. It is set during the Evil Xena phase, when she’s based in Chin. Lao Ma saves Xena from a rival leader and heals not just Xena’s broken legs but Xena’s evil spirit. Lao Ma is married and committing her wisdom to a book which she writes in her husband’s name. He is dying but she uses her power to keep him on the brink of lifeanddeath in order to keep the peace. His name? Lao Tsu. So passages from Taoism inform the whole story. Xena and Lao Ma are powerfully drawn to each other and Xena submits to her teachings, first to try to gain martial powers but then because she loves Lao Ma and how her heart is changing. As she explains to Gabrielle, it’s at that point that she had the choice to turn her back on violence and rule with Lao Ma peacefully, but when she’s pushed she reverts to form. Lao Ma is very powerful and tries to be a loving mother to her son Ming T’ien, but is rebuffed. She uses it as a reminder to rid herself of desire and focus only on The Way. She is beautifully played by Jacqueline Kim and I luuuurve her.

Naima

Naima

Naima
Xena and Gabrielle travel to India to see the sights and almost immediately come upon a suttee. Xena saves the woman, Naima, from the flames and they go into hiding. Naima reveals to Xena that Alti is seeking to destroy Xena in a future incarnation. Naima shows Xena and Gabrielle how to use the spiritual power of mehndi to defeat Alti. So in one episode you get this amazingly powerful Indian woman, Xena and Gabrielle invoking both physical and spiritual prowess, and Alti using her powers to cripple everyone in sight. No men need apply.

There are many more characters in the Xena universe of course, but this is intended to be an exploration of a dominant theme in the series. By keeping so much emphasis on women’s relationships with each other, the writers created a universe where people talk about things besides sex. This is revolutionary. Think about your favorite TV shows and movies and see to what extent romantic relationships limit the themes that can be explored.

Of course, many people feel that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers, and it’s left somewhat ambiguous in the series in order to appeal to lesbian audiences, but they always speak to each other in terms of friendship. They regularly express their love and respect to each other but they are about other things as well.

And I guess I do have to say something about Xena’s relationship with Ares (played brilliantly by Kevin Smith), since it could be argued that he’s a recurring romantic figure. It’s true that Xena’s drawn to him, but she’s very clear that he’s bad for her. He never gets the best of her in bed or on the battlefield. Inevitably, she rejects him in favor of Gabrielle and her chosen path of redemption.

Perhaps most importantly, none of these female characters is portrayed as missing something. They are not lonely. They don’t pine for men. They are fully realized, fulfilled, actualized human beings living rich lives in the company of friends, sisters, comrades, and family.

When the cast and crew speculate on the enduring appeal of Xena, they all say “strong female characters.” That’s certainly the case, as I’ve been blathering about here. What I think is also interesting is how by focusing on strong female characters and keeping romance to the fringes, the creators could explore epic, mythic, and homespun themes of loyalty, spirituality, redemption, honor, violence, and other forms of love besides romance. I would love to see contemporary writers pick up where Xena left off.