Myths and the Landscape

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When I moved to Oklahoma almost three years ago, I immediately tried to connect myself to the landscape. This is one of the first things I do in almost every place I live. Italy, in my mind, was terracotta rooftops, cobblestone alleys, and a city called Venice that looks today much like it did half a century ago. Upper Michigan was whiteness, then sunlight until 10 o’clock at night, sometimes auroras, always pine trees as far as the eye could see. Maryland was beltway traffic, jellyfish in the bay, emergency sirens. It was a toxic environment for me. Florida’s landscape healed me. Salt water. Swamps. Longleaf pines. I’ve watched the sun rise over the Atlantic and set on the Gulf. I’ve seen whales in the river,  manatees in the springs, and dolphins in the ocean.

Landscapes are mythical, I believe, and Oklahoma’s is no different. And while I know I haven’t seen all she has to offer, I probably will never feel a strong connection to this place. It’s like a relationship that never quite took off. We both wanted this to work, but Oklahoma and I tolerate each other until one of us receives a sign that it’s time to move on. Mother Nature has tried numerous times to wipe this state off the map, and yet after centuries of earthquakes, ice storms, and monstrous tornadoes, Oklahoma stays put. In all likeliness, I will be the one who moves on first. Until then, here I am.

To help me understand Oklahoma’s landscape and what she has to offer me (as defined by my idea of culture of place), I decided to enroll in a class the explores the history of the American West. This, of course, goes toward my master’s coursework, and it will allow me to learn more about the land that I’ve spent so much time on my own trying to understand, but have failed at doing so, and miserably. Over the next seven weeks we will delve into the frontier mentality. We’ll research the Native tribes’ alliances with the Spanish, the British, and the French, and the acquisitions of lands. Gold rushes, land rushes, oil booms, and mining busts. In the end I’ll present an in-depth research paper on something of my choosing that tells a story of how the American West came to be defined not only as a place, but also as a culture.

I struggled with this one. I truly struggled. I do much better when tasked with a specific topic, whether I hate it or not. And what made it so much more difficult, besides knowing absolutely nothing about the American West, was that my options were so many. Endless and vast, not unlike the West itself. And, as I mentioned above, there is nothing I could think of that I love about the West. At least, not in the same way I love the sound of the ocean or the thick humidity of the Deep South.

But, wait. Yes. Yes, there is. It was the one thing I had waited my whole life to see. It was the one thing I had always connected to life in the West. After seeing one with my own eyes, I will forever connect this creature to the landscape out here.

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In 1866, General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Forces in the West, said, “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians.” They almost succeeded. The life of the animal did not matter. What mattered was that the buffalo gave life to the Indians. The extinction of the Indians was the goal, and in the process, the bison were nearly annihilated.

I once created this daydream (more like delusion) about how my first encounter would go with a bison.

Daydream: It is morning and the sun has already come up, though it’s still hidden behind the smaller mountains. The early morning fog still lifting from the warm ground. The air has a chill. I’m wearing a long skirt and it’s tussled a bit by the breeze. I hear a snort and a huff and suddenly, a bison is next to me. I reach out with my hand to touch his snout, his nostrils steaming. He stares at me, and I stare at him. We have our moment.

Reality: I was in the passenger seat of my minivan. I might have cried a little because I was, undoubtedly, really, really, really excited! There was no long skirt; I was wearing jeans and a coat. There was no breeze; it’s the plains and the plains are very, very windy. There was never a bison next to me. All of my photos were taken with a zoomed-in lens.

Still, these are my bison. They are special to me. These are what I think of when I imagine the American West. This mythical landscape is inhabited by this mythical creature. One Native American legend gives credit to the buffalo for creating mountains. Another tells of buffalo marrying the Indians’ daughters. These animals are so revered in native lore that in some tribes, they are considered sacred.

Maybe after all this time I have finally discovered that which connects me to the Oklahoma landscape. Of course, I miss the ocean waves and the lushness of greenery in winter time. But when I think about what I might possibly miss when I do leave Oklahoma, it’s the bison.

You Are What You Read?

 

My reading preferences seem to surprise a lot of people. It’s not a matter of me preferring dystopian YA fiction over the works of Margaret Atwood. It’s not a matter of me preferring Amish romance novels over the meatier, literary stuff*. It’s that I tend to read books based on the horrible aspects of what it is to be human. My shelves are overflowing with texts on infectious diseases, genocides, slavery, and Holocaust literature. I own memoirs written by survivors of natural disasters, combat, and terrorist attacks. Lately I have found myself watching Netflix documentaries about honor killings and war refugees. I tell myself it’s to help me with my history studies, and it is. Culturally speaking, it opens my eyes to a lot of things I would have never known about otherwise and I can use those new perspectives in my future historical interpretations.

When I was younger I always gravitated toward reading the darker stuff, mostly books about old hotel hauntings or serial killers. This never seemed to bother my parents. As a kid I visited my grandmother often when she lived in the same Milwaukee suburb as Jeffrey Dahmer. Later I moved Gainesville, Florida, a town that became infamous after the gruesome murders of five university students. One victim’s mother frequented the pharmacy I worked at. I always stared at her in awe (tactfully, of course), and thought Jesus. How have you managed to get on with your life?

I’m just a curious person.

It got me thinking about the way people grieve. All of us will experience a devastating loss at some point in our lives, and it is likely that we will be able to grieve privately. We will get to choose the people with whom to surround ourselves and we will all recover, over time. But how does one grieve privately when one’s loss is so public and only a fragment of the whole? In the event of enemy occupation, I could lose my home. In the event of a terrorist attack, I could lose my family. In the event of any mass trauma, I could lose my identity along with millions of others. How does one grieve when one’s loss becomes a thing the entire community, nation, or even the world claims as their loss, too? How does one grieve when the pharmacy technician keeps staring and thinking I know what happened to your daughter and I can’t un-know this.

Just this weekend I scanned and organized all my books into virtual shelves with my Goodreads app which I have set up to interact with my Facebook page. I mentioned this shelving frenzy on Facebook, and encouraged my friends to notice all my chick-lit and feel-good books. I’m not all gloom and doom, I told them. Yet the only book that showed up was a paperback I recently found called Night of Stone, an account of 20th century Russia and the culture of mass death in the wake of famines, political violence, and war.

Is it a wonder nobody believes me, that I can actually be found reading Sophie Kinsella or Elizabeth Gilbert? So this weekend I decided I would toss aside the Auschwitz book, ignore the collection of Holocaust poetry on my beside, and read an honest-to-goodness book of fiction.

I was immediately taken by In the Shadow of the Banyan and fought to stay awake on my first night with this book. The narrator is, at the moment, a 7-year old Cambodian girl trying to understand why her family has been forced from their home by men in black pajama pants. I was able to read a little bit at work on my break, during which two coworkers brought up my penchant for “happy” books (oh, the sarcasm). By this point, my book’s narrator was getting a lesson from her father on the push and pull of the river’s tide, the forceful expulsion of water that sometimes leads the river into unknown territory (a metaphor, yes, for forced migration).

Surprised that I was not delving into a detailed report on Ebola, my coworker asked, “So, what are you reading today?”

I showed my coworker the book’s cover and, without apology, explained, “It feeds into my genocidal interests, but this really is fictional.” We had a good laugh. Oh, that’s just Dena.

I don’t want to use the word fascination when trying to describe just how intense my interest is in traumatic recovery. There just isn’t any other word. Nothing that seems suitable, anyhow. My interest in this stuff is one of absolute respect. I am completely in awe of how one reconciles the loss of their homeland, culture, or every single member of their family, to violence, and can wake up the next day with…what? Hope? It obviously exists. Why else would a person want to go on?

While my studies are focused directly on American history, I choose to use much of what I read toward understanding cultures in general. Whether it’s learning about families who live in border refugee camps, or about the mother who lost her child at the hands of a serial killer, there is this kind of hope that each one of them carries. Their stories are out there and, in my privileged position as a graduate student with all the freedoms and securities I can ask for, I feel a responsibility to learn them.

* I am not one of those types of readers who looks down upon those who choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey or Beverly Lewis’ Pennsylvania Dutch love stories over, say, any other book. I don’t read that stuff, but if that’s what you wanna read, read it! I’m just happy you’re reading.

December, so far.

• Our dog, Chimay, went blind just after Christmas last year. Normally we would place our Christmas tree near the front windows so it could be seen from the street when it’s all lit up, but we can’t do that this year. This year we had to consider how often she’d walk into it, or get lost in it, or potentially poke her eye out with a pine needle. After discussing a table-top tree, a fake tree, or continuing with our tradition of picking out a real tree, we chose another Douglas fir and set her up in the corner of the dining room. For all we know,  Chimay has no clue that it’s even there. Everybody wins!

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• It has been so long since we’ve seen the sun that I’ve lost track of time. Its last full appearance happened between 3-4 weeks ago and I have surprisingly kept it together, dosing myself on a regular regimen of Vitamin D gummies and watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix. Is it odd that I find the opening credits’ sepia tones to be somewhat comforting? Just today my husband manually juiced up the batteries of our solar-powered gate. It died on the third day of no sun and we’ve been opening it by hand ever since. I might just hate that gate more than I hate winter (when it’s not being powered by the sun, that is).

Here is a photograph I took on December 9th. We have seen the sun exactly twice since then, and only for about 30-45 minutes each time.

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• Which leads me to this photograph of our home’s rooftop and a brilliant blue sky in the background. I was outside taking pictures because I was afraid the sun would go into hiding permanently and I didn’t want to forget what it looked like! I was chased back inside by the blare of tornado warning sirens. It hailed. It rained. It earthquaked, too! Then some rotation began on our side of town near the airport and touched down near Edmond.  The sun disappeared for another week. FIGURES.

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• A few weeks ago my jaw started to bother me once again. My TMJ disorder creeps up at the most inopportune times, like on holidays when I’ve maxed out my dental insurance. Things like sprained arthritic jaws happen, or my newest malady – a bruised tooth. Google it. That stuff’s real. None of the muscular exercises or alignment treatments seemed to relieve my pain, and I’m back on antiobiotics through the remainder of the year. Because it’s not Christmas in this household until someone’s on amoxicillin! (That person is usually me.) While at work last week, I came across this book in the children’s section that helps explain to young kids what it’s like to lose your baby teeth. Did you know that in most Asian cultures it’s customary to throw your teeth onto the roof or bury them in the ground? Some culture even ground them into a soup or try to convince rats to trade their teeth with the children. Maybe my belief in the Tooth Fairy is where I went wrong and now I’m doomed to dental suffering for all eternity.

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• I had the opportunity to watch a World War II medal ceremony. My museum’s curator’s father was honored by the French Consul for his service in Europe and North Africa. Another gentlemen was also honored for his service in the Battle of the Bulge, during which he lost his leg. The French Legion of Honor is France’s highest distinction. I’m telling you guys, the French do not take America’s role in the war lightly. The ceremony was conducted in English for the first half, but policy strictly enforces the actual medal-awarding portion be conducted in French. Here’s a shot I got of Earl J. Gonzalez receiving his medal. That this happened in his son’s museum was pretty awesome.

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• Last night we went to our first Oklahoma City Thunder game in two years. It’s always fun, and the weather was a bit more balmy than the last time. That was when it had snowed and it was freezing cold outside, making our walk from the arena to our parking spot exceptionally miserable. This time, though, it was a mild 40-something degrees. Believe it or not, we have the fog to thank for that. Yin. Yang. Whatever.

Downtown OKC and a fog-covered Devon Tower. #okc #oklahomacity #devontower

In reading news – I’m researching Gerda Lerner for a historiographical essay project. I absolutely love this woman and I won’t be surprised if I head in the direction of women’s studies from this point forward. I’m still learning historical schools of thought and so far two really stand out for me: feminist theory and a school called “history from below”, stories told from the perspective of those outside the decision-making processes. It’s a social history narrated by those whose stations in life were directly or indirectly controlled by those in power. Slaves, women, child laborers, Jews, immigrants, etc.

I’m reading Fireweed: A Political Autobiography and Why History Matters: Life and Thought, both by Gerda Lerner. Up next is Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy.

Another interesting read is Auschwitz: A History by Sybille Steinbacher. I’m halfway through this one. I’d probably be further into it if I weren’t researching Lerner, because this one is completely by choice. Lerner, a Jew who was once jailed by the Gestapo before she escaped Nazi-occupied Austria, was often threatened as a teenager with deportation to Dachau. And it is interesting to read how Auschwitz, and other Third Reich cities like Dachau, had such a rich history before their names became synonymous with mass murder and concentration camps. It’s fact versus emotion. Place versus person. Everything and everyone has a story.

Finally, a little lighthearted read which, obviously, I sometimes need. Sun-Mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a short Korean novel. It’s a tale of a few farm animals, their assigned roles in life, and how those roles must sometimes be discarded for the sake of another’s happiness. I loved it. It was a kind of magic, really. And I don’t say that often.

Bruce

You may remember the beautiful blue spruce we received in the mail after our return from Wisconsin. Bruce is his name. Bruce the Blue Spruce.

Bruce barely made it through the summer, even though we kept him indoors in a pot. I watered him weekly, then daily, then whenever he looked like he needed water. Like babies and dogs, I wish this little blue spruce had some way to communicate with me, to tell me whether he was thirsty or feeling waterboarded or just needing to go outside. Most days I would look at him and assume he was mostly dead. Not mostly dead in a way that Miracle Max could save him, but mostly dead in a way that it seemed pointless to keep trying to keep him alive. Like every time I watered him I was only adding on to his miserable existence. Delaying his inevitable death, if you will. The fact that I have just revived three varieties of succulents after months of them being ripped apart by asshole squirrels outside means nothing to Bruce. No matter what I do, he still looks mostly dead.

But mostly dead means, to me, that he is still kind of alive. Bruce still has some greenish pine needles on top. That means something, right?

After our weekend of snow the ground temperature cooled and Bruce could finally be planted outdoors. We picked a nice spot in line with the Eastern cedars, dug our little hole, and plunked Bruce into his new home. He’s barely a foot tall. We’ve got a few weeks left of above freezing temperatures. After that, Bruce will just have to pretend he’s back home in Wisconsin covered in snow and ice, chilled root ball and all.

I’ve grown fond of Bruce greeting me every morning when I wake up. He lived, although mostly dead, on my bedside table, but we just installed new curtains and he would’ve been in the way. It seemed a good time to send him off into the world.

Cross your fingers he makes it.

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Short Stories

My reading life came to a screeching halt about 6 weeks ago. That’s when I started my historiography course. This professor is a little crazy, in an abusive relationship kind of way. He’s made me cry with his mean words and lack of guidance, yet I repeatedly find myself trying to impress him with my work. And I do impress him with my work. He’s told me this before, then immediately followed up with, “But you did the assignment all wrong.”

I prefer to live my life with the belief that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a student.

Anyway, thanks to him and his excessive reading assignments, I haven’t read anything for fun in almost a week. The last thing I read was “The Night of the Satellite” by T.C. Boyle. That was on Friday night of last week.

Another short story I recently read was “Winter Break” by Hilary Mantel. It’s from her short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and the absolute first time I’ve read any of her work. I’m not sure how I feel about her writing just yet, but the last sentence of “Winter Break” made me gasp in shock. I’ve taken that as a sign to read more Mantel.

About a month ago I decided to keep tabs on how much I read – for fun and for school, although most of it is for school. There are chapters to study, academic articles to deliberate, journals to peruse for usefulness, primary sources to interpret, etc.

In a one-week period, I’d read 322 pages for one class alone (thankfully my other instructor requires very little from me in the way of readings – maybe 40 pages a week). I was able to get 135 pages of fun reading in. Altogether, that equals around 500 pages. In one week.

I became overwhelmed. Not in a panicky way, but in the way that made me reconsider all the other ways I spend my time. I decided to make some changes. I went through my to-read list of books and tossed out about 400 titles I’ll probably never get to. I’m getting better at asking my husband to help with housework or make dinner a few times a week. Today I broke down and bought ready-to-bake cookies. Proof that when shit gets real, I’m a master of time-management and efficiency.

This means short stories have found a place in my life. I’d never really considered reading them too much before, simply because I’d always had the time to devote to a novel or two a week. That’s not the case anymore. At least I can throw away the academic journals and histories every night before crawling into bed with a good 13-page story. Whatever works, right?

Recommended short story collections:

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Best American Short Stories of 2014 edited by Jennifer Egan

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

As always, feel free to recommend something.

Fall in Southeastern Oklahoma

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Things I did this past weekend:

1. Got a surprise root canal. As in the specialist immediately said, “Yeah, I would take care of that right now if I were you.” Surprise! The biggest surprise was learning that his father and mine were both stationed at the same base in Northern Italy at the same time – over thirty years ago. His sister and I were in the same grade. There were only two 2nd grade teachers at the school. That means there’s a 50/50 chance his sister and I were in the same classroom in 1983.

2. Immediately drove 3 hours to Southeastern Oklahoma to accompany my husband on an off-roading trip. Except I never actually went off-roading. My historiography professor suddenly decided to move up a fairly important assignment by three weeks, making this weekend not one of relaxation but a weekend of trying to snag bits and pieces of internet connection while in a BFE bed & breakfast-type house in the mountains. In the meantime, my professor continued to be argumentative regarding my research topic, insisting that I was making things too hard on myself, and wasting my precious laptop battery before finally agreeing that I should’ve stuck with my first topic.  Oh, yes. I forgot to bring my laptop charger because I, ladies and gentlemen, am a freaking genius.

3. Rediscovered the joy of getting in a car and just driving until I find something interesting. I found three something-interestings.

  • Clayton Lake State Park
  • Choctaw Village and the Choctaw Nation Capitol Building & Museum (which, sadly, was closed)
  • K-Kountry Kitchen II. Not I, but II! I have no idea where K-Kountry Kitchen I is, or if it even existed at one time.

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A confession:

These photos above show that fall is happening in Southeastern Oklahoma, and the area we visited is closer to Louisiana than it is to Oklahoma City. When we returned home to Oklahoma City only two days later, I was certain the colors had changed while we were gone. I appreciated it. Unfortunately, it looks like we might be getting ourselves some snow here in the next week.

This is not the confession.

Of course, the possibility of snow bothers me. It means things are turning cold. Very, very cold (our high on Wednesday will be 36 degrees). On our way back home from tiny Clayton, Oklahoma, we were listening to A Prairie Home Companion on NPR. Garrison Keillor was in Duluth, Minnesota, hosting the show with various musical guests and the very cool mayor of the city. Locals joked about the weather and Garrison sang songs about how skinny people would most certainly die in that kind of chilly environment.

Here’s the confession…

We almost moved to Minneapolis this year. Well, I say almost but we’ll never know how close we came. A job opportunity got us very excited (the kid was, surprisingly, not very excited). There were phone calls and interviews. There were online house hunts and neighborhood research. There was a scheduled visit to the city. A few days before that visit, though, I called it off. Something told me don’t do it. We discussed it as a family and decided we’d stay put.

Just a few minutes ago I saw this on my Facebook feed. The same winter storm is heading toward my childhood hometown of Marquette, Michigan. Meanwhile, in South Florida, they’re experiencing record cold temperatures in the mid- to high-60s.

Winter. What a fickle, fickle beast.

The hot tub is broken again but I have access to Vitamin D. And there is about an hour more of sunlight left in the day. That means I can enjoy fall for a little while longer before the cold weather moves in tonight and covers everything in frost. One meteorologist referred to this arctic front as a “bomb cyclone”. What happened to a simple arctic blast? Or the polar vortex? I’m totally convinced now that Oklahoma-based weather people just make this shit up.

In the Garden (Yes, I Still Have One!)

A few weeks ago I pulled out nearly everything that wasn’t a flower.

The okra stayed. The eggplant stayed (I’m still holding out hope, like some idiot, that something more than a blossom will actually appear). The carrots also stayed. I pulled some big ones up, Danvers, to use in our fall veggie pie but they tasted…salty. I cannot explain it. Salty carrots from the ground? Part of me doesn’t even want to know why. Part of me believes they won’t be salty when I pull more out later. But what the hell do I know?

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I found a pair of garden slugs living in my tomato dirt. They’re pretty fast movers when their entire home is being destroyed, those slugs. Funny, I’d never seen one before. At least, not alive. Over the late part of summer plenty of them decided my back porch was a great place to just drop dead. I’ve decided they’re disgusting both dead and alive. Wanna know what else is disgusting? Hornworms that look like they’re cocooned when really they’ve also just dropped dead, but they’re still attached to the tomato plant and have turned completely black.

Actually, dead hornworms are more disgusting than garden slugs. I’ll spare you the dead, blackened hornworm photographs (because I did take some). You’re welcome.

Here’s the slug, though. Put a cute hermit crab shell on him and he’s not so bad.

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I’ve made other friends in the garden recently, too. Like this grasshopper, who looks totally friendly and not creepy at all, as most grasshoppers do:

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Also, these guys. Thousands of them, probably. I can never remember their actual name, this kind of bug. I usually just refer to them as the minions (Despicable Me, for those of you not in the know – how can you not be in the know?). Imagine them in overalls. Minions, right!?

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Most of this post has required very little thinking, although I am curious to know if all I’ve said about the garden residents qualifies as anthropomorphizing. Comparing a living creature to an animated creature doesn’t count, does it?

I’m tired and overworked. I have to read essay collections for fun now (I don’t have the brain space any longer to comprehend lengthy novels). I’ve been binging on Gilmore Girls on Netflix. I still eat an entire carton of Goldfish crackers a week. Some things don’t change.

Here are a few of my favorite flowers still in bloom:

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White marigold. These creeped me out a bit at first, but I'm a fan now. Next year, I want more! #flowers #garden #gardening #marigolds #whitemarigolds

I hope for my next blog post I can include photographs from a place not located directly outside my back door. Although my hot tub is in working order once again, and a splendid way to spend some of my very little free time, it’s not really photo-worthy.