In late February, on a dreary night, I attended a poetry reading, featuring Mary Szybist and Kevin Young, an unlikely pair. It would have been easier to stay home. After all, it was midweek, pitch-black outside, and wet cold. Yet life’s promise is nothing if not contradictory, for this reading at Wortham Center in downtown Houston provided inspiration enough to carry me, and I daresay many in the audience, out of winter and into spring. Szybist read from Incarnadine, many of its poems focused on the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. Young’s poetry, from his Book of Hours, reveled in the birth of a son and grieved for the loss of a father. Heaven and earth.
I’ve always loved studying different religions. It started when I was first grade and started studying the religions of the ancient Egyptians and Aztecs. It carried over into high school, when I became fascinated with the pagans of the pre-Christian British Isles, and it got even worse when I took Florida Southern College’s Myth and Legends class.
I went to a casino for the first time several weeks ago. I am as numb to stimuli as the next person, but in that place, I felt an extreme sensory overload. Bright, flashing, loud, smoky, and crowded, every sense assaulted. Curiosity and excitement melted into confusion—I had no idea how to do nearly anything in that place—and then into a sadness that reminded me very much of how I eventually came to feel about strip clubs, about 15 years ago. I lost what little money I committed beforehand to losing in about half an hour, mostly over a half-dozen hands or so of blackjack. I wandered outside into the cold, clearer air and began earnestly trying to justify to myself the urge to get a little more cash out of a little machine that sponges dollars from far away bank accounts so I could play a little more. That’s all I’m doing here, I told myself: just playing. The signs everywhere confirmed this: we are all here just for entertainment’s sake, just for fun, you see. Later that night, riding home with my old friends I spoke up out of a prolonged silence: “That was a great place to make some terrible decisions,” I said.
I love to read to my kids. Imogen, my eldest daughter, has a particular set of Disney books. They’re uber-condensed versions of Disney’s biggest animated movies—Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and several others. The set, though, came with a reader. It’s this little push-pad device that lets you choose which of the books you want to read and then there’s this syrupy voice that reads whatever book you chose. You have to push certain buttons on the device to cue the voice that you’re done with one page and that it can start reading the next one. Concurrently, you physically turn the book’s pages. But even though the voice does my job for me, Imogen always wants me to sit with her while it reads to her. Or to us. (That she wants me to sit with her warms the cockles of my father-heart, by the way. This I will cherish when she is sixteen and curses me because I won’t let her date “Octopus the Maladjusted Senior*.”) Because I’m not doing the reading, I find myself paying attention to the books in a way that I don’t when I am reading them.
“Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages—
and it is easier to stay at home,
the nice beer ready.” – Gwendolyn Brooks