We are back, after a missed week last week. It’s been busy. I hope you are all holding up. Today I have for you a couple of weeks' worth of links, a couple of recommendations, a couple of writing pieces and an essay on women and witchcraft.
“[T]he mainstreaming of female nerds in television — a process that began in the ‘90s — is a phenomenon worth exploring, as it marks a change in how we regard women’s intelligence, independence, and ambition.” The rise of the female nerd.
This is fascinating: The story of Jun Fujita, the Japanese American photojournalist who worked for the Chicago Tribune in the 20s, took the legendary first photo of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and is now remembered as a poet.
Haruki Murakami’s metaphysics of food. I picked up the first Murakami novel I read, After Dark, at the Narita airport on my way home from Tokyo. I was glad that we had visited a Japanese Denny’s earlier that week so that I could clearly picture the setting the novel opens in.
I discovered Shirley Jackson’s work in my early twenties, and I use the word “discovered” deliberately here—I read her short story The Lottery in high school like everyone else, and while it’s undeniably great, it wasn’t until I poked into the rest of her work that it all really clicked for me. But I had let that interest lapse, and I knew little about Jackson herself. This recent biography fixed all of that. It’s detailed and warm, and places its subject in a just context.
This is more of a photography book with historical text, but the topic of women and tattoos is so sparsely written about that even this is welcome. I would love to find a denser work that leaves the pictures out; however, this will do in the meantime. The book specifically focuses on Western history (to delve into tattoo tradition in other areas of the world would expand the scope to unmanageable dimensions) but it’s also within Western society that tattoos have been the more stigmatized, so learning of their evolution, specifically contextualized within women’s sphere, is worthwhile. (It’s also reminded me it’s been a few months since my last tattoo session, so I booked a new one last night.)
"As metaphors go, it’s a rather straightforward one. Like the way a computer runs tasks that do not require the user’s interaction and that spin on their own, hidden from view, I have thoughts which move in secret, of their own initiative and on their own schedule. They claim resources—energy, time, emotion—but leave my immediate attention open for more superficial work. I don’t always know what result they’re working toward, but I always know when they’re activated. Learning to accept and accommodate them, however, has been a lengthy process."
I recently contributed a piece about productivity to the Human in the Machine writing project. It’s not so much a guide as a meditation on how my feelings about productivity have changed over the years and how I now value my background processes.
"My least favorite question in the world is: “What does your tattoo mean?” The question itself is innocent enough, but it springs from the societal assumption that tattoos are still the realm of the criminal, crude sailor or sideshow freak, and that in order to justify having one or more, we respectable folk must have profound reasons for them all. Tune into to any tattoo-based reality television show and you’ll hear the constant repetition of emotional justification stories about tattoos. Which is not to say we can’t choose to get, treasure and share our memorial tattoo to dear great aunt Josephine. Chances are, Josie was pretty awesome. And there’s no wrong reason to choose to get a tattoo. What I object to is the automatic default, the immediate link of tattoo to the easiest sort of profundity, and I object to it because it does not honor stories, it actually limits them.”
This week it seemed appropriate to look back to my earlier essay on permanent marks.
Three of the projects I listed on our Donors Choose project funding campaign have been funded, but there are still two active if you’re looking for a way to support some students and educators: donorschoose.org/modernadventuressSoon I will probably look for a couple new projects to add, but it would be cool to make as much progress on these two as we can before then. Thanks to everyone who has chipped in so far!
Notes in the Margins
On women and witchcraft.
The last scene of the television series about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald has faded from my screen and I have turned the last page of the Shirley Jackson biography, and I am now saturated with thoughts of women’s thwarted power. I had not intended for the tales of those two women in particular to intersect in and intertwine with my consciousness at this particular moment in time—but sometimes such things happen as they will.
For a long time I have felt empathy and not a small amount of sorrow for Mrs. Fitzgerald. Zelda, that patron saint of difficult women. This most recent television series does not mar her, as I pessimistically expect every depiction of her to do, but neither does it do her complexity and depth justice. And, as many another emotional, book-reading difficult woman might agree, I care deeply about justice for Zelda. How could we not. Young Zelda Sayre, who broke rules and flaunted propriety and wanted to get the hell out of Alabama. Who found a matching hunger in a writer who ate up her own words, who got her out of Alabama, and who let her set the world on fire. She consumed and was consumed. But when I think most often about Zelda (and I think very often about Zelda), I don’t think of her Jazz Age It Girl heyday, or the drama of her and Scott’s "Sid and Nancy"-esque slide to ruin. I think of her alone at the sanitarium, after she had been diagnosed, after Scott had left and found someone easier, after she had learned she had her own talent, and then after Scott died. She wrote and she painted and she didn’t really get better, but she lived on her own terms as much as she could, perhaps more than she ever had before. Then, one night, the fire came and took her away.
Zelda is simple to mythologize, and she has been often, often by me. On the surface, the similarities between her and Shirley Jackson, the psychological horror author who came a couple of decades later, seem minimal. Shirley was a 50s housewife who eked out writing time from her days spent raising four children, cooking, cleaning and keeping a home. But she might have known some of the same things that Zelda knew. She might have known what it meant to be subtlely dismissed by a writer husband whose grandiose mindset sometimes trumped everything, and everyone, else. She might have known what it was like to support such a man, sometimes at the expense of her own creativity. She might have known what it felt like to go unfulfilled.
More to the point, however, Shirley might have known the layer deeper, the area into which Zelda might have been able to start to prod, towards the end, but never penetrated. Shirley was interested in the whys. She studied folklore and witchcraft, and she learned the history of mythology throughout the world. She understood her life in the context of these ideas, and how they interacted with human psychology. Her publisher, after the smashing achievement of The Lottery, sought to capitalize on her interest in the occult by playing it up in their subsequent marketing campaigns, but broomsticks and cauldrons and hexes were the least interesting part of her story. Shirley peeled back the facade whenever she could, and she used the tools of horror to explore where women lived and were trapped. If Zelda was the demon conjured from female repression and lack of opportunity, set loose upon the world, then Shirley was the witch who set her spells carefully down in her books, to be preserved as warnings for the women who would come later.
“Justice” for these women—all of these women, the creative and the crazy and the difficult and the unfulfilled—does not mean they should only be painted in a good light, but that they are taken not as victims and not as villains, but as fully-formed people with agency and power. With their own ideas and their own words.
The legacy of women and witchcraft is one of shadows and societal disrepute, and of times and places where the only way a woman could steal back power over herself and her immediate world was in secret, with stealth. With dark arts and ancient wisdom. Even when it seems no longer needed, I am comforted to think that, tucked away in hidden corners, are the pieces of magic those who went before have kept for the rest of us, and they will always be there should we need them.
That’s all for today. Thank you for reading.