Sirens & Sirens

Digital illo: The Siren's DeceptionInteresting, isn’t it, that the same word we use in English to describe those mythical creatures who are said to entice and draw us inexorably to our doom with their alluring song is the name we give to the sound warning us of danger. A Siren’s song is meant to lull me into unsuspecting complacency and reckless desire, yet the alarming noise made to wake me out of complacency and make me alert, focused, and cautious is also a siren. Methinks some wordsmiths enjoy causing such bits of merry mayhem in the pursuit of misdirection and disinformation.

For behold! What’s this? I am suddenly thinking of the vast fields of fact and fancy where the same words that mean truth and beauty to one are terms of terror and falsehood to another. Much depends upon intent; much, too, upon interpretation.

The most skilled and experienced among diplomats, politicians, and philosophers, linguists and liars—not to mention among advertisers and marketing directors, who can of course be at the top of any or all of these fields—know this and use it to advantage. The rallying cry of one group of people warns off another. Invitation from one insults and assaults the next. Even the terrible sound of war’s sirens, the blaring horns shouting at me to take shelter from a bombing raid, a fusillade, or a marauding invasion, these might be a compelling or inviting Siren call to those who invade and attack, the assurance that their glorious reward lies just ahead of them, yes, right where I am hiding in fear. But is it equally true that I rejoice in others’ defeat and destruction when it makes me feel safer, or even merely richer? That I hear hymns of happiness in the dirges of others?

I hope that the island of rock toward which I paddle and swim for its sense of safety from the tormenting skies, the rough seas, and their swarming contingents of deadly monsters isn’t the very promontory on which I will meet my doom, drawn there by the false promises of Sirens. I know from experience that some of their art lies in convincing me to sing their songs in my own voice, even in my own head, making it easier for me to find the stories palatable and believable, and teaching me to hear other people’s voices automatically as contrastingly suspicious sounds. I hope that I am old and wise enough to recognize that different tunes are sometimes only music that I haven’t yet learned. I hope I’ll never willingly (or even unwittingly) sink the hopes and dreams of others simply because the song of my life, of my truth, differs from theirs.

Is that sound we hear a chorus of idyllic oracles inviting us to ultimate sanctuary, or is it only the illusory music of rolling, sounding waves meant to draw us inexorably toward hidden rocks that will shatter us, will jettison the jetsam into a bottomless vortex of ignorance and ignominy? Only those around for the grand finale will know which song comes last.

Hanging around with Dead People

My fondness for cemeteries is always heightened by admiration for their artful and natural beauties in the wonderful array of stonework and iron, stained glass and sculpture that intermingle with splendid displays of wild or planted flowers, trees, grasses, and moss that may be meticulously designed and tended or equally lovely in their rampant and neglected states. I love, too, a cemetery’s history and mystery; the stories both told and untold that rise up from every grave fill me with awestruck wonder as I perambulate and read, rest and imagine. The silence, punctuated by bird sounds, by wind and rain, and sometimes by the talk of others wandering through, gives me room for my thoughts to roam while my eyes are distracted and enchanted by the views.

And though I don’t necessarily wish to keep them company in a permanent way anytime soon, I find the dead in a cemetery very accepting, even friendly, company, so I am rarely melancholy in a graveyard, mostly meditative. And occasionally, amused. I especially like the headstones and monuments that have either their own sense of humor or have in one way or another become more entertaining than they were originally intended to be. I have even devised an artistic category for the rare few sculptures and markers that are evidently the work of good-hearted but slightly under-talented designers and artists, whom some might charitably name folk artists but whose misbegotten and unintentionally horrifying or hilarious (horlairifying?) tributes I dub not so much Folk Art as WTFolk Art.

Photo: Poor Little Homely Charlie

I hope beyond words that little Charlie’s guardian cherub was a whole lot less unhandsome when the headstone was first made for their poor youngster, and not yet so weather-beaten. Me, I’d wake up in the grave with nightmares with that weird little blob hovering overhead!

Whether it’s my irreverence in the face of death’s inevitability or the inspiration of such kindhearted awfulness, I do find that sometimes I can’t help writing epitaphs, myself. Even my own epitaph, or variations thereon, because no one’s better equipped to deride my quaint and odd-acious self than I am, after all. Plus, if they’re terrible verses, I won’t be around to be annoyed by them once I’m dead. Sorry, the rest of you.

How about one for the Sparks family vault?

Here lies Richard in the dark

For having died, he’s lost his Spark,

And yet with Kathryn still he’s yoked,

Even when buried, for she croaked.

But wait! There’s more…a little something just for me:

Who lies below tucked in this bed

With hollow bones and empty head

Could not have left us fast enough;

Perhaps a diamond in the rough,

But her potential, though so pretty,

Stayed all unmet, and more’s the pity.

Photo: Roswell

Hey, isn’t this where the aliens are buried? Lemme in!

Dangerous Romance

Love & Homicide in the Wings

A mere moth should never marry A too-pretty Fritillary:

Ay, anterior, posterior, She’ll always act superior,

And opt, yea, to co-opt her an Obnoxious Lepidopteran

To ransom her; by chance some’re Both fancier and handsomer.

Tears will roll like many pennies When he uses his antennae

So he really realizes Not all butterflies are prizes;

Though he scarcely found it scary Marrying a Fritillary,

Someday soon he surely will, her Arrogance the caterpillar

Of his innocent devotion Kill; its wings will know no motion.

Down the alleys ghastly, ill-lit, Flits, forlorn, the moth; to kill it

Is a mercy of the fires On his thwarted old desires—

Clasp a gaslamp, doomed Cecropia! Love you once believed Utopia

Ne’er loved you, never trusted That you weren’t just maladjusted.

Ah! Madame, your Butterfly, alack, will only stab you in the back;

The price of your hubristic pride Could well become Cecropicide.Digital illo: Another Moth Myth

World War Whatever-it-is

"*The* World War." Would that it were so. So many dead that if there's room in the cemetery for an individual marker, it might have only initials, if any identification at all. And more bones on the pile every day, in every corner of the world.

“*The* World War.” Would that it were so. So many dead that if there’s room in the cemetery for an individual marker, it might have only initials, if any identification at all. And more bones on the pile every day, in every corner of the world.

My meanderings in old cemeteries offer frequent reminders that poverty and hunger, natural dangers, and lack of medical advances or resources were far from the only causes of early and numerous deaths among our forebears. Chief among the causes is—and I fear, will always be—ignorance. All one has to do is spy a few headstones marking the graves of persons killed in The War, the World War, or even the so-called Great War to realize that despite terrible, lengthy, massive battles and wars in ages past, our more recent ancestors still believed that one war would ‘end all wars’ and that it was an anomaly. We should be so astute and peace-loving. Instead, we always find new ways to mistreat and murder our fellow beings, and the rate of discovery for cures and self-improvements never quite keeps up with the pace of our ills, let alone outruns them.

Photo: "World War"

“World War.” The End. If only.

The Emperor’s Newest Costume

An Empire never gave good reason why

It ought to rule instead of native sons

And daughters, who, if they survive the guns

And carpet-bombing, still might long to die,

For terrible and bitter is the rule

Of anyone who dares to steal the throne

Of any land or country not his own,

Who often trades a despot for a fool,

Or worse, fool for a despot, and the land

And all its people suffer at the change,

No better, oft enough, and ever strange,

Without the hope and strength to countermand

The awful miseries imposed by those

Who choose to rule as wolves in ovine clothes.

Photo: Flag-waving

Let this be a lesson to us all. Seems to me that flags are better planted in our own hearts and front gardens than on others’ turf.

When the Dust Settles

Digital illo: Doom is So Depressing!People of all kinds of philosophical leanings readily resort to apocalyptic talk nowadays. We like hyperbole, to be sure. If it isn’t some version of some religion or other’s end times, it’s anything from worldwide economic collapse to irreparable ecological disaster. And, of course, any and every one of the dire predictions could prove true.

But focusing on that sort of stuff, let alone organizing one’s life around it, is my idea of a lousy substitute for real living. The largely Pollyanna flavor of my credo doesn’t preclude my being at least passably realistic about the world and its tribulations, and there are some things about which I am as pessimistic and removed from sanguine comforts as can be, but since I can’t change them, I know that they either will or won’t end at least my world, my life; if that’s the case, it won’t matter one iota to me, now, will it? And if I survive, well then, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

That’s the concern I think worth entertaining: What comes after the End of All Things? If I exist after what I thought was going to end all of my joys and riches, my struggles and concerns, either by destroying every atom of them or by killing me, then that would seem to be the plan, the attitude worth cultivating. I may have little to offer my fellow survivors beyond a sheepish high-five of shared amazement at our not being wiped out along with all other matter, but perhaps if there is more than one of us still standing after the firestorm or implosion or celestial sneezing fit that has massacred everything and everyone else, we can pool our resources and find other surprising pleasantries besides that we just plain aren’t dead yet. I’m betting on that particular scenario, given the relative utility of such thinking in comparison with stocking up plots and devices for scrabbling to continue to exist in a smoking hole of what was once a world. That one I’ll happily leave to darker and less benevolent thinkers, as I can only imagine living among them would kill me quickly enough anyhow. And I do think you know what I mean.

See you on the other side!Digital illo: After the Apocalypse, I'll be an Artist

Get Ready to Get Scared

Autumn is a strange time of year, isn’t it—the season when the evidence of the end of all living things surrounds us in greater than ever abundance is also when we’re imbued with the sense of newness as the school year and performance seasons begin. One month turns into the next over a period of ritual remembrance for the dead, a time that has managed to segue in modern times into a monstrously (pun intended) popular holiday rife with commercialism and partying that have in most cases long since obliterated any sober or spiritual content that once attached to the occasion. Confusing, perhaps, this odd mix of the haunting and the hilarious, the grotesque and the goofy.

I rather like this time of year for that very reason. The bizarre and the beautiful make such interesting partners, don’t they. It’s so perfect, the way this sort of thing reflects the natural intersections of the true and the terrible, the gruesome and the glorious—of life and death.

Me, I’m scared of practically everything. I’m not all that enamored with the more popular forms of terror-tainment, the horrific haunted houses and splatter movies, never mind the creepy cults of murder groupies and the like. But I’m human; I’m not immune, either, to a good, cathartic thrill and chill. So I get my kicks in the particular ways that allow me to feel a modicum of control, usually because I made up the scary stuff myself. As puppet-master I can enjoy the frissons until I’m, well, not enjoying them, and then put the story on hold until I’m ready to face my own death again. Mortality is such an adventure. I know you think about it, too, whether it’s Halloween month or not. Meanwhile, sleep well.Digital illo from photos: Let's Get Scared