Part One. Trigger warnings for disordered eating, self-harm, abusive relationships.
Demons are ravenous things. We starve as soon as we leave a host, and we continue starving until we find some other soul to feed on. The more refined our tastes, the longer we starve, and the weaker we become.
Some people beg for demons. They fall easily, writhing with regret. Even in those who summon demons, attempting to bind us with foul symbols of the false god, there is a frisson of fear. Unbelievers are as easily haunted as the devout. Shame is the only requirement. We always have options, if we’re willing to take them.
Nothing but a certain kind of soul would satisfy me. Brave, but unwilling. Broken, but stoic. Desperate, but kind. Until Elise stirred the remnants of my taste from the dust, I had been sleeping for a long stretch.
She returned from work later than usual, with a box of fried, sticky food. The contents turned her stomach as much as they made her mouth salivate. She hadn’t eaten since the grapefruit that morning. The other half was still in the fridge, and she considered turning back to it instead, but she was craving heat and meat and fat. The blaring television helped her get the food down. Distraction. She threw away the evidence before her impulses could send her hurtling toward the toilet.
Good girl. If I had glands, I’d salivate as well.
This night’s shower was not a prolonged affair. She let the water steam up the little room, entirely obscuring the full length mirror, before stripping, eyes on her cloudy image, and stepping into the scalding water. Only as she washed herself did her fingers linger on the fading scratches.
Her hands tightened on her arm, her nails testing the fragility of her skin.
“I could do it myself and pretend it was you.” She meant it. An intense and terrible desire to be seen, and worked upon, moved through her. She wanted me to take the numbness from her limbs with claws and teeth and fear.
I tensed. At least I would have if I was in a body. She didn’t want to hurt herself, not really. She wanted an interaction, which she was daring me to provide. I couldn’t give her what she wanted. Not yet. Nor did I want her to bleed without me, an action which might send her hurtling into the arms of caring strangers. She loosened her intention. If I had lungs, I would have sighed.
She dressed in a thick flannel and fell asleep on the couch to some inane morality play, my marks nearly forgotten. In her sleep, her hand found my marks through the flannel. It was as though she’d touched me. Reached out to me. As if I were her savior, instead of her doom.
The sensation was unbearable, a burning heat I’d only felt at the edge of consecrated ground. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. I was meant to torment her, not the other way around.
I am patient. Mortals are not. She would forget these conversations, and I would once again have the advantage.
Trigger warnings for disordered eating, self-harm, abusive relationships.
It takes a certain type of carelessness to talk to a demon. Elise had that in spades.
She first noticed the scratches in the shower. That was the only place she could notice them, would ever notice them in winter. Her apartment was too cold for her razor-thin frame even on the sunniest September day. She wore long sleeves exclusively, trading over-sized wool sweaters for chiffon bell sleeves come summer.
Thick body hair, her constant bane, was bearable on her legs through daily shaving, but she couldn’t stomach stubble on her arms, stomach or mound, so it grew freely, and she kept covered. Shamefully. Quietly. Older women complimented her modesty, even when she wore short skirts with stockings. The 1960s were long enough ago that even such a show of legs seemed more nostalgic than sexual.
If the scratches were on her legs, she might have assumed she’d acquired them in a mundane manner — brushing against a sharp corner in the office, or on the subway. To have them on her arms was something altogether inexplicable. Her arms were only ever bare in the shower, and she hadn’t scratched herself. Her mind wandered through the steam and, in the way of meandering shower thoughts, hit upon a memory of some ghost hunting show from college. Men running from a tomb, displaying long red lines and stammering of demons. She’d laughed until she cried, gasping for breath in the arms of her college girlfriend.
She smiled, feeling whimsical. “If you’re here and want to talk, try the other arm tonight.”
The sound of her own voice thrilled her, echoing around the bathroom and tickling the back of her neck. When was the last time she’d spoken in her own home? During a call from her manager, probably. When was the last time someone had been in her space? Months, at least. The realization didn’t hurt as much as numb her, and her thoughts skittered away from that lack as she prepared for bed. Wrapped up in a ratty old sweatshirt, she promptly fell asleep.
She always showered in the morning, even when she showered at night. It was the only way to feel clean and warm at the same time. A sweatless, pretty thing. There were no new scratches on her arms, and she watched the water caress the already fading marks from the previous day with unexpected disappointment.
“I wish you’d been real,” she said idly, lips twitching slightly. “It would have been nice, having someone to talk to.”
She ate half a grapefruit dusted with pink salt to match her salmon cashmere sweater set, a work outfit she hated but wore for its powers of invisibility. Putting on her professional mask, she left.
In the dim shadows of the spotless white apartment, I waited, puzzling over her words.
This is another edition of “what to do when self-isolating during the plague.” Today I’m focusing on casual art history and poetry education.
- Visit a museum online
- Learn about revolutionary artists who you might have never otherwise heard of
- Take a free art course
- Poke around on Poetry Foundation
- Listen to incredible spoken word poets
Stay curious and stay connected. Sending you all love.
If you have generalized anxiety disorder, you’ve probably learned to talk to yourself about death. We all have our own methods, but my general script goes like this:
Anxiety: You’re going to die because of X, here are the reasons.
Me: I will die someday, and I’m going to take reasonable precautions to postpone that, but it is going to happen, so let’s handle that. I’m not going to obsesses over an inevitability. That kind of control is an illusion.
Confronting my own mortality happens at least once a week, usually for spurious reasons. Currently, the script includes a few more specifics. I remind myself that pandemics happen, and we’ve been due one for a while. I remind myself that the Black Plague killed 50% of Europe, and at least we’re not dealing with those odds. I remind myself that, like death, massive changes are inevitable, and that most human lives of an average lifespan include at least a few terrifying, life-altering events. I have been born in a position of privilege, but there’s no contract saying I’m going to be exempt.
Then, if I’m still spiraling, I tell someone I love them, or I remind myself of the amazing life I’ve led so far, and I have a good cry and dive into some art. Preferably making my own art while consuming someone else’s art.
“No one human is a drain on society,” Amanda Palmer says. She’s livestreaming from a church in Wellington, New Zealand right now. I’ve liked her since college, but I’ve never been a music person, it’s her first concert I’ve ever attended, even if it is online. I haven’t paid much attention to her in the last few years, but I happen to be in a Twitter anxiety spiral when I see her tweet about starting livestreaming.
That seems like a better way to spend my evening, I think. Palmer is answering questions and introducing the seven or so other people in the Wellington church with her. The video is being streamed from a laptop held by a guy she just met. It’s a choppy miracle to be watching someone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean answer questions from other anxious quarantined people around the world. In a bizarre twist, I realize that I may have toured the exact church with my grandparents when I was 11 years old.
In another moment of serendipity, she opens with my favorite of her songs, In My Mind.
And when they put me in the groundIn My Mind, Amanda Palmer
I’ll start pounding the lid
Saying I haven’t finished yet
I still have a tattoo to get
That says I’m living in the moment
That bit always gets me. I’m not done, and I’m never going to be done. That’s something I can cope with because it’s something I share with so many others.
The feed freezes halfway into another round of questions, and when it reloads, Neil Gaiman’s face is staring into the laptop camera, trying to fix the issue. He starts reading Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which is a bit dark, even for me. I expect it to hurt to hear — I’ve read it before, but I had to put a moratorium on reading Poe years ago because of nightmares. It doesn’t hurt. It feels like another acknowledgement of the fears we share.
This is my second livestreamed event this week. The first was a stream of a Seattle Symphony concert, something I’d never normally tune in for. Now, it seems important, not just because I’ve been sick at home for two weeks now. Artists reaching out means everything right now. I’m reaching back.
You’re going to die soon, my fears whisper.
It’s a possibility. I shrug. It always is. I move on to my next art project. But look how well I’m living.
Don’t believe the stories that say
at the end of all things
with the sky falling
we’ll dive into ever worse warring.
We are well equipped to live liminally,
for every resting place along our way
to become a celebration when we meet.
We can be strangers without a word between us
and still communicate deeply.
We, the wandering species,
are as gritty as they say,
but our grit is for adapting.
We form communities
like birds build nests.
Put us in a wilderness
and we are all camaraderie.
You’ll learn this on any holy way,
from climbing out of any cold sea.
Come in, strangers will say,
sit by the fire pit, have a steak.
Tell us, what have you seen?
No matter the odds,
we possess every impulse
necessary for peace.
Every day I spend shaking in this shell
I get closer to the holy
watching my own kindnesses and foibles
what pains lead me toward humanity
and what pains simply drain the self away.
Every poem I write is a song for the end of the world
but I’ve never been good at endings
just noticing and forgetting
and I’m getting worse at forgetting.
I must find another way of letting go
a philosophy made of more than should-haves
of more than smoke.
I look at the sky and think I know
what’s to come
what I will become
From this haze let me reconstruct reality
pinpointing every joy
discarding every tremor.
Let me build saints out of disasters
reaching back into our history to find
this has all happened before.
Let me be the calm before the storm:
a peaceful place within the war
a meaning beyond what this body tells me
a way for us to feel like more
than an ending.
While I continue to cough up a lung, I’m looking for ways to help. In isolation, trying to heal, there’s not much I can do. I’m writing and editing still, as I cannot help but continue, but I’m wishing that I had some lovely frivolous work to put out into the world right now. What many of us are craving is a bit of escapism. A reason to get off of social media and into a head space that has nothing to do with plague.
I thought I’d offer you some of my free favorites. As my tastes run from trashy to macabre, they might not match yours, but I offer them to you all the same. If they don’t match, find something else, and while you’re watching or listening, do something. Draw a picture. Bake a cake. Start some seeds. Continue, and don’t let yourself spiral too deep.
The Seattle Symphony
Here’s my only high-brow suggestion. The Seattle Symphony has live broadcasts as well, which is nice for feeling close to others while you listen.
Regency House Party
This is a reality tv show that I wish had as many seasons as the Bachelor. It’s ridiculous and I hope you love it.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
Speaking of the Regency era, this show is a modern remake of Pride and Prejudice. It translates the material pretty brilliantly.
Charming, spooky stories set in Glasgow. This is one of my favorites for listening to on a rainy night.
Goosedrunks is my favorite way to fall asleep. And hey, if you’re not sick, you can play along.
True Crime, but funny
Okay, Buzzfeed Unsolved is a favorite of thousands, and a gateway to true crime fandom in general. But I maintain that nothing gets your mind of plague like puzzling over unsolved serial killer cases. Plus, the Ghoulie Boys are always an entertaining pair.
I hear a rattle every time I breathe, and I won’t lie: I am afraid. I’m usually fit and healthy and rarely get sick, so at this point I’m hoping that my new sound effect is a result of undetected coronavirus, not something I’ve developed separately while the virus closes in. However, that’s the most likely scenario — criminally bad timing.
I’m pushing my way through WITCH / PILGRIM / HERETIC at an unholy rate. I just published Between Death and the Devil, but that was a tarot themed lark, not something that speaks to fear and death and love in desperate times. I take comfort that my first book of poetry, So Our Idols are Dead, addresses some of that, but while it focuses on the personal and political, WITCH / PILGRIM / HERETIC is a deeply spiritual text.
I want it finished. Just in case. Just in case it helps someone feel a little better. Just in case it helps me. My anxiety has long forced me to confront uncontrollable fears with ambivalence and love. Right now, I’m turning to that strength: doing the work, like always, every day. Resting. Feeling love. Doing the work that feeds my soul.
May you find kindness in your most desperate hour
especially the kindness you can give yourself
when you realize how cruelly you’ve been treating
this soul you’re made of.
May you learn from every mistake and every pain
so that each trauma and tragedy
doesn’t seem like meaningless cruelty.
May you let yourself mourn meaningless cruelty.
May you trust what you’ve learned,
standing proud in the knowledge
that you know more than yesterday.
May you revisit former states with ease.
May you age with grace.
May you always fight for those in need
abruptly or obliquely
but always deeply.
May you find the words you need to hear
even if you have to write them yourself.
Temperance stands between Death and the Devil —
she balances the world,
mitigates the pull to hell,
accepts the dead into a deeper, sweeter underworld.
To all things constant ever,
she drips with jewels and pomegranate seeds —
who else could reconcile
such fierce, frenetic types of love?
Between Death and the Devil: Tarot Poems is out now, and I’m giving away copies for free over at StoryOrigin! There’s a poem for each of the tarot cards, written during my study of tarot. Originally published as a zine containing only the Major Arcana, I delayed publishing this project in order to add poems for all the Minor Arcana.
It’s also available on Amazon, if you’d like to buy it instead. The paperback edition will be out shortly.
If you’d like to support me without giving a cut to our corporate overlords, download the book for free on StoryOrigin, then head over to my newly minted Ko-fi page to buy me a hot beverage.