A few days ago I wrote twelve haiku for twelve people who are no longer with us and who are being remembered and honored for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Last night, I wrote fifteen more. I wrote each haiku through looking at pictures and bios of our remembered dead, and tried to connect to the life-affirming details about each person, in order to emphasize who they were rather than write about the details of their often horrific deaths.
Some references which may seem obscure, like the “Knight and Orchid gent” for Mel Robert Groves, are specific personal references to an interest, organization, or description of the person. In Mel Groves’ case, this is an organization.
Transponder, our local transgender rights organization, has asked community volunteers to write brief bios and/or haiku to acknowledge each one of the sixty-eight transgender and non-binary people who died violently in the U.S. between Oct. 2021 and the end of September 2022. These bios and haiku will be recorded and read for our local Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th.
Here are the haiku.
3. Mel Robert Groves, age 25
Look into the eyes
Of Mister Mel Robert Groves
Knight and Orchid gent!
22. Duval Princess, age 24
Sweet Duval Princess,
You sure were kown and beloved.
Your family cries.
23. Matthew Ventriss, age 29. (Formerly known from a reality TV show as Destinee Lashaee. Both names are used on the TDOR site.)
Transponder, our local transgender rights organization, has asked community volunteers to write brief bios and/or haiku to acknowledge each one of the sixty-eight transgender and non-binary people who died violently in the U.S. between Oct. 2021 and the end of September 2022. These bios and haiku will be read aloud for our local Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th.
This morning I sat down and wrote haiku for twelve people who are no longer with us. The text came from my impressions from photographs and/or what was written and said about them and their lives.
#4. Tayda Lebon
A vibrant, stellar,
No one will forget.
#16. Martina Caldera, age 38
Martina, your smile!
Kindness shines in your brown eyes
A light sadly gone.
#17. Za’niyah Williams, age 21
Beauty, you are rich,
Brimful rich with golden joy.
Your smile lights the room.
#18. Ke’yahonna Stone, age 32
True heart, battle brave,
Strong in peace, protecting life,
Giving hers instead.
#21. Amerey Lej, age 19
Your legacy lives.
Lady Diamond dance bright,
Your name is spoken.
#24. Matthew Angelo Spampinato, age 21
“A breath of fresh air,
Bright, kind, headstrong and selfless.”
He didn’t give up.
#29. Milo Winslow, age 30
“Loved, deeply loving,
Fierce advocate,” supporting,
#37. Fern Feather, age 29
Sweet, weird, fun-loving,
Life-loving, artist of food,
Adored by all her friends.
#38. Ace Scott, age 15
Your eyes are so full,
You had a lot to tell us.
Dear one, rest now. Love.
#57. Toi Davis, age 34
Toi cared for others:
“Transition has saved my life.”
Her faith lit her path.
#62. Acey D. Morrison, age 30
Opened her home and her heart.
#66. Serena Brenneman, age 16
“Quirky, kind, stylish,
Beautiful, elegant, soft.”
Bless her memory.
I might write more, if the organization needs more. They are not emotionally easy to do, but the writing does seem to come easily, if that makes sense. Update: I did write fifteen more. See this page, More Haiku for Trancestors.
No, I haven’t mispelled the word for the Christian underworld. I am deliberately referencing Loki Laufeyjarson’s daughter, Hel, ruler of the Norse underworld. (Hint: she’s not what the Marvel Universe portrays.)
I’ve just jettisoned myself from an online spiritual community where I’ve felt generally at home for about four years. I even served as a moderator, helped create online events, and edited and did layout design for two issues of its annual publication. But there was this one thing I just couldn’t take anymore.
Let me back up a minute. For the last 35+ years, my life has been extremely constricted due to multiple chemical sensitivity/environmental illness. My ability to access grocery stores, health care, public transport, education, spiritual communities, and social gatherings has been limited due to (mostly) ubiquitious fragrance use in all public spaces. If I come in contact with these airborne pollutants (volatile organic compounds), I get sick. “Sick” may include asthma, fatigue, spaceiness and brain fog, anxiety and panic, and impacts on various organ systems. Some days I bounce back fairly quickly. Others, not so much.
In spite of this, I’ve tried to live a life of meaning, service, creativity, and curiosity. I’ve raised two children, helped to run a family business, volunteered at my kids’ schools, immersed myself in various special interests, loved and lost (big time!), gone back to school earning two degrees and a number of other college units (thank you, remote education!), and written–written my little heart out, actually, throwing my words into a void which seldom responds. I did all this by building in recovery time, masking my symptoms, and pushing through being sick whenever I had to, if I could. I’ve grown used to life on the margins, preferring to experience being marginalized as a kind of liminal space for spiritual exploration and a unique vantage point for socio-cultural critiques.
However the ubiquitous use of fragrance products has denied me equal access to almost all aspects of modern, Western life: professional opportunities (I can’t network at those fancy business breakfasts because someone is inevitably saturated with fragrance! I can’t schmooze at professional sexology conferences, because, ditto!); and employment (I have so many skills, but finding a fragrance-free workplace? Forget about it!). I can’t even anticipate a book tour as a new author (if such things even exist anymore, post-Covid) because contact with the general public can be hazardous to my health. I can vax against Covid, but there’s no vaccination I know of that will halt the impact of toxic chemicals on my body. I know my chronic illness was a source of resentment and frustration in my marriage and it was boring for other partners. And last year, one of my children decided to cut ties with me “forever,” claiming that I am too much work. Damn, but that was cold! And ableist to boot! (Not to mention ageist and unfair. I threw myself into childrearing, body and soul.)
One of the things that has kept me alive–I mean that literally–is connecting with other people through social media and online affinity groups. Just as some disabled people have written that “internet friends are real friends,” so too is internet space “real” space. As such, it can be made accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities and it can become inaccessible and unwelcoming too. That “one thing” that just caused me to exit from my favorite affinity group was the increasing number of group members posting their advertisements for scented candles and other scented products that are made and sold, supposedly, to honor our deities.
To me, it’s like spraying the stuff in a sacred space that I’d hoped to occupy, if only for a little while. My entire body goes into fight or flight mode just seeing the pictures and reading the blithe postings of people who are making and selling these products. So, seeing that Loki-themed “cinnamon pumpkin spice” smelling candle for sale is like a sock in the gut. And I do mean that literally. My enteric nervous system ties itself in knots.
Far be it from me to get in the way of entrepreneurism, however, does this shit have to be EVERYWHERE? All witchy/pagan spaces seem to be chock full of scented candles and oils for sale: all the actual stores, all the online groups, and probably a lot of in-person rituals. Even my favorite online tarot reader always sprays his reading space first with some kind of cologne and I can no longer bear to watch him on a livestream because of this. I watch the recording later so I can fast forward past that part.
And what about the people and pets who have to exist in the polluted spaces created by witchy sorts who profess animism and spirit devotion, but can’t understand that they are HURTING other people and other creatures with this stuff? That these chemicals add to climate change? I’ve read the studies, folks! Peer-reviewed and everything!
I can’t do this anymore. The grief, the anger, the frustration, the sheer, relentless “Cassandra in a Coal Mine” history of all this is overwhelming. And the ongoing, unexamined stupidity of this seldom acknowledged aspect of ecocide makes me want to scream. I just posted a link to the original “My Gods Are Fragrance-Free” on FB and Twitter today, with the comment that I want this piece read at my funeral (not that I’m planning that anytime soon). I’m serious. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. And it’s my longest, most heartfelt cry I can make in my marginal wilderness. Please read it.
Thank you and blessed be.
The Post I Wrote in 2019:
What follows is imagined, an eco-parable. Gerda, a Jotun, smells only of rich soil, bruised herbs from her garden, and luscious Jotun pheromones. This was enough to dazzle the Vanir god, Freyr, from afar. His sister, Freya, adorns herself with amber jewels, but cares for her skin only with salves of honey, clear water, and powdered grains. The dry tips of her hair are moistened only with the tiniest bit of melted butter. She scorns the feckless chemistries, the unwise alchemies, of Midgard’s humans, which propel poison into every living thing. Freya has complained to Odin that dead warriors are no longer what they once were–they are now creatures with flacid muscles, except for their texting hands, and that they die now with withered sperm counts, and distortions in their DNA.
Even worse–“They (the humans) are even going after the roots of the World Tree,” she whispers, “with something called ‘Round-Up.'”
Freyr, the Corn God, nods. He dies each year for the harvest and comes back reborn, but it’s becoming apparent that the humans who once honored him for this would now rather manipulate the mysteries of the grain themselves. Perhaps an extended vacation in Vanaheim is in the runes…let the humans spend a year without him for once, prefereably after an Icelandic eruption, when ash clouds herald global famine. That’d learn ’em, he thinks, but in the next moment he backs away from such thoughts. He will serve as he has always served, all these long eons. “Perhaps Ragnarök will be a blessing after all…”
Freyr smells of rich earth too, and Gerda’s herbs and mead, and a not-unpleasant tang of godly sweat and semen. Vanir pheromones are also rather scrumptious, carrying a faint scent of apples. But humans, drunk on designer petrochemicals, can no longer detect them.
As for Ragnarök, Loki has no comment. What will be, will be, and has been–so many times. Contrary to his bad press, Loki finds no happiness in wanton destruction…but cleansing…the metabolism of poisons when all else fails…sometimes that is something to be desired. He should know. The next cycle has already unleashed forces powerful enough to bake the planet, to scour it of the unwise alchemies of the paltry, money-grubbing humans. Midgard will eventually recover (Gaia is strong) but Loki isn’t all that keen to be the trickster god of cockroaches. However, he recognizes the cosmic joke about to be played on them all. He’ll do his best to find some fragment of mirth when the time comes. But onlookers will mistake his battle grin for vengeful joy, misunderstanding the mask that hides his hot, angry tears. It was all so unnecessary! It always is! Meanwhile, cremation fires are at hand for another death of a too beautiful world. It’s Loki’s job to ensure that creation follows cremation. Somebody has to do it…
Sometimes Loki wishes Sigyn had gone in for systems change, rather than holding the bowl for him alone. He imagines he could have borne his suffering–bound with his son’s entrails and scorched by viper spittle–if he’d known she was battling the powers that be, on behalf of all sentient beings. Sigyn might have known better though, and who really is to say? Her victory might yet be won.
It doesn’t take a völva prophecy to know what’s coming. Freya sheds tears. She and her daughter want to save a cat or two. Freya wants the falcons to be okay, and bees. Freyr puts in a word for boars and grains. Dogs too. Their father wants to save whales, sharks, sea turtles, guppies, and coral polyps, among others. His is a long list. Loki would like to send wolves and snakes and salmon and horses to Hel, for safekeeping. Gerda hides seeds in safe places, and waits. The souls of animals are already reluctant, but plants and fungi have not yet given up all hope. Neither has Gerda.
Loki says, “Don’t shoot the messenger (especially if I’m it!). Don’t ignore the voices of doom, of climate change, or the canary in the coal mine. Invite Cassandra onto your podcasts–she’s still got a thing or two to say! Don’t disregard the muttering sibyl, the trancing völva, or anger of witches and Jotuns.” He’d slap this message on t-shirts, even though it’s not a sound bite, in hopes that humans would pay attention, but he distrusts capitalism–particularly the kind that sells toxic petrochemical perfumes wrapped in bottles that look like Marvel Universe characters, especially his!
This last is a particularly painful mockery–big anime eyes and golden horns on keychains are one thing, but this is quite another–all those bottled endocrine disruptors ending up in the salmon, just so a few fans can pretend they have access to “his” scent.
Product of a toxic industry making a mockery of our god, adding yet more petrochemicals to the planet and its creatures, all in the name of money. Meanwhile the big money laughs and this makes Loki mad. “Stick to cosplay,” he mutters. “Is nothing sacred?” but he already knows the answer to that question. Rather say that nothing is so futile as the sacred, and nothing is more powerful. After all, Loki knows how to stand with two, four, eight legs, or none, in the spaces between all the worlds you could ever name. (Some say that’s why he drinks so much sometimes. He’s so sick of stupid.)
All matter is alive and aware. If we could hear it, all Midgard is screaming at us right now, “Stop it! Go back! You’re hurting us!” The Earth is our hearth. Hearth fires are lit for warmth and nourishment, not destruction. But we have forgotten this. We have forgotten to extend our hospitality (our frith) and our care to all living things. Loki-as-Lóðurr awoke the first humans with his breath, which was clean and alive and full of strength. He warmed us with his breath and gave us fire to warm our hearths. He certainly did not give us a command to go forth and pollute.
I would like to think that human beings still yearn for that first clean breath, that pure air granted to us by a being as old and as vast as a star, and that we’d do anything to get it back. Instead we diddle with gadgets, toys, herbicides, GMOs, scented candles, and guns. We’ve poisoned our Midgard and every living creature in it. Our own bodies now shit microplastics. We’ve inflicted this same diet on animals and plants. Fragrance chemicals are harming aquatic wildlife. Our reproductive systems are drenched in endocrine disruptors (like phthalates) from deli food containers, Round-Up, shampoos, and perfume. Babies are born with birth defects as a result. Our breast milk contains countless contaminants, including an array of self-inflicted consumer toxins from such beauty products as “Loki-Master of Mischief” cologne. Soon plastic golden Marvel Loki horns from the above bottle will find their way to the Pacific Garbage patch, floating among the discarded grocery bags, to be eaten by starving whales who can no longer find enough krill. I don’t think this (below) was the kind of “mischief” Loki had in mind…
Water pollution due to domestic garbage at RK Beach in Visakhapatnam. Date 22 September 2013, 09:53:32. Author Adityamadhav83. Creative Commons Attribution Is there any hope at all? Or do I just put another gaudy, food-colored donut on Loki’s altar and sigh, “fuck this shit, Worldbreaker, we’re doomed. Bring it on…”
But Loki will have none of that. He absolutely refuses to let us dodge this wyrd. He says, “Stop buying this crap, especially not in my name. Use your breath for something decent, like saving the planet, while you still can.”
“Do this,” he says without winking, “and maybe you’ll get a whiff of my pheromones…”
Last night–for the fifth time–I experienced the final numinous moments of the Chinese drama, The Untamed, which has been playing on Netflix for the last year or so. And then I returned to the beginning for yet another pass through this sword and sorcery fantasy series (a hybrid wuxia/xianxia story). And why not? It’s still the pandemic. I live alone. My sources of happiness and indulgence are few. And…The Untamed is purely excellent in just about every imaginable way. It has almost everything I love, except for Norse Loki, cats, Elves, and Jane Austen (and I can get that stuff elsewhere), so why not? Why not indulge? So having thoroughly convinced myself of a right to wallow in unrestrained fandom, I was not prepared for what came next, for what arrived this morning.
This morning started well enough. I prepared for an 8 AM meeting with one or both of my hypnosis students in India, and had a client session booked a couple of hours later. While waiting for the India students to show up on Zoom, I decided to listen to some music. I clicked on this link to TheUntamed’s main theme song, translated as Unrestrained. It is sung by the two main actors, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, who are also wildly popular in China as singers, dancers, and public figures. It’s a song that has made it onto “my final playlist” even though it is not my usual thing. And then I went on to have my meeting. So far, so good.
And then, in an idle period before my client session, I recalled Wang Yibo’s tweet from January 23rd, which is the birthday of the fictional Lan Wangji, the character he played in The Untamed. (Xiao Zhan’s character, Wei Wuxian–the “grandmaster of demonic cultivation”–is of course given a Scorpio birthday, Oct. 31st.) In Western astroloogy, this makes Lan Wangji an Aquarius not far from the cusp of Capricorn. And his soulmate is a friggin’ Scorpio born on Halloween and the front half of the Celtic Samhain. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this… (and if you do, great, because I’m not so sure…)
Anyway, I found this tweet touching. It showed the actor’s compassion for the character and situation of Lan Wangji (aka Lan Zhan), who will probably always be one of Wang Yibo’s most beloved roles. I have also seen a touching video of many of The Untamed’s cast saying goodbye to their characters. Fifty episodes is a long time to be in any character’s head and this can’t help but have an effect on an actor’s life. Whether actor or audience, writer or reader, I think it is a very human thing to have strong feelings for and about fictional characters. (I know I adore my own and love them like family.) Fictional characters often reveal something to us about ourselves or our situations. I even feel that some great characters take on a spiritual life of their own, almost like demigods. I am not kidding. (But that is a whole other blog topic.)
Back to this morning. Back to the “shattering.” Back to the crazy, sad, and ridiculously obvious thing that I never saw coming. Somehow all this came together in my brain through the translated subtitles to the song–“preparing a jar of happiness and sadness of life and death to mourn a young man”–and the above Tweeted reference to “no more painful longing” for the character’s soulmate, Wei Wuxian.
Let’s talk for a moment about the understated but strong emotions of the character of Lan Wangji. Here is someone who has had his unrequited love literally slip from his hands to fall into an abyss, to be lost forever, just as Lan Wangji has come to realize exactly what Wei Wuxian means to him. (This is no spoiler–this happens in the first few moments of the series). Later in the series we get hints about what this loss has meant for Lan Wangji in the sixteen long years before Wei Wuxian is revived in another form, through someone else’s sacrifice and revenge curse. We see that Lan Wangji has whip scars on his back and a brand on his chest, identical to a brand suffered by Wei Wuxian during a conflict with a peevish courtesan and a giant Tortoise of Slaughter. The brand on Lan Wangji’s chest is self-inflicted, perhaps to bring him closer to his lost soulmate through shared suffering. We also see that Lan Wangji “made a mess” (as the subtitles put it) and “fought everyone” and then is severely punished (the scars) and banished for three years to a cold place, in solitude except (we hope) for a few little white rabbits. We also learn that Lan Wangji has fostered a child that Wei Wuxian had cared for.
In other words, Lan Wangji’s loss and long grief has shaped his young adulthood just as the loss of his mother (and absent father) shaped his childhood. But because he is naturally taciturn and was sternly raised as a “cultivator” of Taoist practices and swordsmanship, Lan Wangji has very few ways to express his “untamed” emotions. Even his music is restrained, though it aches with longing underneath. In fact, I think some of my favorite moments are when Lan Wangji sits down at his stringed instrument to calm or heal Wei Wuxian and perhaps himself as well.
Though The Untamed is based on Mo Dao Zu Shi(Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation), a sexually explicit novel, Chinese film censorship forced the romantic elements of the narrative into a very delicate tension. The relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian is allowed to be fond (though chaste) and perhaps even passionate (though chaste). The pair are called “confidants,” “soulmates,” and “cultivation partners.” Though I am a clinical sexologist by profession and can talk freely in mixed company about all sorts of things, I actually like the lack of physical sex in the series. The sexual tension between the two main characters–which is not even acknowledged as such–makes the series so much more interesting and romantic. Given the choice between the sex scenes in Outlander and the merest whispers of flirtation and devotion in The Untamed, I’ll take the latter every time.
Now I haven’t said much here about Wei Wuxian. I can relate to him as a trickster, as a “left hand” practitioner of magic arts; as a queer person; as someone scorned by a sibling who has become his enemy; as someone who is generally misunderstood; and as someone who has become weakened (he donated his golden core to the enemy brother) and is at times dependent as a result. He’s a gothy teen turned visionary outcast. He dies once and returns. He survives. He laughs. His birthday is right next door to mine. Plus, I’d like his wardrobe, thank you very much. (I’m partial to black.)
So what is so shattering about all this? I’m getting there. In fact, I’m here.
Here is my Soulmate. We met in our teens. I was seventeen. John was fifteen. John killed himself at nineteen. I’ve written about him before. John was more than a soulmate though, he was also a harbinger, a shape of things to come. I had a hard time telling the difference between the two of us at times. We were also very chaste. He was bi-sexual but more into men. This wasn’t the best option for me but that was the breaks. He’d gone in drag as me a few times and selected clothes for me that he would like to wear–and I, I never realized that part of me was loving him and identifying with him as if we were both queer, not just him. That I wanted my own beauty, my own being, to be as nonbinary as his. It took me several decades but I finally figured this out not long ago. Too late for the beauty part…
With John gone, I tried to piece my life back together. I was alone in my grief, mostly. And I struggled with the sadness and the strange emptiness of missing “my other half.” Yes, it did feel that way. I don’t necessarily think it is a healthy thing to feel so similar and bonded to another, especially when the other is self-destructive and mentally ill, but there is no denying that this kind of bond is very real. If you ever experience it, it can feel as if you’ve exchanged soul pieces with each other or were cut from the same cloth. Decades later, it is hard for me to believe that John is not somewhere in the astral or etheric realms (or wherever), waiting for me. But I actually hope that he’s gone on to some peaceful realm or incarnated again into a happier situation. If he appeared to me suddenly, in another form but recognizable to my heart and spirit sight, would I even know how to react? I’d feel old, and ashamed, and perhaps even angry.
So here I am–with his pictures on my wall, with quiet gestures of remembrance, with objects he gave me, with a scar on my wrist from the quarrel where he pushed me into an aquarium, and my ears that were pierced by him with a needle and cork, and a heart still raw. Still raw–even with all the other people that I have loved quite passionately in my life. Who would I want as a friend and a “cultivation partner” right now, but him? Who would follow me into the oaks and make witchery with me, but him? Who could talk to the cats and make up stories told by birds, but him? Who would drink tea with me and talk about “husbands,” but him? Was he my spirit brother or my real first husband, or a part of me that went down into a canyon one day with a bottle of pills and never came back up?
I’ll never know. I can’t know. The mysteries of death and the futile search of the living for clues to the missing beloved–this is why I found The Untamed so shattering this morning. Wei Wuxian returned to Lan Wangji. But John will never return to me. This is so final.
Will I watch the series again, for a sixth time? You betcha. Because there’s some solace there, even with what I know now.
I just spent the last two and a half days devouring an online English translation of Mo Dao Zu Shi(Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. The translation, by “K”, can be found here at Exiled Rebels Scanlations. The book is the basis for the 2019 Chinese television series, The Untamed, currently on Netflix. I’ve now read all 113 chapters, but am saving the bonus chapters for “later.” I recently wrote a blog, Wild About The Untamed, after watching the series four times but prior to reading the book.
I have so much to say about this series–and now the book as well–that I plan on writing several blog posts about The Untamed, from a variety of different views (magical practice, sexology, as a fantasy writer myself, etc.). But first I’d like you to understand why I am blogging about something as seemingly trivial as a Netflix series while enduring the fear and smoke of California’s third largest wildfire ever (which is burning part of the county where I live) as well as dangers of Covid-19 and the incompetence of my federal government. I live alone. Earlier this week I packed my car in case of evacuation. Fleeing a fire in a small car, at my age and with seven cats, will not be easy. (So far I have not had to do this–though others have.) So yes, I have become completely absorbed in this particular xianxia fantasy in order to cope with several existential threats and to control my racing mind. But even if I weren’t menaced by all of the above (including my racing mind), I’d still be as fascinated and transfixed.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to convince any of my close friends to watch The Untamed, so I’ve no one with whom I can “geek out” about the series. For those who have not yet experienced this magic, I feel the same sense of pity that I feel for anyone who has not read Lord of the Rings or watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. Is it any wonder then that I am writing a blog? This is what prolonged social isolation does to a person…
But let’s move on to some of the reasons I love The Untamed and the novel so very much.
The Trickster Archetype
I mentioned in my previous blog that the “trickster” character of Wei WuXian (aka Wei Ying and Yiling Patriarch) is what attracted me first. I am always captivated by trickster characters and spirits, including the consumate trickster, the Norse god Loki Laufeyjarson (and his Marvel counterpart). Tricksters are mischevious. They are typically outspoken and seldom mince words. They are more apt to slash with them if necessary. They get into precarious situations, often due to a finely tuned sense of their own honor or obligations. They solve problems using their wits but can fight if necessary. They see through hypocrisy and frequently challenge it. They are charismatic. They know their own value. They are seldom deferential enough to authority figures, even when not challenging them overtly. They seldom deign to explain themselves and their actions, so that even their closest companions misunderstand them. They can be fiercely loyal to just a few. They have power and they often wield magic that is considered dangerous, demonic, or somehow wrong or indecent. They attract harsh punishments and social criticism. Tricksters often drive the plot.
Wei WuXian, the “demonic cultivator” of the series, is a classic trickster. He is all of the above. In the book, this characteristic is even more pronounced. He is particularly compelled to prod and poke at Lan Zhan (aka Lan Wangji and Hanguang-Jun), his taciturn companion in swordplay and sorcery, but many of his tricks and jokes backfire. Try as he might, Wei WuXian cannot use obnoxious behavior and guile to undermine or escape his destiny. (I’m giving no spoilers. You can interpret “destiny” as you wish.)
Beauty, GHOSTS, DESPOTS, AND GHOULS
The xianxia world of The Untamed is beautiful. The buildings, costumes, ceremonies, and lotus-filled lakes calm my spirit and refresh my eyes. If I was a child watching this series, it would live in my imagination forever. As an adult, my imagination is also captivated (but “forever” is a shorter time).
But this world is not without its perils. Sociopathic despots rule it and the cultivator clans are governed by authoritarian prudes, wealthy libertines, and stern macho warriors. Resentful ghosts and lurching zombie-like “puppets” threaten armies and villages. Queer love can barely speak its name. And female characters spend a lot of time cooking and serving food, but not eating. (And why do I feel I’ve just described a Republican utopia?)
I also appreciate the beauty of the martial arts choreography. The actors who play Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan (and the others) make it all look effortless, which means of course that (1) they all spent untold hours perfecting their moves and (2) that the film editing is amazing. I particularly like how Lan Zhan’s words and face may often be closed, but his movements with sword and his magical instrument, the guqin, are eloquent and expressive. His actions taken to protect Wei WuXian are always prompt and decisive, though his words and face may rebuff Wei’s overtures. Wei WuXian also provides physical complexity in that he can switch from a lighthearted mood to a stern fighting mode at a moment’s notice. This is also reflected in the choreography.
As an American of European ancestry, I know I miss many markers of cultural significance. How could I not? The translator of Mo Dao Zu Shi does explain a few things, however, and I am grateful for anything that helps me understand more about what I’m watching and reading. However I do think I managed to understand some of the personal and emotional symbols, even during the first viewing. The producers and writers of The Untamed had to be careful how they portrayed the relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan, and so relied on elements with clear–but not explicit–meanings or they scripted ambiguous reactions to explicit meanings. This is a good article about some of the main symbols (Lan Zhan’s headband, rabbits, chickens, etc.) and how they are used.
The development of the complex relationship between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan is of course the main attraction. Superficially it’s a classic “opposites attract” story, but the characters also share many similarities. Both are held in high regard for their abilities (though Wei is controversial first due to his cockiness and later for his demonic cultivation methods). Both are also generally regarded as beautiful men in a culture which obviously values looks. Both are “second” in rank in their cultivation clans/sects. Both are well educated. Both have lost parents at a young age and have been treated harshly, even abusively, by adopted or extended family members. Both are also emotionally and sexually inexperienced, though Wei WuXian likes to pretend he is not. So this is a story of first love as well as a love we imagine will last as long as the two cultivators seek immortality.
There are other types of relationships, love stories, and passionate (but presumably platonic) pairings depicted in The Untamed. There are two wandering cultivators who have a loyal friendship and a common mission to help those who need it–their way of life almost serves as a foreshadowing of the life waiting for Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian, should they commit to each other. Sibling relationships are important and complicated. Parents are either missing or inadequate. Lan Zhan’s brother becomes close to someone who rises in the world (who is therefore acceptable) while Lan Zhan’s partiality for Wei WuXian–even before his “fall”–is regarded as unfortunate and wrong.
Nothing could be more unlike The Untamed than the 1938 film of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. However those who know Pygmalion might understand me (maybe) if I say The Untamed has a transcendent moment equivalent to “fetch me my slippers, Eliza.” You have to see both to understand.
The book explained some scenes and elements in the television series that I could not understand. I am so glad that an English translation is available online and I feel a lot of gratitude towards K, the translator. This is in addition, of course, to what I feel for the author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and to all who brought these characters and their world to life in The Untamed.
I have always had special interests which keep me curious, happy, and occupied. The Untamed fits in with so many that I have already: magic and animism, all forms of human sexuality and gender identities, trickster tales, and epic fantasy. And I have such pleasure in the story itself and its characters. That pleasure alone–during these dreary days of pandemic isolation and smokey skies–is worth everything.
After a hard day of dodging unmasked humanoids and prepping for possible wildfire evacuation in 100+ degree weather, I like to put on a clean sarong and unwind with yet another binge watch of several episodes of The Untamed (2019).
Yes, this aging witchy wannabe, trapped in a world she’d like to desperately adjust, has been captivated by the fantasy world of Chinese “cultivator” sorcery and swordplay, and the adorable love story of soulmates Wei Wuxian (L) and Lan Zhan (R) (pictured above), played by actors/singers/dancers Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. I am not sure what prompted me to initially click on to the Netflix series but the trickster energy of the Wei Wuxian character seemed “Loki-like” and this drew me in. I was soon hooked (for many reasons) but also felt confused. While watching the first several episodes I had to search for articles that would help me understand the characters and context. (This Wikipedia entry helped.) And my response to the series was/is very similar to the one experienced by the writer of this review, “The Untamed, streaming on Netflix, ripped my heart out and fed it to me. I can’t get enough.” Yep. Me too.
Everything is admirable, except the soundtrack can sometimes seem a bit goofy in a mismatched mood way. But that’s okay, because the theme song, sung by Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, is on “my final playlist.” And if I have to kick the bucket before successfully clawing away the pastel printed vinyl wallcovering of whatever ICU gets my covid-racked carcass, I want THIS song and this song only to take me across the liminal divide between me here and me over there somewhere. (Loki, my darling psychopomp, please take note.) It’s not that I love the song that much over all others (though I kind of do at this point), it’s that in my life of deeply felt but ultimately doomed romances, I’m pleased to be immersed in observing the delicate trajectory of a “barely-got-past-the-censors” love story of two young men of magic and chivalry. (And the costumes? They are to die for!)
And as a sexologist, I have to say it’s really rather refreshing to watch nuanced courtship for a change, instead of people throwing each other up against a wall and having at it, sans foreplay, ending with a predictable simultaneous orgasm. (I’ve come to feel a bit of the prudery and boredom of the French writer, Colette, who once got snarky about people who had a regularly scheduled “abyss.” But I digress.)
In The Untamed there are plenty of actual abysses, all glowing with magma or containing Tortoises of Slaughter. There’s even the beyond-death abyss of the lost, wandering soul of Wei Wuxian after he tosses himself off a cliff (this is in the first episode so I’m not spoiling anything).
As for the actors–every single character in this very lavish, sprawling production is played to perfection. But the two main actors are extraordinary. Xiao Zhan has perhaps the easier job (as he has a lot more dialogue and opportunity to explicitly express a wide range of emotions) but the “strong, silent” Wang Yibo manages to convey many complexities with few words and a wide range of subtle facial expressions. Honestly, Wang Yibo has the mystique of Garbo, if it’s okay to compare a young Chinese actor/singer/dancer with the charisma of a bygone Western film star. I really would like to see both actors in other roles. As they outgrow their secondary personas/careers as singers in pop boy bands, I would hope they each get a chance to grow and develop their truly extraordinary acting talents for many years to come.
I’m watching all fifty episodes now for the fifth time. I keep finding more things to discover and enjoy–little details as well as previously unnoticed plot points.
And I live for the moment when Lan Zhan admits he likes rabbits.
Perhaps it is not surprising that The Untamed is starting to influence my daily life. A few days ago, in the course of renting a small storage unit for family photos and keepsakes (in case of fire evacuation), the elderly proprietor came within the six feet of social distance I’d been trying to maintain. Her mask exposed her nose. She touched me on the hand. I said “no touching” and then giggled to myself. It was Lan Zhan’s deadpan delivery. But exactly.
Outside, the world burns. The pandemic rages. My children are far away. But as long as I have electricity and the internet, I’ll be drinking in the world of The Untamed, now my drug of choice for the rest of my forseeable lifespan. Either the Yin Iron goes, or I do.
At least I know I’m not alone. None of us on this planet are having a super wonderful time of it, except perhaps some creatures who are benefiting from the “anthropause” to make their way into environments that they’ve avoided for awhile. How I wish we human beings could find it in our hearts to be a little less relentless once we emerge from current conditions.
So, not fun. And I’ve been sheltering in place alone except for the cats since mid-March. My errands (groceries, gas) are already as minimal as I can make them.
But there is a particularly harsh quality to waiting to see if a wildfire is going to spread to the area where you live, and wondering if you’ll make it out okay (with seven cats and a compact car, this is a huge concern). It reminds me of the early days of the pandemic when I obsessively checked the Covid-19 stats several times a day–national, statewide, and local. Now I’m checking the CalFire maps and local emergency scanner Facebook groups. Who is evacuating? How close is the northern edge of the Hennesey Fire? What’s going to happen next?
It also makes me even more reluctant to run to the market. I am consumed by the fear that if I leave my beloved felines for too long, that something might happen and they will be vulnerable to disaster. They are all indoor kitties and so they depend on me to open doors for them. How I wish I could invent an automatic emergency door that would work if the temperature rose to a certain degree. Then at least they could bolt to safety, and hopefully I’d find them later.
Thousands and thousands of people in the Western states are finding that their homes — the places where we shelter in place to avoid catching Covid-19 — are now threatened by 2020’s dramatic start to fire season. It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if it weren’t for 72 hours worth of lightning strikes that happened last weekend. I believe there were over 10,000 of them, and over 500 fires started as a result, just in California alone.
As for those people who haven’t had reliable shelter during this period–I can’t even imagine. I try, but I can’t. As a person with multiple chemical sensitivity disabilities, I rely so much on control of my home environment to keep me safe from chemical toxins. But with smoke pouring into the atmosphere of normally pristine Lake County, there is literally nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
I’m not complaining so much as describing. I know many are much worse off and are much closer to the fires. It’s the waiting and wondering and planning, and then replanning, that is wearing me down.
Is it any wonder that I’m on my fourth bingewatch of The Untamed? That is all.
Disclaimer: In this post, I’m going to write first in a general way, as if I actually know something about this topic, or might be able to find out more. And then I’m going to focus on how I think I might be able to de-weaponize my own tears, in conversations and confrontations about systemic racism and my own internalized prejudices. Will it work? I don’t know. But I promise to strive toward this.
We make tears when we cry. Science identifies three kinds of tears: basal tears which continuously clean and lubricate our eyes; reflex tears which help get rid of specks, eyelashes and teargas; and emotional tears (also called “psychic tears”). Emotional tears contain stress hormones, which perhaps indicates a chemical-cleansing function. Emotional tears are a form of non-verbal communication.
People cry for a lot of reasons: sorrow, shame, frustration, helplessness, joy, tenderness. Tears can flow during depression or after trauma. Emotional tears provoke emotions in others: compassion, sadness, frustration, as well as anger and resentment, especially if the other person’s tears are experienced as manipulative. Yes, tears can be manipulative too.
As a counselor, I do believe that expressing emotions can be a healthy thing. However, there are also times when it behooves us to be responsible for our own nervous system responses–including tears if we shed them–to let people know that they are not responsible for our comfort, that we do not ask them to do emotional labor in response to our responses, and that we are willing, with good will, to continue conversations through our own discomfort and self-regulation.
And one of those major times is now. It’s time for white people to de-weaponize their tears and other sympathetic nervous system responses so we can ALL get on with the task of dismantling systemic racism that has been killing people for centuries.
Why Are White Tears Harmful?
In her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), sociologist Robin DiAngelo dissects the mechanisms that white Americans use, consciously or unconsciously, to (1) buffer themselves from deep engagement with necessary conversations about systemic racism, personal prejudice, and necessary reforms, (2) redirect the focus back to white equilibrium aka white power, and (3) put the other person in the wrong, most often BIPOC. These mechanisms includes crying. And this is f’d up. How f’d up? I’m not going to whitesplain.
So. Let’s say you’re a white person who realizes it’s time (and if you don’t know this by now, please step up your game). There are conversations that are overdue. Perhaps there are important conversations in your past that were cut short by your tears. Maybe you feel badly about that. Maybe you don’t. But no one is giving you (or me) a pass anymore.
I can imagine crying during the course of a difficult conversation (about almost anything, really). Shame in particular is a very painful emotion and most people will do anything to avoid it. And tears can be part of processing that. Where tears become weaponized is when they are used to manipulate and avoid, when they are used to undermine or dismiss the substantial time and emotions that the other person or people in the conversation have invested in talking with you! If you use your tears to just walk away from the conversation, or shutdown, or center the attention on yourself and your needs, that’s textbook weaponizing right there.
• Historical Context: Self educate. Learn how the mechanisms of racism create life and death situations designed to pound away at Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. Understand that the tears we white folks might shed at being confronted by our shortcomings and faults are AS NOTHING to the rivers of tears shed by people, families, and communities destroyed and killed over the centuries, right up to present day.
• Communication Context: I know I can be a bore about the communication tool known as the Johari Window, but honestly, I feel a lot of privilege and racism lives right there in that window pane (upper right hand) of “known to others, not known to self.” That’s where the “Clueless Family” lives (you know: Karen, Brad, and Becky…). And when some of that stuff gets shown to us, yeah, it can be painful to understand that yes, we really are those people. Now, it might not be our “fault” that the stuff is there (unless we are people who actively cultivate hate in our lives) as we white Americans have been swimming in racism and privilege for hundreds of years, but once revealed, we have a chance to work on these things, to examine them, disgard them, and vow to do better.
But that’s painful. And you might cry. Other people might be around when you do. Here’s what you can do to protect them from your emotions.
• Calming Skills: Prepare yourself in advance for the thought that you might have a myriad of feelings when dealing with issues of racism or a situation which has become racialized or when someone is calling you out, particularly if there is something you might have done that hurts another. Decide what you can do to acknowledge those feelings for yourself but refrain from giving way to your “flight, fight or freeze” sympathetic nervous system reactions. We can often choose receptivity over reactivity, but it might take some work. So practice some calming skills in advance, such as slow deep breathing.
• Think of Others: Remember that other people are also likely to be triggered by your emotions, so calm yourself for their sake as well. Remember, they’re likely not loving this. And if someone else cries, be compassionate and ask if there is anything you can do for them.
• Take Responsibility: If you have the opportunity, say something at the beginning like, “Please ignore me if I cry during this conversation. I do not expect you to take care of me and my emotions, and I intend to do my own work to calm my nervous system and work through emotions so I may give you my best attention and so we may have a constructive conversation.”
• Time Outs: In advance, establish a protocol for a brief “time out” if anyone involved in the conversation needs time to calm. Make sure you commit to a return to the conversation as soon as possible, preferably within thirty minutes. Do not let the “time out” become weaponized as a technique for avoidance.
• Emotional Repair: If needed, take the initiative in asking if it is possible to do emotional repair. Be prepared to hear no, and lump it. If you are allowed an opportunity, listen more than you talk, and again let the other person know that you are taking responsibility for your own nervous system reactions (and then do so).
If anyone has additional ideas on this topic, I hope you will add them to the comments section. Thank you so much for reading.
At 22:40, Senator Mitchell referred to SB 227, a bill concerning the use of grand juries that “became the law of the land” and then she said:
“…then the court challenges come and the district attorneys find a D.A. in a rural area to put forward the challenge and they’re strategic in finding a court that will very likely overturn it and so while this legislature and the previous governor and our attorneys here in the legislature felt that the bill was constitutional, it was signed into law, it was challenged in the court. It was brought to court by the district attorney from El Dorado County, Vern Pearson, in December of 2016. The 3rd Appellate District Court ruled the measure unconstitutional and tragically our CA Supreme Court chose not to hear it.
And so while we fight the battles here legislatively to talk about [how] grand juries are not the appropriate place for peace officers who commit murder to have their day in court–unlike every other citizen–once we pass the bills and they become law, the court system is then manipulated to continue to protect those who take our lives everyday. And so those are the challenges we must face as black legislators. It’s not enough to carry the bills and get them signed by the law. It’s not enough to carry the bills and fight against the district attorneys, the police chief, the sheriff’s association, to represent the needs of black people. Then we go to the courts and we experience bias once again.”
This video, and Sen. Mitchell’s statement opened my eyes to the kind of strategies used to undermine all legislation designed to curb police and sheriff violence.
As I live in a rural county without street protests, and am also SIP due to Covid-19, it seems clear to me that one of the most constructive things I can do is begin to pay close attention to legislation put forth by members of the CLBC, and to encourage my CA Assemblymember and State Senator to support their legislation.
Finally, Sen. Mitchell’s rebuttal to LAPD Chief Moore.