I am a total FRAUD

(gratuitous image of Nigella Lawson because in my mind, I am/look like her, and that has been true since I was 16)


Friends, lovers, countrymen —

I am forcing myself to write this post because I must open up a valve. I’m going crazy. You see, it’s been a while — a long while — since I have written something that I wasn’t submitting to an editor.

On the one hand, wow, what a thrill that I’ve come a long way since last year! I loved writing this blog because this was where I could let myself wander into whatever topic I want, whether it’s opera or art history or poetry, just let my freak nerd flag fly. I always wrote joyfully and freely because I had no pretension of living up to any kind of externally imposed standard. I had it nowhere in my mind that I had to try to be or do anything — I was just putzing about because it felt shitty not to write, not to cogitate out loud. And this blog was read by a few kind friends.

And now, I am writing all over town. In many ways, some of my wildest dreams (that I didn’t even know I had) came true. Now, I am a bona fide book reviewer, which is just nuts because who wants to listen to my crazed ramblings extolling Camille Paglia and pooh-poohing psychoanalysis? Apparently some people!

I wrote for the august conservative mag, The National Review, which was a complete scandal because I thought NR was only by, like super legit super conservatives, and I am neither halfway legit nor a proper conservative. I went to Wellesley and spent my 20’s drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes in Bushwick!

Seriously, the worst. I avoided trying to become a “real” writer for the longest time because writers are a total fucking drag!

And then a seriously questionable character convinced me that I ought to try my hand at fiction, which is the worst idea ever because now I have dug myself into 23948 different kinds of holes that I’ll be clawing my way out of for the rest of my life.

Why are interesting things hard to do?

I needed help. I went back and re-read my bible Big Magic (if you are a creative person in any way and haven’t read this book, DO IT) by the Patron Saint of Creative Women, Elizabeth Gilbert, who said something like, “I entered into a relationship with writing and promised that I would be grateful and wouldn’t complain too much.”

And I was like, hah, okay Liz Gilbert, I grew up a totally sheltered special snowflake under a helicoptering tiger mom, as opposed to a salt-of-the-earth midwestern-protestant farm-bred mom. I don’t know how not to complain. I don’t know how not to be precious.

So here I am. Metaphysical warts and all.

You know what? I learned something super important though. And I am so glad I learned this.

This was totally shocking to me, but apparently YOU, AS A PERSON, ARE ALLOWED TO ITERATE.

And you are allowed to iterate out loud, in public.

If you are Yo Yo Ma, you’re allowed to put out multiple recordings of the same Bach because a later recording doesn’t cancel out the legitimacy of a former recording. We don’t say, “oh great, now that we have the recording of 55 year old Yo Yo Ma, let’s burn all the copies of the one from when he was 30.” That’s not how it works. We’re all living out loud and no one moment is truer or more valid than any other. This is important for creators. (Nugget of wisdom and example relayed to me by the great Marcia Butler.)

It turns out, this is especially important for women who’d been taught all their lives that they have to be good and proper and perfect and unoffensive and unimpeachable and not change their minds or grow. Because if you change your mind or grow, that means you were wrong before and if you were wrong that’s bad and you should have shut the fuck up? Right?

Ummmmmm NO.

I am a total fraud, I’m constantly iterating, I am totally making it up as I go along. SO IS EVERYONE ELSE! Think about it for a second. If you’re not iterating, you’re standing still. We are all making it up as we go along. Because what is identity anyway? Persona means mask.

I might die tomorrow. Literally. I’d rather have played this game with aplomb.

Or, something, I don’t know. I’m terrified.

There, I’ve finished the assignment to myself. To write something that doesn’t go to an editor.




$3,800 goes to NAACP & ACLU

I’ve been procrastinating writing this post because it’s almost been too overwhelming and I don’t know how to begin to talk about it.

Except, well, how about just the basics?

I decided to draw one black woman a day to celebrate Black History Month.

I decided to create a coloring book out of that, and to sell it to raise money for civil rights.

People shared my post hundreds of times. Donations poured in from friends, friends of friends and strangers.

In 27 days, I raised $4,000.

I decided to divide the NAACP donation so that some of it goes toward their acclaimed Legal Defense Fund (as well as a scholarship program within it), which fights to diminish the role of race in criminal justice and democratic systems.




Then my friend said that the WePay fee is bullshit (amen), and decided to match that amount to make a donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.





That’s all I got.

Out of words.


Coloring for the Resistance — Black History Month Project

To celebrate Black History Month, I decided to illustrate one inspiring Black woman a day, for the entire month of February 2017.

At the end of the month, I will create a digital, printable coloring book that combines all 28 of the drawings.

You can “purchase” the coloring book with a $15 donation and 100% of raised funds will be donated . 

I will donate half of the final sum to NAACP, and the remaining half to ACLU.

If two hundred of you buy one book each, we will hit our goal of $3000!

You will receive the downloadable file via email by March 5th.

Hope you’ll join me in working to reach this goal!

The twenty-eight women I am illustrating are luminaries in politics, military, sciences and the arts, not to mention activism and philanthropy.

In addition to North Americans, I have also included women from the greater Black diaspora (e.g. Zadie Smith, Felicita “La Prieta” Méndez, Celia Cruz, Nancy Morejón) to celebrate their contribution to Pan-American history.

There are many more extraordinary women I left out, whom I hope to honor in future projects.

Keep up with my progress on Instagram! 


Talking to Joe Loya: the power of story & freedom from solitary confinement

A while ago, my wonderful friend Amy Gutman did me the great favor of introducing me to Joe Loya. When Amy introduces me to someone, I do my best to put my best non-disappointing face forward because she is a friend-yente extraordinaire whose people have an amazing track record of improving my life. (For the 394239493th time, thank you, Amy!)

Meeting Joe was no exception; as it stands, he is my all-time favorite bank robber. As with all the best people, we had no time for pleasanteries and started immediately gabbing about things like, oh, skulls, mortality, prison and identity. What else do you talk about over (virtual) tea?

We had such a brilliant conversation (translation: Joe said lots of brilliant things and I fangirled) about the power of story and metaphor. I felt it was such a waste for it to be only for my own eyes, so I asked him if I could reproduce this conversation for my blog. He kindly assented.

I hope you enjoy Joe as much as I do.


Read the post, which now lives at The National Book Review.


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every once in a while, I’ll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I’m reading.


Tricolor Mary: Encountering 3 Faces of the Divine Feminine

Mary in White

I always felt curiously distant from the figure of Mary. I always sensed that there is so much there and yet, I could never connect to it emotionally.

The foil to Eve, vessel of Love, suffering mother. I wanted to love her, I wanted to feel her, I wanted to feel drawn to the mystery of Marian devotion. But I felt alienated by the vision of the feminine that she seemed to project: the pure, immaculate, virginal, submissive, obedient, quietly suffering.

Most days, I feel like the opposite of every single one of those qualities. 

It's exactly the kind of feminine archetype I don't really relate to -- the kind of person about whom people say, "oh, she's really nice" as if yielding compliance and non-offensiveness are her primary attributes. The kind of woman who fades into the background, whose worth lies only in her utility to the patriarchal narrative.

Will Mary, with the white halo on her head, be accepting of my chaos, my non-virginity, my rejection of Victorian purity, my failure to suffer quietly (I like to kick and scream)? Am I not more a daughter of Eve, the one who says "yes" to darkness and temptation? 

If so, how can I make peace with Mary, let alone love her? How can I fully reconcile with an otherwise masculine-dominated vision of Christianity?

Earlier, I was reading a Camille Paglia interview, in which she contrasted the pagan floridness of Mediterranean Catholicism with the country club-politeness and blandness of what is seen in a lot of churches nowadays. Then it clicked with me.

Through most of the images I'd seen in my life, I only encountered "country club" versions of Mary -- squeaky-clean, wholesome, Doris Day. Nothing dark or mysterious or dangerous about her. No edge, no drama, no intrigue.

We form relationships with symbols, realms of the subconscious and the spiritual, through images. I have been sorely deprived of interesting images of Mary

Then I set out to explore, looking at very different visual representations of Mary. Indeed, artists and poets throughout the ages have imagined her in strikingly diverse ways. Through these images, we can reconsider our own ideas of womanhood, weaving together different threads of Jungian symbols. 

This is why we have art, yes? So that we can re-order what we know and how we know it through active seeing. (And I'd be remiss not to mention, if you're interested in active seeing, check out the book I recently reviewed for the National Book Review.)

Now, let's get to it.

1. Mary in White

Mary in White

This is very near the only image of Mary I grew up with. I had a small statuette of her in my room growing up, and saw aesthetically similar statues in the churches I grew up in in Korea and suburban California. 

Mary has pale skin, blandly pretty features, clad in flowy, fluid lines of white and sky blue. For our purposes, let's call her the White Mary.

I'll come out and say it, because I think this is what Paglia was alluding to: she's the Episcopalian country club Mary and does absolutely nothing for me. Very serviceable, polite, nice. She is kind and inviting without edges. Beautiful without any hint of threatening sexuality. She is stripped of any hint of Mediterranean pageantry; she's been "protestant-ized". 

Oh, of course, there's the serpent she is crushing under her foot. The serpent that lured Eve, the precursor to Original Sin. The snake under the foot always grossed me out when I was a child, but only slightly, because it's so easy to miss! You can barely see it. In these statuettes, the snakes are thin, anemic, rarely truly menacing. They're the most toothless representations of the Evil that she is symbolically crushing. 

She can overcome only an already weak and limp enemy. This is barely the tough, scrappy young woman who got off a donkey in a faraway land and gave birth in a dirty manger. This is not the mater dolorosa who stood by her bleeding, slowly dying son. 

If this country club Mary saw anything like that, she might politely turn away, ask for her smelling salts, and mutter something like, "oh, goodness, how unseemly!" 



2. Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey 

Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey

Now we're talking. Behold Schwartzmuttergottes (Black Mother of God).

She is the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, said to be 500-600 years old, and she lives in Switzerland. 

This is not the same Mary as above. Carved of wood and painted a gleaming black, she is resplendently clad in stiff, imposing regal attire. There is none of the gentle, pastel-colored fluidity of Country Club Mary's dress. She wields a majestic scepter, and golden rods of light and unfurling waves of cloud shoot out and explode from behind her. The curves and lines here look Greco-Roman to me, and carry the exuberant energy of that ancient, pagan era.

Her facial features are slightly harder to discern, but we can see enough to say that she isn't exactly in a "my dear, why don't you come over for a nice cup of tea and crumpets?" kind of a mood. She is queenly, slightly forboding, the smooth darkness of her face hard and pearl-like. Her blackness harkens to a kind of pre-cosmic source-energy.

Gazing upon the Black Madonna, we think of the other Indo-European mirror, the Hindu goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, whose name is synonymous with the color black. 


3. Viridissima Virga (A Green Mary)

Viridissima Virga

We have here not a picture, but a poem, which was written for a chant.

O Viridissima Virga (O Greenest Rod)

O branch of freshest green,
O hail! Within the windy gusts of saints
upon a quest you swayed and sprouted forth.

When it was time, you blossomed in your boughs—
“Hail, hail!” you heard, for in you seeped the sunlight’s warmth
like balsam’s sweet perfume.

For in you bloomed
so beautiful a flow’r, whose fragrance wakened
all the spices from their dried-out stupor.

They all appeared in full viridity.

Then rained the heavens dew upon the grass
and all the earth was cheered,
for from her womb she brought forth fruit
and for the birds up in the sky
have nests in her.

Then was prepared that food for humankind,
the greatest joy of feasts!
O Virgin sweet, in you can ne’er fail any joy.

All this Eve chose to scorn.

But now, let praise ring forth unto the Highest!

(Latin original)

Viridissima Virga

Look here, where it gets really interesting. In this song, composed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), witchy polymath and Doctor of the Church, Mary is not white, not black, but freaking green. Okay?

Hildegard was an accomplished botanist and natural historian. She didn't quite get the ascetic early Christian memo about turning one's eye away from the physical world in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom. No, she has her sights fixed on the sensorily-rich fertility principle, imagining Mary as a kind of Aphrodite. 

I love this fulsome, pagan bounty of nature in this poem. Mary "seeped the sunlight's warmth / like balsam's sweet perfume." A flower bloomed in her, waking the "spices" that appear in "full viridity". Worship of Mary is a celebration, a softening into the cycle of nature, a vibrant catalogue of color and movement.

By the way (this is the kind of stuff that makes me explode with nerdy delight), I love the punny potential of the title, 'viridissima virga'.

'Virga' means 'stem', or 'rod' (teeheehee, 'rod' -- I am so twelve years old forever), but of course it is a single letter away from 'virgo', meaning 'virgin'. (Ohhhhhh!) 'Viridissima' is a fancy Latin word for 'very green', but change one letter again and we have 'virilissima', which means, well, 'very virile'.

So much that is suggestive and sexy in this poem: branch that "swayed and sprouted forth"; heavens raining "dew upon the grass," and "from her womb she brought forth fruit." 

Nope, there is none of the solemn meekness of a scriptural Mary. Instead, the Mother of God is the luxuriant queen of generativity, the creative center of a blooming, exultant earthly garden. (Aha, garden! Like the one once inhabited by Eve. So we circle back to Genesis.) 



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