Aug. 31, 2011


by Linda Pastan

it rained in my sleep
and in the morning the fields were wet

I dreamed of artillery
of the thunder of horses

in the morning the fields were strewn
with twigs and leaves

as if after a battle
or a sudden journey

I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain

in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn

"September" by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the 64th birthday of manga artist Yumiko Oshima (books by this author), who was born in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, in 1947. She is a member of the Year 24 Flower Group, one of two Year 24 groups of women who are considered to have revolutionized shojo manga — comics for girls — and introduced many elements of the coming of age story in their work. Oshima and the other women of her group have brought to their art issues of philosophy, and sexuality and gender, and marked the first major entry of women artists into manga.

Oshima made her debut in 1968 with the surreal-feeling Paula's Tears and has continually produced manga on a nearly yearly basis up to her most recent project, which has been ongoing since 1996. In 1973 she wrote To Joker, an allegorical love triangle that includes a boy accidentally transformed into a girl, Strawberry Story in 1975, and Banana Bread no Pudding from 1977 to 1978.

From 1978 until 1987, Oshima serialized The Star of Cottonland in the shojo manga magazine LaLa. The story has since been collected in seven volumes. The Star of Cottonland tells of an abandoned kitten, Chibi-neko, who thinks she is human and speaks human words, although people can only hear her meow. She is drawn as a young girl with cat ears and a tail and believes that all humans were once kittens like her. Chibi-neko is found and cared for by a young man, and when she realizes that he loves a human girl, Chibi-neko wishes she could grow up and become the human she expects she will be. She runs away from home to seek a paradise called Cottonland, where it is said that dreams can come true.

In 1978, Oshima won the Kodansha Manga Award for The Star of Cottonland. In 1984, it was adapted to a full-length animated film that has been praised for its complex characterizations and gorgeous animation, as well as well as for going beyond a simple animal fable to become a philosophical story that explores psychological and emotional states, and functions as a metaphor for adolescence.

On a less contemplative note, the popularity of The Star of Cottonland helped make fashionable the Nekomimi, or catgirl, character, a young girl like Chibi-neko who has cat ears and sometimes a tail. The catgirl does not originate within shojo manga, but is rooted in the ancient Japanese folklore of ghosts and goblins, where cats are associated with the supernatural and demon cats can take on humanoid forms. In the '80s, girls in manga began turning into cats and their real-life counter parts began wearing headbands with kitty ears to identify with and be like the Nekomimi. In May 2011, a Japanese company called Neurowear introduced their nekomimi headwear, which looks like any other headband with ears but has the distinction of also containing a brain wave sensor, so that their ears are the first to be controlled by the thoughts of the wearer, expressing concentration and attention by standing erect, and relaxation by falling down.

In 1997, Yumiko Oshima was diagnosed with and treated for ovarian cancer. She recovered and went on to create manga that shared her experiences with illness and recovery.

Today is the birthday of Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, best known as Eldridge Cleaver (books by this author), writer, convict, self-confessed rapist, founding member of the Black Panther Party, and eventual political conservative. Cleaver's most famous book is Soul on Ice, a memoir in the form of a collection of essays that he wrote while incarcerated in Folsom State Prison in 1965.

Cleaver was born in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, in 1935, in the severe and unrepentant racism of the South. In 1946, his family moved to California, to the Watts section of Los Angeles that would later become known for exploding into race riots in the '60s. The teenage Clever soon began running into trouble with the law, engaging in petty theft, selling marijuana; he was sent to reform school once for stealing a bike, and immediately after being sent home got arrested for drug possession. This last conviction got him 30 months in Soledad Prison, which is where Cleaver discovered politics and read, among others, the works of Lenin, Karl Marx, and Thomas Paine.

It wasn't long after his release that Cleaver was once more in trouble. In 1957, he was arrested for rape, convicted for assault with intent to murder, and he ended up back in jail, this time at the much tougher San Quentin and Folsom prisons. While incarcerated, Cleaver began reading books on black civil rights and the writings of Malcolm X, and in turn produced his own series of essays that outlined his views on racial issues and the revolutionary possibilities of violence. These essays formed the body of his best-known book, Soul on Ice, which he would publish in 1968, after being released from prison.

In 1966, now a free man, Cleaver helped found the Black Panthers — a militant, leftist, anti-establishment, black national group based in Oakland, California. The Black Panthers were like heroes to many of the people in Oakland, providing free breakfasts and shelter for the needy. But Cleaver was not done with criminal trouble yet, and two years later — the same year that he ran unsuccessfully for president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket — he was wounded in a shootout between the Panthers and the police and charged once again with attempted murder. But this time, Cleaver didn't stick around for his trial — he jumped bail and fled the U.S. to live as an exile in Algeria, Cuba, and France.

Cleaver's return to the United States in 1975 was the beginning of his political transformation. He renounced the Black Panthers, gave himself up to the authorities believing that he would get a fair trial, fought a legal battle that ended with the charges against him being dropped, became an anti-communist and a born-again Christian, and ran for the GOP Senate seat for the state of California. Cleaver's second book, Soul on Fire, grew out of his exile and return, the stories of other former criminals turned revolutionaries, and the experience of becoming born again.

But by the early 1980s, Cleaver was disillusioned with evangelical Christianity and began exploring his options. He looked into the teachings of Sun Myung Moon but settled on Mormonism, and was baptized into the church in 1983. And still there were problems to come.

By the mid-80s, Cleaver was addicted to crack cocaine, was arrested several times for burglary and possession of coke, and near the end of a decade of substance abuse was almost killed by a blow to the head, delivered at the hands of a fellow addict. Cleaver's family intervened to help him with his drug abuse, and to reconnect him with his faith. Once clean, Cleaver began working as a diversity counselor at the University of La Verne near Los Angeles and said at an Earth Day conference in 1998 that he'd "gone beyond civil rights and human rights to creation rights." Later, he touched on this a bit more in a PBS interview, saying that, "our Creator never wasted his or her time creating a second-class person. He made us all first class and he provided this earth as our home for all of us, not for the black man, the white man, the red man, the yellow man, the brown man, but for the whole human family."

Today is the anniversary of the death of American novelist and poet Elsa Barker (books by this author), which is a more appropriate anniversary to mark for this particular author than you may yet realize. Elsa Barker was born in 1869 in Leicester, Vermont, and died in 1954. She worked as a shorthand writer, wrote for newspapers, and produced novels and mysteries and a volume of stories from the New Testament for children, but it is for the trilogy Letters from a Living Dead Man, War Letters from the Living Dead Man, and Last Letters from the Living Dead Man that she is best known.

Elsa's parents died when she was young, and all the mention that is made of them in her short biographies is that her father had an interest in the occult and shared this interest with his daughter. She would eventually join the Theosophical Society, a group that encouraged the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science, and that sought to explain the mysteries and undiscovered laws of nature and the latent powers of man. Barker also joined the Rosicrucian Order of Alpha et Omega occult order, a group formerly known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Barker spent most of her adult life in New York City, except for the years between 1910 and 1914, which she spent first in Paris and then in London. One evening in Paris in 1912, Barker felt the sudden compulsion to write a message, although she had no idea what the message would be. As she explains in the introduction to Letters from a Living Dead Man, she took up a pencil and, "Yielding to the impulse, my hand was seized as if from the outside, and a remarkable message of a personal nature came, followed by the signature 'X.'" She soon found out that X was the nickname for a man known to her friends, who was 6,000 miles from Paris and presumably still alive, though a telegraph a few days later informed them of the sad news that Mr. X had in fact died in the western United States a few days before Barker received her mystery message.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to say that Barker was the author of the Letters books given that all three were a dead man's messages, which she produced spontaneously through automatic writing. Her initial attitude was blasé to being outright disinclined to continue the correspondence, and it was only through the persuasion of arguments made by her friends that Barker agreed to continue.

"'X,'" Barker wrote, "was not an ordinary person. He was a well-known lawyer nearly seventy years of age, a profound student of philosophy, a writer of books, a man whose pure ideals and enthusiasms were an inspiration to everyone who knew him." X soon wrote again to say, "I am here, make no mistake. It was I who spoke before, and now I speak again. I have had a wonderful experience ... I found almost no darkness. The light here is wonderful ..." and the messages kept coming and Barker kept writing them.

X implored Barker to take certain precautions to protect herself against those who pressed around him, telling her to lay a spell upon herself morning and night, so that her energy could not be sucked out by "these larvae of the astral world." He would reproach her if he came to call and she would not let him in, and then follow the rebuke with assurances that he was not rebuking her. X informed Barker that there was a large organization of souls on the other side who called themselves a League, and whose mission was to help those adjusting to the new conditions, a group, X said, that "work on a little — I do not want to say higher plane than the Salvation Army, but rather a more intellectual plane."

X found a great deal of unconventionality among the dead. No two dressed the same, in clothing from the most modern styles to the most ancient, though X explained that each wore what he or she liked, and even got to thinking that he might enjoy a Roman toga. There were charming children on the other side, elderly folk who slept a great deal, and sometimes frightful forms and decayed faces falling to pieces that the League workers referred to as hopeless cases.

One day, X's Teacher showed him the archives where those who lived in that other place recorded whatever observations they may have had on their post-life experience, a vast library filled with millions of volumes. The teacher handed X a thick book printed in large black type — it was a book by Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician and alchemist who is sometimes called the Father of Toxicology, written "soon after he came out," which is to say, soon after he died.

When the Letters from a Living Dead Man ends on Letter 54, X informers Barker that he is going to leave for a time, perhaps a very long time, "to soar out upon the wave of ether — far — far — and to forget, in the thrill of exploration, that I shall some day have to make my way painfully back to the world through the narrow straits of birth ... In Jupiter, they say, there is a race of beings wonderful to behold. I shall see them ... Let this be my final message to the world. Tell them to enjoy their struggles, to thrill at the endless possibilities of combination and creation, to live in the moment while preparing for long hence, and not to exaggerate the importance of momentary failures and disappointments."

X would return for two more volumes.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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