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Three Women

As the poet Maggie Smith reminds us, “the world / is at least half terrible.” And to have a blog devoted to happiness and beauty, my happy, lovely train, it’s important to dwell on the terrible–and yes, the beauty in that, as well.

I’ve been dwelling on this image of three women, punished for witchcraft in provincial China in 1922. They are locked in a cangue, a door-sized yoke. They are poor, dressed in patched skirts, and they wear scarves to cover their hair. They may be shackled–it’s hard to say–as they hold their hands folded, pressed against their bodies. One woman’s feet are bound. They probably have been beaten. But one woman is looking up, something of a defiant side-eye, as she appears to be studying someone beyond the camera. It’s hard not to imagine a crowd of villagers behind the camera, and so I assume their position. I am with the crowd. Always. To pretend otherwise, well, that’s a pretty comfort, isn’t it?

And from this image, I’m drafting a play. It’s of this moment captured in the photograph, but the play isn’t an attempt to retrieve these women, explore this terrible practice, impose some narrative on something that is beyond me: this culture, these women, this past, this history, all irretrievable. And of course, it remains close. The defiantly staring woman is probably the age of my maternal grandmother. Of course, it remains close.  This mob fear, mob power, mob righteousness: aren’t we pulsing with it?

I think of Vladimir’s aching line in Waiting for Godot, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?” Writing a play, writing a poem, writing a line, that seems to be something of an answer, a scribbling about what I shall say of today.

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