“Scare Away the Dark”: Of Apocalyptic Dreams, Beth Kephart, and Giraffe-esque Muses Named She

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The Muses and Masks of Beth Kephart, including a giraffe named “She.”

Last week, I dreamed the end of the world again. It came the way it always comes in my dreams. Rising water no one can escape even if she scales Everest. A liquid infused with horror, black and clotted, and the only thing to do is set up your lawn chair, hold the hands of your loved ones, and wait for it to swallow you. Always, my father, who passed years ago, is waiting for me at the place where I go with my children to die. Always, he tells me death is easy–it took 12 seconds for him–but I might throw up a little. Always, I ask him, “Daddy, is there a hell?” And I wake with the realization that hell is that water, that rising tide of hatred and horror that is consuming the world while we walk around in trances, staring at screens, forgetting to be alive.

As my dreams indicate, I’m scared. Every time another bomb goes off, I’m scared. Every time another school gets shot up, I’m scared. I’m scared at the prospect of a petty, angry man who can’t stop obsessing over someone making fun of his hand size being given the power to press the button on weapons of mass destruction. I’m scared every time a black boy or man gets mown down in cold blood, and white men take to the Internet to vilify the victims, even if the victims are 12-year-old boys. “Well, he did get sent to detention for rough housing that one time, you know.” I’m scared when police officers, just trying to do their jobs and make the world safer, public servants who have nothing to do with those indefensible murders, are mown down in the streets. I’m scared that we are willing to rape the only planet we have so that we can save our leftover fast food in Tupperware for a few days before we throw it away.

I’m so scared that yesterday, I thought something I’d never dared think before. Maybe humankind is a blight on the earth’s sacred face. Maybe we deserve what’s coming for us, the man-made apocalypse we all seem so hell-bent on manifesting in the names of gods who stand at the edges of our solar system weeping for the planet destined to die at the hands of highly-evolved apes, who in their all-encompassing need to be right used their expanded brain size to manufacture weapons capable of destroying their planet, thinking, “Who cares as long as my enemies, those Christians or Muslims or atheists or Jews or Republicans or Democrats or blacks or whites or men or women go out screaming?” God bless America. Allah Akbar. Down with the pigs. God is dead. All lives matter, mother fuckers.

Yesterday, after I thought my dark thought, the one about maybe we deserve to die, I went to the home of Beth Kephart, a brilliant writer I met while teaching at Rosemont College’s MFA Retreat in June. As soon as I heard her read there, I knew I’d stumbled on rare treasure. Her prose was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Intricate. Adventurous. Mesmerizing. Breathtaking. I told her so in so many words, and so began a friendship I hope will last a long, long time.

When I arrived at her home, I felt instantly swallowed by something “other,” something subtle and artistic and loving and beautiful, the exact opposite of hell. She fed me gorgeous cheeses and fruits and lemonade and showed me around her home and heart. As she spoke of writing and truth and integrity and beauty, I felt something. Hope. It went like this: sure, there are dictators and liars and cheats in the world. But there are Beth Kepharts too. Writing away, smiling softly, gently and unobtrusively weaving their squares of heaven and sewing them into the quilt of humanity. And as long as there are Beths, there is hope.

Beth isn’t much interested in fame and fortune, as incredibly gifted, prolific, and lauded as she is. She’s interested in art. She’s interested in authenticity. She’s interested in humanity. She showed me her shelves and shelves of books. Books she had written. Books she had read. Books she uses to teach. As she spoke, I looked at the carefully chosen pieces of art hanging on her walls, masks and glass figurines and an elegant wooden giraffe named “She” that Beth called her muse. Every object looked as if it was born to sit in exactly the place that Beth had placed it, as if when she found it, it had been waiting expectantly for her care and attention, as if that giraffe knew on some level that as soon as Beth saw it, it would become more than a hunk of wood. It would become a muse. That giraffe knew Beth would love it to life. Such is the redemptive power of an artist who loves.

In the presence of Beth’s dedication and artistry, I felt like a mere dabbler, but it didn’t make me feel small. It reminded me why I do what I do. I write because I want to save the world. I teach because I want to save the world. Something in my soul has become obsessed with the prospect of saving this place before it’s too late. The best hope I have seen for our planet is in the hearts of loving artists, whose hands have the power to cradle minds and change them, say, “Hey, this is what it’s like to be me, not so different from you, can we put down the stones we picked up to slay one another in the Stone Age, can we topple the thrones, can we take a minute to see past the you vs. me, because in the big scheme of things, you are me, trapped as we are together on this speck spinning in space, 196,940,400 square miles of real estate, that’s all we’ve got, and we have to find some way to share it peacefully.”

Or else. Or else hell. Or else the hatred swallows us, and we all drown.

One of my amazing creative writing students showed me this video last week when I was teaching a pre-college workshop at Lehigh University. Most of the time, the videos I share on this blog are supplementary, you know, just in case you’re into music. But this one isn’t. It’s life changing. Please watch it. As Beth reminded me, as my student reminded me, as this video reminded me, there is hope. And it lives in us.

“If we all light up, we can scare away the dark.”

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