December 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I just finished painting a portrait that feels like the source of my previously untapped visual language. For a long time, I have been searching, seeking the story I want to tell through paint. As an art model, I hear voices of teachers speaking their own language, exerting their own ideas, often asking their students to copy their vision to learn to paint well. The result is a less technically advanced reproduction of the master.
One time in class, a student went to retrieve her painting from the drying rack, but she couldn’t remember which one was hers. Sometimes, it is impossible to tell. I see drawings of a figure, all from different angles, but they all look as though they were drawn by the same person. They are all beautiful drawings, but they are missing an individual voice.
Drawing or painting from life is useless if the artist fails to bring their own particular way of seeing or feeling to their art. Students take classes to learn technique. Hopefully after the fact, they will learn to express themselves and leave rigidity behind. But it’s not for certain. Art stands out from the mass production of images only for that very ingredient of self-expression. It’s the expansive silence amidst the endless noise. A meditation.
In Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able To Paint she describes the process: “It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact, with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an overwhelming or a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love (Milner, 31).”
Through observing artists and students at work, I eventually came back to exactly where I started – an expressionist style that shares the inner humanity of a person, rather than our idealized perceptions of them in the broader context. It’s an empathetic exploration that can’t be achieved by painting from a photograph, no matter how hard I try when I’m not in a studio.
“One of the things that had been so dissatisfying about those deliberate drawings which were sheer copying of the object was that they had no life in them (Milner, 41).”
As far back as I can remember I have been drawing the human form. In grade school, I was obsessed with becoming a fashion designer. It was a glamorous fantasy life that I had all worked out in my head. In sixth grade, I created a book of at least twenty fashion illustrations. I still think of some of those designs today, and wish that I could wear them. But my friend bought the drawings for ten dollars, and knowing her, she probably told people that she drew them herself.
From grade school through high school I was drawing so much that I barely passed my classes. Usually I had an F all semester, right up until the last few weeks when teachers began to feel sorry for me, or didn’t want me in their class all over again. I could never hear what the homework was, or that we even had any because I was too absorbed in the drawings on the margins of my notebooks.
I made it into a small Christian college on a probationary basis. It was the first year they were offering Art as a major, and it was a disorganized and scattered program. I took Modern Art in my first year, but the professor spent the whole semester on Impressionism, and barely made it into the 20th Century. With only two weeks left, he panicked, and asked us all to pick an art movement, write a paper on it, and present it to the class. I chose Art Nouveau, which was based on the curves of an organic environment.
The art teacher was mainly a potter – vases and bowls were his passion. The other teacher was well known for his complex watercolor landscapes. I had the sense that there was very little they could teach me. I’d just come out of Advanced Placement Art in high school, and had spent the entire year previous creating a portfolio of work. I wanted to be taught things that I didn’t already know, rather than carry on an independent study at a very expensive school. So I chose fashion and writing/literature instead.
I continued to paint on my own time in my dorm room. People kept asking me to do paintings for them, usually from grainy, indistinct photos – either of them as children, or their grandchildren. Kids were the antithesis of everything I was driven to paint. There was no life experience in their faces, only an empty canvas of a life waiting to happen. When I finished the commissions, I failed at receiving an appropriate amount of pay, even to cover the cost of supplies. It was something that should have been agreed up-front, but I had an aversion to discussing anything having to do with money. In my frustration, something snapped, and I stopped doing art altogether. I felt like a sell-out – somehow, money had ruined the craft I loved.
Every now and then, I found an interesting face in a magazine and I drew it in my sketchbook, or I’d sketch faces at coffee shops. Then the day I first fell in love, I started a sketch and never finished it. Poetry began to take up all the blank pages, and writing became my new form of expression. I was pulling back the layers on my honesty, daring myself to go further and further. My stories began in paint, then they became poetry, then fiction, and then memoir.
A funny thing happened after I published my memoir. I felt horribly exposed. More naked than when I stand on the podium posing for artists. Even though I am almost finished with a second memoir, I’m not sure that I will publish it. I would like distance from the genre, except in this book blog, where I write more about my present state of mind, rather than the feelings of a past self that I no longer identify with.
The sheer amount of work that went into creating a quality book burned me out after months of twelve-hour days on editing and formatting, and designing the cover. So all summer, after the book came out, I needed some distance. During that time, there was a rumble. Posing on the stage, I began to feel intense and painful currents of envy towards all the artists who were drawing me. It felt necessary that I come back to my place on the other side of the easel – but this time, as a fully formed adult with a clear sense of vision.
It had started out subtle. In the spring I drew at a studio nearby a few times. I wasn’t sure if I would stick with it, and I didn’t have much spare time. But then I began looking at art more and more with a rather dissective tendency. I teetered-tottered between classical painting and a modern expressive style. I toyed with the abstract qualities of an artist I worked for all year. I asked myself, in the struggle to find and express a language, “What do I like to look at? What gives me a rush?”
A few of my favorite artists are Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, and Egon Schiele. These artists capture something else about our reality than what is visual to the basic eye. There is messiness, pain, scars, movement, a beating heart pulsing on the canvas. Looking at their work, you commune with the sitter by moving through their humanity. You sense their struggles. But you also feel their strength.
An excellent example of art verses mass media is Lucian Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. Towards the end of his life, she sat for him, and what resulted is a Kate we’ve never seen before. We are used to cool Kate. Perfect in her rocker-girl chic, her perpetual bed-head, the pout and the cat eyes. She is surrounded by mystery. But Freud strips that all away and shows us a person. Not a model or a celebrity or someone who’s been airbrushed too many times to count. He’s not showing us a life we desire to have. He shows us a naked, vulnerable, human being who is mortal like all the rest of us.
There are many classical painters at the school where I work, but I soon realized that their paintings left me cold. At first, their work seems incredible. Their technique is awe-inspiring. But more and more, I saw the tricks. It’s just as airbrushed as what we see in the magazines. They fuzz out the detail to give the painting a romantic feel. They exert over us an idealized view of life. It reminds me of church.
Working from a photo is a similar pitfall – a copy of a 2-dimensional flatness of light. There is very little you can bring to the table as far as expression goes. For years, I painted and drew from photos, and never really questioned it. I wasn’t aware that I had a choice. I had no idea there were so many options out there for drawing from a model. Subconsciously, I think going into modeling was an attempt to find my way back to art.
So I’ve listened to hundreds of art lectures, stared at hundreds of paintings, and have finally pinpointed exactly what I like to look at. Now came the challenge of putting that into practice.
I began to go to a studio every Friday afternoon, working from a several weeks long pose. In the last three, I developed a 9X12 portrait of the model Ifat. The first thing to be struck by is her beauty. It takes time to get past that, and analyze what it is you are actually seeing. The process becomes a breakdown of bone structure and muscle; light and shadow; and how her face moves, even in stillness. How does the color play across her skin as it peaks and valleys?
The more I began to see, the more I could see everything in everyone. Every face I look at, I am painting in my head. I am seeing the light and how it changes the face at different times of day.
This portrait feels like a major achievement for me. It went beyond the stereotypes of beauty that so often make paintings look cheesy. I stopped worrying about what could be perceived (Did I age her? Did I make her look too world-weary?) and broke it down merely into what I actually saw. Not what I think I see, but what is actually there in the present.
One difficulty that occurred was that what I saw changed week by week as Ifat’s face changed or the light was slightly different. Working from life is never static. That movement becomes alive in the artwork – at least when there is success.
Artists often feel that if they get to know the model too well, it will be harder to see them. Though drawing a person for extended periods of time, you get to know them in a way that their closest friends never will. It’s a way of knowing that has nothing to do with words.
I like to express that knowing through the face. I spent much of last year being painted as a faceless figure. The body I saw was a body I don’t fully identify with – the faceless woman body. There is something objective about it, without the face to give the body a story. The paintings have more to do with composition and sense of space than with the actual person posing as the figure. It’s a different philosophy than what I personally identify with in my need to create.
As a writer, I feel that great art is not complete without a narrative. It might explain why I would rather visit artist’s studios, and hear their process, rather than go to sterile galleries with nothing of the person there to explain their work. I like to see what books the artist is reading, and what they have tacked up on the walls. I like to see how they arrange their palette, what colors they choose, what brand of paint, what mediums. If it’s an abstract piece, I want to hear the story of how they layered grey over red over black to give the piece a depth that the average observer would never notice without the explanation.
Painting the figure is a narrative of my own life – how I’ve seen the world through every phase, every decade. I started out looking for people who could teach me something through their faces. I am returning to the beginning.
From the start, I was more essentially myself than what I give that undeveloped age credit for. The artists I love now are the same ones I loved then. There are sketches from those early years that I’d be hard-pressed to achieve now. All through those twelve years of not painting, I knew that I would come back to it someday. My style now is different, and yet the same. Though, I’ve learned so much in the past few years.
I don’t know if I will ever have a gallery show, or where my love of painting will lead. Paintings of Ifat are taking over the living room. She appears over and over wherever I draw or paint, as the beacon for my new eyes. Eyes I always had, that could never quite see in this way before. Art has always brought me something more than I thought I was capable of. It’s so important, leading us to a greater capacity of self, empathy, understanding – a heightening of the senses taking us beyond where we thought we could go.
November 16, 2013 § 6 Comments
When I married, I lost some of the respect I had gained as an independent, single woman. It was a change that I hadn’t seen coming. Strangers, without fail, defer to my husband. Servers only talk to me as an afterthought. We just had an experience at a steak restaurant, where only the men were given complimentary Port after dinner. It’s not only with strangers – I’m often asked by friends and family, “Is your husband okay with that?” As though I have a master waiting for me at home, rather than Michael, who loves me most for my strength and individuality. In fact, that is what I love most about him as well.
Michael can tend to be larger than life, and I often have to remind myself to step up and not fall into his shadow. As I’ve acclimated to our life together, I’ve learned I have to work much harder to earn the respect of everyone we meet. Instantly, it seems, people look up to Michael; whereas, it could take me years of being around the same people to receive affirmation.
Just in my lifetime, enormous strides have been made towards gender equality. But there is still so much of our culture that is steeped in Puritan roots. It is in our words, in our archetypes, and in the way that we view each other.
Within the patriarchal language of the church, woman is “the other.” “Society as we know it has a perverse need to create ‘the Other’ as object of condemnation so that those who condemn can judge themselves to be good (Daly, 60).”
It was doubtful at one point in history, whether or not women could actually be “saved.” Ideologically, she exists only as the property and projection of her husband. All other incarnations of women become a risk to the establishment – such as Joan of Arc who was burned alive by the church for the sentence of being a witch in 1431. Once hundreds of years had passed, she was then declared a saint in 1920.
Joan of Arc was a woman who could not be possessed in life, though the church has tried to claim her in death. In the symbolic paintings of Franz von Stuck, we see many versions of two men wrestling or fighting to “possess” a woman. Concurrent to Stuck’s era, this was a concept that Darwin explained, though obviously, he wasn’t the first to think so. It’s an ancient concept, having less to do with biology and more to do with a patriarchal power structure. Men projected their identities onto women, and displayed them as the prize of their success. Hence, we feel a little bit ill when a man trades in his wife for a younger version. Or, for example, when the leader of a cult has more wives than anyone else in his group – the ultimate sign of power.
I had the unfortunate experience of once dating a man who actually told me that he wanted to “possess” me, and said, “You are mine.” His general confusion led to death threats and court orders and drug abuse. For months, I was watched by people he hired, scared that he would turn up at my door. I understood, then, that a person’s desire to possess can turn into the mutilation of the thing they can’t have. In other words, I was an object to be claimed, rather than a human being.
Throughout the midcentury, it was commonplace for husbands to shut away their wives in mental institutions for displaying too much dissent over prescribed roles. In the tremendous shift towards liberation, women were no longer accepting their lives as a mere projection of their husband’s. Over 50,000 lobotomies were performed in that time, the majority on women.
“On February 24, 1972, Dr. Breggin’s article, ‘The Return of Lobotomy and Psychosurgery,’ was read into the Congressional Record. Discussing the remarkably large proportion of women who are being lobotomized, Dr. Breggin explains that it is more socially acceptable to lobotomize women because creativity, which the operation totally destroys, is in this society ‘an expendable quality in women (Daly, 65).’”
In Mary Daly’s Beyond God The Father, she challenges, “That language for millennia has affirmed the fact that Eve was born from Adam, the first among history’s unmarried pregnant males who courageously chose childbirth under sedation rather than abortion, consequently obtaining a child-bride (Daly, 195).”
From this myth, we gather that the male is the dominant sex. But in biological truth, all mammals begin as female. Even for those who inherit a male sex chromosome (XY), throughout the embryo stage we all remain and develop as female (XX). At the eighth week, the male embryo begins to produce testosterone, veering off course from the female starting point. If an embryo doesn’t respond correctly to male sex hormones, it will revert to being female.
The idea of a dominant sex is false. You can’t have one without the other. We are all individuals, with unique traits that in the past have been repressed by prescribed gender roles. Of course, there are many places in the world where these roles are still in place. Those regions are all governed by extremist religion. I have noticed that no matter what, religion is always extreme. It consumes the lives of people into false ideologies, and an “us verses them” mentality, which leads to violence and genocide.
“The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service of this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated (Daly, 13).”
As a result, women have lived in submission, with no recorded history. I wonder over all the untold stories; the women inventors (where men took credit); artists, writers, composers we have never been given the experience of enjoying. For example, Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the famous composer Felix was an enormously talented composer in her own right. Yet in 1820, her father wrote to her saying, “Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”
Our society has experienced a tremendous loss for the fault of not allowing women to be human beings in the past, and we are barely aware of it. We have forgotten, because we were not allowed to know in the first place.
In their representation as “the other,” women have been dealt implausible archetypes such as the virgin mother or the ruinous Eve. A mother is shamed for remaining a sexual being. A young twenty-something is glared at for being too beautiful. It’s her own fault if she is physically attacked. If you are a woman, you will experience some form of these instant judgments on your life.
Joan Rivers is a perfect pop culture example of this. Watch Fashion Police just once, and you will see her non-stop tirade against women. She represents the worst aspects of patriarchy embodied in a female. Most of her jokes revolve around slut-shaming and the idea that if a woman wears a skirt that’s too short, she is dirty and diseased. Rivers never directs a single unkind word towards men, and if she does, it is directed at their fashion rather than their perceived lifestyle.
“Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace (An Essay On Liberation, Marcuse, 8).”
The “obscene woman” is often used to create a distraction. The battle against abortion raged while 4 million civilians were being killed in Vietnam.
When Hilary Rodham Clinton ran for candidacy in the 2008 presidential campaign, she was referred to as “The Bitch,” and “Her Thighness.” She was berated for showing cleavage while talking to the Senate. Rush Limbaugh asked the question, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
I remember the exact sense that we were being distracted from her achievements by attacks against her female body. These attacks seem to be the reason why she turned down a Vogue cover shoot for the risk of appearing too feminine. How can you blame her, when her body seemed like the biggest obstacle to winning the race?
“The power of presence that is experienced by those who have begun to live in the new space radiates outward, attracting others. For those who are fixated upon patriarchal space it apparently is threatening… Such women are no longer empty receptacles to be used as ‘the Other,’ and are no longer internalizing the projections that cut off the flow of being. Men who need such projection screens experience the power of absence of such ‘objects’ and are thrown into the situation of perceiving nothingness (Daly, 41-42).”
Mary Daly wrote these words in the early 1970′s. She considered the sexual revolution of the sixties to be a failure. The illusion of liberation hid the fact that though they attempted to go beyond life as a possession, they remained as objects to be claimed along the way. Like Hilary Clinton’s stance on the Vogue cover shoot, women of the eighties fought against objectification with the power suit. One of the first fashion memories I have of my mother is her shoulder-pads that could Velcro in and out of sweaters, dresses, and suits. They gave her the instant look of a Quarterback.
In the nineties, every week there was a new battle being fought. Sexual harassment lawsuits were a new concept. Rape culture was exposed. Coming forward became more acceptable, and there was a slight chance that you wouldn’t be told you were lying, or that you caused the rape. Very slight.
In my Christian high school, we all ridiculed a girl for fighting against an issue of sexual harassment. We felt embarrassed for her. I too was harassed, but I kept silent because I was afraid. I felt powerless. I sat pressed into the wall of the bus, while a football player’s son leaned all of his weight into me so I couldn’t move. He ran his hand up my thigh and whispered things that made me cringe. Everyday, he waited for a chance to torment me, and he wasn’t the only one.
A year ago, I listened to women at an art talk say that they are genderless. They are sick of Feminism. I am too. We all are. It’s tiresome to fight. We’re so close to being equal, that we can almost ignore that we aren’t.
The truth is we don’t have the right to be sick of it. We wouldn’t have our lives as individuals without it, for one. We wouldn’t even get to have the elitist idea of being genderless if it hadn’t been for the women who fought for a century and more, before us. Older women are very confused and upset by the statement of being genderless. At the same talk, they reminded us, that they had to pretend to be a man to find any success in the art world. They used their initials instead of their first names just to get a gallery show.
To say genderless, though, has some positive aspects. It says “no” against sex role stereotyping.
I do not want women to rule the world, and I do not want men to rule the world. We deserve total and complete balance. There is a sense, that if Hilary Clinton runs for President in 2016, she will not face the same abuse and slander that she dealt with the first time around. More and more, we see women running companies, becoming scientists, lawyers, and politicians, following their dreams and finding success.
The next generation is an entirely different breed than my own. Young women that I meet really impress me. They make more money in one year than I’ve made in a lifetime, and are buying houses at the age of 23. They’re not wasting time. They have goals, and I have no doubt that they will meet them. I will never exactly be that sort of person. The society I grew up in treated me as “the other.” But it’s enough to see the magnificent change.
November 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
In Zen: The Path Of Paradox by Osho, I enjoyed reading more about what Zen isn’t, rather than about what Zen actually is. I don’t consciously practice Zen, but unconsciously I tend to be more Zen than anything else.
When I first left the Fundamentalist Christian Church, I felt like I needed to fill some spiritual void. It was similar to a break-up of a serious relationship. So much of your identity is wrapped up with that other person, that you don’t know how to just find yourself apart from them. So the first reaction is to rebound, to find another person to identify with, so you don’t have to wade through your own painful insides to reach the balanced sandy shore.
I played a game of hide and seek. The hiding was my breathing room. The seeking resulted into forays of a plethora of other faiths. Starting out tame, I tried the more liberal and open-minded Episcopalian Church. I liked that the minister was a woman and that she read poems by Anne Sexton to the congregation. But my issues with the Bible and the Church went much deeper than surface details of modern acceptance.
After that, my exploration went all over the map – Hinduism, Tantra, Buddhism, Kundalini, Reiki, Runes, Tarot, With-craft, Shamanism. There are basic truths to be found in all belief systems. But in the end it’s all mostly claptrap. Not a single ideology can offer our lives total and complete spiritual nutrition, and I’ve come to even mistrust the word.
I find a sense of completeness through very simple things. Through community, art, dance, writing, reading, city walks, thought, brisk air, a hot cup of coffee in my hand. The effects of these experiences, meant to be captured in moments on a daily basis, have created the building blocks of my life. They are the things that make me happy and keep me aware and awake.
It seems that most spiritual teachers are egocentric charismatic spin-doctors. A great documentary on this subject is Kumare. Vikram Ghandi is a regular guy from New Jersey, who goes to Arizona, pretends to be a guru, and ends up finding his better self through the experiment. He comes up with all sorts of mumbo jumbo yoga moves and chants, exploiting his followers attraction to his exotic persona. He is both embarrassed and in awe of his own success throughout the film. And he makes a better guru than any I have seen for the simple reason that he has no ego.
“Ideologies are all blindfolds, they obstruct your vision. A Christian cannot see; neither can a Hindu, nor a Mohammedan. Because you are so full of your ideas you go on seeing what is not there, you go on projecting, you go on interpreting, you go on creating a private reality of your own, which is not there. This creates a sort of insanity. Out of a hundred of your so-called saints, ninety-nine are insane people (Osho, 22).”
The definition of Ideology:
1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.
2. such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political or social plan, as that of fascism, along with the devices for putting it into operation.
a. the study of the nature and origin of ideas
b. a system that derives ideas exclusively from sensation
4. theorizing of a visionary or impractical nature
In other words, ideology is not based on research, experiment, or facts. And what is the origin of our ideas? The origin is built on the basis that in ancient times, we didn’t know much. We used our lack of knowledge to create myths that explained the universe to calm our ever-searching minds. But the myths have kept us in a child-like state ever since. Patronized by leaders, kept from becoming responsible for ourselves.
“Zen says that when there is no God there is tremendous freedom, there is no authority in existence. Hence there arises great responsibility. Look – if you are dominated by somebody you cannot feel responsible. Authority necessarily creates irresponsibility; authority creates resistance; authority creates reaction, rebellion in you… (Osho, 14).”
So what is Zen? Zen is infinite possibilities. It leaves the ego and the aggressive posturing of the mind, for the life source of the belly.
“It believes that if we participate with reality, reality reveals its secrets to us. It creates a participatory consciousness (Osho, 24).”
To truly be in participation with reality, you can’t really care what others think of you.
“… respectability is not life. Respectability is very poisonous. A really alive man does not bother about respectability. He lives; he lives authentically. What others think is not a consideration at all (Osho, 81).”
Though I identify with many of these concepts, Zen is still a religion. It still has its patronizing aspects. And it prefers to stomp on my more American Capitalistic tendencies. Yes, I actually have those. Zen tells us to let go of competition. This is an anti-human nature statement. I view competition as healthy, exciting, and enjoyable. It kick-starts us into being better, more productive people. Without that competitive sense of community, we become flubby and out of tune.
Here is an example of total judgment that rubs me wrong:
“The more a person is educated, the less alive he is. The more he knows, the less he lives. The more he becomes articulate about abstractions and concepts, the less and less he flows. A man confined in the head loses all juice, loses all joy (Osho, 117).”
A reminder to keep participating in life, and not get too stuck in books, yes. But is ignorance bliss? I don’t think so. In fact, I see more life in people who are educated, whose lives revolve around the mind, than I do in those who are blindly walking through life.
Osho says that there is danger in words, in classification. That we cannot simply enjoy the rose because word associations get in the way. Who gives a shit? Maybe I like to remember all the stories revolving around the rose as I smell it and take in its magnificent vermillion color, which makes me think of painting, and how colors interact, or how the smell is reminiscent of an elusive past that I never lived through and will never capture, and on and on into a domino effect of thought that gives me ultimate joy.
This is what I mean about the more patronizing effects of Zen. I don’t subscribe to it, and I’m not going to berate myself over something I truly enjoy, such as word associations, education, thought, and even the gratification of my own ego.
In God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, he not only attacks all religions of the patriarchy, but also goes into the violence of Buddhists, and considers Osho to be an absolute charlatan. At the time, I thought to myself, ‘Not my Osho!’ But yes, Osho. Osho’s words have helped guide me when I didn’t have any guide at all. He taught me that Sex Matters, and showed me The Responsibility Of Being Oneself, and helped me more fully tap into my Creativity. But I see now, that I am outgrowing his teachings, and taking him with a grain of salt. I even see where he’s getting some of his ideas (as in Freud, for example, who spoke a great deal about the issues with an authoritarian God, and how followers remain in an immature state).
I have loved Osho’s work so much that I even suggested to my friend who introduced me to his books, that she name her dog after him, and she did. He was a fully Zen puppy back then, always living in the moment. Now he’s a little salt n’ pepper old man dog, still shaped like an O.
Zen has been on my to-read shelf for about ten years, as long as I have known Osho the dog. My to-read shelves are like my own personal library. There are so many books that sometimes I outgrow them before they are actually read.
In Zen, Osho had a few things left to say to me about the nature of God, or non-God. But I see that our relationship as reader to writer has come to an end. This both makes me sad, and reminds me that I am growing. Osho is saying, let go of attachment; be free; be infinite in your possibilities.
October 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
My mother’s grandparents came through Ellis Island, on their way from what was then Czechoslovakia, headed towards a small farm town in Indiana. I don’t know why they left their home in Bohemia, or what led them to the Midwest. I don’t know what they did before they arrived there. But as culture and language stick together, my grandpa and grandma made a Czech partnership, and used their common language to keep secrets from their five kids.
They are now both deceased for many years. I always thought they were sort of strange. Even though my grandma was nice to me and fed me too many sweets and took my sister and I to the park, I had nightmares that she was abusive (which she actually was to her own children, but I didn’t know that yet).
My grandpa never talked much. He just smoked his pipe and played cards and carved nifty wooden sculptures. When he did talk, his voice was muffled and deep; in my memory it sounds like an obstructed baritone whistle.
I just finished reading My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t realize that the entire subject of the book would be about people just like my Bohemian immigrant ancestors. I’d never thought about what they must have gone through in their first years on fresh land. The fact that I balked when my grandpa said that as a child he had to use an outhouse in the freezing cold must have given me some inclination of the difficult upbringing he had, and the struggles they endured on the farm.
“How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” That’s pretty much what happened with Grandpa after he returned from World War II. He didn’t make the final cut to play for the White Sox, so he became a furniture builder, and ditched the farm for good.
“‘Show him the spiced plums, mother. Americans don’t have those,’ said one of the older boys. ‘Mother uses them to make kolaches,’ he added (Cather, 160).”
Kolaches. I’ve eaten them all of my life, but I never knew how they were spelled. It seemed like a revelation to first see that word on the page in Willa Cather’s book. A small round fluffy pastry cookie topped with jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar. My mom makes kolaches better than anyone, and my favorite flavor is apricot.
I don’t know how to make kolaches. Neither do I know her recipe for bread dumplings and pork roast with caraway seeds. Or even hoska – that braided egg bread with maraschino cherries tucked in the crevices. I don’t have any of these traditions, and when my mother is gone, they’ll be lost unless I do something about it. Food is all I have left of that culture.
In the book, Antonia has a special spirit that stays with the narrator all of his life, haunting him, though he leaves Nebraska and becomes a lawyer on the East Coast. Some of the other European women that he grew up with go on to find success and independence. But Antonia does not.
“She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things (Cather, 167).”
Antonia has a vitality that never leaves her and a fierce courage to never give up on the difficulties of farming, even though her husband would rather live in the city. Thanks to the orchard skills he picked up in Florida, though, they have the best fruit trees around.
“The crabs hung on the branches as thick as beads on a string, purple-red, with a thin silvery glaze over them (Cather, 162).”
My life began in a crab apple tree in a suburb outside of Chicago. It cradled me. I spent long periods of time in its knots and branches. Eventually, I perched up so high that none of the boys running around the neighborhood could see that I was watching them.
My mother hated that tree. The driveway was light grey cement, and the crab apples left pinkish brown stains after they fell. Up in the branches, my sister dared me to eat a crab apple. It was very sour and left a waxy texture on my teeth. I wondered what anyone would use them for.
Since we left that house and moved to Seattle, I haven’t seen a crab apple tree since. It only exists in that pure time of life that I can barely remember, that time where my grandmother was still alive. She died three months before we moved. All of the events that occurred that year marked the end of my innocence. That’s a story I’ve told before.
Willa Cather reminded me of all of this. She gave me pride in how strong those immigrant women of the Midwest were. They didn’t live by anyone else’s standards. They became warriors of survival, and if necessary, ditched the dress to plow the fields. There was no complacency, or settling for someone else’s will. My mother’s family story had seemed pretty boring to me before. Not now.
Next Sunday night, at family dinner, I’m going to ask for my mother’s recipes, that were her mother’s recipes, and so on and so forth. I wonder just how far back those kitchen secrets go. I’m going to ask more questions. And one of these years, I’ll take a trip to Prague. My mother loves it there.
October 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Through the entire decade of my twenties, I was in denial about being a member of the female sex. I loved men so much, that I wanted to be one. All around me, I saw that women were the victims – while men had all the fun, women just got angry.
I had some of the best times of my life in open relationships, and also some of the worst. But the most important part of that experience was taking ownership of myself. By being around men who were staunch in their independence and sense of self, I became a stronger person. And somehow, I found the way to a different definition of what a woman can be than the one I’d grown up with.
In those first years out of college, there were no examples of female strength – only jealousy and haughty glares; or the Christian girls who stopped returning my phone calls though we’d been best friends. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I finally found the women who became my true sisters. They were in tune with their bodies. They were tough in the face of assholes, and soft in the privacy of our intimate conversations. Rather than threatened by each other, we were inspired by each other’s beauty. We felt more powerful as a group than we did separately. In fact, whenever we were together, magical things occurred; the planets aligned for us; we magnetized strange experiences; we became bonded for life, like family.
But I still didn’t embrace my body as a woman. My body as some fertile place of procreation scared me half to death. If another woman’s cycle threw mine off, I felt as though she’d just one-upped me. I knew nothing at all about how female reproduction really worked. It was something I avoided. I could barely admit that I too experienced all the symptoms of a cycle, even if my friends talked freely about it and gloried in being in tune with the moon. I couldn’t shake the embarrassment my mother had raised me with, around the female sex.
In the beginning, sex brought me to life. I had zero embarrassment or awkwardness around that. It woke up all my senses, and inspired reams of Whitman-esque poetry. I loved the adventure of sleeping with near-strangers or random friends. I loved enjoying whoever was right in front of me. Taking in their personhood like a story I could wrap my brain around. We wove our lives through each other, asking for nothing in return. What we gave in those nights was just enough.
I was hanging with a pile of sexy rocker-types. We drank a lot. Our culture revolved around it. You play gigs in bars, make connections in bars, see all of your friends in bars. In my twenties, I thought I would always go on living like every day was a party. I couldn’t imagine changing. I loved my life. It was one big adventure. It felt like I was living in a movie. But then, Michael came along.
In Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch relates how it felt meeting the man of her life, and also her third husband.
“He treated this thing I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish (Yuknavitch, 239).”
At first, it seemed with Michael, that we’d go on living the way we both always had. But the thing was, if we kept living that way, we’d be torn apart. The more we drank, the more we fought. Our old lives didn’t work when it came to being a unit.
I was alone in bed one morning, so hung-over that I may have been delirious. A little boy walked into the room, sat on the bed, and said, “I love you Mommy. I’m going to save your life.”
Immediately, I started crying. I thought if I talked to him, it would keep him from disappearing. I desperately wanted him to stay. But within seconds, he was gone. And yet, he wasn’t. It feels like he’s been with me ever since.
Not long after, I went cold turkey off the alcohol for eight months, so the painful hole in my stomach lining could heal. I started to live differently. Suddenly, I felt crystal clear. I began to wake up early so that I could write. Being productive now meant so much more than being entertained. I realized that in all those years of drinking, I had buried the pain I’d experienced from growing up in the church, and now I needed to deal with it. I began to explore, searching for some basis of truth.
I saw the nighttime world in a completely different way – boring, pathetic, where people acted dumb and got into stupid fights and slept with all the wrong people. It was still fun for them, and I appreciate all phases of life, but it was no longer for me.
It might seem ludicrous that a little boy vision could change my life. The thing is, my husband is infertile. When we first started dating, he told me it was from a childhood disease that he struggled with. That was only half true. A few years later, his friends spilled the beans that he also had a vasectomy. He was too embarrassed to admit it to me because an ex-girlfriend had pressured him into it. It was humiliating to have his friends tell me an intimate detail that was so important to our lives together. I couldn’t believe that he lied to me, and it took months for me to forgive him.
We talked about reversing his vasectomy, but the success rate is not that high, especially since he had such a low count to begin with. There is a high risk of childhood disease in his family, and he left that abusive family behind at the age of fifteen. His life became a story with the potential for happiness, while the past now only exists as literature. Michael is an excellent writer.
He started joking that we should use one of his friends as a sperm donor. Something I’ve learned in our relationship, is that jokes often become a reality. One day, I asked over brunch, “I wonder how much it costs to use a real sperm donor?”
“Lets find out.”
Immediately, I dove into obsessive research, and eventually found an excellent cryobank. They supply clients with medical records, interviews, baby photos, personality tests, and interests.
The search had to go on hold for many months until August arrived. When I saw our donor’s baby photo, I knew he was the right one. Michael was more impressed by the donor interview, where the lady conducting could hardly contain her attraction, and our donor sounded so mature for a twenty-something. Once we picked him, I began an exploration on reproduction, and how to plan conception for the exact day.
So far, we’ve done two rounds, and I’m in the process of waiting to find out the results of our last try. It’s proven much more stressful and all-consuming than I imagined. Going in, it seems like it should be easy, but the body works on its own time. Five-day windows are a gamble, and once the sperm arrives in a dry ice canister, it only has five days left before it thaws. As we learn more, I feel relaxed that it’s all going to work out in the end. I have an excellent Naturopath who is helping me every step of the way.
This entire year has been a learning process. I worked in an art studio with a group of empowered women from their thirties to sixties. They began to shift my perception of what it means to be a woman. The female artists I know are the strongest, most honest women I have ever met. They are fully present within themselves.
One actually admitted that she regrets motherhood; others revel in it; still others regret never having a child; some can’t imagine ever wanting one. All of them find their center through art. Continuing the cycle of humanity is not enough. You also need to leave the mark of what life itself means to you, to expand on the process in your own special way.
Just a few years ago, I thought I wasn’t capable of being a mother. There was no stability in my life. As a creative person, it’s difficult to find that balance, or any sort of financial safety zone. And then, I willingly gave up the thought of a baby to be with Michael.
There is something about a baby. I feel as though I won’t be able to fully embrace my own sex without that experience. And yet, I respect and admire all of the friends who choose not to have a child.
Something inside me asks, is it possible that I can share in that experience of being a mother? Does my body really work? Do I have all the right parts to make a baby happen? Am I really as healthy as I think I am?
It’s a funny thing that humans are always amazed by their ability to reproduce. You don’t see a cow in a pasture with a look of shock and awe on its face that a calf just came out of its uterus. It grooms the calf like it’s just another day, and eats the placenta to keep the prey away.
Even though I’ve become a little bit stodgy in my mid-thirties, I still feel like I’m a kid. Or maybe I am losing the remains of kid-dom, so I long for a baby to bring those fresh eyes back into focus.
At some point, you realize that life will go on being the same. I work hard and play hard. No great shakes. I’m ready for the big shake-up. I’m ready for change and growth and challenge. I think a child will even wake up my creativity in new ways that I am unable to see in the present.
“His argument against all my fluttering resistance? One sentence. One sentence up against the mass of my crappy life mess. ‘I can see the mother in you. There is more to your story than you think (Yuknavitch, 240).’”
By the way, The Chronology of Water is an excellent book. Lidia Yuknavitch is fearless in her honesty and is a courageous literary soul. I’ve met her twice at readings, and her energy invigorates me every time. She is not at all the broken woman she writes of in her memoir. Her experiences have made her a wise woman, and a brilliant writer. It’s the struggles that make us stronger.
September 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
The strange thing is, I read Leaving The Atocha Station, a novel by Ben Lerner about a twenty-something poet on a yearlong fellowship in Madrid, exactly two years since I was in Madrid myself. Every August, my husband and I crave experiences that remind us of the feeling of being in Spain. It’s a subconscious thing that creeps up, till we’re searching out a certain al fresco spot; the familiar architecture of a building; or the effervescence of a Spanish wine.
I remember how, on our trip, Michael blew our budget with his obsession for Hendricks & Tonic: served in giant goblets with plenty of cucumber slices. Each cocktail cost 16 – 20 Euros, while a bottle of wine was never more than 4. We reveled in masses of art at the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen museums. Every day, the same waiter at the same restaurant in our small neighborhood got my order for Iced Espresso wrong. I couldn’t seem to master proper Spanish pronunciation.
In Mallorca, we weren’t sure how to get to the beach, so we followed bikinis onto a bus and got off where they did, ending up in a luxurious spot, eating Tuna Tartare and drinking more Gin before joining all the topless bathers. I wanted to go topless as well, like I did at a nude beach in New York, but being a newlywed, I was still struggling to figure out my new identity.
Mainly a poet, Leaving The Atocha Station is Ben Lerner’s first novel. It’s hard to tell where he ends and where his protagonist begins.
The magic of Lerner’s character, Adam, is that he is a complete anti-hero. Adam thinks all the thoughts that I often feel, but would never actually admit to. He’s been offered a prestigious fellowship, but cowers from his superiors, has no intention of writing on the topic of the Spanish Civil War (like he claimed in his application), and spends most of his time smoking hash and hoping that one of the two women he spends time with will suddenly feel passionately for him, which of course, they never do.
“I had a policy of keeping Isabel away from Arturo and Teresa, not because I didn’t think they’d like each other, but because I wanted them to believe I had an expansive social life (Lerner, 53).”
Adam shrinks from responsibilities, putting all of his energies towards being wanted. His melt under pressure as a young twenty-something reminds me of an episode of Girls, where Lena Dunham’s character gets a deal for an e-book that she’s told must be written in one month. The stress drives her crazy, reigniting her past struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, resulting in a punctured eardrum due to her over-zealousness with a Q-tip.
Who can write a book in a month? I’m sure that even Kerouac’s claims were doctored up a bit. In my early twenties, everything that involved pressure under fire in the grown-up world brought on the worst kind of anxiety. I set myself up to fail. I learned quickly that the only jobs that worked for me were the ones that allowed time to write with a thoroughly interesting nighttime life. I lived for stories, not for security. I also lived for being wanted and affirmed.
At full-time day jobs, I fell apart. Sick all the time, anxious, creeping further and further within a figurative turtleneck. I freaked out 24/7 that I would say the wrong thing, and I often did.
Since I’ve been married, I often run the risk of losing my mojo, because having mojo is no longer life or death. I have Michael to cushion life’s blows. In sixteen years, when he retires, the weight may be all on my shoulders again. What will I be at that point? Will my books ever take off? Will I ever be able to make a living as a writer? I need all that mojo to make something of my dream. But instead, I am planning exit strategies, just in case. Real Estate is always in the back of my mind. Could I do that and everything else on top of it too? Could I write, sell houses, and grow a human? Or can I live on this writer cliff for the rest of my life – where total uncertainty always gives way to food and shelter working out in the end.
The poet in Ben Lerner’s novel thinks about becoming a lawyer when he returns home. Do all poets, writers, artists, musicians have these thoughts? Probably.
“But in certain moments, I was convinced I should go home, no matter the mansion, that this life wasn’t real, wasn’t my own, that nearly a year of being a tourist, which is what I indubitably was, was enough, and that I needed to return to the U.S., be present for my family, and begin an earnest search for a mate, career, etc (Lerner, 163).”
Never giving up on your creativity is a daily battle. The anti-hero of the book barely attempts it, and yet things magically fall into his lap, thanks to connections. It’s so good to feel like a winner. That feeling you have when you know what you can give has value, and people show their appreciation, and you show your appreciation right back, and the world feels like the weave of a basket, never ending, interconnected, supportive; even when you fuck up and never write that poem about the Spanish Civil War.
What is a life of poetry, but an endless journey through dense portals of thought that barely connect and keep us in the place of philosophical quandaries?
“Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside (Lerner, 20).”
The same is true for Adam’s experience of the Spanish language, the culture, his general distance from the alternate reality of living there, a place that can never really be his.
In Spain, everything feels different, while nothing feels different at all. It’s an odd feeling. Spain has modernity, while still retaining old world graces and sophistication. I felt like a gypsy next to the polished style of the locals. I knew I would never fully understand the language, no matter how long I lived there. Not the language exactly, but all of the meanings behind the language. All of the movements of their fans, which they handled with so much panache, it was like they’d been flipping them since infancy. I could easily live there for the rest of my life, but not in a million years could I ever master the culture. How can you, unless you grow up in it?
“I have never been here, I said to myself. You have never seen me (Lerner, 178).”
September 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today marks the anniversary of being married to my favorite person in the world, Michael Barnhart. In honor of the event, I am sharing from a different kind of book – an old journal of mine. Every time I read this entry, I remember again, just how it felt in the initial stages of finding the man who would become my life.
December 2, 2008
Feeling a little melancholy today and don’t know why. Michael had to rush out this morning and I felt sort of deflated after he left. A strange flow between us. Intense confessional conversations, and this fiery passion that brims up and overwhelms us. And then, the mind is gone and this expansive place wells up which our melding energy creates, and I’m soaring through a place I’ve never known before.
But then when it’s over, life feels disproportionate when he is away. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t sleep without the other. It’s not quite codependency. More like ravenous to be in each other’s presence. Though sometimes I look at him still as though he’s a foreign object and a mystery I can’t solve.
On thanksgiving it was like he was already family. He melded in so seamlessly, as though he’d always been there. All week after, he barely left my side, nursing me off another case of bronchitis. He brought me food, and I printed out the final edits of my novel. He read while I was in the bathtub and shared his immediate impressions. He mused over my understanding of men, the genderlessness of my writing, and called me the female Hemingway.
“You have to quit your job. This is what you need to be doing,” he said.
“I can’t do that.”
“If I had more money, I would help you make this happen.”
“It will happen. I promise.”
His boss knows a Blackfeet Indian chief and asked him for a remedy for my cough. Michael called me, “I have the cure! I’ll be there soon.”
He scoured the city for ingredients, collected pine needles on his jog around the lake, and even found a Blackfeet CD of chants with the appropriate song for administering the remedy. A cleansing garlic and elderflower tonic that could pretty much kill anything in its path.
“I am in awe of you,” he said while reading my book.
No one has ever believed in me this much. It invigorates me to finish the book. It’s exhilarating to watch him read it. The world outside of our realm pales in comparison. The world outside has become only stories to tell.
I thought I would always be alone. I thought life would always be a series of one dark, edgy character after another. Of all things. I loved to be alone rather than be with anyone else. Sex was just a remedy for my bodies needs; performed with a person I preferred not to know. Can’t imagine ever going back.
I trust him more than I even trust myself. There has always been an untamable strain in me that I cherish and am afraid of all at once. But so far he’s lifted me so high with his positive charge, I don’t think anyone could touch that or break the spell. Is it a spell, or will it keep going? I don’t want this to ever end.
At the pond, we tossed coins.
“Make a wish,” he said.
I wished we could be happy together for the rest of our lives. Long lives, I hope. But it’s still a mystery to me. I’ve never been attracted to someone like him before. Someone so full of lightness. Though he has a slight dark side too. I wouldn’t be so amused if he didn’t.