December 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
In my first year out of college, I joined a writer’s group that met in the attic of a coffee shop. In the brightly lit wooden eaves of the building, free coffee flowed till midnight. Our minds turned to over-caffeinated mush from the hours of pouring over chapters and poems.
A few of the people there inspired me tremendously, but like any average group, most of the writing was boring and repetitive. One of the members that I suffered through was a guy who looked like one of the dwarves from Lord Of The Rings – short and squat with a grisly beard and a flat nose. He wrote as though we were living in B.C. rather than A.D. In his mind, we were all still using weapons made from stone, building fires by friction, and living according to mythologies that represented our heroic struggles.
He confessed to us, that he found nothing even remotely satisfying about the modern world. He didn’t want to be a part of it, and would rather disappear into the classics. We all had the sense that when not with us, he was in a cabin on a river somewhere, reading Homer by candlelight.
Even though I hated his writing and he hated mine, I found him strangely alluring. He was a mystery I wanted to solve, but never did. His stealthy introversion was an intimidating barrier. Since then, I’ve met this man over and over in many forms. The elitist yearning to live in a glorified past is the ultimate resistance to living in the more difficult present. It is anti-life; anti-hero’s journey – a coward’s way out of reality.
In Donna Tartt’s first novel, A Secret History, the plot centers on a small core of Ancient Greek students at a small Northeastern university. Though the protagonist is from a small middle-class town in California, he tries desperately to fit in among the wealthy. As he infiltrates into the tight-knit program, the idealized view of his classmates begins to crumble. Their web of secrets grows thicker by the day. A pagan bacchanal goes horribly wrong, and all that they hide grows larger than anything else they could possibly share.
Though The Secret History was written twenty years ago, the language of the main characters is antiquated and out of place in the modern day college campus milieu. Off in the distance we see the typical students getting drunk at parties, thinking about what they will wear, who they will hook up with, what drugs they can get their hands on. But in the Greek department, the students congregate in a mystical space, a classroom that is virtually hidden from the rest of the campus, where a teacher sees his students not as they are, but what he wants them to be.
Outside, reality remains unfulfilling and stale. Language takes them to a different time and space, to a code of ancient values and pagan objectives. Their shared knowledge both unifies them and rips them apart through selfish objectives (though they seek to lose the self).
“He laughed and quoted a little Greek epigram about honesty being a dangerous virtue… (Tartt, 27).”
There have been many times when I was guilty of living in the past or the future. It was especially intense all through my childhood and adolescence. While growing up, it felt as though I was living a life that was not my own. It was the life of my parents. Though I grew up Fundamentalist, in my head, I was an actress living in black and white on the Silver Screen. More particularly, I was Joan Crawford being witty; Cyd Charisse dancing; Liza Minelli cavorting; or Rosalind Russell outfoxing all of her costars. I dreamt of my future as an independent woman living in a city somewhere, wearing sequins and faux fur, sipping martinis with movers and shakers.
This fantasy represented my escape from childhood – and in reality, I made it come true. I escaped the dreary suburbs with all of that constricting conformity, and have lived in cities ever since. I danced professionally for thousands of people, made the rounds as a musician, and worked as a showgirl/server at a vaudeville circus show. After hours, I conversed late into the night about who knows what, and desperately clamored to find someone outside of the circus tent who could help me breathe. The flashing lights, the glitter that never goes away, the bits of feathers that get caught in your clothes, the costumes sprayed with febreze – five nights a week like a carousel that you can never get off of. The exhaustion, anxiety, and nausea finally wore me down, and I jumped off the ride for good.
Whenever I choose to build a new life, the past haunts me. People I have known in other cities come to me in my dreams, and it’s as though time never passed away. I am there with them again, those people that I love though I will never see again; never get to be a part of their daily rituals and conversations. Part of me is still there.
If I do visit and see them again, I am not able to fully be part of their present. We only live in the past together, in our memories. I’m no longer on the ride. The past and the future never fully exist – both are merely shadows that taunt us, artifacts left behind, thoughts that have become skewed with time.
It’s important to understand what makes you feel fully invested in your present life. Personally, I need to feel that I am part of a community that both inspires me through their creativity, and provides me with a sense of affirmation for my own work. I also need a lot of solitude during the day, and social activity at night. New faces and fresh conversations invigorate me. The sense of mutual support is invaluable. A feeling of success in what I what I do.
There is a Classics major in all of us. We all get stuck, at times, living outside of the present. We hide away there, where it feels safe, where we know what happens next, where inevitably life has to move on.
Please share your own experience of falling out of the present in the comments below. What is it that brought you back?
December 3, 2013 § 1 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).”
August 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
Every year, I look forward to the end of the year student sale at Gage Academy Of Art. Not only is it fun to show my husband the works of art that result from my job as an art model (which are always out of our budget), but I love the prospect of finding an exciting piece at a really great price. Investing in the artist’s of the future is a beautiful experience. I wonder if my husband and I will end up like Herb and Dorothy Vogel – on a beer budget while living in a place where art rules the house.
This year, I fell in love with Helen Bouchard’s value study of John The Baptist, by Caravaggio. The young boy looks decadent and satiated, nuzzled by a lamb that he embraces. In Helen’s simplified version the mastery of the composition truly comes to life. I can’t stop looking at the left foreshortened leg, and the way the pose circles around on itself.
My obsession with Caravaggio began with that study, which now hangs on our bedroom wall. Since then, I noticed
at the museum, how Georges de la Tour was influenced by Caravaggio’s contrasting darks and lights. I read how Caravaggio was possibly influenced by the religious theatricals of his youth. Through his love for life study, he brought a realness to the characters that he depicted, which was previously unheard of. Sunburned skin, a deformity of a finger, an angel that actually touches St. Matthew. His scenes are caught in the middle of an action, not before or after, which was an influence on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who captured real people of the streets in action with grit and humanity.
I decided to take a class this month called Copying the Masters: Caravaggio. On our first day, we were asked to choose a color copy of a Caravaggio painting to work from for the entirety of the class. I had gone in hoping to paint a Bacchus, but instead I was drawn to a brooding shepherd boy with the shadow of dark thoughts.
When I got home, I realized I had picked a later version of John the Baptist. It seemed meant to be. John the Baptist was a messenger. I view myself as a messenger – though my messages are of an entirely opposite nature.
We prepped our canvases with a burnt sienna gesso (I had also pre-prepped with two coats of oil grounds which gives the canvas a smooth and slick base). We drew the basics with chalk, and then began with an under-painting of burnt sienna thinned with linseed oil, as we built up the lights and darks.
In the style of the masters, an oil painting begins with Burnt Sienna and Cremintz White, where the shading is developed. From there, the painting goes into grayscale. And then finally, the intense colors are glazed over the top. This is an extremely structured way of working, and I struggled not to rebel. I love color, and I impatiently added too much too soon. Oils are naturally translucent, so the style of the masters can almost seem like watercolor in the final stages.
Cremintz White is hard to find. The only line of paint I found that still carries this lead-based white is Winsor & Newton. It goes on silvery and thin, and is built up over many layers. Our teacher, Michael Lane, told us when they exhumed Caravaggio’s body, they found a high level of lead in his remains. Michael relayed how the 19th Century Russian artist, Fechin, thought nothing of licking his palette knife as he worked (for the perfect mixture of water and oil in saliva), double dipping as he spread paint across the canvas. Fechin spent a fair amount of time in the hospital for this toxic habit, but probably never gave it up. Michael has a few toxic habits of his own, never wearing gloves, and using his finger to push paint around the canvas – refreshingly old school. As for me, I wear vinyl gloves when I work.
I am learning a lot as I try not to struggle against the structure of the old masters. Generally, I am an independent learner. I’ve absorbed an enormous amount just from being a model, voyeuristically taking it all in as I watch from afar. Usually, I get paid to be there, so it’s hard to swallow how much I’ve spent to be a student. Interesting to be on the other end. Three hours go by so quickly, in comparison to when I’m working.
This summer, painting has become my escape from the pressures of having my writing published and “out there” in the public eye. I’ve learned that whatever happens with released work, it has no real bearing on my actual life, and what really matters is my own daily personal craft. Painting has reminded me of that. It’s brought me back to the happy place. In front of a canvas, time disappears. Six hours seems like one. My brain goes into full focus. I get lost in line, form, and color while playing Beethoven. I don’t have to do it, but I love to do it. It soothes me.
Writing is something I have to do. It’s who I am. I never grow tired of it. Ideas push to the surface and flounder until they find expression. I have a message to share that I’m compelled to spread, like John the Baptist who may or may not have existed. He’s a legend. Eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel fur, subsisting in the dessert. He seems to be my archetype this summer. A summer where I’m coming to terms with the Bible as literature rather than as the facts I was taught as a child.
Strangely enough, today I rescued a locust-like insect from the elevator, and who knows why, I released it onto my balcony (where it disappeared before eating the garden). For a while, I watched it scratch itself with it back legs, and clean its front feet. Tiny little eyeballs, and off kilter antennae. Perfect yellow green – Terre Verte mixed with Indian Yellow.
To understand Caravaggio more, I picked up Caravaggio – A Life Sacred And Profane. The book was less about his life, and more about his paintings and the time in which he lived. He lived from 1571 – 1610, around the time of Shakespeare. He spent much of his life on the run for violent crimes, and found success through patrons in the church. He expressed his sensuality through Biblical themes. His models were courtesans, workshop assistants, and painter friends, all posing as the elevated figures worshipped in the Catholic church. I like the irony of his models. Sensuous boys and prostitutes, bawdy people of the streets – some who eventually found fame in their trade.
In Caravaggio paintings, life does not imitate art, art imitates life. A thought so
scandalous, that his sunburned Bacchus disappeared in the collection of the Medici (so much was the embarrassment of a peasant in a painting) resurfacing 400 years later in the basement of the Uffizi.
Every other painter of Caravaggio’s era has faded over time. He was an embarrassment in his lifetime. But artists ever since have been influenced by his style. A style that came from within, and certainly wasn’t taught by his limp teachers. He sent the message of what painting could be, and no one could turn back after what they saw.
Now that the air is growing cooler, I am ready to be fully immersed in my writing again. But my journey with Caravaggio has brought me back to painting for good. The two seem to be in perfect balance. Writing searches the brain for problems and answers, while painting releases the brain, disappearing into meditation.
August 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Around eighteen, I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and absolutely hated it. I don’t remember what it was about, I just know that I found her voice irritating. But lately, friends have been raving about her. One said that To The Lighthouse is so much a part of who she is, that she rereads it every year. Another raved about Orlando, saying that with my interest in gender studies, it’s a must-read.
So I bought both books at warehouse sales, and dove into Orlando. I was surprised to find that I hate Woolf’s voice just as much now as I did back then. I haven’t arrived at some place of maturity and understanding where I can finally “get” her. Woolf has wit, and some stunning observations, but she talks in circles, and goes for pages without saying anything. I never find the intensity of her person within her writing.
A mock biography, Orlando begins as a typical spoiled nobleman, the darling of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century. Through the course of three hundred years, Orlando never dies, and while on an ambassadorship in Turkey, he mysteriously transforms into a woman.
“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for these desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline (Woolf, 156-157).'”
Despite the tedious hours spent in front of the mirror, very little changes about Orlando’s life. She retains her independence and remains devoted to poetry. She finds the Victorian obsession with marriage and romantic love amusing, and eventually gets swept up with the times when she falls in love and marries a sailor, who is never around much anyway.
Most enjoyable are the fictional photographs of Orlando. I was struck to find, that as a woman, Orlando has similar features to my own (though with a more sloped forehead). Woolf’s taste in women was from the standpoint of the 1920’s, and I think my looks are more suited for the style back then.
The book had me wishing that Woolf could have lived for three hundred years (like Orlando), to witness the world in which we live today. Men change into women, and women into men everyday. It’s so common, that there are days when I pass at least five transgendered people in an afternoon walk.
There is the middle-aged man turned woman with a red bob, straw hat, and crisp pink dress shirt tucked into acid washed mom jeans above white sneakers; the one with scraggly black hair and bright pink lipstick selling papers on the corner of Broadway and Thomas; and the one who looks like a New York Doll in really precarious platform shoes and long flowing dresses with ruffles. Then there are all the people who have had so much surgery, and such mastery of the art, that we’ll never know unless they tell us.
I’ve written before about how some of the artists of my generation believe that gender no longer exists. Part of the idea comes from how much has been done in regards to gay rights and women’s rights. But if gender doesn’t really exist, then why do people feel so strongly identified with an opposite gender, to the point of spending thousands of dollars, in painful transition, to get there? And when it comes to equal rights for all, we’re not quite as far along as we say we are.
The truth comes out on a Friday night at the bar. I used to work at Teatro Zinzanni, a local circus dinner theater. Sunday nights were like Fridays, and every week, performers and servers would all go out for an end of the week celebration. But the gays and lesbians never wanted to join us for karaoke at a bar called Ozzie’s.
I found out why a few weeks ago. It was our friend Oscar’s birthday. Oscar is from Peru, and is an openly affectionate person. Everyone was a few shots in. My husband, Michael, kissed a male friend on the neck as a joke. The guy behind them had a look of shock and horror on his face. Oscar was hugging all of his friends.
Security approached us, and actually said, “No guy on guy action here. You have to leave.”
I really couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt completely disgusted with the people working at Ozzie’s, and I’m never going back, not that I ever really wanted to be there to begin with. Meanwhile, it was no problem for another friend of ours to practically molest women on the dance floor.
A couple of weeks later, Michael was out for another birthday. A large guy stepped on a woman’s foot, so she pushed him. He came back with, “Oh really? You want me to put my big black dick up your ass?”
Here a man took a nonsexual argument, and used his sexual power to intimidate a woman who just wanted respect for her personal space.
If you’re gay (or presumed gay), and out at a bar, you might get kicked out for showing affection. If you’re a woman, the fact that you’re just standing there makes you fair game for a random male stranger to molest you or threaten you sexually.
I should mention, that the one time I was in a gay bar in the last two years, a young gay man did his best to intimidate me to get the hell out, by getting extremely up close and personal. So it all comes full circle.
Suffice to say, I rarely ever go out drinking anymore (though it used to be my favorite pastime). So when I go out now, I’m amazed by how completely stupid everyone gets. All of the impulses that people hide by day come to the raging surface at night. Nights become a place of conflict and aggression. The rich against the poor, the door guys verses the patrons, men verses women, gay verses straight, black verses white, young verses old.
“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high (Woolf, 149).”
If in an instant, you became the person standing across from you, what would that reveal to you? What would change? Could we all get along?
I’m not an idealist, but I feel tired of all the conflict I experience on a daily basis. I live on a busy street, and working in building management we are fully aware of all the crime that goes down. In the last week, we’ve dealt with three different incidents. On the morning of July 5th, an untreated neighbor behind us was shot by the police for brandishing a Glock from his window. I’m never going to understand everyone, but my emotions are exhausted from feeling what everyone around me feels. Sometimes, I just want to escape.
“… while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded (Woolf, 104).”
Obscurity is nice for about a week, but then it’s good to get back to reality. I would just like a little bit of distance from the reality I live in. I feel that I am going through an enormous shift, and I have no idea where it will lead me. With it comes exhaustion and hopefully transformation. I am becoming something beyond what I am today; like Orlando, who sees beyond both genders, and knows that she is just a poet either way; a poet who loves solitude.
I’m not going to fill my coat pockets with rocks and drown myself, like Virginia Woolf did at the onset of World War II. She was going mad, and the only goodness left for her, was the love of her husband.
I believe that out of the worst, comes the best. If you watch nature closely, you see this happening over and over again. A natural disaster can unify people like nothing else can. A grit of sand can irritate an oyster into making a pearl. And when you send a radical new thought out into the world, it’s often met with hatred. But slowly over time, hatred abates, and new ideas become old ideas that are finally accepted. Life is a process.
July 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
Here are two chapters from No End Of The Bed to entice you. Chapter 13 takes us back to adolescence, with my struggles in the church. Chapter 36 is the complete antithesis, or is it? By this point, I am trying to figure out who I am, while my lover consistently prods me into situations that are way over my head.
“People will believe anything.
Except, it seems, the truth.”
Growing up, my mother’s entire social life was within the faith. Besides church on Sunday, she attended Wednesday night services, ran a Senior Citizen’s Bible study the next morning, and went to Praise night at Mrs. McMaster’s house on Friday night’s. But her Women’s Aglow meetings really took the cake. They met up once a month in various banquet halls. The only man I ever saw there was a handsome African American pastor. Everyone was in love with him. At the time, I was about six years old, and he told me that he liked the dress my mother had forced me to wear. I felt ridiculous in frilly things with bows and petticoats. But the tights were an even worse torture. I couldn’t stop scratching my legs.
At these meetings the energy would reach a frenzy, building to a climax until around twenty women would go up front. Amidst howling and shrieking and blubbering sobs, the pastor would shout, “By the power of Jesus’ blood you are slain in the spirit!”
Instantly they would all fall, flat on their backs. It was very funny to watch. It wasn’t as though they would sit on their asses and then fall back. It was more of a complete backwards faint. A long row of over-weight women in potato sack dresses just lying there, some of them passed out, others speaking in tongues.
One time a woman came with a neck brace claiming it was a permanent injury. The pastor laid his hands on her, along with five women praying out loud in a din of nonsense. Eventually the woman couldn’t take it anymore. She busted off her brace and started yelling that she’d been healed. Women’s Aglow was always good for a show.
There were other meetings like this one. One night we went to see a traveling evangelist who was a faith healer. Two parents brought in their screaming three year-old and told us he was possessed by a demon. It seemed to me he was just tired or sick or maybe had a psychological problem. But the pastor started yelling, “Release him from this torture! Set this boy free! In Jesus name!”
The boy screamed even louder. I had to admit, it was eerie. And it went on and on, until finally the boy stopped crying, and they walked off the stage. Yes, the stage. Everything seemed staged. Like theater, like an over-abundance of emotions, like hypnotism. The pastors all used that same rhythm in their voices, as though they were all from the south. It lulled you into believing what they said.
“You are getting very sleepy,” pause, “When I count to three you will close your eyes. One… two… three,” pause, “I will use the Bible as mind control. And because of the all-knowing tone of my voice you will never question me, I will use the pulpit to be high above you, and the words that I say will be the words of God. I will be like God to you. I will comfort you, but I will also fill you with fear. Because you would not want to falter in front of God, just as you will be your best for me. And you will give me your devotion, your money, your life, and your will. As a congregation you will grow, and feed my ego. And we will grow in strength. We will take over the world in our spiritual revival. We will spread to the far reaches. And I will be your leader. I will be your father. When I count to three you will be free from your own weakness, and will understand the strength in being my flock. One… two… three!”
My mother wouldn’t question the pastor, or the Republican president, because she was told their words were the word of God.
Throughout childhood I went through an inner battle that no one else could see. Pretending to be good was so stifling. At four years old, in church singing hymns, I thought it would be funny if I sang in potty talk instead. No one could hear me. But I felt liberated from all the staunch repression, free as I could be in my pee-pees and pooh-poohs and on and on in my own personal mantra. The boredom of the following sermon never mattered after that. I had committed my first act of rebellion against being made to sing words I did not feel.
I was sixteen and my mother and sister took me on a women’s retreat. Maybe I could finally prove that I wasn’t a failure at being a Christian. They asked if anyone would like to come up to receive prayer. I went up and asked to receive my prayer language. Three women laid hands on me. I closed my eyes hard in concentration, desperately wanting to feel something. Their touch sent a chill down my back. I looked over to the right and could see my mother prostrate on the ground through the crowd. Turning back, I zeroed in on my attempt to feel the presence of God. But there was nothing. Only my own mind telling me that now would be a good time to begin speaking gibberish.
When I opened my eyes, everyone was so happy for me. I had grown in maturity as a Christian. Their hope in my future was replenished.
“I don’t love people I can dominate.”
At the Vogue nightclub, a stale stench of sweat, urine, and spilt liquor made the air feel dense. Black walls and curtains made the room seem larger than it was. A lanky man in hot pants and a boa danced around a pole. His muscles glistened under the strobe lights as he thrust and swayed to the repetitive beat of industrial music. The pulsing bass was overlaid with rhythmic whips slapping down on a treble beat.
A woman with cropped bangs strode past the dancer as though she were on a catwalk, wearing only fishnets, a black thong and two pieces of black tape that covered her nipples. I tried my best not to stare, though I was completely enamored. I stood watching behind a high rectangular table that surrounded the dance floor. I wore hot pants, a black woven bikini with fringe, fishnets and six-inch platform peep-toe heels.
When we had arrived, Nico bought me a Long Island and disappeared. I could see him now, not far off, talking to a woman. She fondled his arm and flashed her eyes at him with her fat cheeks bulging as much as her breasts. I mused over Nico in his tight spandex tube dress and combat boots, and smiled over how the feminine attire enhanced his masculinity.
A bear of a man walked past me and grasped Nico by the arms, kissing him forcefully. Nico tensed up and shrank back. The man said something I couldn’t hear. Then Nico dodged away, and swooped over to me. It was the first time I ever saw him without control over a situation.
“How does the basil I put in your little pants feel?” he asked me.
“Refreshing. You could start a trend and call it herbs in undies. Enhance your natural flavors.”
“That’s my girl,” he said, slapping my ass. I put my hand on my hip and pursed my lips at him.
“Listen,” he said, “I have someone I want you to meet. He likes to be beaten and goes by the name Community Carl. He needs to be put in his place. I want you to dominate him.”
“I’m not sure I can handle that.”
“Of course you can! I’ll teach you! He’ll love it. You’re just the sort he likes.”
Nico took my hand, and I tottered behind in the very tall shoes. He was like a crazy little elf guiding me to the netherworld. We came to the back of the club where a doorway was covered with black curtains. I was afraid to enter. Who knew what was going on behind. Nico pulled the curtain aside and guided me in where an older man with a mustache was tied to the wall by his wrists. His shirt was off, and he seemed like a remnant from an old porno film. His bare chest was leathery, gravity pulling his skin down crease by crease.
“Please, I need to be beaten,” Carl begged, head hanging down towards the floor.
Nico abruptly slapped him in the face, “Does that feel good?”
“I need more. I want it to hurt.”
“Lauren he’s begging for it. You can do whatever you want to him. You can twist his nipples, slap him, or punch him. Just don’t hit his kidneys in the lower back, here and here,” he instructed, placing his hands across the sway of the man’s back. “Any damage to the kidneys could be fatal. But the rest is yours.”
“Okay,” I said, hesitating as I stared at Community Carl.
“You can do anything you want to him.”
“I need to be beaten down,” whimpered Carl. I whaled into his chest with my fist, and my strength surprised me.
“Oh fuck!” he yelped.
I whacked his thigh then twisted his left nipple tight between my fingers.
“Good girl, Lauren,” said Nico, as though I were an obedient canine. “You just keep at it, and I’ll be back soon,” he said, patting my shoulder.
I looked at Nico with a touch of panic, but after his exit, my aggression turned on Carl. A man handed me a crop and I whipped Carl back and forth across his stomach and chest. His face pinched in pain and he sucked in air with each sting of black leather. He twisted and flailed against the wall. I hated that Nico always left me. What was he doing? Why did he need so much attention?
Carl looked gruesome in his pseudo submissive state. I could see beneath his act that he had spent a lifetime on a ruthless treadmill of self-importance. Physical pain seeped through his body, erasing the emptiness of his emotions. All the things he had believed in at a young age eventually became a lie. Blood vessels bulged in his neck as he cringed. He wanted it all to be beaten out of him. The crop in my hand zipped through the air and came down on his skin with a loud whap.
His eyes rolled back into his head as he whimpered, “I need more.”
“Do you?” I whacked him once more across the thigh. An audience had gathered at the door. I felt taken up into another existence. The vinyl had been a costume for me, but now my appearance was being interpreted as fact. I surveyed all the people watching the role that had gone past pretend. My mind was a cloud of manufactured fog and neon beams of light flipping to the consistent sounds of a lash.
Nico came bursting through the curtains, “Lauren! Don’t you think you’re getting carried away?”
“Not at all,” I replied, whacking Carl again.
“Come with me.”
“Yes!” Nico commanded, taking my hand. “I want you to meet a man. He’s very rich. He could be good for you!” he spit into my ear, over the loud music. “You could live on your own. He could set you up.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone else. I’ve found you, haven’t I?”
“No, you must meet Franco. He’s been asking about you.”
Nico led me out to the bar where a rotund man in a bow tie sat. He looked like an opera singer.
“Franco! This is Lauren. She’s quite good with a whip.”
Franco laughed jovially as I held out my hand. He kissed it while I distractedly sipped my Long Island.
“The pleasure is all mine,” he said.
“I didn’t know people used phrases like that anymore,” I replied.
“You have a beautiful smile. You know you are going to make an amazing mother with a smile like that,” mused Franco.
“A mother?” My eyebrows creased together in confusion.
“Some little boy will be raised well because you exist in this world. You’re a rich woman, and any boy would love to have a mother like you. Easygoing and artistic, I can tell,” he added.
“You are a strange bird,” I said, laughing. “A strange, strange bird.” I shook my head.
Maybe Franco had a mother fetish, but I certainly wasn’t the motherly type. Nico told me I had the body of an adolescent boy. I began to shimmy and moved backwards, edging away from the two men who suddenly seemed foreign and strange and faraway. They watched me move as I closed my eyes and ate up their stares. I traveled into another dimension, beyond the creatures that circled like extras from a sci-fi film. I was a voyeur of my own life.
• • •
It was the time of year when the season turns grey and brisk with crystals of frost that form before dawn. I closed Nico’s red front door gently behind me and walked past the strangely configured broken white reproduction statues from various sites in Rome. Exiting the wind-torn curtains obscuring the entrance to the porch, I walked down the stairs. I breathed in, and the thick wet air seeped into my nostrils. Turning the key in the lock, I stepped into my aging hand-me-down car. The transmission was dying due to the time it was towed in second gear.
I felt poetic, nostalgic, and pure, like a virgin ready to be sacrificed to Dionysian delights or death itself. I turned down the street and drove through slumbering neighborhoods. The whole world seemed to be drowsy with hibernation. But amidst all the deadness I felt so awake.
My long monotonous shift at work would have little meaning in the knowledge that I was living an extraordinary life. I took risks that my friends would never dream of. I couldn’t care less about protecting my emotions if it meant it would hold me back from really living. But I wanted the parallel life to stop. I was tired of all the people from my past that shook their heads over things they didn’t understand. Though I loved them, there was nothing between us anymore. And I hated regressing back into the Lauren I had left behind, the one who faked everything just to be accepted. Then I thought of the costume I had worn the night before, and realized, that too was an act.