March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter in-law against mother in-law (Luke 12:50–53).”
It’s been fifteen years since I first came out to my family as a non-believer in Evangelical Christianity. From my current vantage point, I see now the evolution of not only myself, but of how my family has dealt with the situation. We’ve all changed in the process, and who we are today has little resemblance to who we all were when I was twenty-one years old.
At that young age there was the added pressure of two parents struggling to let go of their youngest daughter as I entered adulthood. With that letting go came a release of control. Because I’d spent my entire youth living in secret, I suddenly was not the person that anyone had thought I was. In fact, I was what I had feared all along. I was exactly what I had repressed. And more than that, I realized, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was learning how to be happy. What was bad was the amount of rejection I experienced – not only losing 99% of my all-Christian friends, but also being threatened with losing my family for being what my father termed as “a whore.” Lately I’ve been re-appropriating that slur to mean, “a female that cannot be controlled.”
We all got off to a rocky start. All I knew at that point was that the church was not for me. Within those confines I was suffocated, depressed, bored, and dead inside. I realize now that this is because I was and am rooted in creative expression. The artist needs diversity in order to breathe. The artist needs questions. Flat answers that defy all logic are merely roadblocks. The constant question, rather, is conducive to taking what is faulty, and transforming it in order to make it better. I saw clearly that the church does not do what it says it will. The church is for charlatans and blind followers who are told that if they question, they are heretics and outsiders. This keeps people in a place of fear and is a form of Fascism.
I am currently writing a book on religion from the point of view of the insider who became the outsider. Because my husband critiques my chapters in our writers group every week, my words are at the forefront of his mind at family dinners. He struggles to understand why and how my family believes what they do, so he asks questions. It’s gotten to the point where we talk about religion every single time we’re with them. The elephant in the room is now our go-to.
Though it’s awkward, though I sometimes feel offended, and my mother often gets emotional, it appears that we’re traveling through some necessary therapy. Reaching towards middle age, I have come to the point where I need to be respected as an adult within the construct of my family. I will no longer allow them to undermine me. By my side is my warrior husband who never backs down. I doubt we would all be so open without Michael’s curiosity and his need to defend me.
Michael has had little experience with the faithful. He still feels shocked that when asked, my parents relayed that we will go to hell without Jesus in our lives. All along, I had told him that this was the case, but he couldn’t believe it until he heard it directly from them. He told my father that he now understands when my dad says, “We worry about you.” And of course, they pray everyday that we will be with them at family dinners for eternity – as though life continues on as normal in “paradise.”
It would be morally incorrect of me to believe in something that I know is inherently false. Not only false, but the single cause of more abuse, tortures, deaths, genocides, conquests, and fear than anything else in the history of civilization. My father and sister have said, “If I believe and it isn’t true, then I’m wrong and there’s no harm done. If I believe and it is true, then I go to heaven.” But at what cost? The message is love but the giving is conditional. “The Other” is demonized for being under the sway of Satan – therefore outsiders can’t be trusted.
My sister and I are now finally opening up to each other. Though we grew up in the same family, we had completely different experiences of the same exact events. Our roles were such that we were treated very differently – she was and is the much older sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of my parents, while I am the stubborn younger sister who brayed at every perceived injustice. She will do whatever it takes to achieve harmony, while I prefer to tell it like it is to get to the core of the truth in a person. Our personalities created divergence in cause and effect. She and her family have been on the mission field in Papua New Guinea for close to twenty years. I thought that I could live with her silence on into the future, but now that she is finally talking, I see that we have reached a place that is necessary and important. It’s allowing me to let go of the anger that I feel when her idea of “harmony” equals not allowing anyone to know what she really feels.
Though it’s good to understand where all of us within the family are coming from, I’m not sure where it all leads. On the one hand, talking openly brings me closer to them, on the other there’s only so much we can say before hitting our heads against a wall. I find their beliefs in an antiquated mythology to be embarrassing – embarrassing that anyone could possibly believe what they do. On their end, they will never accept my views until my views become their own – an impossibility. If you return faulty merchandise, you don’t go back to the store to buy it all over again.
The perceived need for a Savior did not begin with Christianity. There are at least sixteen crucified and resurrected Saviors, which predate Jesus. Most of which are said to have been born of a virgin on December 25th. They all share variations on the exact same story including time spent in the desert withstanding temptations; turning water to wine; riding in a procession on a donkey; sacrificed to save humans from their errors, and resurrected to bring eternal life. These stories stem from Egyptian beliefs to Greek and Roman Paganism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus is much less a Jewish story than a Pagan one. In the transfer of the telling from the Jews to the Gentiles, Jesus took on the traditional Pagan narrative. The story would have gained little traction without the details of deity come to save us.
Instead of being saved by religion, the modern narrative has shown that we need to be saved from religion. Though civilization is evolving fast, the faithful threaten to devolve our communities at every chance. One of the most important ethics for Millenials is the issue of equality. Western culture is moving beyond the place of women as property. “Good versus evil” is merely code for “us versus them” or tribalistic instincts. And though the church has always been the last to accede in the acceptance and freedoms of minorities and differing cultures, our attempts at democracy have shown that with respect, we can all co-exist and learn from each other. Faith, however, often gets in the way of this with the problem of, “My belief is the only way, and everyone else is an infidel.”
The God of the Bible has a faulty sense of ethics more akin to a gang leader, and hardly seems perfect at all. He requests that people commit atrocities in order to prove loyalty to him, and by the book of Revelation, it is clear that Satan is a mere puppet rather than a mighty foe. God admits that creating earth was a mistake – he wants a do-over. His codes pale in comparison to what we now know as right and wrong. He is faulty, and it is obvious that his author is man.
As a young Christian, I used to berate myself for being an “over-analyzer.” I thought this was a bad thing – mainly because it threatened to disrupt my faith. I’m happy now that it did. Analyzing is what I do best. I love research and games of connect-the-dots. I love the story of how religions grew, and the politics behind why they grew. It’s a fascinating story – rife with myth, clichés, and superstitions. Though we can now understand much of our world through scientific terms, there will always be questions about what lies beyond, and why are we here? These are good questions and an expansive space to exist within. All answers are counterfeit and meant to lead to more questions. We are merely tiny breaths in time. We are what the earth is – things that grow. Our growth is shaped by individuals, but driven by passing generations. The truth is that it’s the people who ask questions that shape the world we live in. Some have died for it. But in the process they cleared the way for more asking. No one grows by staying in line, they grow by exploring.
It’s clear that the largest hurdle most families face is a lack of communication. We hear it in reminders not to talk about politics or religion at family dinners. Many people don’t see a way of discussing it without becoming heated and upset. But until those issues are discussed, there can be no movement towards mutual respect. How can we see through the eyes of the other until we are given a chance to understand their motives and views? It’s not about coming to a place where everyone can be on the same page – it’s about understanding our differences.
By making my views clear to my family, they can come to the conclusion that I am not simply a “fallen soul” or a “rebellious person.” They can see that I have actually thought these ideas out, and that I have reasoning behind the different direction my life has taken. Our open communication is important in the respect that it can break clichés. I wish however, that their side of the story would break clichés as well. They recite words that I have heard since I was a small child. But it’s still fair to make an attempt at breaking through that version to get to the heart of our true stories. I’m doing my best to get to know them beyond their recitations.
I still exist within that role of the child they couldn’t keep in line. My words never come out as clearly with my parents as with other people. This really frustrates Michael. It’s exhausting for me to exist within the place where my parents think and the place where I think as well. I know their thoughts exactly because I used to think the same way. This can be vocally stunting, because I don’t want to hurt them. There’s a fine balance between being oneself and respecting the feelings of others. My mother was incredulous when I told her that I try my best to respect her faith, as though this should be a given. They think that I am deceived, while I think that they are deceived. Perhaps we are two sides of the same coin. But perhaps not. Faith is static and fights to never be challenged by new information. I welcome openness and fresh thought.
All of this makes me wonder how our story will unfold. Will we continue in this vein, or will the talks on religion come to an end with the end of writing my book? I watch them, with their hopes that I will come around, and cringe over their pain. I want to be understood but know that I never will be – my husband fills that gap. As a family, we all come to terms with this through focusing on our common features instead. I have my father’s personality, while Michael is very much like my mom. We all joke over our similarities. Half the table orders one thing and the other half orders another. We all love each other and have a strong bond of friendship – simply being related is no guarantee of that. I know for sure that I am luckier than most.
April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments
As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.
I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.
Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.
We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.
At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.
For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.
Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.
During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.
Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”
There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.
Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.
Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.
As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.
“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””
Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.
A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).
“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”
Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.
I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.
I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.
I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.
We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.
I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.
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 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.
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.
May 30, 2013 § 4 Comments
On the front cover of Shann Ray’s book of short stories, American Masculine, two bison lock horns.The week I read it, friends on Facebook posted photos of bison as they drove past them on road trips. I have never been in bison country, and did not know that the herds are still so prolific. Tucked away in cities, I rarely come into contact with the wildness of nature, minus attacks from small insects.
Shann Ray’s stories deal with men grappling over their western roots while facing life in the modern world. There are memories of rodeo’s, bottled up emotions that lead to rage, and the sense that when you leave the country behind, life is a barren wasteland.
I was drawn to read Shann Ray’s stories because my husband, Michael, is writing a novel based on his childhood in Texas. His father was wound tight, a Vietnam vet, uncontrollable, massive, simmering, abusive, senseless, always waiting on the border of explosion. I have never met my father in-law, and never will.
My own father was not a man of the West (more like Midwest). He grew up in Chicago, the city where cows were shipped in to be processed at the Union Stock Yards.
My dad was tiny – more suited to gymnastics than football. His father’s blue-collar dream was for my dad to become a horse jockey at the races. The Barnhart’s revolved around the track. Great grandmother spent hours figuring out which horses to bet on. On the weekends, my grandfather watched the horses fly. Their ability to run to nowhere, a constant reminder that there was no way out from his treadmill of a job. Life was hard work. But the horses brought glamour, excitement, and beauty to an otherwise difficult existence.
Even in Chicago, horses were a part of the daily fabric. It was about being a man (a big man), not getting cheated, not getting beat up, not revealing your vulnerability; silent at home, boisterous at the bar.
When I was a kid, my dad was intimidating, stressed out, and probably a little depressed from having to work so much. Whenever I was alone with him, I was never sure what we would find to talk about. His own father (who died when I was eight) never said one word to me.
Silence was my first impression of men. The little boys on the block played with me until I was five, and then they went quiet. It was no longer cool to play with a girl. Now they had to feign a crush or show aversion. Chasing me on their bikes, the only sound I heard was shifting gears and wind.
Boys only spoke if they wanted to add to my list of insecurities. It seemed that everything about me, as a girl, was wrong to them. I began to fear my need for their approval and attention.
After my sister and I left the house, my dad learned how to be a really loving father. He’d done his job raising us, and he let go of the fear of failure. He listened to his co-worker and friend, Bruce, talk on the telephone with his daughters. Bruce listened, said, “I love you,” and encouraged. He wasn’t afraid to cry. As my father grows older, he becomes softer, more vulnerable, more loving.
My husband, Michael, is quite a bit like Bruce. But there is another side to Michael that is just like his Texan father. He blows a fuse every now and then. He can be irrational, highly emotional, extremely sensitive. These are things his father tried to hide, which resulted in explosive behavior.
Michael is obsessed with the hero’s journey. He’s been a lifetime devotee of comic books. He lives in the plot. No matter what he goes through, he’s never a victim, always the hero.
He escaped his father at fifteen years old. From then on, he was homeless, until the Marines recruited him when he started boxing at a gym. For three years he was a guard at the London Embassy. After his discharge, he received a Master’s in English (though he only went to one day of high school). He also traveled around the world for a year on his bicycle. I’ll never get to see quite as much of the world as he has.
Shann Ray paints a sinister, sad, hopeless picture of the American male. Almost all of his men are the sort you’d want to escape. If it isn’t the man, it’s the woman involved. The men struggle to grasp with life in the office after the farm, the rodeo, or the reservation.
“He wants and doesn’t want to say how right she was, how poor a man he is, has always been, … like most men, same poverty of mind, same darkness. Hidden, unknowable. I tried, he says aloud as she sleeps. But he knows he didn’t (Ray, 59).”
But what about the tenacity of the American male? The will to fight against the odds? The drive? The ability to turn poor circumstances into positive opportunities?
Quite possibly, the average person does not achieve this, and I am just living with an exception. For every brother that breaks the pattern of the father, there is always another brother left behind who becomes the father. All of the men in my family are the ones that got away.
Shann Ray’s characters pine for the lost sense of being a hero – lassoing cattle, riding horses, working with their hands. Their large bodies feel like a waste at tasks that have no physical value. Academia is vacant, the desk a torture of monotony. Sex or violence is the only savior from boredom and oncoming death.
It is hard for me to relate to Ray’s view of the western man in the modern world. His characters are all victims, fragile, emotionally weak, lacking in awareness. I am much more interested in people who take control of their lives, striving to find their own personal place of fulfillment. Life is hard, and you have to fight to not let it weigh you down. Do what you love to do, and happiness follows, even if that means going back to the farm. I know plenty of people who are doing just that.
The issue is not even about the farm verses the office. There is a lack of vision in the characters – humans blindly going through life, unable to change, afraid, stuck. Frustrating intensity, with no answer to the riddle, and the brother’s that are left behind.
April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
I used to wear long flowing skirts with rainbow bursts of color splashed across the side. There were headscarves with silver thread in dusty rose, orange, chartreuse, and umber. Large silver hoops with turquoise beads, amber stones around my neck, and a three inch long silver cuff with inlay that made me feel invincible.
The exotic bohemian garb began when I was a professional belly dancer, and the style grew until it seemed I’d turned full-blooded gypsy. I had style for sure. But my style spoke louder than I ever could. A lot of people would take one look and write me off as one of those annoying hippies. But I didn’t smoke out, I was never going vegan, and I hated the idea of groupthink.
Behind my back, my boss at an art gallery said, “Lauren only dresses that way because she needs too much attention. She’s insecure.”
Having just moved back to anonymous Seattle from connected New York, I certainly was having an insecure moment, trying to find my footing. It had nothing to do with the way I dressed.
For me, my attire was in the spirit of the dance. As an artist, I loved to wear all the objects that made me happy. When it began, I was on the East Coast, missing the laid-back vibe of the West Coast, where people can just “be.” The scene I’d left in Seattle wouldn’t think twice about my dress. But by the time I moved back, I was totally over the Burning Man crowd.
I’d been involved with enough guru wannabe’s to know that the whole thing was a hoax. The drugs made people feel powerful in an otherwise disempowered life. Overnight, you could go from being a hooker to a tantric practitioner, or from a massage therapist to a healer or shaman. The ultimate path was to find a way to make money off of your newfound mystical powers. But I was always the one paying for their dinner. Then came resentment, and statements like, “You don’t appreciate my gift.” Because really, one person never has enough worship to give them. The people I knew, needed as many lovers as possible. Hence, I got tired of the scene, though my style remained the same.
Three years later, I was newly married and having a crisis of not feeling attractive anymore. I gained weight, and stopped getting looks from men or glares from jealous women. A server at a brunch spot that I went to every weekend asked me if I was pregnant. My empire waist dresses and wrap skirts seemed like the culprit in letting myself go. Or maybe it was the decadence of being in love.
I wanted to feel sexy again. But even more than that, in a city where you could go to the same coffee shop everyday for years without a single person ever talking to you, I wanted to feel approachable. I was tired of appearing mysterious and intimidating. It might have worked in New York where people have the balls to talk to anyone, but in Seattle, not so much.
Piece by piece, the bright colors disappeared. My hemlines began to climb up to my thighs. As an art model, I can’t wear any jewelry, so that slipped away too. The only thing that remained the same was the tights and combat boots. Now it’s all a slim minimalist aesthetic. Black cotton dresses with ruching at the sides, short blazers, Rocker T’s. I fit in just about anywhere I go, while still looking somewhat interesting. People can get to know me without a bunch of snap judgments about my dietary restrictions, my spiritual life, my bank account, or my need for attention.
I have a close friend, Freda, who moved here from New York shortly after I did. She fell for a hippie vegan guy and now they are preparing to move into their second yurt in Eastern Washington. They have a cool life together – growing their own food, playing in a band, working temporary jobs. She has long itchy dreadlocks, and years later, I still pine for her chocolate brown silken strands that tickled instead. She left her job as a Geologist, and even surveyed Yankee Stadium at one point. Food-wise, we’ve found common dietary ground by dining at sushi or Indian places.
Freda finds her solace by being identified with a group that shares hardcore values. But she is amazing, simply on her own. When I get those rare moments of having Freda solo time, the belly-shaking laugh comes back, and the spark in her eyes reappears. It’s when I know she’s stripped to the core of her pure self.
I stand by while her friends are sometimes judgmental, calling me an enabler for having a drink with her before their show. I’ve watched her go through evolutions, and I’m sure she’ll go through more. It’s the nature of our lives as free spirits. I don’t really get this current evolution that she’s in, but I do my best to be supportive. I’m on the other side now, looking in.
Every commune eventually reaches its end. It’s the nature of the hippy beast. This week, I read the highly entertaining novel, Drop City, by T.C. Boyle. For years I laughed over the front cover in bookstores – eight naked people lying facedown in a circle amidst wild flowers and grass. Looking at the cover, it’s uncertain whether or not they have just drunk the wrong kind of kool-aid, or if they’re all facedown, taking a bizarre nap. But in their facedown nakedness, arms piled around their backs, they seem stripped of individual identity.
It’s 1970, and a commune of hippies decides to skip out on the land regulations of California. Their leader, Norm, moves them all to his uncle’s deserted cabin in the middle of Alaska. As can be expected, chaos ensues. Their lazy cluelessness in the wild is contrasted by the hard work of the settlers down the river, who work day and night to store food for the onset of winter. The greatest plot twist hits as 24/7 nighttime descends and the thermometer drops forty degrees below zero. Utopia is forgotten for the harsh struggle against fierce elements.
It seems we’re all trying to protect ourselves from the harsh truths of nature. In the wilds of Alaska, it can’t be avoided. Religions all promise a utopia on the other side of death. The thought of it completely bores me. Nature is much more exciting. It’s a struggle, it’s a discipline, it’s a code of values completely contrary to anything humans want to snuggle up to.
While reading, I thought a lot about the dropout hippies on their drug binges doing nothing as months and even years passed. Only on drugs, does it ever feel okay to languish. The idea is such a concept of extreme youth, and not even in youth does that make you happy.
It was my birthday last Thursday, and I tried doing nothing all day. I felt increasingly depressed as the minutes ticked by. I collapsed with sleepiness on the bed and couldn’t get up without a homemade mocha and a campy Ami Stewart vinyl record playing “Come on baby light my fire.” Disco + Hippy = Crazy.
I am on the settler end of the spectrum. I love action. I love getting things done and preparing for the future. I love being a survivor. It seems I’ve won some kind of fight against submitting to the corporate world, which is something that hippies and settlers have in common.
On a positive note, without the hippy movement, we wouldn’t have the entrepreneurial market that we have today. Through their vision to see outside of the box and create technology, now artists can make their own rules, and sell their work without the big man in charge. That’s the thing. Most hippies turned into yuppies eventually. They got bored of tuning out, so they turned on and got with it.
Sometimes I put on the old clothes, just to see how they make me feel. But they represent a Lauren that doesn’t exist anymore. All of that fabric slows down my stride, and the long skirts get wet and dirty in the rain (not to mention the bell bottoms). I feel like I’m wearing a costume. I can’t see myself beneath the eccentric character.
My life now is all about movement. I’m in a race against time to achieve my goals as a writer. I’m growing a life with my husband. All of my values have shifted. When I was in my twenties, I thought everything would remain the same. But it all grows. That is the way of nature. We just have to tend to it.
March 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
As women, especially, we carry our mothers within us. We carry our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and so on. Beginning life through their looking glass, we interpret from their experience. As adults, we hopefully bring something new to the equation.
In The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd shares how she went from being the good Southern Baptist wife, to an awakening of the anti-female language in the church and the traditional roles she had fallen into without question, causing her to become the many breasted woman. She takes a precarious journey towards finding her own true voice, fearing that she will lose her husband or that her kids will be too shaken. But what results instead is a total awakening that greatly improves her relationships and her life.
I go back and forth between two worlds on a consistent basis. Living in downtown Seattle I am surrounded by strong-willed, independent, mature, and passionate women. They hold themselves tall. They’re never looking at the floor, but straight out into what they can learn and how they can grow. They earn respect from their peers, and are active in their community.
Being around them long enough, I can forget that there is another world, the one that I come from, where women live beneath a patriarchal religion that tells them they are unclean and not worthy; the downfall of humanity beginning with Eve who tempted Adam with an apple; a Bible with so few mentions of women, that as a girl I clung to the stories of Ruth and Esther for dear life.
It’s a struggle to still see this mindset in my family members. I am often held to the same standards as the mothers who went before me, even though my husband and I do not share the same value system as my family. Trying to gain their respect as an independent human being, apart from my husband, is difficult. I often feel that for them, a husband is the replacement of your father, and my decisions are like a child’s whims that need to be reined in.
My mother was raised in the fifties and sixties in the Midwest. The negative messages she received about being a woman were manifold. She began to believe that she was dirty, ill equipped to handle life, unintelligent, not worthy of a college education the way her three brothers were. She says that her greatest achievement is having given birth to my sister and I, and raising us well. My mother did the best that she knew how. Though within her, I always sense an untapped potential – creative talents lying inert, a lack of belief in her value. She wonders out loud, “I’m already sixty something, and what have I done with my life?”
She was always with us, always there when we got home from school. But as then, and even now, there is a sense that she is often absent. Maybe it is the trait that my sister and I both share with my mother – we all have a tendency to get lost somewhere up in our heads. My nieces also share this trait, with their wild use of the imagination and sudden bursts of wit. With this up-in-your-headness, there is the danger of retreating from a fully functioning life. All of us women in the family are artists whether we express that or not. Maybe the problem lies in wondering whether our expression is valid or valuable.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter – A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, she writes, “I like the way Clarissa Pinkola Estes says it: ‘When a woman is exhorted to be compliant, cooperative, and quiet, to not make upset or go against the old guard, she is pressed into living a most unnatural life – a life that is self blinding… without innovation. The world-wide issue for women is that under such conditions they are not only silenced, they are put to sleep. Their concerns, their viewpoints, their own truths are vaporized (Monk Kidd, 21).'”
I want to know my mother from before I was born. In photos she looks mischievous and carefree. She wears dark eyeliner, with funky 1960’s hairstyles, and mod clothing. She plays the piano, or munches an ice cube in old film footage at the racetrack with my dad. In photos, they goof off with their Old English sheepdog, Big Boy. They are young and beautiful, and life is rich with possibility. She worked for the telephone company, and he was an engineer. On the weekends they took random road-trips, not sure where they’d end up.
As a child, her mother was bipolar and overwhelmed by raising five kids. Grandma preferred her three sons to the two daughters. She never really liked women that much, and she also wasn’t very happy with her emotionally distant husband. But she did love fashion, expressing herself, and working in retail.
On my father’s side, my history of mothers only exists in photographs. His mother died of cancer when she was my age. In photos, she is always laughing with friends. She looks like the center of the universe. Her face is a strangely familiar territory of my eyes, and my sister’s lips. So many aspects of her have been passed down to us, but what they were (outside of photos), we’ll never know. I cling to these images – a grandmother, only visible in stills of black and white. I build up stories around her that only make her more beautiful, more daring, more carefree.
I quickly flip past the photos near the end of her life. She is washing dishes, with my dad (a toddler) playing at her feet. The lines beneath her eyes have turned purple, her shoulders slump towards the sink, exhaustion is written all over her failing body. I choose to forget this, though it lingers in my subconscious, and I wonder if like her, I could possibly die young.
My history of mothers didn’t have the opportunities that I do. Through everything that I do in my life, I celebrate them. I celebrate my right to speak, to write honestly and openly, and leave a record of myself that goes beyond old photographs found in a shoebox. So much of what my mothers really felt, was never spoken.
As I think about opening my life to the possibility of motherhood, I understand the importance of a line of mothers. I see the magnitude of knowing, before I take that step, my own value as a self. It’s painful to me when my mother writes off her life as not being very important. All I can really do is make up for it, everyday, with how I live my own life.
When she lost her mother, I was nine years old. Mom lost her luster as a distant perfect goddess, always washing dishes at the sink. She became a human being. Our family was split down the middle at the time, mid-move from Chicago to Seattle. She and I were still in the old house. She was afraid, scared, hiding boos in the back of the refrigerator (she never drank). Every night we stayed somewhere else, or a friend stayed with us.
Suddenly, it seemed that I was becoming the mother. I resented her for it. I didn’t know how to control my anger. That was when mom began to say that I reminded her of her mother. I was scared that like grandma, I was bipolar too, and maybe diabetic. No one really painted a positive image of grandma, though she was always nice to my sister and I. And it was my aggression that brought up the comparison.
“Most of my life I’d run from anger as something that good daughters and gracious ladies did not exhibit. Perhaps the thing most denied to women is anger. ‘Forbidden anger, women could find no voice in which to publicly complain; they took refuge in depression,’ writes Carolyn Heilbrun. Her words came true for me. Without the ability to allow or the means to adequately express the anger, I began to slide into periods of depression (Monk Kidd, 74).”
You could say that depression runs in my family, but I broke out of a habit that descended down through the women for generations. It was a long, painful process, letting go of that mindset and way of being. But then one day I woke up, fully in charge of my own life, fully capable, and fully expressive. The sluggish, then raging, suicidal thoughts were completely gone. I cracked the code. The answer was within me all along. As long as I face life with no fear, give what I have to offer, and value my gifts, I am happy. It’s a simple equation. But there was nothing simple about how long it took, and difficult it was, to figure it all out.
In life, there is always what we are, and what we were. They live together simultaneously. Some people catch up to who we are now, and some never do. But we all manage to learn from each other. Though my parents raised me, their daughters have raised them as well. My family speaks a different language through an opposite worldview, but we can still connect with laughter, good food, and the stories of our interconnected lives. Everyday, we grow in awareness of ourselves in relation to each other.
January 13, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many years ago, I had a ten-month relationship with a Palestinian man who was getting his PhD in political science. We were more like companions than lovers, but the sexual tension between us drove us crazy. There was only one time, early on, that we acted on that tension, and it was a disaster. Amidst our attempt at satisfaction, he fell asleep, and I left him there, alone with his own snores. He woke up after I left, confused and lonely, wondering where I went. I was furious, and it was a tremendous blow to my ego. I was very young, but I’d been through so much at that point, I was also very old. Much older than I am now.
That winter it snowed so much, that I was stuck at his apartment in the University district for three days. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, so he lended me his black and white checked Keffiyeh. It was thick cotton. Piled around my neck, it protected me from the elements. I thought of how the Keffiyeh is most commonly used for protection against the hot desert sun.
It wasn’t really a fad yet, to wear a Keffiyeh around a college campus as a fashion statement. So a lot of people gave me funny looks. It felt as though the scarf could speak much louder than I ever could. There were people whose eyes lit up with happiness, and others who frowned.
Magid was much older than I was, and looked like a cross between Omar Shariff, and Louis Jourdan. Outside, his cigarettes added smoke to the steam escaping from his full lips. We walked through the city, beneath trees with intricate twig webs of white. We drank espresso at the Solstice coffee shop. He read the world politics section of the newspaper with his legs crossed. I wrote poems.
Mostly, we just fought all the time. But that weekend, with all of that snow, we created a cozy world for ourselves. Unobstructed by stress, power struggles, and Magid’s pain over always feeling like an outsider.
Though he had many friends, he was locked inside of solitude. And within him, always the constant conflict between East and West. To be in the West was both to avoid his homeland, and also to fight for it with the safety of distance. To be in the East was to be beaten down and humiliated. Even community, tradition, and family, could not protect him from this. He was a foreigner no matter where he went.
The same feels true of Ka, Orhan Pamuk’s main character in his richly poetic novel, Snow. Through Snow we are given a view into the struggles of the small town of Kars in Turkey, and the conflict between Islam and the State. Since a ban on headscarves for girls in school, there have been several suicides among the headscarf girls, but it is uncertain as to whether their reasons were religious or having more to do with their miserable lives.
Ka is a poet who comes to Kars on the pretense of covering the suicide girls and the political elections for a Frankfurt newspaper (where he lives as a political exile). But his real reason is to seek out a beautiful woman he remembers from college.
While in Kars, Ka writes several poems. He is snowed in, and the roads have been closed. Political tensions come to a peak. And though involved beyond what he would care to be, the events pale in comparison to the love he has found, and the overwhelming feeling that he will lose her. What is more, his Atheism is challenged by the perfect symmetry of snowflakes, and so he begins to see through all points of view. He becomes susceptible to the mystical, the charismatic, the theatrical dramas that cross the line from stage to reality.
My companion, Magid, did not seem to have a sense of faith. I admired that about him. His family was Christian, and he always said that Americans had no idea how many Christians lived in Palestine. He taught me that the news we receive here is very dishonest and biased. He took it upon himself to educate me on world issues.
There was a part of him that wanted to be liberated from his culture. But the part that was still entrenched in tradition, railed against my strong willed nature. He was both attracted and humiliated by my need for independence. Insanely jealous, with no reason to be, since is wasn’t beyond him to take another woman home, if I wouldn’t go with him.
He said he would take me to Israel, but he never did. Instead, he went alone when his father was dying. And on his way back, he was strip searched and made to stand naked in front of group of guards. They rifled through his credit cards. They confiscated his luggage, and then gave it back to him after they had stolen the gifts he was bringing back. They assigned him a guard, to escort him at all times in the airport, until he boarded the plane. He was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.
When his plane had a layover in Jersey, he called his family and found out that his father had just died. There was a sense of relief at having missed it. If he had been there, it would have been weeks of sitting in the house and mourning while all the neighbors came by to offer food and condolences. He considered whether or not he should grow out his beard as a sign of mourning. Then he decided that no, he was in America now. He didn’t have to do that.
He flew home, and when he told me all about what had happened, he cried. It was summer now, and we were eating burgers at a bar in Fremont. The sun was hot on our heads, streaming through a large window behind us.
The last time I saw him, we fought so badly that I drove him back to his street and dropped him off on the sidewalk before we could even make it to dinner. I drove away without even saying goodbye. The next day, I moved to New York.
Our story was a small pocket of my life. And in that pocket is the silence of snow, a Keffiyeh, Magid’s cigarettes and a newspaper stuck under his arm. We are not fighting the fight between East and West. We are peacefully gazing at each other from across the table with love in our eyes, while the students around us are wondering what a young girl like me is doing with a stubborn old man.
I see that Magid is living a successful life as an intellectual and writer. He is hard at work, stripping the layers off of the Westernized condescending and racist approach to Arab culture. His research has led him to express his thoughts through a historically Arabic point of view. It appears that he has returned to the East.
I will always remember that in Arabic there are over twenty words for “love” but in English, we only have one. I will remember the way that the men all danced together, and swung their hips in a subtle way. I will remember the koobideh with basmati rice and saffron. The poets and musicians; the pain and love that they expressed. The ancient culture that we could never feign to understand in the West.