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?
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 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.
June 16, 2013 § 3 Comments
The title of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, refers to a comment her mother made shortly before Jeanette left home for good. They lived in working class Manchester, England. Her harsh, adoptive mother was a Pentecostal, obsessive-compulsive, abusive woman who hated life so much she hoped the Apocalypse would arrive soon. Mrs. Winterson never slept in order to avoid sleeping with her husband. She was in denial of her physical self. She often locked Jeanette outside or in the coal cellar overnight on freezing cold nights.
“She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have a choice (Winterson, 1).”
To escape, Jeanette turned to books, and then she fell in love with a girl. When Mrs. Winterson found out, a brutal exorcism ensued, including three days of starvation, and an over-zealous minister who tried to convince Jeanette (in a perverse fashion) that men were more suited to her needs than women. Of course, they failed at making her play the game of pretend. If Mrs. Winterson taught Jeanette anything, it was to be stubborn. And after living in that house all her young life, nothing could break her.
Jeanette soon had to leave home, though she was only sixteen. Her passion for literature brought her to Oxford where she was left to herself with three other women to study on their own. Shortly after college, her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, became an international bestseller and she has won numerous awards since.
I feel a strong bond with Jeanette, as though we’ve met up a few times and swapped stories. Each time after, she hurried back to her intensely private life, while I was left wanting more. Strong women have that effect on me.
I could write here about my family, about how I grew up in a Pentecostal home, but I’ve written about that dozens of times, not to mention in my memoir No End Of The Bed. I’m at that point right now, where Jeanette was with the release of Oranges, except that I was not published by a major, and I only sold twenty copies in the first month.
I had this idea in my head that people would go buy the book right away, and word would spread extremely fast, like an internet video going viral. But in this case, word spreads slowly, and finding an audience is a process that builds on itself through time, energy, and creativity. The hero’s journey of the struggling writer continues, and I am still faced with a giant uphill battle to win the narrative in my head. In other words, my dream still feels crazy, and a little out of reach.
I am often working ten-hour days on writing, marketing, and publishing. No one is looking over my shoulder, I’m not punching a clock, and I haven’t made a dime. In fact, I’ve spent every cent that I made in the last three months and more to make this a reality. I sent the book out to reviewers who probably won’t give it a second glance. Whether they write about it or not, it’s important that they see it and know that it exists, and that quality books will keep coming from Knotted Tree Press in the future.
Without writing, I become an unbearable human being. When I stop, my obsessions go into strange territories. So I wonder, what would pre-feminist Lauren look like? Would I look like Mrs. Winterson? Would I have made everyone around me miserable? And without the benefit of knowledge, would I have been a religious extremist? Would I have remained in an adolescent state – lacking in awareness of others, narcissistic, self-absorbed.
“I suddenly realised that I would always have been in this bar that night. If I hadn’t found books, if I hadn’t turned my oddness into poetry and the anger into prose, well, I wasn’t ever going to be a nobody with no money… I’d have gone into property and made a fortune. I’d have a boob job by now, and be on my second or third husband, and live in a ranch-style house with a Range Rover on the gravel and a hot tub in the garden, and my kids wouldn’t be speaking to me (Winterson, 208).”
We all have the capacity to find our sweet spot from the work we love. Sometimes, it takes a lot of bravery to lay claim to the work that you love. Quite possibly, most people hate their jobs. The only way to get through it is to do something you love after or before work. At an art studio last week, I overheard a man say that he wished he studied art instead of nursing. But the nursing affords him the time and financial stability to do the art. He’d just come off a night shift, and would be in class all day. In fact, most of the really dedicated artists are older and retired. They gave up their passion for thirty years, and now go to studios five days a week, working tirelessly.
Without writing, I don’t think I would have grown as I have, or become as aware of my life and the lives around me. It’s a system of processing information and coming to more questions, and even some conclusions.
In my head, just like Jeanette, I have another life, a Plan B that I’ll probably never fall back on. I think a lot about real estate. I imagine myself negotiating and making deals (things that in real life I utterly failed at as a Literary Agent). I pass by expensive historic homes when I walk to work. I watch when they come up for sale, I look to see who’s selling them. I wonder what the stories are of the people who live there, and long to solve all the mysteries of domestic life. See? I begin in sales, and end up literary. But in the real estate dream-life, there are returns for all of my hard work. I am rewarded for knowing my own value. It eases the reality of the life I am living.
“I know now, … that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance (Winterson, 38).”
What matters most is that the people who have read No End Of The Bed came back to me with rave reviews with such comments as “mesmerizing,” “brave,” “painted pictures with words,” “couldn’t put it down,” “loved the dialogue,” “has the power to help people.” Everyone finished it within two weeks (surprising to me for how busy they all are, especially the new moms). I went from feeling horribly exposed, to feeling wonderfully connected. Friends I hadn’t seen in a long time met up with me to share their own stories. People I’ve known since college looked at me with greater understanding. They questioned their choices in comparison to my own. Everyone talked about different scenes in the book. And no one seemed shocked or turned-off by some of the extremely sexual content. Neither were they offended by the feelings I expressed against the church. The rush has since died down, and now it’s up to the people I’ve never met to read the book and come to their own conclusions.
This morning I read about the publishing trajectory of the trilogy Fifty Shades Of Grey. I haven’t read the books, and couldn’t even get through the first page, but there are some comparisons to be made with No End Of The Bed as far as S&M content. E.L. James was first published by a small indie publisher in Australia with an e-book and print-on-demand in May 2011. The books gained momentum on blogs and social media, gaining a deal with Random House for somewhere around a million dollars in March 2012. The books sold 25 million copies in the first four months. So even in this case of the fastest selling books, success did not come overnight. It took time and persistence.
In Winterson’s novel, Sexing The Cherry, she explores time. Her mother looms in the character of a giantess. The narrative flips from the medieval to the present. We are asked to consider time and the dangers of puritanical thinking. Time is the story, and with it, the domino effect of lives from past to present. Earth seems like a magical place, except that it isn’t, if you inspect it close enough. We are not the result of miracles. Life occurs from hard work and persistence, from the smallest organism, to the most complex.
June 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
She hits it with prep school culture, the rich bitches on Queen Anne Hill, and the entertaining foibles of a Microsoft husband who is so absent that he tries to institutionalize his wife, Bernadette, over some bizarre stories involving her interactions with the mothers at Galer Street School. In this absorbing comedy of errors, Maria Semple has a fearless sense of humor.
Unexpectedly, while reading this novel, I receive an offer to work as an art model at Microsoft. I decide to infiltrate and see for myself if Semple’s portrayal is accurate.
When the time comes, I have anxiety issues. I am used to art studios, and corporations with their neon lights and employee handbooks make my skin crawl. I wonder what it will be like. Will there be a bunch of awkward nerds? Will there be gamers who want to use their figure studies to turn me into a heroine in a video game? I have no idea, and prefer to be surprised upon arrival. A friend tells me that he was surprised on his campus visit, to see a bunch of muscled guys playing sports, more akin to the volleyball scene in Top Gun.
I arrive early to beat traffic, and sit in the parking lot for fifteen minutes eating a sandwich. Green Connectors of all shapes and sizes drive past: large busses, mini-busses, even taxis cart around elite looking individuals on their cell phones. A whole transportation system devoted entirely to Microsoft employees. When it isn’t a connector, it’s a luxury vehicle, such as a banana yellow BMW Z4 roadster (can you say mid-life crisis?). ‘Money,’ I think to myself. Something that I don’t have, but having grown up with it, it haunts me every now and then.
The campus spreads for miles between two towns, not including some other buildings located in downtown Bellevue. I get out of my car amidst a lush green landscape. Inside, the receptionist is talking to a guy who does appear to be more Top Gun than tech nerd. She talks to him for five minutes, going in circles over what to do about the mess left behind in the main room that the admins should have picked up. But being admins, they’ve gone home already. And according to Semple’s book, there might even be only two of them for this entire building.
When I am finally instructed to introduce myself, it turns out that this guy is the one I will be working for. The receptionist gets nervous about me going in through the thick glass doors without a hall pass. She makes a fuss over the fact that I will ride on through with my employer’s card. Then she says, “Absolutely no photography in this building. And you are not allowed on the second floor due to the nature of the work they’re doing here.”
Totally out of my element. I live my life the way I do to never be exposed to people like her or places like that.
We go in, where a few friendly guys are early. One lives in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the other lives in the neighborhood where I live now. The guy who runs the space arrives, and immediately takes out a camera to take pictures of the event. Feeling a little like the receptionist, I ask to not be included in the photos. It’s a model thing, even though corporate policy requires me to be partially clothed. As soon as I see the guys bunking the no photos rule, I decide to take some pictures too. This is my spy mission after all, and the receptionist has gone home.
About thirty people show up. The drawing time is meant to inspire creativity, leading to greater innovation. Most of them have never done figure drawing before. Art materials are in full supply, and at 6 o-clock, four different types of pizza arrive. Around the corner there are fridges stocked with free soda (though I don’t drink the stuff), and most extraordinary: a 3-D printer. The machine competes for attention throughout the evening, as interns draw designs on the computer and watch as their plastic creations are spit out.
The populace makes the space seem more like a college campus than a corporation. Only a few older people show up, and the rest are interns. Did I mention how friendly they all are? Creepily so. I imagine them going home and telling their spouses that they had to work late, when in actuality they were figure drawing and having a pizza party.
I talk to a girl who tells me she’s never met someone who lives the type of life I lead. It seems bizarre when she says to me, “It’s just so great that you’re pursuing writing.” As though I just started doing this a year ago. I feel old, just then. I’ve been tugging at my dream for fifteen years. Here this girl is just out of college, owns a house and a car, and is set up for life thanks to this giant corporate utopia.
What most pleases me, is posing for people who have never experienced figure drawing before. Their work appears to be at the grade school level, which is completely endearing given their technical genius minds. I can feel their brains straining to work in a different way. Fostering creativity to increase their output of top-secret ideas.
I suddenly don’t feel so out of my league. I wear the same sort of clothes as everyone else (before undressing). And unlike Bee (the daughter in Bernadette), my iPhone isn’t shocking. In fact, almost everyone has one. At first I feel guilty for pulling mine out, until I look around.
“Outdoorsy Dad: (Getting defensive because everyone there is lusting for an iPhone, but there’s a rumor that if Ballmer sees you with one, you’ll get shitcanned. Even though this hasn’t been proven, it hasn’t been disproven either) (Semple, 125).”
On my break, I look up at the hallowed second floor, wondering what the hell is up there. I stand there, enjoying my status as “the dangerous outsider.”
I saw Maria Semple a few months ago at Town Hall. Her infiltration of Microsoft consisted of a guided tour, and she does an excellent job at summing up the lifestyle in her book. That night, we were seated behind her daughter (who is much younger than Bee). Throughout the interview, she was more interested in turning her head to make eye contact with Poppy, than in fielding questions from Nancy Pearl. Of course, it was slightly awkward that Nancy Pearl fit Semple’s description of the typical Seattle woman to a T.
“Remember when the feds busted in on that Mormon polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle (Semple, 128).”
Through writing the book, Maria (a transplant from L.A. who wrote for TV) ends up falling in love with Seattle. How can you not? It takes a while, but this place can really claim you. I tend to get stuck in my action-packed neighborhood, though the surrounding areas are extraordinary with mountains and water everywhere you look.
“The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless (Semple, 325).”
Similar to the dramas in the book, I’ve had wrestling matches with blackberry bushes that were attempting to overtake evergreen trees – resulting in bloody arms and sore muscles. It’s kind of amazing to experience nature stomping on your plans, and threatening to be in charge. I’ve become addicted to that sky that Semple raves about. She describes it perfectly. It’s never stagnant, not even in the dead of summer. There are days, walking home, where people rush down the hill just to capture the sky with their cameras. But you can never capture that wide over-reaching arc of the sky.
Where was I again? Corporate life – where nothing is exactly natural. I had a friend who worked at Amazon. He said he watched as people turned into the shapes of their chairs. Eventually they got divorced so they could marry a fellow co-worker. You can bring your dog to work, and walk around the office in your socks. It’s just like being at home, and people never want to leave.
As much as I have trouble understanding it, without all of these people creating innovation and changing the landscape of our lives, we wouldn’t have the tools to be successful as artists, writers, entrepreneurs, whatever independent pursuit it may be. Though Amazon has put hundreds of indie bookstores out of business, I wouldn’t be a published author without them. In one second I grimace at the catastrophe, in the next, I owe them one. It’s one big board game of Monopoly.
February 13, 2013 § 12 Comments
A man in my writer’s group often makes the comment that the rough draft of my second memoir could use more plot. Writing a memoir is a long process of layering, of recalling memories that are revived through old journal entries. By the end of the process, there is always a plot, but never it seems, before the final draft.
It made me think of all my favorite books. They don’t follow a traditional narrative arc, but they do capture life itself – ‘Post Office’ by Charles Bukowski, or any book by Henry Miller, for example.
In real life, plot does not take the same shape as in a novel. It only exists as something to be noticed from many years past. It’s a narrative device to hold the reader’s interest, a method of pacing and cliffhangers. In life, we are not aware of the plot until we have reached an entirely different evolution of self.
My second book is difficult to build since it captures the time I spent living in Hoboken, NJ/New York City. There were always a million things happening at once, much more than what should be captured on the page. In a three year span I was a poet, a belly dancer, a singer/songwriter on the mandolin, a percussionist in a bossa nova band, a hostess at a popular restaurant, a literary agent, an artist’s assistant for someone famous, a pool player, a coffee drinker, a groupie, and a mad downer of whisky. I was out every night, and working every day. Many universes collided, which is part of the fun, and exactly what made it so fascinating to live through.
In New York, the parallel life shifted between being very poor, while often being among the extremely rich. Within my tribe there was a great deal of tension within the “us verses them”. We despised the rich. Abused them if they came within our dive bar territory. And yet, we often depended on the rich to get by. To play those games, you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t. There was a massive growing process that took place within that struggle, and a process of letting go.
This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s mostly memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’. It’s the first book by Hemingway that I have ever enjoyed, and I’m surprised that I gave him another chance. I never lose faith in him, though I don’t like any of his novels (minimalism, no adjectives, run-on sentences, bare expanses, macho posturing).
Of ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway writes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”
Is there a plot in this book? Of course not. It’s a love letter to Paris and his time spent with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the love he shared with his first wife Hadley, and their baby, Bumby (including Bumby’s babysitter, a cat named F. Puss).
Hemingway makes Fitzgerald sound like a tiresome alcoholic with a cuckold for a wife; Zelda, a wife jealous of her husband’s talent who makes him drink to distract him from his craft; Stein, an egomaniac with no patience for women other than Alice. To get through it all, Hemingway drinks plenty of whiskies with soda and lemon juice (a delicious drink). And then, just when you feel he’s really had enough, supreme, in all of this, is the joy of being a writer in a city like Paris.
“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed (Hemingway, 91).”
By the end of the book, you feel the sadness that Hemingway experienced at the loss of this world he inhabited, and his young family. The rich were drawn to his success and left him feeling empty. Other women drew him away from Hadley and filled him with regret. But in the end, there was always Paris.
“We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy (Hemingway, 211).”
In ‘A Moveable Feast’ the place becomes the plot. No matter how many people pass through, or how quickly they appear and then disappear. This is the life of the city: a constant rotation of people and experiences that you should never expect to last. But it’s beautiful while you are at the center, watching the menagerie orbit around you.
December 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
While reading, Dora – A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch, I became one with a character I would not exactly identify with in real life – a wacked out teenaged nightmare. I attended Lidia’s reading a few months ago, where she explained that Dora was based off of a case study by Freud. His patient Ida (given the pseudonym Dora in his publication) was diagnosed with Hysteria due to her symptom of Aphonia (loss of voice). Ida’s father was having an affair with Frau K, and Herr K had made advances on Ida. Freud was certain that Ida had secret wishes to be fully seduced by Herr K, but in actuality, her desires revolved around Frau K. His misplacement of Ida’s desires, and her abrupt exit from their therapy sessions caused him to conclude that he had failed her.
Lidia read about Ida in college, and the story stayed with her for years. Dora – A Headcase follows a similar plotline, though it is based in modern day Seattle with a few guerilla filmmaking joyrides thrown in.
To be honest, there were a few Seattle details that were slightly off, and I had to suspend my disbelief. For example, there is no 7-Eleven downtown, not until you get to lower Queen Anne. There is also no Shari’s restaurant, only in the suburbs. And a high-rise condo on Capitol Hill was not quite believable since there are no buildings in my neighborhood over eight stories high. But this is fiction, after all, and I have too much pride in my city.
“You know what? Seventeen in no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or you tattoo your skin – anything to feel something beyond the numb of home (27, Yuknavitch).”
I remember this feeling distinctly. Hell, I have even felt this as an adult. When I was seventeen, I felt trapped in a life that wasn’t my own – it was my parent’s. Everything in me was pulsing, charging, held back in a cage that made me want to implode. All day long in high school, I was force-fed a bunch of crap that had no use in everyday life (I was right about that one). At night I numbed myself on episodes of Oprah Winfrey, and tried to sneak in MTV when my parents weren’t looking. And then I’d find something like A Clockwork Orange – a movie that so disturbed me it pretty much changed my life.
I was banned from the macabre, the dark side, the body, the taboo. But in order to understand all of life, you need to be given more than just a window with a view.
At the time, my experience, my education, was all within film and television. Nothing was happening in my life. You could sum up non-existent dramas in your head (as teenagers do), but they never played out. I’d be lucky if a crush talked to me just once a year. I was in the dork’s club. And my only outlet was art.
“You know, when you can’t talk, talking sounds different. Everyone sounds like a soundtrack of talking instead of like people… like they are on a stage and you are in the audience – and all of their voices suddenly sound… like art. It’s comforting (121, Yuknavitch).”
Ida aka Dora runs amok. She does everything I wish I’d had the balls to do when I was a teenager, and am glad that I didn’t. As she finds a way to dose her therapist Siggy with an almost lethal dose of Viagra and Cocaine (his drug of choice, of course), it’s cringe-worthy. He just wants to help her, yet she does everything she can to rage against him. Siggy is just another cage that she wants to climb out of.
From there, the book becomes a wild roller coaster. Around every chapter there’s a fresh twist of “oh shit.” What is distinctly missing is high school. But it goes unnoticed, the way that a lack of parents in brat pack movies goes unnoticed.
What becomes obvious is just how much Yuknavitch enjoys her craft. You can see her laughing with glee in a room somewhere as she comes up with these crazy teen lingo sentences, putting herself in a tailspin of writer frenzy.
Like Dora I had no voice. I went through long periods of time never talking, just observing life floating by. People could shout at me, pinch me, push me, and I would still say nothing. I was a voyeur of life, not a participator. Everyday I wanted to die. I wanted to feel something and then have it all be over for good.
As I age life becomes more vital. All of that creative energy was untamed back then, and yes you could say I had Hysteria, because sex brought me to life. Now my days are pure expression. I don’t want to die before I’ve sent all of my art out into the world where it can domino into someone else’s experience of pure, beautiful life. The greatest gift is to be told that my writing has given others a voice.
November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
I had a dream the other night, that I was one of three siblings. One sibling had stripped our father of his skin to see how we are made. He was laid out on a gurney, and we looked at the red layers of muscle, studying how they fold and overlap.
Our father was invincible and extremely angry. Maybe it was the process we had put him through, or maybe he was that way before, but he was insane and out to get us. Wherever we went, he followed – all over the world. We were on the run, and the situation was dire. We couldn’t kill the father, because the father was within all of us. But he was out to destroy what he had made.
You could make some religious allusions to all of this symbolism, or you could say that this is nature. I did not play myself in the dream, and the father and siblings were not my own.
The imagery stems from a slide show that Camille Paglia displayed in her talk last week at the library, of Leonardo Da Vinci’s private notebooks. In it, he studied the structure of muscles, and a fetus inside a dissected womb. If anyone had found out, at the time, that he was dissecting cadavers, the church would have severely punished him for it, maybe even put him to death. The drawings give us a sense that he is looking at things he should not be seeing.
This week, I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I love her for being such an emancipated woman, born to radical parents in 1797. Frankenstein is not my kind of book. I only read it because it was on a list of the greatest books ever written, and it’s so obviously influenced our culture, where science (or philosophy as it was called in Shelley’s day) can go too far, producing something gruesome and disastrous.
“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked. I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation (Shelly, 33).”
But once Frankenstein achieves his obsession, he is horrified as the creature takes its first breath. He realizes his mistake and deserts the monster. But after a series of murders of all those closest to Frankenstein, the creature gets a chance to tell his story. He began his life with love, but everyone he met hated and reviled him, turning his pain into a need for revenge.
Around the time that the novel was written, Mary had lost her first baby and had just given birth to a second, named William. Her half-sister committed suicide, and her partner, Percy Shelley, still had a wife who drowned herself in the Serpentine. Mary then lost a third child. After the novel was finished, she lost her son William, gave birth to Percy Florence who survived, and had a dangerous miscarriage after that. In the summer of 1822, Percy, her partner, drowned with two friends in a storm off the coast of Pisa. The badly decomposed bodies were burned, but Percy’s heart was removed and eventually buried in Rome. Mary was only twenty-five.
Reading her story in the introduction was much more horrific than the ghost story she wrote while summering with Percy and Lord Byron. The natural reaction, especially with losing a child, is to think at first that they will come back to life.
I edited a novel once, where a mother lost her baby and couldn’t let go of the little corpse. It had to be pried away from her. The writer was Australian, and was certain that American audiences wouldn’t be able to handle it, since in our culture we choose to be so far removed from death and dying.
Becoming a mother is to also face the possibility of ultimate loss – the chance of miscarriage, the chance of failing to protect your child from a world that is full of struggle, disease, and danger. For Shelley, bringing a corpse-like creature to life is the ultimate revenge against nature that takes away.
My strange dream of the father stripped of his skin reminds me of seeing the Bodies Exhibit. All those parts that make a whole, the muscles and organs frozen in time, not quite life-like in their preserved state, but disturbing because they were alive once, now frozen in space, dead, and there for our voyeuristic fascination.
In an art class, the students were told to spend twenty minutes drawing my head, and twenty minutes drawing a skull placed directly behind me. They moved in a circle alternating between death and life. For some reason, that day, all the students drew me to look much older than I am. I looked decrepit, as they over-emphasized the sagging lines of my face. I wished I had never looked.
I have reached that age, my thirties, where you begin to realize that you’re never going backwards. The physical body has changed its chemistry completely. I’ll never be tiny and thin again, my metabolism has slowed down, my liver throws back all the toxins I send its way, my immune system is sensitive to any disturbance.
But beyond my body, I’ve grown much stronger. My spirit feels invincible, unbreakable, my sense of discipline is becoming as solid as a rock, and nothing but my body slowly breaking down, could ever stop me at this point. It’s not quite as much fun as being young, dumb, and out of control, but this is the season for building my life. Knowing how quickly it all passes, I push harder each day to express in words and art the things that make us feel alive and well.
October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
I just finished reading My Apprenticeships, by Colette – the French novelist and performer born in 1873, most famous for the novel Gigi. My love for the writing of Colette has always felt like a guilty pleasure – like intensely dark chocolate, a red bouduior drenched in velvet, or my new perfume Black Afgano, a hypnotic blend of hashish and tobacco. I slip into Colette’s books and fall away from distraction – finding complete understanding of all that I have left behind to be with her.
My Apprenticeships is a memoir of Colette’s young adulthood as a country girl, new in Paris, and married to M. Willy – an older man who had a knack for publishing and self-promotion. M. Willy asked her to write stories based on her days in boarding school with a few titillating bits thrown in. He eventually published them under his own name, and the Claudine series became so popular that every girl in Paris wanted to look just like Claudine. But Colette received none of the credit, or the proceeds.
“Love comes disguised as a thunderbolt and often vanishes at the same pace (Colette, 103).”
The problem with M. Willy was that he was in love with his own power over oblivious doe-eyed youth – the minute Colette began to near thirty, with success in the theater as an actress, he was done with her. He suggested a different kind of life, and by different, she understood that he was asking her to leave.
“How old was I? Twenty-nine, thirty? – the age when life musters and arrays the forces that make for duration, the age that gives strength to resist disease, the age when you can no longer die for anyone, or because of anyone. Thirty already – and already that hardening which I would compare to the crust that lime-springs form, dripping slowly (Colette, 101).”
Before M. Willy’s suggestion of a different kind of life, a woman offered Colette a traveling show with thirteen trained greyhounds.
“I have forgotten the name of the envoy who let fall this balm, this dew, this temptation, this breath of the high-road, this scent of the circus. I shrugged my shoulders and refused even to see the thirteen greyhounds. Thirteen greyhounds, their fabulous necks outstretched, the curve of their bellies drinking in the air. And thirteen hearts to conquer. Disquiet, anxiety. It was all very well for me to shrink back into my scribe’s virtue, my familiar, faithful fear, anxiety remained, working within me, for me. Thirteen greyhounds, a rampart, a family, a home. How did I ever let them go (Colette, 122)?”
Just as I am, Colette was a complete nomad and a solitary homebody at the same time. She was theatrical (No matter how many times I turn my back on it, there are always new ways to be on the stage). She never had many female friends (women blow in and out of my life like the breeze). She lacks sentiment, or any idealistic tripe, and yet, her writing revolves around love – realistic love rather than fake, idealized love.
For a long time I worked for the circus. Unfortunately, there was no act with thirteen glorious greyhounds. As suited to my homebody needs, it was a circus that doesn’t travel – they just change shows every four months to create a different theme on the same variation. Teatro Zinzanni – a dinner theater involving vaudeville acts, an opera singer, a chanteuse, acrobats, trapeze artists, aerialists, jugglers, and lots of sequins.
The tent is one hundred years old, and imported from Europe. You get the sense that Colette could have performed there. Table 13 is haunted, and the guests that sit there always behave in a ridiculous way and leave feeling dissatisfied somehow. Sometimes in the back hall, the chairs flip themselves off the hooks on the wall. At night, after the show is over, one lamp is left lit on the stage to keep the bad spirits away – it’s an old circus theater tradition.
To be in the tent after everyone is gone late at night, is more intense even than the spectacularly glitzy show. The quiet is strange because you still hear the sounds in the air – forks clinking, voices singing, the announcer bellowing, the instruments swooping music to the swinging people in the air. The tent holds an enormous amount of energy. Every night 268 people are served their food simultaneously. Within five minutes they all have their plates. Every entrée somehow always tastes the same, no matter what it is. It tastes like it’s been in a heating box for hours.
At the circus, I worked as a dancing server. Every night I crammed into a small mirrored-dressing room with ten other girls who had beautiful bodies and very loud mouths. We applied our liquid eyeliner, tons of rouge and bright matte lipstick. We swapped fishnets (this weird extreme version that are so strong they leave dents in your legs, but are not quite strong enough to withstand the abuse that we put them through). The girls gossiped, sang at the top of their lungs, and swapped stories about auditions, boys, and crappy day jobs. Being quiet, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. The loudmouths had their own club, and the quiet ones had secrets shared backstage when everyone else couldn’t hear.
99 percent of the performers were introverts when offstage. They were from all over the world, and the one thing that stood out, was how lonely they all were. Well, except for the performers that lived in Seattle. As for the international stars – the more beautiful, ethereal, and otherworldly they were, the more alone they seemed to feel. They never stopped traveling from circus tent to circus tent, wherever they could find them, throughout the world. Marriages didn’t last, unless the partners were in an act together, or always in the same show.
The servers looked up to the performers with adoration and jealousy. Almost all of the servers were actors or musicians. We presented the performers like diamonds every night, while we were relegated to the periphery of the tent with brief food-baring dances at the center. We were scolded whenever we accidentally stepped into the performer’s spotlight, or tripped into their path.
Every Sunday night to make up for it, we all went to sing karaoke down the street. We needed that moment in the limelight to refuel our egos. One night, we found ourselves up against the cast of Hello Dolly, and surprisingly, we put them in the dust with our singing skills and audience lust.
Besides being told every now and then that I needed to “sparkle more” or that my tickets were “too perfect,” I suppose I wasn’t so bad at being a server at Teatro Zinzanni. Five nights a week, sometimes more, I was there doing the exact same repetition every night. The circus began to feel like a broken record, a loop that could suck me into the vortex. I had tendinitis from carrying too many plates, and my back was always a mess. Without fail, just before we opened the curtains to let the guests into the tent, I had anxiety attacks – dizzy and nauseous, like I was about to pass out.
Work came home with me too. The same workmares haunted me over and over in my sleep – flashing lights, lurid faces, and some terrible obstacle course to get to my tables. In general, the same cluster-fuck that I lived every single shift.
Now when I see my past coworkers from TZ, I am always impressed by their extreme energy. I wonder if it’s the tent that gave them that tenacity, or if they would just naturally be that way if they had not worked there. Being around greatness makes you strive to be great as well. No one wants to be that server in the wings, and if you don’t get out eventually, you languish there until you are too old to “sparkle” anymore.
It’s obvious that the theater added to Colette’s greatness as a writer. In the theater she studied people and places, traveled, and gained admirers. She became a ravishing woman in that circle of activity.
In one of my favorite scenes from My Apprenticeships, Colette meets Mata Hari, and relays what a fake she thought she was.
“The people who fell into such dithyrambic raptures and wrote so ecstatically of Mata Hari’s person and talents must be wondering now what collective delusion possessed them… the colour of her skin was disconcerting, no longer brown and luscious as it had been by artificial light but a dubious, uneven purple… (Mata Hari) did not move a muscle as the voice of Lady W________ rose beside us, saying in clear, plain words:
“She an Oriental? Don’t be silly! Hamburg or Rotterdam, or possibly Berlin (Colette, 129-130).””
Teatro Zinzanni was exactly like Mata Hari. For a while I was in love with the fantasy life. On rainy, depressing days I could escape into the lights and forget my own life. But then the cracks began to show – the constant stench of body odor backstage and non-stop febreze spray in the pits of our costumes, the guy who refused to pay on New Years Eve, the way we all had to fake it every night of our lives, the way I had no life outside of the tent, and how the rest of the world began to feel distant and strange, like it was passing me by and I was missing it.
On my bookshelves, there are fifteen books by Colette. I stumbled onto them in chance meetings in bookshops. Some are almost impossible to find. My favorite (and her favorite as well) is The Pure and the Impure – a dark foray into the erotic underworlds of Paris. There is really no plot, just character after character swimming in their own particular decadence. When I first read the book, decadence was my tool for self-discovery. Now I see it as a tool for avoiding pain. I’m not in pain anymore, so I don’t’ really need decadence, at least, not all that much of it.
Colette understood life, unflinchingly – her writing is poetic because of this. It’s not the poetry of solitude, but the poetry of human understanding – beautiful life, dark life, art that imitates life, life that always has a new beginning.
August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next. She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration. I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.
The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience. When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s. The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time. The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.” … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”
This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today. When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people. At every single reading, it always happened. Rather than action, it was reaction. I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist. A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck. By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility. You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life. You must take action, no matter the obstacles.
Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today. Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely. She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it. She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.
Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”
Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery. Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him. She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community. But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession. He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people. Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.
“… Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”
At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.” She is rich with an empty life. Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring. A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet. He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is. They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida. She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.
But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love. She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self. Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.
“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”
Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie. I spoke to a poet the other day. He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce. But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet. When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”
I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”
It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken. All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human. Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals. I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.
What I thought was love was only fantasy. And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist. Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties. Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous. She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime. Still, the charges damaged her career.
She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs. Ten years later she died in a welfare home. She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved. Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.
But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me. I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out. Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output. Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer. If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write. In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves. I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.