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.
July 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
Last Sunday, at the bookstore, I saw the name ‘Emily Gould’ in red letters on the spine of a book in the memoir section. I don’t forget the names of editors I worked with briefly as a literary agent. Back then Emily was an editor at Hyperion. She has since worked at Gawker and is now on her own doing freelance. Her memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, is a snapshot account of her life from college through young adulthood in New York City.
“I felt the vacuum of the empty suburbs surrounding me like a black hole in which my body was suspended, as though I were the only warm alive thing left in the world (Gould, 27).”
After her childhood in the burbs, Emily only lasted one year at Kenyon, a university in the Midwest full of loser frat boys, where women end up objectified or abused. It’s obvious that she does not fit – the same way that I did not fit at small, conservative George Fox University. While all of my roommates were out with their fiancés, I was sitting alone in my bunk bed with a stray cat, eating Chinese take-out and watching old Fellini films. I dreaded the moment when they would return, “What is this crap you’re watching? It doesn’t make any sense!”
Once in the city, Emily pays her way through writing classes with a series of server jobs where she suffers from anxiety. She feels exhausted from performing, leaves her feminism at the door, and puts up with being treated like a dimwit.
My first job in New York was in Soho at an Italian restaurant. The manager wanted me to stand outside to try and draw people in. I was not even a host, and I was not getting paid. Around 9pm, a band started to play, and the manager asked me to sit with some rich businessmen. I have to admit, though he was turning me into some kind of unpaid escort, I enjoyed the conversation, since one man owned the art gallery across the street, and bragged about how he had worked with Andy Warhol.
The manager said I would be serving at another location that was just opening up in the Lower East Side, where my commute would take twice as long. On my first day there, the owner only came upstairs to yell at us then disappeared into the basement for hours.
The other two servers were actors and called me “babe,” in a condescending tone that I found irritating. There were no sections, and they viciously fought for tables. Being the newbie, I had one lone table, and ended up bussing the other 49, spinning in confusion.
When it was time to go, I went downstairs to find the boss. Down a long hallway, he was sitting in a grimy office smoking a joint and counting piles and piles of money. There were at least twenty stacks over six inches high. I’d been in New York for one week, and already I was working for the mafia. I’ve since learned that in Jersey and New York, restaurants are backed by mafia money, while in Seattle they are backed by drug dealers – same thing, different titles.
I walked back to the original location and told the manager that I wanted to work in Soho, but he didn’t have a position for me. It was a good thing. I was the only person there who wasn’t right off the boat, and all the money was under the table with no salary. I was beginning to think that the entire city was outside of the law.
A year later I ran into the manager again at a party thrown by a flamboyant Italian man. At all of his parties, the host hired a model to walk next to him carrying a sign that read, “Stefano Is Here” with an arrow pointing down. The manager was working as the DJ that night, and I had been hired as a dancer with a percussion band that I performed with. We were at a swank restaurant uptown, called Zanzibar, and the party had a tribal theme.
The ex-manager/DJ was completely shocked to see me. I was no longer shell-shocked and outside of my element. In fact, I was getting paid to be the life of the party. Things moved fast in New York, so fast, I can’t believe it all happened.
After a series of serving jobs, Emily Gould found herself working as the Editorial Assistant to a Senior Editor at a publishing house.
“I was realizing that the production of book-shaped products had very little to do with “books,” the holy relics that my college education had been devoted to venerating (Gould, 99).”
Once at the literary agency, I imagined myself taking on literary clients and life-changing books, but I couldn’t halt the constant stream of fluff being thrown at me by my boss or the pressure to find a sale that could meet current trends. I didn’t feel strong enough, or maybe nothing seemed good enough, and everyday was a pressure cooker to make that deal happen.
Being let go was a tremendous relief. For all that time I’d never been able to read my own books, or write my own words. So every morning for the next six months, I was up at 6am to write for an hour outside the coffee shop, with people rushing past me to work. After writing ten pages, I would begrudgingly join them, and go to my shitty job in the city, numbering every single piece of crap artwork that came out of Peter Max’s factory. Like that first restaurant I worked at, only recent immigrants lasted in his exploitation-fest. He was donating millions to charity, and I couldn’t afford to live. But as long as I got that writing in every morning, it seemed okay.
Emily Gould still lives in Brooklyn, and I have to admit, I feel a sense of envy that I am not still in New York too. There is always the sense that I am missing out on something – connections, parties, shows. You can find all that in Seattle too, the problem is that I really haven’t yet.
I also have a theory – that when you leave New York you get slightly weak and introverted because the pressure is finally off. I hadn’t realized how much energy it took. I’ve watched as friend after friend left the city and completely went into reclusive mode. One friend even took to the mountains, and never lasts for more than 24 hours when she comes to visit me. In New York she was a tough, angsty, goth rocker chick in platform boots. Now she is a peaceful hippy, who prefers to live in a yurt, pee in an outhouse, and grow vegetables.
Five years since my move back, I’m teaching myself how to refind my New York energy. I’m remembering that in New York, amidst all the crazy, I learned how to live, how to survive, and how to love exponentially. Not the fake romantic love of adolescence, but real love for all of my friends and my community.
Instead of complaining about how I lost that when I left, I’m now remembering how to be what you wish others would become. And surprisingly, I’m finding what I’ve been looking for. Friendships are flowing naturally, the way they should be. I sense I’m growing closer to the pulsing beat of energy. Life takes a turn, once again.
June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
Esther Freud’s novel, Hideous Kinky, is a semi-autobiographical novel of two sisters traveling with their hippy mother through 1960’s Morocco. Freud is the daughter of the famous figurative painter, Lucian Freud, and the granddaughter of Sigmund Freud – a fascinating family rife with details we would all like to know more about, but privacy runs in the family.
The narrator of Hideous Kinky is a four-year-old English girl. Her narration is deceptively simple, leaving the reader to comprehend the complex layers of the story on their own. Mysteries are left untold, such as what they left behind in England, who her father is, and who sends the money. Through the little girl, we are unable to decipher the details of her mother’s love life (though we can surmise), and never know where they are traveling next, or how long they will stay. We feel the confusion and the uncertainty. Time slips away without the basic information needed to succeed back home in England, such as even, how to count.
My emotions over the mother ran the gamut. At times I felt exhilarated that she could live so far off the edge with two little girls in tow. At other times, I felt angry when the girl’s were not receiving education, medical care, food; at one point even spending a day as beggars. Upon their return to England life would seem so regimented in comparison. How would they adjust? But those events take place after the last page.
I’d seen the film before I read the book – and they both have much to offer. One did not ruin the other, as is often the case, though the details of the story differ.
My two nieces are missionary kids. They have been going back and forth between a jungle village in Papua New Guinea, a mission base, and the states all of their lives. Life for them is a constant readjustment. They are flexible and easygoing, because they have to be.
The oldest is very social, relates better to boys than girls, and likes to write fantasy stories (mainly, because she lives one). The youngest is exactly the same as I was at her age – always up in her head, living in imagination, weaving thick plots to escape the boredom of the present, yet a social underdog. However, that was two years ago, and every time I see them, they are different and yet the same.
Now that they are thirteen and ten, childhood is quickly disappearing. They are on the border, where glimpses of the women they will become disarm you completely – vivacious and strong, with lively blue eyes that are full of curiosity.
The oldest is at the stage where her parents and those in her environment are forming strong opinions in her. When they were younger it wasn’t that big of a deal that we have different beliefs. But they are being taught to look down on those who do not believe what they do.
They have always looked up to me. And now, at this stage, I’m afraid of being looked down on. Maybe it’s all in my head. But it isn’t, because I was taught exactly the same thing, and at that age, I looked down on, and judged everything that was “of the world” and “fallen”. I didn’t yet understand life as it really was.
There are cracks in the veneer every now and then. The oldest is now on facebook and she once posted a comment that read something like, “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there could be another life out there.” I went searching to find it again, but she has since erased it. Don’t we all feel trapped within our parent’s existence until we are free to go?
But for now, my nieces live below the equator, a day ahead of us. When it is summer here, it is winter there. In my neighborhood, it is loud with the noise of people and cars. In the jungle, it is loud with insects, birds, and animals. They navigate difficult terrain over-run with foliage. I navigate cracks in the pavement and annoying people asking for money.
When my oldest niece was a baby she crawled like the natives in the village – with her left knee on the ground, and her right foot walking. She had ringworm from sitting naked on the dirt. I worried over her – but she was completely resilient. It’s the babies that are born there that are really at risk. Many of them don’t even survive birth.
In four weeks, my sister’s family is coming home on furlough and will be in the States until April. When they are gone, I turn off all thoughts of them with the press of an imaginary button. But now, the button is off and I think about their return constantly.
The night before my sister’s wedding, I couldn’t stop crying. As her bridesmaids flitted about, she came into my bedroom to comfort me. It didn’t matter what she said, I knew that I was losing her. She’d found her husband and now all they needed was a distant place to be sent to. A year later they were gone.
They said it was a twenty-year mission, and it’s been sixteen years. As their responsibilities grow, I keep wondering if they’ll ever come back. And how will they cope with life here, without financial supporters, without constant movement, with some sort of steady job that is the same day in and day out?
When we were kids we used to pack our suitcases, hoist everything up on the swing-set, and pretend it was a train that would take us all over the world. It was her favorite game, her escape from boring suburbia.
We have both traveled, escaped conformity, and found an obsession with words – she as a linguist, and me as a writer. But I don’t really know who she is anymore. She never talks. We have only been alone together once in the past sixteen years. We took a walk, and she told me that there are things about my life that she envies, because as a missionary, you have to keep up the façade of minimalism. I told her that I envy her nomadic existence.
When I was a teenager, I idolized her, and thought that I would never measure up. She seemed like a saint, and I felt like a failure. I was her project, something that needed to be fixed.
My nieces represent something that was lost between my sister and I. They are the next generation of traveling sisters. They talk in secret sister code. Life will be a shock for them when they leave the fold. In some ways, they are even more sheltered than we were. I wonder where their lives will take them. I wonder if they will ever consider Seattle home.
June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
I am feeling vulnerable. The pitch for my memoir is about to be sent out to editors, and I have spent the last ten years pouring everything I have into this book. It has evolved and grown with time, and thanks to rejections of past versions, it has become more refined, more complete, more honest.
Though I try my best to not take rejections personally (having worked in publishing has helped me a lot with this), it is still always a hard blow to the ego, with days spent feeling like a failure. I know my book has enormous potential, now I just need people in the publishing industry to see that too.
In vulnerable writer moments, the best author to turn to is Erica Jong. “Only if you have no other choice should you be a writer (Jong, 6).”
I have just finished reading her book, Seducing the Demon – Writing For My Life. The stories from her life are all hilarious, and told in nonlinear fashion. Most memorable would be how she broke up Martha Stewart’s marriage when it was already falling apart (picture Stewart’s husband as an emasculated chore boy).
Humorous stories aside, it seemed that Jong was speaking directly to me and everything that I am dealing with right now – death and the struggle of trying to capture life in words.
“Life is a dream, but the dream disintegrates unless you write it down (my father) reminds me (Jong, 253).”
I first began writing because I wanted to end my life. It was a common theme throughout my adolescence, but escalated when I was twenty-one. I always knew that I was not the person my family wanted me to be. Within my core, I was not a Christian, but I was told by everyone around me that if I did not follow I would lose their acceptance. I would be fallen, lost, going to hell. I did everything to make God real to me. But instead, I began to see that everything I’d been told was false.
In the process of all this, I was prone to deep depression and would fall into trance-like states where I left my body and began to ponder how I could destroy it. Looking back, it was symbolic, since the Christianity I was raised with denies the body.
Eventually, when that mode became an everyday issue, I had to enter therapy. The therapist didn’t sort my issues since I was still stuck within my Christian university and didn’t feel free to speak what I was really feeling. What really changed my life was writing.
“Writing is tough, but it’s a lot less tough than depression. Which basically leads to suicide. Unless you make a joke (Jong, 232).”
At first the writing was not good. It was melodramatic, sickeningly romantic, full of unnecessary flourishes and old-fashioned language. Through hundreds of poems, I attempted to express what I was feeling.
I experienced a real breakthrough while reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Here was a man who bravely and beautifully wrote about gay sex in the 1950’s. If he could do that then, than I could celebrate sensuality in my poetry, turn it in, and risk getting marked down or reprimanded. Surprisingly, my teacher raved over the poem I wrote.
We normally looked at each other’s work anonymously. But at the end of analyzing my poem the professor said, “And the girl who wrote this…” (Everyone looked around since there was only one other girl in the class) “Ope! Sorry Lauren!”
The room full of boys twittered in embarrassment. But then my professor continued, “This is the first poem I’ve seen all semester that is ready to be published.” I sat there red in the cheeks, but brimming with pride that this professor who was such a tough nut to crack, who was known for yelling at people for using the word “deep” because it didn’t express anything, was now telling me I had potential.
“For the poet, the lover becomes the world. The exploration of love becomes an exploration of life (Jong, 66).”
Before poetry, I painted portraits, then realized I had more to tell. Poetry was vague enough to feel safe writing what I had to say. But then I wanted to tell the whole truth and share the whole picture.
To write I have sacrificed money, jobs, relationships, and security. But I have no choice, and wouldn’t be happy any other way. My book sits there like the holy grail, full of promises that might not be met. When I first tried to publish it, I was cocky, with no doubt that the first agent would snap it up and put it on auction, scoring a great book deal which would lead to it becoming a bestseller with a movie deal in the works. I literally did not doubt this one iota.
In it’s earliest version (not nearly as fleshed out as it is now) it was rejected by over a hundred agents and editors. Back then it was just a novel about a girl who parties too much. Now it’s a memoir about a girl trying to forget an oppressive upbringing through an underground subculture that turns dark quickly.
“People who most crave ecstasy are probably least capable of moderation (Jong, 134).”
The people I write about in my book will be both horrified and gratified to see themselves frozen in time. But the only reaction that really concerns me is that of my parents. I hope they can forgive the fact that I need to lay them bare to understand my life. Like many parents, it’s painful for them to allow their child to be their own person. They will never fully accept who I am because it doesn’t fit into their worldview. I am the reality that they find hard to face.
“If you want to be a nice person, don’t write. There’s no way to do it without grinding up your loved ones and making them into raw hamburger (Jong, 239).”
Now when I actually see the living people who embody the other characters in the book, I hardly know how to look at them, without only seeing our past. To me, they have become caricatures of themselves, mythology.
“Time and again I have found that once I have frozen a person in a book I can hardly remember what the real person was like (Jong, 268).”
At a memorial, I saw them all two days ago. I realized, that they feel the same way about me. They are completely unable to understand who I am now, unable to listen, and can only speak in jokes or insensitive diatribes. They have frozen me in time. I didn’t want to be there, but in coming together over the death of our beautiful friend, I came to the ending of my story.
“You are not doing it all alone. You are standing on the shoulders of the dead. You are writing love letters to the grave. The word is a link in a human chain (Jong, 61).”
I’m in those last years where you can be considered young. But I don’t feel young at all. I feel like time is too short and I have too many stories to share to fit into that shortness of life. Ideas keep popping into my head. I want to write them all, to share this thing I cannot stop. To live, I must write.
June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
I once had a professor who said, “You live one life, but you have many lives within it.” The same can be said for a book of short stories. They are all unique, but each story is connected, and wouldn’t be complete without the others.
Aryn Kyle’s collection “Boys And Girls Like You And Me” is honest and full of humor over the sad circumstances of life. Her characters all want to really live, but life is never what they expected it would be.
“That was the real bitch about time: Everything true would become false, if only you waited long enough (Kyle, 123).”
I am hard at work, putting the finishing touches on my memoir. In the last week, three people who are a part of those stories have died. Two of them were shot and killed in the Seattle shootings. Drew Keriakedes and Joe ‘Vito’ Albanese. I first saw them when the show, Circus Contraption, started about eleven years ago. As the bandleader, Drew wrote all the whimsical music. The show went on to New York City (where I was so homesick I went to see them three times in a row) and performed internationally as well. When Contraption came to an end, the two were in a band called God’s Favorite Beefcake, and performed once at a friend’s wedding. The day of the wedding I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me. But I didn’t. I got shy, even though I had spoken to them before in New York. Their music was genius in that vaudevillian sense. There was no one else like them.
The last thing I ever thought would happen was this. The last thing that should ever happen to beautiful artists who spread joy and laughter and music throughout the world is violence. And all because some mentally unstable guy got out of the house with a gun and decided to go on a shooting spree before he shot himself.
All moments and all people pass away, but art gives us the remnants of what once was. I realize more than ever, the importance of capturing these moments in my history, and all the beautiful people I have known. My generation has such a limited experience of death. Death is a reminder that my introversion is a waste of love I could have given.
Life is short, life is intense, life is funny and sad and unpredictable. We’ll only make it through if we hold each other up. It just takes being vulnerable again, to learn how to try.
In memory of Arthur, who also passed away last week, I would like to share this poem I wrote about him ten years ago. He was a beautiful man.
Smooth into me
like butter, you ooze
flicker glisten skin
glide cross fingers
no angles pointed joints
just round solid