September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.
Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.
By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.
In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:
“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”
The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.
The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.
We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.
Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.
We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.
This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.
To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books
August 27, 2014 § 4 Comments
When I first began writing my book on how religion keeps us from being happy, I couldn’t even open my Bible without feeling a deep-seated sense of disgust. Simply removing the blue leather clad book from the shelf made me ill. I couldn’t wait to put it back again. The Bible represented years of pain and depression. It reminded me of all the friends that disowned me when I left; all the love that wasn’t there; tricksters under the guise of miracle-workers; control freaks; condescending misogynist leaders caught with their pants down; shame; hatred for outsiders; and lies that spread fear.
A year later, and the Bible is on my work table all the time. I love digging in to find the specifics of every story I’ve heard so many times that it’s surprising to find each one is completely different than I remembered. Instead of having to read it in order to believe it, I can now read it in total shock that I once believed it, and be amazed by that insanity. I love the Bible more now than I ever did as a Christian. It was a chore to read it in my place of belief because it never felt completely alive. I no longer have to fight that feeling. It is now simply an interesting piece of literature.
What I’ve learned through writing books is that the place where you start has zero resemblance to the place where you end up. The issues I write about still make me angry, but the anger has transferred from my own life, to the lives of others. I see now, that what I’m writing can help people. In talks that I’ve had with those who are struggling, I see that it helps them to understand they are not alone in their misgivings – the conclusions that they come to are their own journey, and I am just there to present a different point of view.
The history of world religions is a fascinating story of thought patterns that spread like a virus. When at its most insistent to spread, dogma pounded down the dissidents, and bloodbaths followed. More people have been killed for the sake of, or at the excuse of, religion than any other motivating force. This result usually first takes place a few hundred years after the religion is first born. The initial phases of a new belief system are a golden age of love and community. When that era is long enough in the past to become mystical, power-hungry individuals turn those teachings into a means of furthering hierarchy. This results in conquest of other people groups, a stamping out of other religions, and the intertwining of church and state. All of these issues have had detrimental effects on societies, wiping out advancements in philosophy and science with the destruction of thousands of books, cultures, and people groups.
The finest moments of history have been in eras of doubt – Greek philosophy and science, the Renaissance, and even the era we now live in. The heretics of yesterday are the heroes of today. Even within religion, those who experienced doubt were able to advance ideologies on a different route, though they were first viewed as Atheists. Buddhism developed out of Hinduism as a rejection of the deity structure. Zen expanded from Buddhism into the enlightened path of the individual. John Wycliffe was an early dissident of the Catholic faith and called for the separation of church and state. His body was exhumed after his death and he was burned at the stake. The early Christians were the Atheists of their day in the rejection of Roman paganism – a religion that furthered the state rather than the individual.
I am on the path of doubt. Which might be viewed as negative to some, but to me, my life is open to philosophy and closed for business to dogma and illusion. My parents were over for dinner last Sunday, and for the first time, my dad actually noticed the bookshelf full of research for the religion book. He said, “C.S. Lewis is swimming in a sea of negativity.” I replied, “I don’t need the books on Christianity because it’s all in my head. It’s the entire education you brought me up in. And I really don’t like C.S. Lewis.”
I continued on, explaining what some of the books meant for me. How Karen Armstrong revealed the entire history of religion, how Sue Monk Kidd woke me up to patriarchy, how Christopher Hitchens made it okay to get really angry, which led to the first steps of my recovery. I didn’t mention that the reason why I don’t like C.S. Lewis is that I found his arguments weak and that it seemed as though he rejected Atheism in favor of peer pressure (Tolkien was instrumental in his conversion). It was also a way to return to his childhood self after the loss of his parents – what Freud would call the juvenile need for God.
It’s true that the entirety of Christian thought will remain inside my mind for life. No one needs to remind me of it, or recap something I might have missed. For the hard facts, I am just like a Christian – I need no other books besides the Bible to explain what the Bible actually says. What is written there is completely different from what Christians say in the books they write.
A year ago, writing the religion book seemed like an insurmountable feat – like climbing Mount Everest. There was so much information to wrap my head around, so many books to read (and still read), and so much excess baggage of writing to get to the good stuff for a final draft. If you look at the entire project all at once, it seems impossible. But broken down into bits of chapters, week by week, it grew. It’s still growing.
There have been times where I was so sick of this topic that I wanted to give up and start writing a novel. Every time I tried, I bounced right back into the current book. I also had to deal with some resistance from a guy in my writer’s group. Overall, however, the group has been invaluable, prodding me in the right directions, asking questions, pointing out the spots that needed filling out.
I’ve been asked many times, “Why are you writing this book?” There are many reasons. I find it important to fight against dishonesty. That dishonesty has harmed millions of people. It’s created shame where there should be none. There is nothing flawed with the way that we naturally are. We are organisms within the scheme of nature, not spiritual entities trapped inside of bodies, battling between good and evil. I’m writing this book because I’m tired of seeing the same things happen to people I love that happened to me fifteen years ago. At some point, a negative cycle must be broken.
At the end of the Bible, in the prophecy of Revelation, God decides to break his negative cycle as well. He realizes that creating the earth was a disaster, and the only thing to do is destroy it and cry, “Do-over!” He bids the angels to torture humanity, then begins the mess by throwing people into a giant wine press, where their blood flows up to the height of horses bridles for 180 miles. He turns the oceans into blood and kills everything that swims, and uses the sun to scorch those who remain. Then he shuts the lights off completely. Satan is a mere pawn in the escapade that gets locked up for a thousand years. When the dragon is released, he spurs the resurrected into a war across the four corners of the earth (the world was still flat), and is then tossed into sulfur and destroyed.
In the end, every character is a pawn – from humans to angels to the devil himself. Victims of a stage play that ends as a tragedy. Rather than a story of love, the Bible ends as a series of abusive relationships. And what does the next world look like? There is no mention of improvements that will be made or how a very flawed God will fix himself to make things right. Will he do away with his insane need for affirmation, his explosive jealousy, and his desire for puppets rather than humans? I would love to read the sequel to this gripping piece of fiction. And no wonder why, as a Fundamentalist Christian, I was scared to death of even living life.
May 17, 2014 § 4 Comments
In the book The Question of God – C.S. Lewis And Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, And The Meaning Of Life by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., it is obvious that the author takes the side of Lewis with his mention of a lifelong fascination for the transformative aspects of faith. He presents Freud as a floundering pessimist, while it appears that post-conversion Lewis has all the answers. Nicholi’s title suggests that Lewis and Freud actually did debate, when in reality they may have never met, and Lewis wrote his points against Freud several years after Freud’s death.
The two men share some common themes – both based their atheism on a pessimistic worldview and lived in a time when there was less evidence to support a godless existence. The main difference between the two men is that Freud was a Jew and C.S. Lewis grew up as a Protestant. Protestantism never left the core of Lewis, and his friends (including Tolkien) hounded him through his atheistic years, discussing issues of faith late into the night. His peers played a major role in his conversion.
I’ve always questioned why an Atheist would become a Christian. In reading this book, I realized how limited the range of knowledge was just a hundred years ago. Lewis never actually believed that God did not exist. He only wished it. He had as much faith in that as a Christian has for the existence of God.
According to Freud’s theories, this wish correlates with the strained relationship Lewis had with his father resulting in a desire against authority figures. It’s no surprise that after the death of his father in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity just two years later in 1931. Perhaps his unresolved issues led to a wish for a sense of authority over his life. Strangely enough, my father also converted just shortly after his father’s death, leading me to believe that this might be a common reaction to the loss of a parent.
“The very idea of an ‘idealized Superman’ in the sky – to use Freud’s phrase – is ‘so patently infantile and so foreign to reality, that … it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never rise above this view of life (Nicholi, 36).”
I haven’t lost either of my parents, so it’s hard for me to understand the need to find an imaginary replacement figure. But I will always remember, as clear as though it’s happening in the present, the months after my mom lost her mother. I was only nine years old, but somehow, from that time forward I began to feel that I was the mother and she was the child. It was a strange flip-flop that confused me and left me feeling overwhelmed.
To pre-conversion Lewis, since God allowed terrible things to happen, it seemed better that God not exist at all. This is an extremely weak argument, having more to do with the character of God rather than whether or not he exists. In the end, Lewis felt that his own knowledge of good and evil proved God’s existence. But does it?
In religious thinking there is the belief that morals are something separate from us. We don’t know how to behave unless God shows us how. Except that we do behave as long as our needs are met. It’s the same with all primates (because, yes we are primates) and all other species of animals.
As long as food, sex, and land isn’t hoarded by alphas, and as long as the population doesn’t get out of hand, there is no need to commit crimes or start wars. A friend just told me a story of an anthropologist who married a Venezuelan woman from a far-flung tribe in the jungle. They had a child together, but six years later, she couldn’t take it here anymore, and she went back to her village. She felt isolated in the States, and she missed the close-knit community and tight network of support in her village. Togetherness was the root of her happiness.
“‘The idea of a universal moral law as proposed by philosophers is in conflict with reason.’ He writes that ‘ethics are not based on a moral world order but on the inescapable exigencies of human cohabitation (Nicholi, 60).'”
Values differ between cultures according to the needs of the community. A culture that subsists on nomadic hunting and gathering would be disturbed by our obsessive need to hoard property and our lack of community within a massive population. However, according to Lewis, there is a universal moral order that does not change much from culture to culture. This imperialist attitude reflects his own shortsightedness and lack of education on the outside world. A master on the literature of Western Civilization, the stories he loved to read didn’t exactly fill in the gaps on world cultures.
Nicholi relays the change in Lewis post-conversion: “It happened when he was thirty-one years old. The change revolutionized his life, infused his mind with purpose and meaning, and dramatically increased his productivity; it also radically altered his values, his image of himself, and his relationships to others. This experience not only turned Lewis around, but turned him outward – from a focus on himself to a focus on others (Nicholi, 77).”
New Christians exhibit the changes of a person who is in love – but since the love object is imaginary and apparently all-powerful, the experience is heightened by fear, unworthiness, and the joy of escaping everyday reality.
When my mom first converted, no one outside the church really wanted to deal with her. She wrote her Catholic father that he would go to hell unless he converted. She answered every phone call with, “Hello, Jesus loves you!” and posted a yellow sign in the back window of her minivan that said, “Smile if Jesus Loves You!” It was all very in your face, and her siblings still struggle to forgive her for her actions. I’m amazed that my parent’s marriage survived through the eight or so years that my dad wasn’t a Christian.
Today, my mom is much more mellow, but still likes to put in her two cents. Nature is not at work – no, it’s always a miracle. And to her, an Atheist could never win a debate against a Christian. She is enmeshed in faith, and is happy with the blinders that block out the rest of the world. I love her, but it’s always bothered me that this faith, or the way that she chooses to live, keeps her locked in a fantasy. Overall, this has been my experience of churchgoers (and I lived among thousands of Christians in numerous denominations through the first half of my life).
Though Freud had many insights into psychology and is known as the father of psychology, he wasn’t the greatest example of a human being. He had a difficult life, faced life-threatening anti-Semitism, and partially because of this his ideas were met with a lack of acceptance. There was war and many deaths of loved ones. He suffered from depression, and found that small doses of cocaine lifted his spirits.
Nicholi uses Freud’s struggles to show that his life was a failure without the comfort of faith. But why should a Jew convert to Christianity in the first place? And why is Christianity the only faith given here as an example?
According to the Christian faith, it’s the only religion that transforms the believer from the inside out. I’ve never seen this to be the case. Instead I’ve seen people trying desperately hard to be good even though their impulses are testing them otherwise – the emphasis on avoiding “evil” makes the “dark side” ever more enticing. I never encounter this sort of obsession with non-believers, and everyone is much more relaxed and well adjusted.
To post-conversion Christians, just as in a relationship, that initial feeling of being in love evolves into a more stable steady love. The lover still behaves, but hidden away from the people who judge the most is a sea of inner desires. To share how you really feel is to run the risk of losing family and the community at large. The more that is hidden, the more it grows, becoming distorted and almost impossible to get a handle on. I don’t know of a Christian who hasn’t gone through some form of inner battle, and the best survivors are those that are control freaks. There is not much there in the way of pure honesty, especially regarding the self. In fact, when I first left the church, I was on a high of honesty for years, not caring how much I shocked people. It was just so freeing to be completely honest.
Throughout my years as a Christian, C.S. Lewis was the ultimate intellectual authority on Christianity. He brought issues concerning faith to the forefront of his stories and discussions. He took his beliefs beyond theology, and made it seem more like philosophy. Unfortunately his arguments don’t hold up since there was no room for facts. He was the perfect candidate for Christianity precisely because he was easily swayed by the emotions he felt through great pieces of literature.
He was always a Protestant – the fifteen or so years that he rejected it were not as much rejection as a wish against and avoidance of what he felt to be true. In his words, “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself… (Nicholi, 105).” Once again, our feelings, experiences, and morals are seen as something apart from ourselves and separate from nature.
“… Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend that ‘Christ promises forgiveness of sins. But what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned (Nicholi, 73)?”
What exactly is this law of nature and why wouldn’t natural beings that are of nature be privy to it? Putting nature into submission of a purported law is silly and egotistical. Lewis is not much next to the extreme power of nature. The fact that he was mortal is the first clue in this. Nature had little regard for him, and has little regard for all of us. Nature and religion are two very different things. Religion is a manipulation for order. Nature is a balance between supply and demand. The truth is, there would be fewer problems in nature if there were less of us living on the planet.
I think it’s very difficult for most Christians to understand that Agnostic Atheism is not necessarily a pessimistic worldview. I know that it is for some, but for me personally, I don’t feel that way at all. I feel that it’s the most realistic worldview there is. I have an ultimate respect for the grandness of nature, and the fragility of existence. I have no desire to exist forever as a spirit, or reside in an uneventful place like heaven – I’ve been in many beautiful mansions, and all they are is lonely. I feel empathy for other beings because I see that we are all as one. Since I love myself, I know how to love other people. It’s not that hard to figure out. And as for God, I’ve never seen any evidence of his existence, and it’s certain that I never will. That’s not to say that I don’t think there might be other beings in the universe. Wherever and whoever they are, they are nothing like the controlling egomaniac that humans have fashioned for themselves.
It is obvious that earth is a place meant for growing, and not things that are made out of magic. Ancient people groups had no way of understanding existence without the assistance of myth to soothe the masses. I find it unbelievable that people are still choosing to live that same way today. Faith is presented as a comfort, but compared with what is actually written in the Bible, it should be sending believers into a tailspin of fear and frenzy.
I wouldn’t wish a belief in God on anyone. Far from being “perfect” – he’s presented as jealous, insane, bloodthirsty, ready to ask his followers to commit genocide on the drop of a hat. The concept of God and what he demands is in total rejection of all that we naturally are. To believe in a being that is so contrary to us as a species is to make life much more difficult and full of conflict than it ever has to be. The idea of God can make anyone go crazy – and it has on occasions too numerous to count. All you have to do is mention the date “9/11” and religious extremism presents itself loud and clear. Extremism has been a dominating force for centuries.
I’ve been told that I should question why I write about religion, and whether or not it’s honorable to cause people to question what they believe. I see nothing wrong and everything right with asking people to stop believing and start seeing with their own two eyes. For one thing, rational thinkers make for rational societies. Losing faith and analyzing it for what it really is was a painful and necessary process for me. Without that, I would have never found my own wellbeing. I like to spread that happiness.
Overall, though, I think that most of the readers who enjoy these posts are people who think as I do. I find it difficult and painful to read books that speak from the opposite point of view. For this fact, reading The Question Of God was not easy. Freud certainly had his hang-ups, but I didn’t enjoy how the author constantly pitted him against Lewis, presenting one man as the winner and the other as the loser. And all the while, Freud’s theories rang loud and true for me. Not to mention, they are the groundwork for which the author has based his life career on as a professor of psychiatry.
April 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
My first impression of Ellis Avery’s novel The Last Nude was, “Oh brother, another tale of the artist sleeping with the model.” I’ve been hard-pressed to find a book or a movie where this doesn’t enter the plot. Of course, much of history upholds this narrative with Diego Rivera’s mad lust for his models, Lucien Freud’s misogyny, and Picasso’s narcissism. In the film Venus, Peter O’Toole’s character has an old man boner for a young girl that he convinces to model – the purpose, of course, being so that he can peer in through a window and see what she looks like naked. The idea of the art model as an object of lust is really the only narrative we hear about in the mainstream.
The most realistic representation of what the artist/model relationship is like is in a French film entitled The Artist And The Model. This film was not only very realistic, but it showed the process of making art in a way that we never get to see outside of actual studios. At one point, the artist feels the curve of the model’s knee and reaches around the muscles of her shoulders, which makes her rather nervous regarding his intentions. Set in the forties, there were less rules then. Today, an artist generally never touches the model, though sometimes it still happens in the most unobtrusive ways.
I’ve written before about how I often run across people who are judgmental of my life as an art model. They picture the studio as some den of depravity, where pervs are sketching me one minute and jacking off in the bathroom in the next. Those that judge seem to think of me as some kind of enabler. They admonish the thought of running across a painting of me nude, and then what?
As I leave my body to be still in the pose – I observe the artists as they grow in their skill, approaching the difficult equation of capturing the human form, creating shape through shadow and light, measuring each angle, examining my structure next to a skeleton, identifying every muscle and how it connects to other muscles and bones. I am a living and breathing human anatomy lesson.
From my point of view, art modeling has been a study in subtle realistic poses – contrapposto, odalisque, the curve of the back, the angle of the head. I know exactly what my body can handle for what length of time. The pressures of stillness are a strange study, and I’ve learned from many mistakes – how to create poetry while balancing your weight to avoid pain.
In The Last Nude, the famous Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka picks up an American female model in the Bois de Boulogne. Rafaela is still a teenager, but she’s been selling her body to old rich men for a life of independence in 1920’s Paris. Tamara seduces her, and Rafaela falls in love. It’s the first time that Rafaela sleeps with a person for the love of it, rather than for what she wants. But is that really the case? In the heat of their summer together, Tamara paints the most stunning nude of her career. She keeps her motivations a secret from Rafaela, and to the young naive girl, the relationship is not what it seems.
I work in a wide range of settings, mainly art schools and private studios where several artists gather for sessions. I enjoy the people who call me to come in every three months. They’re dependable. It never gets too personal, but it’s always fun to see them after a while.
On the other hand, working for the people who get swept up in me as their muse can at once feel more relaxed and have an increased sense of pressure. The more they look, the more they see new lines that amaze them. Or they think of new scenarios to pose me in, week after week.
I get stuck having to wear my hair exactly the same way for months of sessions, and once I was chided for the fact that my hair grows. At times I feel claustrophobic being around the same people for too long (another reason why the variety of the job generally works well for me). Then I begin to resent how much I come to love these people, knowing that one day they’ll drop me and move on to the next model (as they should). Whether or not I’ll get to see them much after that point is left to be determined. When you are an artist, there is little time for friendships. Everyday is devoted to work. This is another cliché’ that gets broken – artists are not lazy, and their quest is somewhat obsessive and heroic for all the obstacles in their way.
Outside of the studio, the social strata present degrees of separation. More well known artists are likely to give you the feeling that you need to take a number to talk to them at art shows. The excessive amounts of time spent in their studio, countless meals eaten together – it’s all for naught when your time as muse is up. The intense connection dissipates over time.
Models have been fighting to be more than just the model since the dawn of figurative art. Before the 20th Century, female art models, dancers, and actors were basically viewed as “whores”. The main motivation of whoring yourself is to gain money and power and find success in the thing you love to do (which usually doesn’t involve seducing ugly old rich men). It’s a way out of poverty for people with assets and aspirations beyond the daily drudgery of life.
It makes sense that throughout history, models have often slept with the artist, especially in cases where the artist is wealthy and socially mobile. Sex can feel like a transfer of power, genius, and a solidifying bond. But in extremes of power imbalance, it often ends badly for the model.
Of Picasso’s models and lovers, overall, their lives ended in complete disrepair. They never recovered. The only one who was a success post-Picasso was Francoise Gilot, who left him of her own accord, knowing that her art career would go nowhere if she continued to live in his shadow.
The model remains as a vague representation of a person. A person we will never truly know. What makes the Mona Lisa famous? No one knows what she’s actually thinking, but whatever it is, her thoughts look very interesting. That’s the trick of being a good model – to always have a curious mind that never stands still within the stillness of your body. I love to be within my brain, barely aware that I am onstage, ignoring intense amounts of physical pain as the warm air of the space heater embraces my body.
I’ve seen thousands of versions of myself in drawings and paintings, and it is rare that any of them really fully capture me. I’m counting about five in my head right now. But that’s not really the point. My body is only a guide to what the artist sees. After so many years at it, I still feel excited to see what people are working on, and feel a sense of surprise when there is a new voice that speaks through the fascinating curves of lines and paint. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that sense of wonder, because I am an artist as well.
For the last year, I’ve been increasing my time and efforts in my painting practice. I knew that painting would come back to me one day. It was all I did for so long, and then went away when I became a writer.
People struggle with the idea of others in more than one role. They are sometimes amazed to see me painting. There is a tug of war between days that I model, days that I paint, and days that I write. Models are never just models. They are poets, actors, burlesque dancers, musicians, singers, and artists. It is the perfect job for the creative person who wants to make their own schedule, be their own boss, work as much or as little as they want to.
Hopefully, the majority of our lot will make something of themselves. I overheard a well-known artist say, “We’ve lost so many models to thinking that they want to be artists. It’s a real problem!” Quite a lot of people would like to see others remain in their known role. It’s up to each of us to make our lives what we feel it should be.
I never stop reaching for greatness. It’s a magical thing to work for people who teach me to go that much farther. Art is a discipline; a playfulness; an openness; an exploration. I get to watch people create from onstage, and then go home and do the same. I’ve found my place in Seattle through my work, and I’m building a sense of community and friendship.
Did I mention that I’ve never met a model that slept with the artist? It wouldn’t bother me if I did. But the point is, it’s a job like any other. Word spreads fast, and we depend on the money to get by. For those that don’t take it seriously, go ahead and fool around. Though trust me, overall, artists aren’t nearly as sexy as people make them out to be. We’re a nerdy lot.
April 13, 2014 § 4 Comments
As a single twenty something, I subsisted on stories of sexual exploits. Brunch with friends consisted of dishing the dirt on what happened the night before. All of our experiences seemed like some kind of amazing movie, where the hot musician/artist/stranger from out of town walks in and sweeps away the night with his own unique way of wooing, either leading to mounting sexual tension or strewn sheets.
I also worked at a brand new restaurant where they only hired you if you were beautiful or Irish. Everyone was sexy. We worked hard, played hard, and then all ended up in bed together. To be honest, it was the best job I ever had, with the strongest sense of community. The drama kept it interesting, and persistent flirtations kept my adrenaline pumping. People with commitments didn’t fare so well working there. But I had no strings, no attachments, and just a couple of obsessions. I was at that age where you were allowed to be just a little bit stupid. I learned that you probably shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but it’s a lot more fun when you do.
Ten years later, I look back on that time as my heyday of singledom. It was an adventure to sleep with all kinds of men, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a great deal about life from all of those experiences. I never imagined that my life would change so much since then, and that I would choose to be in a monogamous marriage.
We’ve both admitted that the single thing we miss most about dating is the variety. Once married, that excitement of the brand new person in your arms is a thing of the past. The challenge is to go beyond the familiar to create a fresh erotic experience. Biologically, the familiar is a warning signal that keeps us from committing incest, and once your family, there is nothing more familiar than your spouse.
At times, we get our kicks from listening to stories told by our single guy friends. But as they talk, I find myself feeling depressed and left bored. They check young girls off their list, and are consumed with looks rather than substance – the type of girls who like to flip their ponytail in your face; had a boob job at eighteen; and fail in conversations with comments like, “Alcohol was once illegal? That never happened!” In the meantime, the fully formed human beings are relegated into friendship territory.
For much of our lives, love and sex are two very different things. If you marry a person based on your passionate sex life, you’ll wake up one day to find that you have nothing in common. If you marry your best friend, you’ll realize that as love grows stronger, keeping sex fresh is a challenge. Love and sex only come together completely in the first initial phases of an intense relationship, and as familiarity takes over, lust wanes.
Everything that I’ve ever felt about the nature of human sexuality is explained and affirmed in Sex At Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’. As their theory goes, we owe much of our culture to the rise of agriculture, but the earth was a more balanced place when we remained hunter-gatherers in pre-history. There was no famine, no malnutrition; people grew taller and lived longer; finding food took up to three hours a day leaving the rest of time for play; when food and resources were scarce they kept moving; and communities were kept small so that everyone could be accommodated for. Strength came from how little you had – as in possessions as well as people. Greed represented failure, and sharing was the ultimate benefit. As food was not withheld, neither was sex.
During ovulation, women slept with as many men as possible, letting the best sperm-match for her egg battle it out inside her body. The baby could be anybody’s, and this ensured protection for the child. Everyone took responsibility for raising the children. There are many communities throughout the world that still function in this way, though outside pressures threaten to stamp it out.
Our bodies perform functions that are basic to this mode of sex and reproduction. As a woman vocalizes during orgasm in the throes of sex with one man, she is calling attention to other potential mates in the area. When a man thrusts, his action combined with the coronal ridge of his penis creates a suction that removes competing sperm from a woman’s vaginal canal. A woman’s body will actually attack sperm that are not the right match for her egg. But when sperm and egg are the right match to make a strong and immune child, her body is more welcoming. These various functions are called “sperm competition.”
There is a lot to be learned in this regard from our primate cousins. With Gorillas, the largest male wins all the females. He competes with his strength, but his scrotum is tiny – an example of male competition rather than sperm competition. With bonobo chimps, the females lead with a sexually free society, where the males can enjoy themselves instead of posturing to win the ladies. When there is enough sex to go around, everyone can relax.
Most social primates are non-monogamous. In fact, it’s a real stretch to find any animals anywhere that are monogamous. I hate to burst the bubble, but even penguins find a new mate after the hardships of protecting the young are through. Sometimes penguins engage in threesomes that are beneficial for the male in times of keeping the egg warm – double duty.
Of the primates, gibbons are a standout for their solitary existence up in the trees, with a generally monogamous existence. Among the gibbons, males and females are exactly the same size. Humans have much more in common with chimps and bonobos in regards to male/female size ratio and the general size of male sex organs. We also share 98.8% of the same DNA.
As a social function, sex throughout history has been a solidifying exercise between people groups – a way to create bonds, establish friendship, welcome distant travelers and gain their trust. Marriage, on the other hand, was a negotiation – an economic and political maneuver. Typically, patriarchs chose who you married, before the Victorian era built up the idealistic idea of marrying for love. That same era was the most uptight, restricting, and repressive time. No one thought that women actually wanted to have sex. They were idealized as angelic creatures, all the while getting their orgasms at the doctor’s office in treatment for Hysteria.
“Otto Kiefer, in his 1934 Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, explains that from the Roman perspective, “Natural and physical laws are alien and even opposed to the marriage tie. Accordingly, the woman who is entering marriage must atone to Mother Nature for violating her, and go through a period of free prostitution, in which she purchases the chastity of marriage by preliminary unchastity (Ryan, Jetha, 124 – 125).””
Sound advice. There is a reason why “gang bangs” are such a popular porn feature. The truth is, it takes us back to our roots in the ultimate expression of sperm competition. Monogamy has caused an increase in fertility issues in men – some 20% of men suffer, and the numbers are rising. These issues would never arise in a non-monogamous society, where the strongest sperm win, weeding out the weak. In monogamy, the weak just keep trying.
A man’s sexual preferences become rigid in his youth, while a woman’s preferences are infinitely flexible (whether she knows it or not).
“Gay or straight, the men were predictable. The things that turned them on were what you’d expect…. The female subjects, on the other hand, were the very picture of inscrutability. Regardless of sexual orientation, most of them had the plethysmograph’s needle twitching over just about everything they saw. Whether they were watching men with men, women with women, the guy on the beach, the woman in the gym, or bonobos in the zoo, their genital blood was pumping. But unlike the men, many of the women reported (via the keypad) that they weren’t turned on. As Daniel Bergner reported on the study in The New York Times, “With women… mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person (Ryan, Jetha, 273).'”
Despite the major shift in consciousness through the last one hundred years, women are still very good at being sexually dishonest with themselves. And why wouldn’t they, when society at large anxiously awaits that moment when they can label a woman a slut or a whore? Women are still punished for being sexual, when it should be celebrated.
I’ve never fared well with overly idealistic women. When they ask me to tell them how I met Michael, how he proposed, where we got married – I cringe a little bit. They are all great stories, but they sum up our relationship into some bizarre fairytale narrative that has nothing to do with our day-to-day reality. Those stories are mere blippits on the radar at this point. They remind me of the whirlwind that I was swept up into, left almost unrecognizable to myself, as I planned a wedding and turned into a girly girl, entering into a mainstream institution.
I’m still confused by what, exactly, happened to me. I’m still difficult to deal with, yes, but my personality did a back flip in response to Michael’s triple lutz. He made me a better person. I became strong and secure, simply because he believed in me so much. And now, five and half years since we met, we’ve changed so much together that I have little in common with the person I was back then.
I know that I could handle an open marriage, but Michael is not interested. And would I want to go back to that way of life? I see the other options out there, and it all pales in comparison. Before, so much energy went into thinking about sex, when now, we put our energy into the work that we love doing. I was not that productive before Michael came along.
We have a shared narrative that makes life enjoyable. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, and sometimes we forget to have sex for a few weeks, and at other times, he feels more like my brother or my son or my father than a husband. But then it all comes back around, and it’s like we’re at the beginning again, in our own little world, with the sheets in wild disarray, and the hours passing by undetected.
I think the important thing is to not look at a relationship as a given. To not give up on life and let everything go. It’s the outside world that keeps the inside world invigorated. It’s the community at large that keeps love alive. An insular relationship is doomed to end in boredom. With trust and openess, fresh energy flows, and you find that the person you married never stops changing.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I bought Darcey Steinke’s novel Jesus Saves at a warehouse sale, I hoped that her words would speak directly to me, and they did. It’s a rare thing to find that sense of total communion with another writer. Set in a suburban malaise, Jesus Saves is about two girls. Sandy Patrick, who has been kidnapped, and Ginger, who suffers disillusionment at the crossroads between her struggling pastor father and a boyfriend intent on obliterating his own life.
Sandy Patrick escapes her brutal conditions into an imaginary world with a bear and a butterfly and a white unicorn that comes to try and save her. She protects her mind from trauma by staying far away in the land of make-believe, but in the meantime, her body is falling apart.
“The powerful scent shrunk her tiny as a figurine left under a doll house bed. He wouldn’t need the van now; he could carry her in a velvet flute case, or in his pocket, like a Barbie doll, her tiny toes brushing his leather belt, her head resting against a copper penny warmed by his groin (Steinke, 64).”
For the characters who haven’t been kidnapped by the man referred to as the troll, there is a different sort of prison. Grown women who dress like children; department stores with rooms made up of facades; fast food; and mega-church pastors who tell feel-good stories about television, sports, and success.
The shiny veneer of suburban life masks the constant sense that there is a troll lurking behind every little girl’s back. And in the avoidance, blood and gore pervade around make-believe land. Pretend becomes the only savior until the game is over. No one seems to know how to fight back. No one but Ginger, who refuses to buy into the trap – whether it’s in church or in fairytales or suburban facades.
“On Sundays, the wafers on the sterling plate and the wine in the medieval-style goblet took on an aura and import, became what they called holy, but backstage their glamour was diminished, no more important now than saltine crackers and Boone’s Farm wine. Holiness was like that, you could never trap it or examine its uncanny elements (Steinke, 75).”
When I was nine years old, we moved from a suburb of Chicago to Woodinville, Washington. Compared to our 1960’s era ranch house in the Midwest – which was nestled between the train tracks and the highway – our brand new house in the Northwest seemed like a mansion. It’s two and a half stories high with four bathrooms, a twenty-foot foyer and a pond with lush forest in the back. The house was part of a new development where all of the homes looked rather similar with small variations on layout and finish.
The community surrounded an older house tucked behind high hedges at the end of a dirt road just down from us. Attached to the corners of metal link fencing were surveillance cameras, which seemed completely bizarre in such a low-key neighborhood full of people going to jobs at Microsoft.
I only remember going down that road once in all the time Mr. Anderson lived there. A seven-year old girl at the end of our street made an attempt and received a nasty letter to her parents. In it, he demanded that they never allow her to walk down that road again, or else. But he didn’t own the road, and there was another house across from his.
Sometimes we heard shots ring out. The old couple across the street, who served us tea and displayed their knick knacks in glass cases, told us that one time Mr. Anderson’s bullet barely missed the head of an old guy eating breakfast in the nook of his kitchen. I pictured the nook as being exactly the same as ours, except maybe facing to the east instead of west. I saw the window shatter, and imagined the bullet lodged in the man’s wall – the shock on his face, the realization as he inspected the damage. There was talk of banning gunfire in the neighborhood. But I don’t remember if anything ever came of it.
I didn’t like the world of people when I was young. I enjoyed sitting in the forest at the back of the pond, hidden by one hundred-year old stumps and nurse logs, stroking my Dutch rabbit while smoking rolled up bits of newspaper. Life seemed real in the forest, in a way that it never did in school or inside the sterile house where I was under pressure to do certain things and act a certain way. The forest was the only place where I was allowed to be myself, and simply be. The rabbit listened to my diatribes against humanity for hours. Sometimes she made snorting sounds like a pig. Even though she hated people just as much as I did – truly dangerous with her sharp buckteeth – she felt safe with her soft chin and tickly whiskers nestled between my chin and collarbone.
One day I was walking along the deer trails alone, further out than I normally go. I saw Mr. Anderson in the distance with his rifle strapped across his shoulder. He was large and frightening and seemed more like a shadow than a person because I never saw his face. I sensed that he was coming right towards me. I turned and started to walk as fast as I could back to the clearing. His steps grew louder and faster as twigs broke beneath his boots.
When I made it back, I turned to look, but he was nowhere to be seen – like the mirage he always was. He represented the wild danger of what this place once was – a last frontier. Our suburban houses were whitewash over pine trees, cougars, coyotes, old farmsteads, and the Native American tribes that I still felt in the ground and the remaining trees. The present and the past were so at odds with each other that Mr. Anderson finally moved away – hopefully into the mountains where his breed was the norm. We could all breathe easier after the troll left.
They clear-cut the forest when I was seventeen. Men climbed the trees like monkeys, and chainsaws roared for hours. They left it raw and ripped to shreds. The only thing left was muddy tracks from the trucks that hauled the trees away. Wildlife destroyed, coves and crannies and a century of growth – since the last forest fire – gone. There was a strange law that said after a clear-cut, you had to wait seven years to build a new development. But seven years came and went, and no one ever built a thing. The government came to the rescue, purchased the land and made it a forest preserve with nature trails. So now you can walk muddy trails, gazing at nondescript saplings that all look the same for miles. It’s been about eighteen years, and I’ve enjoyed watching nature take the land back.
If I was the bear, I’d head for the Cascade Mountains like Mr. Anderson should have. But the bear still hangs around and catches salmon in a nearby creek, and balances his enormous weight on the railings of back decks, stealing bird food.
“The bear sighed as if he were made out of caramel, a quivering baritone that intermingled with the prickly static moving in and out of the troll’s lungs (Steinke, 117).”
I went the opposite direction. I’m rarely ever in a place where the air feels wet and naked and the quiet hangs over you like a shroud. Somehow, I ended up right back next to a freeway in the city.
My mother drove by and saw an ambulance in front of my building and called me when she got home. “Are you okay?” Her voice wavered and I could hear the urgency in her voice. She’d worried for the last twenty miles and forty-five minutes.
“Mom, you’re so suburban. There are ambulances here all the time. At the halfway building across the way, there’s an ambulance almost every day.”
I live in a mass of humanity, and in masses, people are dying all the time. If not dying, they’re falling, breaking bones, having a stroke, or threatening to commit suicide. One man in our building had a stroke, didn’t realize it, and was so out of sorts that he only ate ice cream for a week and lost a ridiculous amount of weight.
I’m not afraid of death. I like to be reminded that life is short because it makes me work harder and love stronger. There’s only one shot to give life everything that I have, and playing it safe is just another way of being half-dead. I’m inspired by people that are fighters – the ones that never give up. Like my ninety-year old neighbor who still walks up steep hills even though her knees are bad and her bones are literally falling apart. The only reason why she’s still going is because she’s too stubborn to give up. I don’t think she gives trolls a second thought, and when you’re old, it seems, your value to trolls decreases.
If I have a child, we might read books about magical bears and hookah smoking caterpillars and flying ponies. But I won’t shelter them from reality. I’ll teach them to be strong, fully present, and ready for any twist in circumstance. I won’t sugarcoat the facts or lead them to believe that life is easy. When I was young, I thought I could map my whole life out, but it doesn’t work like that. I’m glad that it doesn’t.
Dodging trolls has made me stronger, and no matter where I go, the world is always like the forest. You have to stay alert, allow yourself to be fully tapped into your intuition, and listen for the sound of crunching leaves. In the midst of that, the world is also so beautiful that at times it’s too much to handle. A gift that could be snatched away at any moment. All we have to do in the meantime is be alive in the best way that we know how – work hard, love strong, give all.
January 16, 2014 § 5 Comments
Tonight, my sister’s family is boarding a plane that will lead them back to Wewak, Papua New Guinea. They have been doing their work there for eighteen years, and on this furlough, they were home longer than they have ever been – a year and a half – due to a new policy of needing full financial support before returning.
They are Wycliffe Bible Translators – trained in linguistics to use the blueprint of the Roman alphabet to produce a written language for a small village known as Pouye. This is one language of the 1,000 languages in PNG, out of the 6,000 languages in the world.
At the start, my sister and brother in-law learned to speak Pouye, then determined which letters are used in the language. After this map, they comprised the written language, taking into account cultural differences. Then they began the process of teaching the people to read and write, and of course, instilling them with their faith.
I could tell numerous stories about their time there, but I’ll never know what it’s really like to live the way they do. Each time they are preparing to go back, I keep hoping that they won’t go. And each time they come home, I watch patiently as they go through culture shock. It literally takes them a full year to reacclimate and catch up to all that they have missed.
Because my nieces are often so isolated, I didn’t really think that my oldest niece, Cynthia, would become a full-on teenager. But it’s happened – she’s fifteen and begging for a new phone every year. In that phase where she’s not fully present, rapt over social media, selfies, and games on her phone. Half young woman, half slightly awkward – but next time I see her, she’ll be eighteen, and that last half will probably be gone.
I was so amused, this time around, that the girls are at the age where they’re developing their own opinions. Mom and Dad are no longer the ultimate end-all be-all. They had journals of secrets and a complex magic club. Cynthia told us, “There are more pros than cons to the witch doctors where we live.” Being a super herbalist healer myself – due to years of no medical insurance – I had to agree. Though you wouldn’t want to be the unfortunate tourist who purchased the wrong kind of wooden statue – the one with a hex on it to keep the tourists out. The only way to reverse the hex, she told us, is by burning the token.
I’m trying to hold it together as I think about all of the memories I have with my nieces. All the times they spent the night and we ate ice cream and pizza, made paintings with watercolor and gouache, went to the museum where Cynthia pointed out the blonde voodoo doll that looks just like Leah, shopped at my herbal store where we bought pestles and mortars, toured a historic boat that functions as a hotel, went to the zoo, or the park. There is so much more I wish we could have done.
Since Cynthia is in high school, when they get back she’ll be going to a boarding school at a mission base on the other side of PNG. It makes me feel a little uneasy that she’ll be so far away from her family. Being the youngest sister myself, I relate a great deal to Leah. She often feels like the underdog, though she is talented and witty with an incredible imagination. My older sister left home when I was twelve, and now Cynthia is leaving when Leah is almost twelve as well. I keep seeing history repeat itself.
Being apart, they will change a great deal. Leah will come into her own and feel less overshadowed, but she’ll also feel lonely without her sister. Cynthia will become more independent, focused on making her own decisions, forming her own thoughts through her love of writing and art.
If this is the last term for my sister and brother-in-law, I also wonder what the next phase of their lives will be. What will they do? Will they teach? My sister has shown that she can acclimate, and has been working as an assistant Spanish teacher. But my brother-in-law seems more uncertain of his place outside of missionary life. He is known there as a leader, but here, he hasn’t had the opportunity to establish himself in that way. It seems important that he find his footing here in the states, eventually.
All four of them have kept moving so constantly that gypsy life is ingrained in them. They all fear the idea of staying in one place for more than a year. In that constant movement, there is little chance for a complete life to take root. I only say this, because for a long time, I lived that way as well. It’s the “Hello, Goodbye” lifestyle. We’re never able to completely work out our issues because there is never enough time together.
I get nervous being one on one with my sister. I attempted to have lunch with her once – the second time we were alone together since she got married. Her silence makes me want to fill the air with words. I wonder if she expects me to ask her questions, but I don’t know what questions to ask, and I prefer that she fill in the blanks without my prodding. She told me that I talked too much. I am an open book, and she is a closed one – she knows me so much better than I will ever know her. I have no idea how to solve her mystery.
There are many things we never say. We never bring up the fact that I didn’t become the Super-Christian that she so wanted me to be (including the time that she tried to send me to a rehab camp in Texas for straying Christians). They’ve read some of my writing, but no one ever brings it up. And we never discuss that I have mixed feelings about what they do for a living.
In Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, the course of our evolutionary development is traced through the conquest and spread of civilization. His book offers a total education in how human society functions through the game of winners and losers. At one point he asks, “Why was proselytizing religion (Christianity and Islam) a driving force for colonization and conquest among Europeans and West Asians but not among Chinese (Diamond, 419)?”
As countries, empires, languages, and people groups have come and gone, China has remained Chinese, with an unchanging language and power structure for longer than almost anywhere. It is an insular large land mass, and though as a culture they have made leaps and bounds in technology and invention, an absolute leader has always stalled the process, causing a sort of catch-up game hundreds of years later.
In Europe, however, there are many small countries with open communication. If one leader is not buying a concept, another one will. If the concept is successful, the other leaders have to adopt it or risk getting swallowed up by the more successful country. This model pertains not only to countries but to corporations, organizations, governments, and religion.
Christianity is a conquest religion. First come the missionaries, then comes the government. The big businesses are drawn by untapped resources and cheap labor, which leads to total cultural take-over.
In the past eighteen years, a lot has changed in Papua New Guinea. Its resources have encouraged development – and if you want to rent a home there, $4,000 a month is on the low-end. I wouldn’t be surprised if land gets bought up right from under the feet of the natives. It’s the same old story.
In the 1970’s, the highlanders had been farming with stone tools for thousands of years while those in the swamp areas existed on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Before humans ever arrived, large mammals existed there, but since then, there has been so little protein, that cannibalism existed until modern Australians threatened the human-eaters with guns. Society there developed in utter isolation from the original Asian population that first founded it (certain people groups that looked much different back then than they do today).
“… difficulties of terrain, combined with the state of intermittent warfare that characterized relations between New Guinea bands or villages, account for traditional New Guinea’s linguistic, cultural, and political fragmentation (Diamond, 306).”
This fragmentation and geographic isolation kept New Guinea from developing as a civilization, though until three thousand years ago, it was actually more advanced than Australia, the islands of Bismarck, and the Solomon Archipelagoes.
To most Papua New Guineans, technology is “white man’s magic.” Western medicine and an encouragement to decrease warfare has improved the population. Is it patronizing to ask that a culture remain untouched so that we can enjoy the Stone Age from afar? Is it patronizing to take over? Rather than answers, there is the inevitable progression of globalization.
Quickly, the old traditions disappear, replaced with our customs, our food, our business, our religions. The first thing they are given to read is the Bible. Not their own stories, but the stories of a once tiny tribal religion that began in the Fertile Crescent – a place so raped of its natural resources that it is now only a dessert.
Within my family, there are eight different people with differing life experiences, belief systems, and lifestyles among three different generations. Maybe all of that difference keeps us balanced. When we come together, it can be a challenge. There is always an awkward moment, or the thing that someone says that makes me angry. In a sense, we understand more fully who we are when confronted with the opposite point of view. It seems to work for us – the small groups with mostly open communication that create innovation – kind of like Europe, or Microsoft, or Capitalism. In all of that difference, we find success.
January 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
Are you feeling the post-holiday penny pinch? Well, here’s my gift to you. Starting today, the e-book version of No End Of The Bed will be free through Sunday. Please spread the word, and spread the copies. Enjoy it!
December 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I just finished painting a portrait that feels like the source of my previously untapped visual language. For a long time, I have been searching, seeking the story I want to tell through paint. As an art model, I hear voices of teachers speaking their own language, exerting their own ideas, often asking their students to copy their vision to learn to paint well. The result is a less technically advanced reproduction of the master.
One time in class, a student went to retrieve her painting from the drying rack, but she couldn’t remember which one was hers. Sometimes, it is impossible to tell. I see drawings of a figure, all from different angles, but they all look as though they were drawn by the same person. They are all beautiful drawings, but they are missing an individual voice.
Drawing or painting from life is useless if the artist fails to bring their own particular way of seeing or feeling to their art. Students take classes to learn technique. Hopefully after the fact, they will learn to express themselves and leave rigidity behind. But it’s not for certain. Art stands out from the mass production of images only for that very ingredient of self-expression. It’s the expansive silence amidst the endless noise. A meditation.
In Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able To Paint she describes the process: “It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact, with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an overwhelming or a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love (Milner, 31).”
Through observing artists and students at work, I eventually came back to exactly where I started – an expressionist style that shares the inner humanity of a person, rather than our idealized perceptions of them in the broader context. It’s an empathetic exploration that can’t be achieved by painting from a photograph, no matter how hard I try when I’m not in a studio.
“One of the things that had been so dissatisfying about those deliberate drawings which were sheer copying of the object was that they had no life in them (Milner, 41).”
As far back as I can remember I have been drawing the human form. In grade school, I was obsessed with becoming a fashion designer. It was a glamorous fantasy life that I had all worked out in my head. In sixth grade, I created a book of at least twenty fashion illustrations. I still think of some of those designs today, and wish that I could wear them. But my friend bought the drawings for ten dollars, and knowing her, she probably told people that she drew them herself.
From grade school through high school I was drawing so much that I barely passed my classes. Usually I had an F all semester, right up until the last few weeks when teachers began to feel sorry for me, or didn’t want me in their class all over again. I could never hear what the homework was, or that we even had any because I was too absorbed in the drawings on the margins of my notebooks.
I made it into a small Christian college on a probationary basis. It was the first year they were offering Art as a major, and it was a disorganized and scattered program. I took Modern Art in my first year, but the professor spent the whole semester on Impressionism, and barely made it into the 20th Century. With only two weeks left, he panicked, and asked us all to pick an art movement, write a paper on it, and present it to the class. I chose Art Nouveau, which was based on the curves of an organic environment.
The art teacher was mainly a potter – vases and bowls were his passion. The other teacher was well known for his complex watercolor landscapes. I had the sense that there was very little they could teach me. I’d just come out of Advanced Placement Art in high school, and had spent the entire year previous creating a portfolio of work. I wanted to be taught things that I didn’t already know, rather than carry on an independent study at a very expensive school. So I chose fashion and writing/literature instead.
I continued to paint on my own time in my dorm room. People kept asking me to do paintings for them, usually from grainy, indistinct photos – either of them as children, or their grandchildren. Kids were the antithesis of everything I was driven to paint. There was no life experience in their faces, only an empty canvas of a life waiting to happen. When I finished the commissions, I failed at receiving an appropriate amount of pay, even to cover the cost of supplies. It was something that should have been agreed up-front, but I had an aversion to discussing anything having to do with money. In my frustration, something snapped, and I stopped doing art altogether. I felt like a sell-out – somehow, money had ruined the craft I loved.
Every now and then, I found an interesting face in a magazine and I drew it in my sketchbook, or I’d sketch faces at coffee shops. Then the day I first fell in love, I started a sketch and never finished it. Poetry began to take up all the blank pages, and writing became my new form of expression. I was pulling back the layers on my honesty, daring myself to go further and further. My stories began in paint, then they became poetry, then fiction, and then memoir.
A funny thing happened after I published my memoir. I felt horribly exposed. More naked than when I stand on the podium posing for artists. Even though I am almost finished with a second memoir, I’m not sure that I will publish it. I would like distance from the genre, except in this book blog, where I write more about my present state of mind, rather than the feelings of a past self that I no longer identify with.
The sheer amount of work that went into creating a quality book burned me out after months of twelve-hour days on editing and formatting, and designing the cover. So all summer, after the book came out, I needed some distance. During that time, there was a rumble. Posing on the stage, I began to feel intense and painful currents of envy towards all the artists who were drawing me. It felt necessary that I come back to my place on the other side of the easel – but this time, as a fully formed adult with a clear sense of vision.
It had started out subtle. In the spring I drew at a studio nearby a few times. I wasn’t sure if I would stick with it, and I didn’t have much spare time. But then I began looking at art more and more with a rather dissective tendency. I teetered-tottered between classical painting and a modern expressive style. I toyed with the abstract qualities of an artist I worked for all year. I asked myself, in the struggle to find and express a language, “What do I like to look at? What gives me a rush?”
A few of my favorite artists are Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, and Egon Schiele. These artists capture something else about our reality than what is visual to the basic eye. There is messiness, pain, scars, movement, a beating heart pulsing on the canvas. Looking at their work, you commune with the sitter by moving through their humanity. You sense their struggles. But you also feel their strength.
An excellent example of art verses mass media is Lucian Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. Towards the end of his life, she sat for him, and what resulted is a Kate we’ve never seen before. We are used to cool Kate. Perfect in her rocker-girl chic, her perpetual bed-head, the pout and the cat eyes. She is surrounded by mystery. But Freud strips that all away and shows us a person. Not a model or a celebrity or someone who’s been airbrushed too many times to count. He’s not showing us a life we desire to have. He shows us a naked, vulnerable, human being who is mortal like all the rest of us.
There are many classical painters at the school where I work, but I soon realized that their paintings left me cold. At first, their work seems incredible. Their technique is awe-inspiring. But more and more, I saw the tricks. It’s just as airbrushed as what we see in the magazines. They fuzz out the detail to give the painting a romantic feel. They exert over us an idealized view of life. It reminds me of church.
Working from a photo is a similar pitfall – a copy of a 2-dimensional flatness of light. There is very little you can bring to the table as far as expression goes. For years, I painted and drew from photos, and never really questioned it. I wasn’t aware that I had a choice. I had no idea there were so many options out there for drawing from a model. Subconsciously, I think going into modeling was an attempt to find my way back to art.
So I’ve listened to hundreds of art lectures, stared at hundreds of paintings, and have finally pinpointed exactly what I like to look at. Now came the challenge of putting that into practice.
I began to go to a studio every Friday afternoon, working from a several weeks long pose. In the last three, I developed a 9X12 portrait of the model Ifat. The first thing to be struck by is her beauty. It takes time to get past that, and analyze what it is you are actually seeing. The process becomes a breakdown of bone structure and muscle; light and shadow; and how her face moves, even in stillness. How does the color play across her skin as it peaks and valleys?
The more I began to see, the more I could see everything in everyone. Every face I look at, I am painting in my head. I am seeing the light and how it changes the face at different times of day.
This portrait feels like a major achievement for me. It went beyond the stereotypes of beauty that so often make paintings look cheesy. I stopped worrying about what could be perceived (Did I age her? Did I make her look too world-weary?) and broke it down merely into what I actually saw. Not what I think I see, but what is actually there in the present.
One difficulty that occurred was that what I saw changed week by week as Ifat’s face changed or the light was slightly different. Working from life is never static. That movement becomes alive in the artwork – at least when there is success.
Artists often feel that if they get to know the model too well, it will be harder to see them. Though drawing a person for extended periods of time, you get to know them in a way that their closest friends never will. It’s a way of knowing that has nothing to do with words.
I like to express that knowing through the face. I spent much of last year being painted as a faceless figure. The body I saw was a body I don’t fully identify with – the faceless woman body. There is something objective about it, without the face to give the body a story. The paintings have more to do with composition and sense of space than with the actual person posing as the figure. It’s a different philosophy than what I personally identify with in my need to create.
As a writer, I feel that great art is not complete without a narrative. It might explain why I would rather visit artist’s studios, and hear their process, rather than go to sterile galleries with nothing of the person there to explain their work. I like to see what books the artist is reading, and what they have tacked up on the walls. I like to see how they arrange their palette, what colors they choose, what brand of paint, what mediums. If it’s an abstract piece, I want to hear the story of how they layered grey over red over black to give the piece a depth that the average observer would never notice without the explanation.
Painting the figure is a narrative of my own life – how I’ve seen the world through every phase, every decade. I started out looking for people who could teach me something through their faces. I am returning to the beginning.
From the start, I was more essentially myself than what I give that undeveloped age credit for. The artists I love now are the same ones I loved then. There are sketches from those early years that I’d be hard-pressed to achieve now. All through those twelve years of not painting, I knew that I would come back to it someday. My style now is different, and yet the same. Though, I’ve learned so much in the past few years.
I don’t know if I will ever have a gallery show, or where my love of painting will lead. Paintings of Ifat are taking over the living room. She appears over and over wherever I draw or paint, as the beacon for my new eyes. Eyes I always had, that could never quite see in this way before. Art has always brought me something more than I thought I was capable of. It’s so important, leading us to a greater capacity of self, empathy, understanding – a heightening of the senses taking us beyond where we thought we could go.
November 16, 2013 § 6 Comments
When I married, I lost some of the respect I had gained as an independent, single woman. It was a change that I hadn’t seen coming. Strangers, without fail, defer to my husband. Servers only talk to me as an afterthought. We just had an experience at a steak restaurant, where only the men were given complimentary Port after dinner. It’s not only with strangers – I’m often asked by friends and family, “Is your husband okay with that?” As though I have a master waiting for me at home, rather than Michael, who loves me most for my strength and individuality. In fact, that is what I love most about him as well.
Michael can tend to be larger than life, and I often have to remind myself to step up and not fall into his shadow. As I’ve acclimated to our life together, I’ve learned I have to work much harder to earn the respect of everyone we meet. Instantly, it seems, people look up to Michael; whereas, it could take me years of being around the same people to receive affirmation.
Just in my lifetime, enormous strides have been made towards gender equality. But there is still so much of our culture that is steeped in Puritan roots. It is in our words, in our archetypes, and in the way that we view each other.
Within the patriarchal language of the church, woman is “the other.” “Society as we know it has a perverse need to create ‘the Other’ as object of condemnation so that those who condemn can judge themselves to be good (Daly, 60).”
It was doubtful at one point in history, whether or not women could actually be “saved.” Ideologically, she exists only as the property and projection of her husband. All other incarnations of women become a risk to the establishment – such as Joan of Arc who was burned alive by the church for the sentence of being a witch in 1431. Once hundreds of years had passed, she was then declared a saint in 1920.
Joan of Arc was a woman who could not be possessed in life, though the church has tried to claim her in death. In the symbolic paintings of Franz von Stuck, we see many versions of two men wrestling or fighting to “possess” a woman. Concurrent to Stuck’s era, this was a concept that Darwin explained, though obviously, he wasn’t the first to think so. It’s an ancient concept, having less to do with biology and more to do with a patriarchal power structure. Men projected their identities onto women, and displayed them as the prize of their success. Hence, we feel a little bit ill when a man trades in his wife for a younger version. Or, for example, when the leader of a cult has more wives than anyone else in his group – the ultimate sign of power.
I had the unfortunate experience of once dating a man who actually told me that he wanted to “possess” me, and said, “You are mine.” His general confusion led to death threats and court orders and drug abuse. For months, I was watched by people he hired, scared that he would turn up at my door. I understood, then, that a person’s desire to possess can turn into the mutilation of the thing they can’t have. In other words, I was an object to be claimed, rather than a human being.
Throughout the midcentury, it was commonplace for husbands to shut away their wives in mental institutions for displaying too much dissent over prescribed roles. In the tremendous shift towards liberation, women were no longer accepting their lives as a mere projection of their husband’s. Over 50,000 lobotomies were performed in that time, the majority on women.
“On February 24, 1972, Dr. Breggin’s article, ‘The Return of Lobotomy and Psychosurgery,’ was read into the Congressional Record. Discussing the remarkably large proportion of women who are being lobotomized, Dr. Breggin explains that it is more socially acceptable to lobotomize women because creativity, which the operation totally destroys, is in this society ‘an expendable quality in women (Daly, 65).'”
In Mary Daly’s Beyond God The Father, she challenges, “That language for millennia has affirmed the fact that Eve was born from Adam, the first among history’s unmarried pregnant males who courageously chose childbirth under sedation rather than abortion, consequently obtaining a child-bride (Daly, 195).”
From this myth, we gather that the male is the dominant sex. But in biological truth, all mammals begin as female. Even for those who inherit a male sex chromosome (XY), throughout the embryo stage we all remain and develop as female (XX). At the eighth week, the male embryo begins to produce testosterone, veering off course from the female starting point. If an embryo doesn’t respond correctly to male sex hormones, it will revert to being female.
The idea of a dominant sex is false. You can’t have one without the other. We are all individuals, with unique traits that in the past have been repressed by prescribed gender roles. Of course, there are many places in the world where these roles are still in place. Those regions are all governed by extremist religion. I have noticed that no matter what, religion is always extreme. It consumes the lives of people into false ideologies, and an “us verses them” mentality, which leads to violence and genocide.
“The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service of this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated (Daly, 13).”
As a result, women have lived in submission, with no recorded history. I wonder over all the untold stories; the women inventors (where men took credit); artists, writers, composers we have never been given the experience of enjoying. For example, Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the famous composer Felix was an enormously talented composer in her own right. Yet in 1820, her father wrote to her saying, “Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”
Our society has experienced a tremendous loss for the fault of not allowing women to be human beings in the past, and we are barely aware of it. We have forgotten, because we were not allowed to know in the first place.
In their representation as “the other,” women have been dealt implausible archetypes such as the virgin mother or the ruinous Eve. A mother is shamed for remaining a sexual being. A young twenty-something is glared at for being too beautiful. It’s her own fault if she is physically attacked. If you are a woman, you will experience some form of these instant judgments on your life.
Joan Rivers is a perfect pop culture example of this. Watch Fashion Police just once, and you will see her non-stop tirade against women. She represents the worst aspects of patriarchy embodied in a female. Most of her jokes revolve around slut-shaming and the idea that if a woman wears a skirt that’s too short, she is dirty and diseased. Rivers never directs a single unkind word towards men, and if she does, it is directed at their fashion rather than their perceived lifestyle.
“Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace (An Essay On Liberation, Marcuse, 8).”
The “obscene woman” is often used to create a distraction. The battle against abortion raged while 4 million civilians were being killed in Vietnam.
When Hilary Rodham Clinton ran for candidacy in the 2008 presidential campaign, she was referred to as “The Bitch,” and “Her Thighness.” She was berated for showing cleavage while talking to the Senate. Rush Limbaugh asked the question, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
I remember the exact sense that we were being distracted from her achievements by attacks against her female body. These attacks seem to be the reason why she turned down a Vogue cover shoot for the risk of appearing too feminine. How can you blame her, when her body seemed like the biggest obstacle to winning the race?
“The power of presence that is experienced by those who have begun to live in the new space radiates outward, attracting others. For those who are fixated upon patriarchal space it apparently is threatening… Such women are no longer empty receptacles to be used as ‘the Other,’ and are no longer internalizing the projections that cut off the flow of being. Men who need such projection screens experience the power of absence of such ‘objects’ and are thrown into the situation of perceiving nothingness (Daly, 41-42).”
Mary Daly wrote these words in the early 1970’s. She considered the sexual revolution of the sixties to be a failure. The illusion of liberation hid the fact that though they attempted to go beyond life as a possession, they remained as objects to be claimed along the way. Like Hilary Clinton’s stance on the Vogue cover shoot, women of the eighties fought against objectification with the power suit. One of the first fashion memories I have of my mother is her shoulder-pads that could Velcro in and out of sweaters, dresses, and suits. They gave her the instant look of a Quarterback.
In the nineties, every week there was a new battle being fought. Sexual harassment lawsuits were a new concept. Rape culture was exposed. Coming forward became more acceptable, and there was a slight chance that you wouldn’t be told you were lying, or that you caused the rape. Very slight.
In my Christian high school, we all ridiculed a girl for fighting against an issue of sexual harassment. We felt embarrassed for her. I too was harassed, but I kept silent because I was afraid. I felt powerless. I sat pressed into the wall of the bus, while a football player’s son leaned all of his weight into me so I couldn’t move. He ran his hand up my thigh and whispered things that made me cringe. Everyday, he waited for a chance to torment me, and he wasn’t the only one.
A year ago, I listened to women at an art talk say that they are genderless. They are sick of Feminism. I am too. We all are. It’s tiresome to fight. We’re so close to being equal, that we can almost ignore that we aren’t.
The truth is we don’t have the right to be sick of it. We wouldn’t have our lives as individuals without it, for one. We wouldn’t even get to have the elitist idea of being genderless if it hadn’t been for the women who fought for a century and more, before us. Older women are very confused and upset by the statement of being genderless. At the same talk, they reminded us, that they had to pretend to be a man to find any success in the art world. They used their initials instead of their first names just to get a gallery show.
To say genderless, though, has some positive aspects. It says “no” against sex role stereotyping.
I do not want women to rule the world, and I do not want men to rule the world. We deserve total and complete balance. There is a sense, that if Hilary Clinton runs for President in 2016, she will not face the same abuse and slander that she dealt with the first time around. More and more, we see women running companies, becoming scientists, lawyers, and politicians, following their dreams and finding success.
The next generation is an entirely different breed than my own. Young women that I meet really impress me. They make more money in one year than I’ve made in a lifetime, and are buying houses at the age of 23. They’re not wasting time. They have goals, and I have no doubt that they will meet them. I will never exactly be that sort of person. The society I grew up in treated me as “the other.” But it’s enough to see the magnificent change.