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.
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.
December 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
In my first year out of college, I joined a writer’s group that met in the attic of a coffee shop. In the brightly lit wooden eaves of the building, free coffee flowed till midnight. Our minds turned to over-caffeinated mush from the hours of pouring over chapters and poems.
A few of the people there inspired me tremendously, but like any average group, most of the writing was boring and repetitive. One of the members that I suffered through was a guy who looked like one of the dwarves from Lord Of The Rings – short and squat with a grisly beard and a flat nose. He wrote as though we were living in B.C. rather than A.D. In his mind, we were all still using weapons made from stone, building fires by friction, and living according to mythologies that represented our heroic struggles.
He confessed to us, that he found nothing even remotely satisfying about the modern world. He didn’t want to be a part of it, and would rather disappear into the classics. We all had the sense that when not with us, he was in a cabin on a river somewhere, reading Homer by candlelight.
Even though I hated his writing and he hated mine, I found him strangely alluring. He was a mystery I wanted to solve, but never did. His stealthy introversion was an intimidating barrier. Since then, I’ve met this man over and over in many forms. The elitist yearning to live in a glorified past is the ultimate resistance to living in the more difficult present. It is anti-life; anti-hero’s journey – a coward’s way out of reality.
In Donna Tartt’s first novel, A Secret History, the plot centers on a small core of Ancient Greek students at a small Northeastern university. Though the protagonist is from a small middle-class town in California, he tries desperately to fit in among the wealthy. As he infiltrates into the tight-knit program, the idealized view of his classmates begins to crumble. Their web of secrets grows thicker by the day. A pagan bacchanal goes horribly wrong, and all that they hide grows larger than anything else they could possibly share.
Though The Secret History was written twenty years ago, the language of the main characters is antiquated and out of place in the modern day college campus milieu. Off in the distance we see the typical students getting drunk at parties, thinking about what they will wear, who they will hook up with, what drugs they can get their hands on. But in the Greek department, the students congregate in a mystical space, a classroom that is virtually hidden from the rest of the campus, where a teacher sees his students not as they are, but what he wants them to be.
Outside, reality remains unfulfilling and stale. Language takes them to a different time and space, to a code of ancient values and pagan objectives. Their shared knowledge both unifies them and rips them apart through selfish objectives (though they seek to lose the self).
“He laughed and quoted a little Greek epigram about honesty being a dangerous virtue… (Tartt, 27).”
There have been many times when I was guilty of living in the past or the future. It was especially intense all through my childhood and adolescence. While growing up, it felt as though I was living a life that was not my own. It was the life of my parents. Though I grew up Fundamentalist, in my head, I was an actress living in black and white on the Silver Screen. More particularly, I was Joan Crawford being witty; Cyd Charisse dancing; Liza Minelli cavorting; or Rosalind Russell outfoxing all of her costars. I dreamt of my future as an independent woman living in a city somewhere, wearing sequins and faux fur, sipping martinis with movers and shakers.
This fantasy represented my escape from childhood – and in reality, I made it come true. I escaped the dreary suburbs with all of that constricting conformity, and have lived in cities ever since. I danced professionally for thousands of people, made the rounds as a musician, and worked as a showgirl/server at a vaudeville circus show. After hours, I conversed late into the night about who knows what, and desperately clamored to find someone outside of the circus tent who could help me breathe. The flashing lights, the glitter that never goes away, the bits of feathers that get caught in your clothes, the costumes sprayed with febreze – five nights a week like a carousel that you can never get off of. The exhaustion, anxiety, and nausea finally wore me down, and I jumped off the ride for good.
Whenever I choose to build a new life, the past haunts me. People I have known in other cities come to me in my dreams, and it’s as though time never passed away. I am there with them again, those people that I love though I will never see again; never get to be a part of their daily rituals and conversations. Part of me is still there.
If I do visit and see them again, I am not able to fully be part of their present. We only live in the past together, in our memories. I’m no longer on the ride. The past and the future never fully exist – both are merely shadows that taunt us, artifacts left behind, thoughts that have become skewed with time.
It’s important to understand what makes you feel fully invested in your present life. Personally, I need to feel that I am part of a community that both inspires me through their creativity, and provides me with a sense of affirmation for my own work. I also need a lot of solitude during the day, and social activity at night. New faces and fresh conversations invigorate me. The sense of mutual support is invaluable. A feeling of success in what I what I do.
There is a Classics major in all of us. We all get stuck, at times, living outside of the present. We hide away there, where it feels safe, where we know what happens next, where inevitably life has to move on.
Please share your own experience of falling out of the present in the comments below. What is it that brought you back?
October 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
My mother’s grandparents came through Ellis Island, on their way from what was then Czechoslovakia, headed towards a small farm town in Indiana. I don’t know why they left their home in Bohemia, or what led them to the Midwest. I don’t know what they did before they arrived there. But as culture and language stick together, my grandpa and grandma made a Czech partnership, and used their common language to keep secrets from their five kids.
They are now both deceased for many years. I always thought they were sort of strange. Even though my grandma was nice to me and fed me too many sweets and took my sister and I to the park, I had nightmares that she was abusive (which she actually was to her own children, but I didn’t know that yet).
My grandpa never talked much. He just smoked his pipe and played cards and carved nifty wooden sculptures. When he did talk, his voice was muffled and deep; in my memory it sounds like an obstructed baritone whistle.
I just finished reading My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t realize that the entire subject of the book would be about people just like my Bohemian immigrant ancestors. I’d never thought about what they must have gone through in their first years on fresh land. The fact that I balked when my grandpa said that as a child he had to use an outhouse in the freezing cold must have given me some inclination of the difficult upbringing he had, and the struggles they endured on the farm.
“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” That’s pretty much what happened with Grandpa after he returned from World War II. He didn’t make the final cut to play for the White Sox, so he became a furniture builder, and ditched the farm for good.
“‘Show him the spiced plums, mother. Americans don’t have those,’ said one of the older boys. ‘Mother uses them to make kolaches,’ he added (Cather, 160).”
Kolaches. I’ve eaten them all of my life, but I never knew how they were spelled. It seemed like a revelation to first see that word on the page in Willa Cather’s book. A small round fluffy pastry cookie topped with jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar. My mom makes kolaches better than anyone, and my favorite flavor is apricot.
I don’t know how to make kolaches. Neither do I know her recipe for bread dumplings and pork roast with caraway seeds. Or even hoska – that braided egg bread with maraschino cherries tucked in the crevices. I don’t have any of these traditions, and when my mother is gone, they’ll be lost unless I do something about it. Food is all I have left of that culture.
In the book, Antonia has a special spirit that stays with the narrator all of his life, haunting him, though he leaves Nebraska and becomes a lawyer on the East Coast. Some of the other European women that he grew up with go on to find success and independence. But Antonia does not.
“She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things (Cather, 167).”
Antonia has a vitality that never leaves her and a fierce courage to never give up on the difficulties of farming, even though her husband would rather live in the city. Thanks to the orchard skills he picked up in Florida, though, they have the best fruit trees around.
“The crabs hung on the branches as thick as beads on a string, purple-red, with a thin silvery glaze over them (Cather, 162).”
My life began in a crab apple tree in a suburb outside of Chicago. It cradled me. I spent long periods of time in its knots and branches. Eventually, I perched up so high that none of the boys running around the neighborhood could see that I was watching them.
My mother hated that tree. The driveway was light grey cement, and the crab apples left pinkish brown stains after they fell. Up in the branches, my sister dared me to eat a crab apple. It was very sour and left a waxy texture on my teeth. I wondered what anyone would use them for.
Since we left that house and moved to Seattle, I haven’t seen a crab apple tree since. It only exists in that pure time of life that I can barely remember, that time where my grandmother was still alive. She died three months before we moved. All of the events that occurred that year marked the end of my innocence. That’s a story I’ve told before.
Willa Cather reminded me of all of this. She gave me pride in how strong those immigrant women of the Midwest were. They didn’t live by anyone else’s standards. They became warriors of survival, and if necessary, ditched the dress to plow the fields. There was no complacency, or settling for someone else’s will. My mother’s family story had seemed pretty boring to me before. Not now.
Next Sunday night, at family dinner, I’m going to ask for my mother’s recipes, that were her mother’s recipes, and so on and so forth. I wonder just how far back those kitchen secrets go. I’m going to ask more questions. And one of these years, I’ll take a trip to Prague. My mother loves it there.
September 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
The strange thing is, I read Leaving The Atocha Station, a novel by Ben Lerner about a twenty-something poet on a yearlong fellowship in Madrid, exactly two years since I was in Madrid myself. Every August, my husband and I crave experiences that remind us of the feeling of being in Spain. It’s a subconscious thing that creeps up, till we’re searching out a certain al fresco spot; the familiar architecture of a building; or the effervescence of a Spanish wine.
I remember how, on our trip, Michael blew our budget with his obsession for Hendricks & Tonic: served in giant goblets with plenty of cucumber slices. Each cocktail cost 16 – 20 Euros, while a bottle of wine was never more than 4. We reveled in masses of art at the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen museums. Every day, the same waiter at the same restaurant in our small neighborhood got my order for Iced Espresso wrong. I couldn’t seem to master proper Spanish pronunciation.
In Mallorca, we weren’t sure how to get to the beach, so we followed bikinis onto a bus and got off where they did, ending up in a luxurious spot, eating Tuna Tartare and drinking more Gin before joining all the topless bathers. I wanted to go topless as well, like I did at a nude beach in New York, but being a newlywed, I was still struggling to figure out my new identity.
Mainly a poet, Leaving The Atocha Station is Ben Lerner’s first novel. It’s hard to tell where he ends and where his protagonist begins.
The magic of Lerner’s character, Adam, is that he is a complete anti-hero. Adam thinks all the thoughts that I often feel, but would never actually admit to. He’s been offered a prestigious fellowship, but cowers from his superiors, has no intention of writing on the topic of the Spanish Civil War (like he claimed in his application), and spends most of his time smoking hash and hoping that one of the two women he spends time with will suddenly feel passionately for him, which of course, they never do.
“I had a policy of keeping Isabel away from Arturo and Teresa, not because I didn’t think they’d like each other, but because I wanted them to believe I had an expansive social life (Lerner, 53).”
Adam shrinks from responsibilities, putting all of his energies towards being wanted. His melt under pressure as a young twenty-something reminds me of an episode of Girls, where Lena Dunham’s character gets a deal for an e-book that she’s told must be written in one month. The stress drives her crazy, reigniting her past struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, resulting in a punctured eardrum due to her over-zealousness with a Q-tip.
Who can write a book in a month? I’m sure that even Kerouac’s claims were doctored up a bit. In my early twenties, everything that involved pressure under fire in the grown-up world brought on the worst kind of anxiety. I set myself up to fail. I learned quickly that the only jobs that worked for me were the ones that allowed time to write with a thoroughly interesting nighttime life. I lived for stories, not for security. I also lived for being wanted and affirmed.
At full-time day jobs, I fell apart. Sick all the time, anxious, creeping further and further within a figurative turtleneck. I freaked out 24/7 that I would say the wrong thing, and I often did.
Since I’ve been married, I often run the risk of losing my mojo, because having mojo is no longer life or death. I have Michael to cushion life’s blows. In sixteen years, when he retires, the weight may be all on my shoulders again. What will I be at that point? Will my books ever take off? Will I ever be able to make a living as a writer? I need all that mojo to make something of my dream. But instead, I am planning exit strategies, just in case. Real Estate is always in the back of my mind. Could I do that and everything else on top of it too? Could I write, sell houses, and grow a human? Or can I live on this writer cliff for the rest of my life – where total uncertainty always gives way to food and shelter working out in the end.
The poet in Ben Lerner’s novel thinks about becoming a lawyer when he returns home. Do all poets, writers, artists, musicians have these thoughts? Probably.
“But in certain moments, I was convinced I should go home, no matter the mansion, that this life wasn’t real, wasn’t my own, that nearly a year of being a tourist, which is what I indubitably was, was enough, and that I needed to return to the U.S., be present for my family, and begin an earnest search for a mate, career, etc (Lerner, 163).”
Never giving up on your creativity is a daily battle. The anti-hero of the book barely attempts it, and yet things magically fall into his lap, thanks to connections. It’s so good to feel like a winner. That feeling you have when you know what you can give has value, and people show their appreciation, and you show your appreciation right back, and the world feels like the weave of a basket, never ending, interconnected, supportive; even when you fuck up and never write that poem about the Spanish Civil War.
What is a life of poetry, but an endless journey through dense portals of thought that barely connect and keep us in the place of philosophical quandaries?
“Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside (Lerner, 20).”
The same is true for Adam’s experience of the Spanish language, the culture, his general distance from the alternate reality of living there, a place that can never really be his.
In Spain, everything feels different, while nothing feels different at all. It’s an odd feeling. Spain has modernity, while still retaining old world graces and sophistication. I felt like a gypsy next to the polished style of the locals. I knew I would never fully understand the language, no matter how long I lived there. Not the language exactly, but all of the meanings behind the language. All of the movements of their fans, which they handled with so much panache, it was like they’d been flipping them since infancy. I could easily live there for the rest of my life, but not in a million years could I ever master the culture. How can you, unless you grow up in it?
“I have never been here, I said to myself. You have never seen me (Lerner, 178).”
August 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Around eighteen, I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and absolutely hated it. I don’t remember what it was about, I just know that I found her voice irritating. But lately, friends have been raving about her. One said that To The Lighthouse is so much a part of who she is, that she rereads it every year. Another raved about Orlando, saying that with my interest in gender studies, it’s a must-read.
So I bought both books at warehouse sales, and dove into Orlando. I was surprised to find that I hate Woolf’s voice just as much now as I did back then. I haven’t arrived at some place of maturity and understanding where I can finally “get” her. Woolf has wit, and some stunning observations, but she talks in circles, and goes for pages without saying anything. I never find the intensity of her person within her writing.
A mock biography, Orlando begins as a typical spoiled nobleman, the darling of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century. Through the course of three hundred years, Orlando never dies, and while on an ambassadorship in Turkey, he mysteriously transforms into a woman.
“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for these desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline (Woolf, 156-157).'”
Despite the tedious hours spent in front of the mirror, very little changes about Orlando’s life. She retains her independence and remains devoted to poetry. She finds the Victorian obsession with marriage and romantic love amusing, and eventually gets swept up with the times when she falls in love and marries a sailor, who is never around much anyway.
Most enjoyable are the fictional photographs of Orlando. I was struck to find, that as a woman, Orlando has similar features to my own (though with a more sloped forehead). Woolf’s taste in women was from the standpoint of the 1920’s, and I think my looks are more suited for the style back then.
The book had me wishing that Woolf could have lived for three hundred years (like Orlando), to witness the world in which we live today. Men change into women, and women into men everyday. It’s so common, that there are days when I pass at least five transgendered people in an afternoon walk.
There is the middle-aged man turned woman with a red bob, straw hat, and crisp pink dress shirt tucked into acid washed mom jeans above white sneakers; the one with scraggly black hair and bright pink lipstick selling papers on the corner of Broadway and Thomas; and the one who looks like a New York Doll in really precarious platform shoes and long flowing dresses with ruffles. Then there are all the people who have had so much surgery, and such mastery of the art, that we’ll never know unless they tell us.
I’ve written before about how some of the artists of my generation believe that gender no longer exists. Part of the idea comes from how much has been done in regards to gay rights and women’s rights. But if gender doesn’t really exist, then why do people feel so strongly identified with an opposite gender, to the point of spending thousands of dollars, in painful transition, to get there? And when it comes to equal rights for all, we’re not quite as far along as we say we are.
The truth comes out on a Friday night at the bar. I used to work at Teatro Zinzanni, a local circus dinner theater. Sunday nights were like Fridays, and every week, performers and servers would all go out for an end of the week celebration. But the gays and lesbians never wanted to join us for karaoke at a bar called Ozzie’s.
I found out why a few weeks ago. It was our friend Oscar’s birthday. Oscar is from Peru, and is an openly affectionate person. Everyone was a few shots in. My husband, Michael, kissed a male friend on the neck as a joke. The guy behind them had a look of shock and horror on his face. Oscar was hugging all of his friends.
Security approached us, and actually said, “No guy on guy action here. You have to leave.”
I really couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt completely disgusted with the people working at Ozzie’s, and I’m never going back, not that I ever really wanted to be there to begin with. Meanwhile, it was no problem for another friend of ours to practically molest women on the dance floor.
A couple of weeks later, Michael was out for another birthday. A large guy stepped on a woman’s foot, so she pushed him. He came back with, “Oh really? You want me to put my big black dick up your ass?”
Here a man took a nonsexual argument, and used his sexual power to intimidate a woman who just wanted respect for her personal space.
If you’re gay (or presumed gay), and out at a bar, you might get kicked out for showing affection. If you’re a woman, the fact that you’re just standing there makes you fair game for a random male stranger to molest you or threaten you sexually.
I should mention, that the one time I was in a gay bar in the last two years, a young gay man did his best to intimidate me to get the hell out, by getting extremely up close and personal. So it all comes full circle.
Suffice to say, I rarely ever go out drinking anymore (though it used to be my favorite pastime). So when I go out now, I’m amazed by how completely stupid everyone gets. All of the impulses that people hide by day come to the raging surface at night. Nights become a place of conflict and aggression. The rich against the poor, the door guys verses the patrons, men verses women, gay verses straight, black verses white, young verses old.
“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high (Woolf, 149).”
If in an instant, you became the person standing across from you, what would that reveal to you? What would change? Could we all get along?
I’m not an idealist, but I feel tired of all the conflict I experience on a daily basis. I live on a busy street, and working in building management we are fully aware of all the crime that goes down. In the last week, we’ve dealt with three different incidents. On the morning of July 5th, an untreated neighbor behind us was shot by the police for brandishing a Glock from his window. I’m never going to understand everyone, but my emotions are exhausted from feeling what everyone around me feels. Sometimes, I just want to escape.
“… while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded (Woolf, 104).”
Obscurity is nice for about a week, but then it’s good to get back to reality. I would just like a little bit of distance from the reality I live in. I feel that I am going through an enormous shift, and I have no idea where it will lead me. With it comes exhaustion and hopefully transformation. I am becoming something beyond what I am today; like Orlando, who sees beyond both genders, and knows that she is just a poet either way; a poet who loves solitude.
I’m not going to fill my coat pockets with rocks and drown myself, like Virginia Woolf did at the onset of World War II. She was going mad, and the only goodness left for her, was the love of her husband.
I believe that out of the worst, comes the best. If you watch nature closely, you see this happening over and over again. A natural disaster can unify people like nothing else can. A grit of sand can irritate an oyster into making a pearl. And when you send a radical new thought out into the world, it’s often met with hatred. But slowly over time, hatred abates, and new ideas become old ideas that are finally accepted. Life is a process.
April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
I used to wear long flowing skirts with rainbow bursts of color splashed across the side. There were headscarves with silver thread in dusty rose, orange, chartreuse, and umber. Large silver hoops with turquoise beads, amber stones around my neck, and a three inch long silver cuff with inlay that made me feel invincible.
The exotic bohemian garb began when I was a professional belly dancer, and the style grew until it seemed I’d turned full-blooded gypsy. I had style for sure. But my style spoke louder than I ever could. A lot of people would take one look and write me off as one of those annoying hippies. But I didn’t smoke out, I was never going vegan, and I hated the idea of groupthink.
Behind my back, my boss at an art gallery said, “Lauren only dresses that way because she needs too much attention. She’s insecure.”
Having just moved back to anonymous Seattle from connected New York, I certainly was having an insecure moment, trying to find my footing. It had nothing to do with the way I dressed.
For me, my attire was in the spirit of the dance. As an artist, I loved to wear all the objects that made me happy. When it began, I was on the East Coast, missing the laid-back vibe of the West Coast, where people can just “be.” The scene I’d left in Seattle wouldn’t think twice about my dress. But by the time I moved back, I was totally over the Burning Man crowd.
I’d been involved with enough guru wannabe’s to know that the whole thing was a hoax. The drugs made people feel powerful in an otherwise disempowered life. Overnight, you could go from being a hooker to a tantric practitioner, or from a massage therapist to a healer or shaman. The ultimate path was to find a way to make money off of your newfound mystical powers. But I was always the one paying for their dinner. Then came resentment, and statements like, “You don’t appreciate my gift.” Because really, one person never has enough worship to give them. The people I knew, needed as many lovers as possible. Hence, I got tired of the scene, though my style remained the same.
Three years later, I was newly married and having a crisis of not feeling attractive anymore. I gained weight, and stopped getting looks from men or glares from jealous women. A server at a brunch spot that I went to every weekend asked me if I was pregnant. My empire waist dresses and wrap skirts seemed like the culprit in letting myself go. Or maybe it was the decadence of being in love.
I wanted to feel sexy again. But even more than that, in a city where you could go to the same coffee shop everyday for years without a single person ever talking to you, I wanted to feel approachable. I was tired of appearing mysterious and intimidating. It might have worked in New York where people have the balls to talk to anyone, but in Seattle, not so much.
Piece by piece, the bright colors disappeared. My hemlines began to climb up to my thighs. As an art model, I can’t wear any jewelry, so that slipped away too. The only thing that remained the same was the tights and combat boots. Now it’s all a slim minimalist aesthetic. Black cotton dresses with ruching at the sides, short blazers, Rocker T’s. I fit in just about anywhere I go, while still looking somewhat interesting. People can get to know me without a bunch of snap judgments about my dietary restrictions, my spiritual life, my bank account, or my need for attention.
I have a close friend, Freda, who moved here from New York shortly after I did. She fell for a hippie vegan guy and now they are preparing to move into their second yurt in Eastern Washington. They have a cool life together – growing their own food, playing in a band, working temporary jobs. She has long itchy dreadlocks, and years later, I still pine for her chocolate brown silken strands that tickled instead. She left her job as a Geologist, and even surveyed Yankee Stadium at one point. Food-wise, we’ve found common dietary ground by dining at sushi or Indian places.
Freda finds her solace by being identified with a group that shares hardcore values. But she is amazing, simply on her own. When I get those rare moments of having Freda solo time, the belly-shaking laugh comes back, and the spark in her eyes reappears. It’s when I know she’s stripped to the core of her pure self.
I stand by while her friends are sometimes judgmental, calling me an enabler for having a drink with her before their show. I’ve watched her go through evolutions, and I’m sure she’ll go through more. It’s the nature of our lives as free spirits. I don’t really get this current evolution that she’s in, but I do my best to be supportive. I’m on the other side now, looking in.
Every commune eventually reaches its end. It’s the nature of the hippy beast. This week, I read the highly entertaining novel, Drop City, by T.C. Boyle. For years I laughed over the front cover in bookstores – eight naked people lying facedown in a circle amidst wild flowers and grass. Looking at the cover, it’s uncertain whether or not they have just drunk the wrong kind of kool-aid, or if they’re all facedown, taking a bizarre nap. But in their facedown nakedness, arms piled around their backs, they seem stripped of individual identity.
It’s 1970, and a commune of hippies decides to skip out on the land regulations of California. Their leader, Norm, moves them all to his uncle’s deserted cabin in the middle of Alaska. As can be expected, chaos ensues. Their lazy cluelessness in the wild is contrasted by the hard work of the settlers down the river, who work day and night to store food for the onset of winter. The greatest plot twist hits as 24/7 nighttime descends and the thermometer drops forty degrees below zero. Utopia is forgotten for the harsh struggle against fierce elements.
It seems we’re all trying to protect ourselves from the harsh truths of nature. In the wilds of Alaska, it can’t be avoided. Religions all promise a utopia on the other side of death. The thought of it completely bores me. Nature is much more exciting. It’s a struggle, it’s a discipline, it’s a code of values completely contrary to anything humans want to snuggle up to.
While reading, I thought a lot about the dropout hippies on their drug binges doing nothing as months and even years passed. Only on drugs, does it ever feel okay to languish. The idea is such a concept of extreme youth, and not even in youth does that make you happy.
It was my birthday last Thursday, and I tried doing nothing all day. I felt increasingly depressed as the minutes ticked by. I collapsed with sleepiness on the bed and couldn’t get up without a homemade mocha and a campy Ami Stewart vinyl record playing “Come on baby light my fire.” Disco + Hippy = Crazy.
I am on the settler end of the spectrum. I love action. I love getting things done and preparing for the future. I love being a survivor. It seems I’ve won some kind of fight against submitting to the corporate world, which is something that hippies and settlers have in common.
On a positive note, without the hippy movement, we wouldn’t have the entrepreneurial market that we have today. Through their vision to see outside of the box and create technology, now artists can make their own rules, and sell their work without the big man in charge. That’s the thing. Most hippies turned into yuppies eventually. They got bored of tuning out, so they turned on and got with it.
Sometimes I put on the old clothes, just to see how they make me feel. But they represent a Lauren that doesn’t exist anymore. All of that fabric slows down my stride, and the long skirts get wet and dirty in the rain (not to mention the bell bottoms). I feel like I’m wearing a costume. I can’t see myself beneath the eccentric character.
My life now is all about movement. I’m in a race against time to achieve my goals as a writer. I’m growing a life with my husband. All of my values have shifted. When I was in my twenties, I thought everything would remain the same. But it all grows. That is the way of nature. We just have to tend to it.
January 13, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many years ago, I had a ten-month relationship with a Palestinian man who was getting his PhD in political science. We were more like companions than lovers, but the sexual tension between us drove us crazy. There was only one time, early on, that we acted on that tension, and it was a disaster. Amidst our attempt at satisfaction, he fell asleep, and I left him there, alone with his own snores. He woke up after I left, confused and lonely, wondering where I went. I was furious, and it was a tremendous blow to my ego. I was very young, but I’d been through so much at that point, I was also very old. Much older than I am now.
That winter it snowed so much, that I was stuck at his apartment in the University district for three days. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, so he lended me his black and white checked Keffiyeh. It was thick cotton. Piled around my neck, it protected me from the elements. I thought of how the Keffiyeh is most commonly used for protection against the hot desert sun.
It wasn’t really a fad yet, to wear a Keffiyeh around a college campus as a fashion statement. So a lot of people gave me funny looks. It felt as though the scarf could speak much louder than I ever could. There were people whose eyes lit up with happiness, and others who frowned.
Magid was much older than I was, and looked like a cross between Omar Shariff, and Louis Jourdan. Outside, his cigarettes added smoke to the steam escaping from his full lips. We walked through the city, beneath trees with intricate twig webs of white. We drank espresso at the Solstice coffee shop. He read the world politics section of the newspaper with his legs crossed. I wrote poems.
Mostly, we just fought all the time. But that weekend, with all of that snow, we created a cozy world for ourselves. Unobstructed by stress, power struggles, and Magid’s pain over always feeling like an outsider.
Though he had many friends, he was locked inside of solitude. And within him, always the constant conflict between East and West. To be in the West was both to avoid his homeland, and also to fight for it with the safety of distance. To be in the East was to be beaten down and humiliated. Even community, tradition, and family, could not protect him from this. He was a foreigner no matter where he went.
The same feels true of Ka, Orhan Pamuk’s main character in his richly poetic novel, Snow. Through Snow we are given a view into the struggles of the small town of Kars in Turkey, and the conflict between Islam and the State. Since a ban on headscarves for girls in school, there have been several suicides among the headscarf girls, but it is uncertain as to whether their reasons were religious or having more to do with their miserable lives.
Ka is a poet who comes to Kars on the pretense of covering the suicide girls and the political elections for a Frankfurt newspaper (where he lives as a political exile). But his real reason is to seek out a beautiful woman he remembers from college.
While in Kars, Ka writes several poems. He is snowed in, and the roads have been closed. Political tensions come to a peak. And though involved beyond what he would care to be, the events pale in comparison to the love he has found, and the overwhelming feeling that he will lose her. What is more, his Atheism is challenged by the perfect symmetry of snowflakes, and so he begins to see through all points of view. He becomes susceptible to the mystical, the charismatic, the theatrical dramas that cross the line from stage to reality.
My companion, Magid, did not seem to have a sense of faith. I admired that about him. His family was Christian, and he always said that Americans had no idea how many Christians lived in Palestine. He taught me that the news we receive here is very dishonest and biased. He took it upon himself to educate me on world issues.
There was a part of him that wanted to be liberated from his culture. But the part that was still entrenched in tradition, railed against my strong willed nature. He was both attracted and humiliated by my need for independence. Insanely jealous, with no reason to be, since is wasn’t beyond him to take another woman home, if I wouldn’t go with him.
He said he would take me to Israel, but he never did. Instead, he went alone when his father was dying. And on his way back, he was strip searched and made to stand naked in front of group of guards. They rifled through his credit cards. They confiscated his luggage, and then gave it back to him after they had stolen the gifts he was bringing back. They assigned him a guard, to escort him at all times in the airport, until he boarded the plane. He was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.
When his plane had a layover in Jersey, he called his family and found out that his father had just died. There was a sense of relief at having missed it. If he had been there, it would have been weeks of sitting in the house and mourning while all the neighbors came by to offer food and condolences. He considered whether or not he should grow out his beard as a sign of mourning. Then he decided that no, he was in America now. He didn’t have to do that.
He flew home, and when he told me all about what had happened, he cried. It was summer now, and we were eating burgers at a bar in Fremont. The sun was hot on our heads, streaming through a large window behind us.
The last time I saw him, we fought so badly that I drove him back to his street and dropped him off on the sidewalk before we could even make it to dinner. I drove away without even saying goodbye. The next day, I moved to New York.
Our story was a small pocket of my life. And in that pocket is the silence of snow, a Keffiyeh, Magid’s cigarettes and a newspaper stuck under his arm. We are not fighting the fight between East and West. We are peacefully gazing at each other from across the table with love in our eyes, while the students around us are wondering what a young girl like me is doing with a stubborn old man.
I see that Magid is living a successful life as an intellectual and writer. He is hard at work, stripping the layers off of the Westernized condescending and racist approach to Arab culture. His research has led him to express his thoughts through a historically Arabic point of view. It appears that he has returned to the East.
I will always remember that in Arabic there are over twenty words for “love” but in English, we only have one. I will remember the way that the men all danced together, and swung their hips in a subtle way. I will remember the koobideh with basmati rice and saffron. The poets and musicians; the pain and love that they expressed. The ancient culture that we could never feign to understand in the West.
December 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
While reading, Dora – A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch, I became one with a character I would not exactly identify with in real life – a wacked out teenaged nightmare. I attended Lidia’s reading a few months ago, where she explained that Dora was based off of a case study by Freud. His patient Ida (given the pseudonym Dora in his publication) was diagnosed with Hysteria due to her symptom of Aphonia (loss of voice). Ida’s father was having an affair with Frau K, and Herr K had made advances on Ida. Freud was certain that Ida had secret wishes to be fully seduced by Herr K, but in actuality, her desires revolved around Frau K. His misplacement of Ida’s desires, and her abrupt exit from their therapy sessions caused him to conclude that he had failed her.
Lidia read about Ida in college, and the story stayed with her for years. Dora – A Headcase follows a similar plotline, though it is based in modern day Seattle with a few guerilla filmmaking joyrides thrown in.
To be honest, there were a few Seattle details that were slightly off, and I had to suspend my disbelief. For example, there is no 7-Eleven downtown, not until you get to lower Queen Anne. There is also no Shari’s restaurant, only in the suburbs. And a high-rise condo on Capitol Hill was not quite believable since there are no buildings in my neighborhood over eight stories high. But this is fiction, after all, and I have too much pride in my city.
“You know what? Seventeen in no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock. You pierce your face or you tattoo your skin – anything to feel something beyond the numb of home (27, Yuknavitch).”
I remember this feeling distinctly. Hell, I have even felt this as an adult. When I was seventeen, I felt trapped in a life that wasn’t my own – it was my parent’s. Everything in me was pulsing, charging, held back in a cage that made me want to implode. All day long in high school, I was force-fed a bunch of crap that had no use in everyday life (I was right about that one). At night I numbed myself on episodes of Oprah Winfrey, and tried to sneak in MTV when my parents weren’t looking. And then I’d find something like A Clockwork Orange – a movie that so disturbed me it pretty much changed my life.
I was banned from the macabre, the dark side, the body, the taboo. But in order to understand all of life, you need to be given more than just a window with a view.
At the time, my experience, my education, was all within film and television. Nothing was happening in my life. You could sum up non-existent dramas in your head (as teenagers do), but they never played out. I’d be lucky if a crush talked to me just once a year. I was in the dork’s club. And my only outlet was art.
“You know, when you can’t talk, talking sounds different. Everyone sounds like a soundtrack of talking instead of like people… like they are on a stage and you are in the audience – and all of their voices suddenly sound… like art. It’s comforting (121, Yuknavitch).”
Ida aka Dora runs amok. She does everything I wish I’d had the balls to do when I was a teenager, and am glad that I didn’t. As she finds a way to dose her therapist Siggy with an almost lethal dose of Viagra and Cocaine (his drug of choice, of course), it’s cringe-worthy. He just wants to help her, yet she does everything she can to rage against him. Siggy is just another cage that she wants to climb out of.
From there, the book becomes a wild roller coaster. Around every chapter there’s a fresh twist of “oh shit.” What is distinctly missing is high school. But it goes unnoticed, the way that a lack of parents in brat pack movies goes unnoticed.
What becomes obvious is just how much Yuknavitch enjoys her craft. You can see her laughing with glee in a room somewhere as she comes up with these crazy teen lingo sentences, putting herself in a tailspin of writer frenzy.
Like Dora I had no voice. I went through long periods of time never talking, just observing life floating by. People could shout at me, pinch me, push me, and I would still say nothing. I was a voyeur of life, not a participator. Everyday I wanted to die. I wanted to feel something and then have it all be over for good.
As I age life becomes more vital. All of that creative energy was untamed back then, and yes you could say I had Hysteria, because sex brought me to life. Now my days are pure expression. I don’t want to die before I’ve sent all of my art out into the world where it can domino into someone else’s experience of pure, beautiful life. The greatest gift is to be told that my writing has given others a voice.
November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
I had a dream the other night, that I was one of three siblings. One sibling had stripped our father of his skin to see how we are made. He was laid out on a gurney, and we looked at the red layers of muscle, studying how they fold and overlap.
Our father was invincible and extremely angry. Maybe it was the process we had put him through, or maybe he was that way before, but he was insane and out to get us. Wherever we went, he followed – all over the world. We were on the run, and the situation was dire. We couldn’t kill the father, because the father was within all of us. But he was out to destroy what he had made.
You could make some religious allusions to all of this symbolism, or you could say that this is nature. I did not play myself in the dream, and the father and siblings were not my own.
The imagery stems from a slide show that Camille Paglia displayed in her talk last week at the library, of Leonardo Da Vinci’s private notebooks. In it, he studied the structure of muscles, and a fetus inside a dissected womb. If anyone had found out, at the time, that he was dissecting cadavers, the church would have severely punished him for it, maybe even put him to death. The drawings give us a sense that he is looking at things he should not be seeing.
This week, I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I love her for being such an emancipated woman, born to radical parents in 1797. Frankenstein is not my kind of book. I only read it because it was on a list of the greatest books ever written, and it’s so obviously influenced our culture, where science (or philosophy as it was called in Shelley’s day) can go too far, producing something gruesome and disastrous.
“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked. I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation (Shelly, 33).”
But once Frankenstein achieves his obsession, he is horrified as the creature takes its first breath. He realizes his mistake and deserts the monster. But after a series of murders of all those closest to Frankenstein, the creature gets a chance to tell his story. He began his life with love, but everyone he met hated and reviled him, turning his pain into a need for revenge.
Around the time that the novel was written, Mary had lost her first baby and had just given birth to a second, named William. Her half-sister committed suicide, and her partner, Percy Shelley, still had a wife who drowned herself in the Serpentine. Mary then lost a third child. After the novel was finished, she lost her son William, gave birth to Percy Florence who survived, and had a dangerous miscarriage after that. In the summer of 1822, Percy, her partner, drowned with two friends in a storm off the coast of Pisa. The badly decomposed bodies were burned, but Percy’s heart was removed and eventually buried in Rome. Mary was only twenty-five.
Reading her story in the introduction was much more horrific than the ghost story she wrote while summering with Percy and Lord Byron. The natural reaction, especially with losing a child, is to think at first that they will come back to life.
I edited a novel once, where a mother lost her baby and couldn’t let go of the little corpse. It had to be pried away from her. The writer was Australian, and was certain that American audiences wouldn’t be able to handle it, since in our culture we choose to be so far removed from death and dying.
Becoming a mother is to also face the possibility of ultimate loss – the chance of miscarriage, the chance of failing to protect your child from a world that is full of struggle, disease, and danger. For Shelley, bringing a corpse-like creature to life is the ultimate revenge against nature that takes away.
My strange dream of the father stripped of his skin reminds me of seeing the Bodies Exhibit. All those parts that make a whole, the muscles and organs frozen in time, not quite life-like in their preserved state, but disturbing because they were alive once, now frozen in space, dead, and there for our voyeuristic fascination.
In an art class, the students were told to spend twenty minutes drawing my head, and twenty minutes drawing a skull placed directly behind me. They moved in a circle alternating between death and life. For some reason, that day, all the students drew me to look much older than I am. I looked decrepit, as they over-emphasized the sagging lines of my face. I wished I had never looked.
I have reached that age, my thirties, where you begin to realize that you’re never going backwards. The physical body has changed its chemistry completely. I’ll never be tiny and thin again, my metabolism has slowed down, my liver throws back all the toxins I send its way, my immune system is sensitive to any disturbance.
But beyond my body, I’ve grown much stronger. My spirit feels invincible, unbreakable, my sense of discipline is becoming as solid as a rock, and nothing but my body slowly breaking down, could ever stop me at this point. It’s not quite as much fun as being young, dumb, and out of control, but this is the season for building my life. Knowing how quickly it all passes, I push harder each day to express in words and art the things that make us feel alive and well.