November 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
In Zen: The Path Of Paradox by Osho, I enjoyed reading more about what Zen isn’t, rather than about what Zen actually is. I don’t consciously practice Zen, but unconsciously I tend to be more Zen than anything else.
When I first left the Fundamentalist Christian Church, I felt like I needed to fill some spiritual void. It was similar to a break-up of a serious relationship. So much of your identity is wrapped up with that other person, that you don’t know how to just find yourself apart from them. So the first reaction is to rebound, to find another person to identify with, so you don’t have to wade through your own painful insides to reach the balanced sandy shore.
I played a game of hide and seek. The hiding was my breathing room. The seeking resulted into forays of a plethora of other faiths. Starting out tame, I tried the more liberal and open-minded Episcopalian Church. I liked that the minister was a woman and that she read poems by Anne Sexton to the congregation. But my issues with the Bible and the Church went much deeper than surface details of modern acceptance.
After that, my exploration went all over the map – Hinduism, Tantra, Buddhism, Kundalini, Reiki, Runes, Tarot, With-craft, Shamanism. There are basic truths to be found in all belief systems. But in the end it’s all mostly claptrap. Not a single ideology can offer our lives total and complete spiritual nutrition, and I’ve come to even mistrust the word.
I find a sense of completeness through very simple things. Through community, art, dance, writing, reading, city walks, thought, brisk air, a hot cup of coffee in my hand. The effects of these experiences, meant to be captured in moments on a daily basis, have created the building blocks of my life. They are the things that make me happy and keep me aware and awake.
It seems that most spiritual teachers are egocentric charismatic spin-doctors. A great documentary on this subject is Kumare. Vikram Ghandi is a regular guy from New Jersey, who goes to Arizona, pretends to be a guru, and ends up finding his better self through the experiment. He comes up with all sorts of mumbo jumbo yoga moves and chants, exploiting his followers attraction to his exotic persona. He is both embarrassed and in awe of his own success throughout the film. And he makes a better guru than any I have seen for the simple reason that he has no ego.
“Ideologies are all blindfolds, they obstruct your vision. A Christian cannot see; neither can a Hindu, nor a Mohammedan. Because you are so full of your ideas you go on seeing what is not there, you go on projecting, you go on interpreting, you go on creating a private reality of your own, which is not there. This creates a sort of insanity. Out of a hundred of your so-called saints, ninety-nine are insane people (Osho, 22).”
The definition of Ideology:
1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.
2. such a body of doctrine, myth, etc., with reference to some political or social plan, as that of fascism, along with the devices for putting it into operation.
a. the study of the nature and origin of ideas
b. a system that derives ideas exclusively from sensation
4. theorizing of a visionary or impractical nature
In other words, ideology is not based on research, experiment, or facts. And what is the origin of our ideas? The origin is built on the basis that in ancient times, we didn’t know much. We used our lack of knowledge to create myths that explained the universe to calm our ever-searching minds. But the myths have kept us in a child-like state ever since. Patronized by leaders, kept from becoming responsible for ourselves.
“Zen says that when there is no God there is tremendous freedom, there is no authority in existence. Hence there arises great responsibility. Look – if you are dominated by somebody you cannot feel responsible. Authority necessarily creates irresponsibility; authority creates resistance; authority creates reaction, rebellion in you… (Osho, 14).”
So what is Zen? Zen is infinite possibilities. It leaves the ego and the aggressive posturing of the mind, for the life source of the belly.
“It believes that if we participate with reality, reality reveals its secrets to us. It creates a participatory consciousness (Osho, 24).”
To truly be in participation with reality, you can’t really care what others think of you.
“… respectability is not life. Respectability is very poisonous. A really alive man does not bother about respectability. He lives; he lives authentically. What others think is not a consideration at all (Osho, 81).”
Though I identify with many of these concepts, Zen is still a religion. It still has its patronizing aspects. And it prefers to stomp on my more American Capitalistic tendencies. Yes, I actually have those. Zen tells us to let go of competition. This is an anti-human nature statement. I view competition as healthy, exciting, and enjoyable. It kick-starts us into being better, more productive people. Without that competitive sense of community, we become flubby and out of tune.
Here is an example of total judgment that rubs me wrong:
“The more a person is educated, the less alive he is. The more he knows, the less he lives. The more he becomes articulate about abstractions and concepts, the less and less he flows. A man confined in the head loses all juice, loses all joy (Osho, 117).”
A reminder to keep participating in life, and not get too stuck in books, yes. But is ignorance bliss? I don’t think so. In fact, I see more life in people who are educated, whose lives revolve around the mind, than I do in those who are blindly walking through life.
Osho says that there is danger in words, in classification. That we cannot simply enjoy the rose because word associations get in the way. Who gives a shit? Maybe I like to remember all the stories revolving around the rose as I smell it and take in its magnificent vermillion color, which makes me think of painting, and how colors interact, or how the smell is reminiscent of an elusive past that I never lived through and will never capture, and on and on into a domino effect of thought that gives me ultimate joy.
This is what I mean about the more patronizing effects of Zen. I don’t subscribe to it, and I’m not going to berate myself over something I truly enjoy, such as word associations, education, thought, and even the gratification of my own ego.
In God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, he not only attacks all religions of the patriarchy, but also goes into the violence of Buddhists, and considers Osho to be an absolute charlatan. At the time, I thought to myself, ‘Not my Osho!’ But yes, Osho. Osho’s words have helped guide me when I didn’t have any guide at all. He taught me that Sex Matters, and showed me The Responsibility Of Being Oneself, and helped me more fully tap into my Creativity. But I see now, that I am outgrowing his teachings, and taking him with a grain of salt. I even see where he’s getting some of his ideas (as in Freud, for example, who spoke a great deal about the issues with an authoritarian God, and how followers remain in an immature state).
I have loved Osho’s work so much that I even suggested to my friend who introduced me to his books, that she name her dog after him, and she did. He was a fully Zen puppy back then, always living in the moment. Now he’s a little salt n’ pepper old man dog, still shaped like an O.
Zen has been on my to-read shelf for about ten years, as long as I have known Osho the dog. My to-read shelves are like my own personal library. There are so many books that sometimes I outgrow them before they are actually read.
In Zen, Osho had a few things left to say to me about the nature of God, or non-God. But I see that our relationship as reader to writer has come to an end. This both makes me sad, and reminds me that I am growing. Osho is saying, let go of attachment; be free; be infinite in your possibilities.
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.
October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Through the entire decade of my twenties, I was in denial about being a member of the female sex. I loved men so much, that I wanted to be one. All around me, I saw that women were the victims – while men had all the fun, women just got angry.
I had some of the best times of my life in open relationships, and also some of the worst. But the most important part of that experience was taking ownership of myself. By being around men who were staunch in their independence and sense of self, I became a stronger person. And somehow, I found the way to a different definition of what a woman can be than the one I’d grown up with.
In those first years out of college, there were no examples of female strength – only jealousy and haughty glares; or the Christian girls who stopped returning my phone calls though we’d been best friends. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I finally found the women who became my true sisters. They were in tune with their bodies. They were tough in the face of assholes, and soft in the privacy of our intimate conversations. Rather than threatened by each other, we were inspired by each other’s beauty. We felt more powerful as a group than we did separately. In fact, whenever we were together, magical things occurred; the planets aligned for us; we magnetized strange experiences; we became bonded for life, like family.
But I still didn’t embrace my body as a woman. My body as some fertile place of procreation scared me half to death. If another woman’s cycle threw mine off, I felt as though she’d just one-upped me. I knew nothing at all about how female reproduction really worked. It was something I avoided. I could barely admit that I too experienced all the symptoms of a cycle, even if my friends talked freely about it and gloried in being in tune with the moon. I couldn’t shake the embarrassment my mother had raised me with, around the female sex.
In the beginning, sex brought me to life. I had zero embarrassment or awkwardness around that. It woke up all my senses, and inspired reams of Whitman-esque poetry. I loved the adventure of sleeping with near-strangers or random friends. I loved enjoying whoever was right in front of me. Taking in their personhood like a story I could wrap my brain around. We wove our lives through each other, asking for nothing in return. What we gave in those nights was just enough.
I was hanging with a pile of sexy rocker-types. We drank a lot. Our culture revolved around it. You play gigs in bars, make connections in bars, see all of your friends in bars. In my twenties, I thought I would always go on living like every day was a party. I couldn’t imagine changing. I loved my life. It was one big adventure. It felt like I was living in a movie. But then, Michael came along.
In Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch relates how it felt meeting the man of her life, and also her third husband.
“He treated this thing I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish (Yuknavitch, 239).”
At first, it seemed with Michael, that we’d go on living the way we both always had. But the thing was, if we kept living that way, we’d be torn apart. The more we drank, the more we fought. Our old lives didn’t work when it came to being a unit.
I was alone in bed one morning, so hung-over that I may have been delirious. A little boy walked into the room, sat on the bed, and said, “I love you Mommy. I’m going to save your life.”
Immediately, I started crying. I thought if I talked to him, it would keep him from disappearing. I desperately wanted him to stay. But within seconds, he was gone. And yet, he wasn’t. It feels like he’s been with me ever since.
Not long after, I went cold turkey off the alcohol for eight months, so the painful hole in my stomach lining could heal. I started to live differently. Suddenly, I felt crystal clear. I began to wake up early so that I could write. Being productive now meant so much more than being entertained. I realized that in all those years of drinking, I had buried the pain I’d experienced from growing up in the church, and now I needed to deal with it. I began to explore, searching for some basis of truth.
I saw the nighttime world in a completely different way – boring, pathetic, where people acted dumb and got into stupid fights and slept with all the wrong people. It was still fun for them, and I appreciate all phases of life, but it was no longer for me.
It might seem ludicrous that a little boy vision could change my life. The thing is, my husband is infertile. When we first started dating, he told me it was from a childhood disease that he struggled with. That was only half true. A few years later, his friends spilled the beans that he also had a vasectomy. He was too embarrassed to admit it to me because an ex-girlfriend had pressured him into it. It was humiliating to have his friends tell me an intimate detail that was so important to our lives together. I couldn’t believe that he lied to me, and it took months for me to forgive him.
We talked about reversing his vasectomy, but the success rate is not that high, especially since he had such a low count to begin with. There is a high risk of childhood disease in his family, and he left that abusive family behind at the age of fifteen. His life became a story with the potential for happiness, while the past now only exists as literature. Michael is an excellent writer.
He started joking that we should use one of his friends as a sperm donor. Something I’ve learned in our relationship, is that jokes often become a reality. One day, I asked over brunch, “I wonder how much it costs to use a real sperm donor?”
“Lets find out.”
Immediately, I dove into obsessive research, and eventually found an excellent cryobank. They supply clients with medical records, interviews, baby photos, personality tests, and interests.
The search had to go on hold for many months until August arrived. When I saw our donor’s baby photo, I knew he was the right one. Michael was more impressed by the donor interview, where the lady conducting could hardly contain her attraction, and our donor sounded so mature for a twenty-something. Once we picked him, I began an exploration on reproduction, and how to plan conception for the exact day.
So far, we’ve done two rounds, and I’m in the process of waiting to find out the results of our last try. It’s proven much more stressful and all-consuming than I imagined. Going in, it seems like it should be easy, but the body works on its own time. Five-day windows are a gamble, and once the sperm arrives in a dry ice canister, it only has five days left before it thaws. As we learn more, I feel relaxed that it’s all going to work out in the end. I have an excellent Naturopath who is helping me every step of the way.
This entire year has been a learning process. I worked in an art studio with a group of empowered women from their thirties to sixties. They began to shift my perception of what it means to be a woman. The female artists I know are the strongest, most honest women I have ever met. They are fully present within themselves.
One actually admitted that she regrets motherhood; others revel in it; still others regret never having a child; some can’t imagine ever wanting one. All of them find their center through art. Continuing the cycle of humanity is not enough. You also need to leave the mark of what life itself means to you, to expand on the process in your own special way.
Just a few years ago, I thought I wasn’t capable of being a mother. There was no stability in my life. As a creative person, it’s difficult to find that balance, or any sort of financial safety zone. And then, I willingly gave up the thought of a baby to be with Michael.
There is something about a baby. I feel as though I won’t be able to fully embrace my own sex without that experience. And yet, I respect and admire all of the friends who choose not to have a child.
Something inside me asks, is it possible that I can share in that experience of being a mother? Does my body really work? Do I have all the right parts to make a baby happen? Am I really as healthy as I think I am?
It’s a funny thing that humans are always amazed by their ability to reproduce. You don’t see a cow in a pasture with a look of shock and awe on its face that a calf just came out of its uterus. It grooms the calf like it’s just another day, and eats the placenta to keep the prey away.
Even though I’ve become a little bit stodgy in my mid-thirties, I still feel like I’m a kid. Or maybe I am losing the remains of kid-dom, so I long for a baby to bring those fresh eyes back into focus.
At some point, you realize that life will go on being the same. I work hard and play hard. No great shakes. I’m ready for the big shake-up. I’m ready for change and growth and challenge. I think a child will even wake up my creativity in new ways that I am unable to see in the present.
“His argument against all my fluttering resistance? One sentence. One sentence up against the mass of my crappy life mess. ‘I can see the mother in you. There is more to your story than you think (Yuknavitch, 240).'”
By the way, The Chronology of Water is an excellent book. Lidia Yuknavitch is fearless in her honesty and is a courageous literary soul. I’ve met her twice at readings, and her energy invigorates me every time. She is not at all the broken woman she writes of in her memoir. Her experiences have made her a wise woman, and a brilliant writer. It’s the struggles that make us stronger.
September 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).”
September 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today marks the anniversary of being married to my favorite person in the world, Michael Barnhart. In honor of the event, I am sharing from a different kind of book – an old journal of mine. Every time I read this entry, I remember again, just how it felt in the initial stages of finding the man who would become my life.
December 2, 2008
Feeling a little melancholy today and don’t know why. Michael had to rush out this morning and I felt sort of deflated after he left. A strange flow between us. Intense confessional conversations, and this fiery passion that brims up and overwhelms us. And then, the mind is gone and this expansive place wells up which our melding energy creates, and I’m soaring through a place I’ve never known before.
But then when it’s over, life feels disproportionate when he is away. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t sleep without the other. It’s not quite codependency. More like ravenous to be in each other’s presence. Though sometimes I look at him still as though he’s a foreign object and a mystery I can’t solve.
On thanksgiving it was like he was already family. He melded in so seamlessly, as though he’d always been there. All week after, he barely left my side, nursing me off another case of bronchitis. He brought me food, and I printed out the final edits of my novel. He read while I was in the bathtub and shared his immediate impressions. He mused over my understanding of men, the genderlessness of my writing, and called me the female Hemingway.
“You have to quit your job. This is what you need to be doing,” he said.
“I can’t do that.”
“If I had more money, I would help you make this happen.”
“It will happen. I promise.”
His boss knows a Blackfeet Indian chief and asked him for a remedy for my cough. Michael called me, “I have the cure! I’ll be there soon.”
He scoured the city for ingredients, collected pine needles on his jog around the lake, and even found a Blackfeet CD of chants with the appropriate song for administering the remedy. A cleansing garlic and elderflower tonic that could pretty much kill anything in its path.
“I am in awe of you,” he said while reading my book.
No one has ever believed in me this much. It invigorates me to finish the book. It’s exhilarating to watch him read it. The world outside of our realm pales in comparison. The world outside has become only stories to tell.
I thought I would always be alone. I thought life would always be a series of one dark, edgy character after another. Of all things. I loved to be alone rather than be with anyone else. Sex was just a remedy for my bodies needs; performed with a person I preferred not to know. Can’t imagine ever going back.
I trust him more than I even trust myself. There has always been an untamable strain in me that I cherish and am afraid of all at once. But so far he’s lifted me so high with his positive charge, I don’t think anyone could touch that or break the spell. Is it a spell, or will it keep going? I don’t want this to ever end.
At the pond, we tossed coins.
“Make a wish,” he said.
I wished we could be happy together for the rest of our lives. Long lives, I hope. But it’s still a mystery to me. I’ve never been attracted to someone like him before. Someone so full of lightness. Though he has a slight dark side too. I wouldn’t be so amused if he didn’t.
August 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
Every year, I look forward to the end of the year student sale at Gage Academy Of Art. Not only is it fun to show my husband the works of art that result from my job as an art model (which are always out of our budget), but I love the prospect of finding an exciting piece at a really great price. Investing in the artist’s of the future is a beautiful experience. I wonder if my husband and I will end up like Herb and Dorothy Vogel – on a beer budget while living in a place where art rules the house.
This year, I fell in love with Helen Bouchard’s value study of John The Baptist, by Caravaggio. The young boy looks decadent and satiated, nuzzled by a lamb that he embraces. In Helen’s simplified version the mastery of the composition truly comes to life. I can’t stop looking at the left foreshortened leg, and the way the pose circles around on itself.
My obsession with Caravaggio began with that study, which now hangs on our bedroom wall. Since then, I noticed
at the museum, how Georges de la Tour was influenced by Caravaggio’s contrasting darks and lights. I read how Caravaggio was possibly influenced by the religious theatricals of his youth. Through his love for life study, he brought a realness to the characters that he depicted, which was previously unheard of. Sunburned skin, a deformity of a finger, an angel that actually touches St. Matthew. His scenes are caught in the middle of an action, not before or after, which was an influence on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who captured real people of the streets in action with grit and humanity.
I decided to take a class this month called Copying the Masters: Caravaggio. On our first day, we were asked to choose a color copy of a Caravaggio painting to work from for the entirety of the class. I had gone in hoping to paint a Bacchus, but instead I was drawn to a brooding shepherd boy with the shadow of dark thoughts.
When I got home, I realized I had picked a later version of John the Baptist. It seemed meant to be. John the Baptist was a messenger. I view myself as a messenger – though my messages are of an entirely opposite nature.
We prepped our canvases with a burnt sienna gesso (I had also pre-prepped with two coats of oil grounds which gives the canvas a smooth and slick base). We drew the basics with chalk, and then began with an under-painting of burnt sienna thinned with linseed oil, as we built up the lights and darks.
In the style of the masters, an oil painting begins with Burnt Sienna and Cremintz White, where the shading is developed. From there, the painting goes into grayscale. And then finally, the intense colors are glazed over the top. This is an extremely structured way of working, and I struggled not to rebel. I love color, and I impatiently added too much too soon. Oils are naturally translucent, so the style of the masters can almost seem like watercolor in the final stages.
Cremintz White is hard to find. The only line of paint I found that still carries this lead-based white is Winsor & Newton. It goes on silvery and thin, and is built up over many layers. Our teacher, Michael Lane, told us when they exhumed Caravaggio’s body, they found a high level of lead in his remains. Michael relayed how the 19th Century Russian artist, Fechin, thought nothing of licking his palette knife as he worked (for the perfect mixture of water and oil in saliva), double dipping as he spread paint across the canvas. Fechin spent a fair amount of time in the hospital for this toxic habit, but probably never gave it up. Michael has a few toxic habits of his own, never wearing gloves, and using his finger to push paint around the canvas – refreshingly old school. As for me, I wear vinyl gloves when I work.
I am learning a lot as I try not to struggle against the structure of the old masters. Generally, I am an independent learner. I’ve absorbed an enormous amount just from being a model, voyeuristically taking it all in as I watch from afar. Usually, I get paid to be there, so it’s hard to swallow how much I’ve spent to be a student. Interesting to be on the other end. Three hours go by so quickly, in comparison to when I’m working.
This summer, painting has become my escape from the pressures of having my writing published and “out there” in the public eye. I’ve learned that whatever happens with released work, it has no real bearing on my actual life, and what really matters is my own daily personal craft. Painting has reminded me of that. It’s brought me back to the happy place. In front of a canvas, time disappears. Six hours seems like one. My brain goes into full focus. I get lost in line, form, and color while playing Beethoven. I don’t have to do it, but I love to do it. It soothes me.
Writing is something I have to do. It’s who I am. I never grow tired of it. Ideas push to the surface and flounder until they find expression. I have a message to share that I’m compelled to spread, like John the Baptist who may or may not have existed. He’s a legend. Eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel fur, subsisting in the dessert. He seems to be my archetype this summer. A summer where I’m coming to terms with the Bible as literature rather than as the facts I was taught as a child.
Strangely enough, today I rescued a locust-like insect from the elevator, and who knows why, I released it onto my balcony (where it disappeared before eating the garden). For a while, I watched it scratch itself with it back legs, and clean its front feet. Tiny little eyeballs, and off kilter antennae. Perfect yellow green – Terre Verte mixed with Indian Yellow.
To understand Caravaggio more, I picked up Caravaggio – A Life Sacred And Profane. The book was less about his life, and more about his paintings and the time in which he lived. He lived from 1571 – 1610, around the time of Shakespeare. He spent much of his life on the run for violent crimes, and found success through patrons in the church. He expressed his sensuality through Biblical themes. His models were courtesans, workshop assistants, and painter friends, all posing as the elevated figures worshipped in the Catholic church. I like the irony of his models. Sensuous boys and prostitutes, bawdy people of the streets – some who eventually found fame in their trade.
In Caravaggio paintings, life does not imitate art, art imitates life. A thought so
scandalous, that his sunburned Bacchus disappeared in the collection of the Medici (so much was the embarrassment of a peasant in a painting) resurfacing 400 years later in the basement of the Uffizi.
Every other painter of Caravaggio’s era has faded over time. He was an embarrassment in his lifetime. But artists ever since have been influenced by his style. A style that came from within, and certainly wasn’t taught by his limp teachers. He sent the message of what painting could be, and no one could turn back after what they saw.
Now that the air is growing cooler, I am ready to be fully immersed in my writing again. But my journey with Caravaggio has brought me back to painting for good. The two seem to be in perfect balance. Writing searches the brain for problems and answers, while painting releases the brain, disappearing into meditation.
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.
July 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
Here are two chapters from No End Of The Bed to entice you. Chapter 13 takes us back to adolescence, with my struggles in the church. Chapter 36 is the complete antithesis, or is it? By this point, I am trying to figure out who I am, while my lover consistently prods me into situations that are way over my head.
“People will believe anything.
Except, it seems, the truth.”
Growing up, my mother’s entire social life was within the faith. Besides church on Sunday, she attended Wednesday night services, ran a Senior Citizen’s Bible study the next morning, and went to Praise night at Mrs. McMaster’s house on Friday night’s. But her Women’s Aglow meetings really took the cake. They met up once a month in various banquet halls. The only man I ever saw there was a handsome African American pastor. Everyone was in love with him. At the time, I was about six years old, and he told me that he liked the dress my mother had forced me to wear. I felt ridiculous in frilly things with bows and petticoats. But the tights were an even worse torture. I couldn’t stop scratching my legs.
At these meetings the energy would reach a frenzy, building to a climax until around twenty women would go up front. Amidst howling and shrieking and blubbering sobs, the pastor would shout, “By the power of Jesus’ blood you are slain in the spirit!”
Instantly they would all fall, flat on their backs. It was very funny to watch. It wasn’t as though they would sit on their asses and then fall back. It was more of a complete backwards faint. A long row of over-weight women in potato sack dresses just lying there, some of them passed out, others speaking in tongues.
One time a woman came with a neck brace claiming it was a permanent injury. The pastor laid his hands on her, along with five women praying out loud in a din of nonsense. Eventually the woman couldn’t take it anymore. She busted off her brace and started yelling that she’d been healed. Women’s Aglow was always good for a show.
There were other meetings like this one. One night we went to see a traveling evangelist who was a faith healer. Two parents brought in their screaming three year-old and told us he was possessed by a demon. It seemed to me he was just tired or sick or maybe had a psychological problem. But the pastor started yelling, “Release him from this torture! Set this boy free! In Jesus name!”
The boy screamed even louder. I had to admit, it was eerie. And it went on and on, until finally the boy stopped crying, and they walked off the stage. Yes, the stage. Everything seemed staged. Like theater, like an over-abundance of emotions, like hypnotism. The pastors all used that same rhythm in their voices, as though they were all from the south. It lulled you into believing what they said.
“You are getting very sleepy,” pause, “When I count to three you will close your eyes. One… two… three,” pause, “I will use the Bible as mind control. And because of the all-knowing tone of my voice you will never question me, I will use the pulpit to be high above you, and the words that I say will be the words of God. I will be like God to you. I will comfort you, but I will also fill you with fear. Because you would not want to falter in front of God, just as you will be your best for me. And you will give me your devotion, your money, your life, and your will. As a congregation you will grow, and feed my ego. And we will grow in strength. We will take over the world in our spiritual revival. We will spread to the far reaches. And I will be your leader. I will be your father. When I count to three you will be free from your own weakness, and will understand the strength in being my flock. One… two… three!”
My mother wouldn’t question the pastor, or the Republican president, because she was told their words were the word of God.
Throughout childhood I went through an inner battle that no one else could see. Pretending to be good was so stifling. At four years old, in church singing hymns, I thought it would be funny if I sang in potty talk instead. No one could hear me. But I felt liberated from all the staunch repression, free as I could be in my pee-pees and pooh-poohs and on and on in my own personal mantra. The boredom of the following sermon never mattered after that. I had committed my first act of rebellion against being made to sing words I did not feel.
I was sixteen and my mother and sister took me on a women’s retreat. Maybe I could finally prove that I wasn’t a failure at being a Christian. They asked if anyone would like to come up to receive prayer. I went up and asked to receive my prayer language. Three women laid hands on me. I closed my eyes hard in concentration, desperately wanting to feel something. Their touch sent a chill down my back. I looked over to the right and could see my mother prostrate on the ground through the crowd. Turning back, I zeroed in on my attempt to feel the presence of God. But there was nothing. Only my own mind telling me that now would be a good time to begin speaking gibberish.
When I opened my eyes, everyone was so happy for me. I had grown in maturity as a Christian. Their hope in my future was replenished.
“I don’t love people I can dominate.”
At the Vogue nightclub, a stale stench of sweat, urine, and spilt liquor made the air feel dense. Black walls and curtains made the room seem larger than it was. A lanky man in hot pants and a boa danced around a pole. His muscles glistened under the strobe lights as he thrust and swayed to the repetitive beat of industrial music. The pulsing bass was overlaid with rhythmic whips slapping down on a treble beat.
A woman with cropped bangs strode past the dancer as though she were on a catwalk, wearing only fishnets, a black thong and two pieces of black tape that covered her nipples. I tried my best not to stare, though I was completely enamored. I stood watching behind a high rectangular table that surrounded the dance floor. I wore hot pants, a black woven bikini with fringe, fishnets and six-inch platform peep-toe heels.
When we had arrived, Nico bought me a Long Island and disappeared. I could see him now, not far off, talking to a woman. She fondled his arm and flashed her eyes at him with her fat cheeks bulging as much as her breasts. I mused over Nico in his tight spandex tube dress and combat boots, and smiled over how the feminine attire enhanced his masculinity.
A bear of a man walked past me and grasped Nico by the arms, kissing him forcefully. Nico tensed up and shrank back. The man said something I couldn’t hear. Then Nico dodged away, and swooped over to me. It was the first time I ever saw him without control over a situation.
“How does the basil I put in your little pants feel?” he asked me.
“Refreshing. You could start a trend and call it herbs in undies. Enhance your natural flavors.”
“That’s my girl,” he said, slapping my ass. I put my hand on my hip and pursed my lips at him.
“Listen,” he said, “I have someone I want you to meet. He likes to be beaten and goes by the name Community Carl. He needs to be put in his place. I want you to dominate him.”
“I’m not sure I can handle that.”
“Of course you can! I’ll teach you! He’ll love it. You’re just the sort he likes.”
Nico took my hand, and I tottered behind in the very tall shoes. He was like a crazy little elf guiding me to the netherworld. We came to the back of the club where a doorway was covered with black curtains. I was afraid to enter. Who knew what was going on behind. Nico pulled the curtain aside and guided me in where an older man with a mustache was tied to the wall by his wrists. His shirt was off, and he seemed like a remnant from an old porno film. His bare chest was leathery, gravity pulling his skin down crease by crease.
“Please, I need to be beaten,” Carl begged, head hanging down towards the floor.
Nico abruptly slapped him in the face, “Does that feel good?”
“I need more. I want it to hurt.”
“Lauren he’s begging for it. You can do whatever you want to him. You can twist his nipples, slap him, or punch him. Just don’t hit his kidneys in the lower back, here and here,” he instructed, placing his hands across the sway of the man’s back. “Any damage to the kidneys could be fatal. But the rest is yours.”
“Okay,” I said, hesitating as I stared at Community Carl.
“You can do anything you want to him.”
“I need to be beaten down,” whimpered Carl. I whaled into his chest with my fist, and my strength surprised me.
“Oh fuck!” he yelped.
I whacked his thigh then twisted his left nipple tight between my fingers.
“Good girl, Lauren,” said Nico, as though I were an obedient canine. “You just keep at it, and I’ll be back soon,” he said, patting my shoulder.
I looked at Nico with a touch of panic, but after his exit, my aggression turned on Carl. A man handed me a crop and I whipped Carl back and forth across his stomach and chest. His face pinched in pain and he sucked in air with each sting of black leather. He twisted and flailed against the wall. I hated that Nico always left me. What was he doing? Why did he need so much attention?
Carl looked gruesome in his pseudo submissive state. I could see beneath his act that he had spent a lifetime on a ruthless treadmill of self-importance. Physical pain seeped through his body, erasing the emptiness of his emotions. All the things he had believed in at a young age eventually became a lie. Blood vessels bulged in his neck as he cringed. He wanted it all to be beaten out of him. The crop in my hand zipped through the air and came down on his skin with a loud whap.
His eyes rolled back into his head as he whimpered, “I need more.”
“Do you?” I whacked him once more across the thigh. An audience had gathered at the door. I felt taken up into another existence. The vinyl had been a costume for me, but now my appearance was being interpreted as fact. I surveyed all the people watching the role that had gone past pretend. My mind was a cloud of manufactured fog and neon beams of light flipping to the consistent sounds of a lash.
Nico came bursting through the curtains, “Lauren! Don’t you think you’re getting carried away?”
“Not at all,” I replied, whacking Carl again.
“Come with me.”
“Yes!” Nico commanded, taking my hand. “I want you to meet a man. He’s very rich. He could be good for you!” he spit into my ear, over the loud music. “You could live on your own. He could set you up.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone else. I’ve found you, haven’t I?”
“No, you must meet Franco. He’s been asking about you.”
Nico led me out to the bar where a rotund man in a bow tie sat. He looked like an opera singer.
“Franco! This is Lauren. She’s quite good with a whip.”
Franco laughed jovially as I held out my hand. He kissed it while I distractedly sipped my Long Island.
“The pleasure is all mine,” he said.
“I didn’t know people used phrases like that anymore,” I replied.
“You have a beautiful smile. You know you are going to make an amazing mother with a smile like that,” mused Franco.
“A mother?” My eyebrows creased together in confusion.
“Some little boy will be raised well because you exist in this world. You’re a rich woman, and any boy would love to have a mother like you. Easygoing and artistic, I can tell,” he added.
“You are a strange bird,” I said, laughing. “A strange, strange bird.” I shook my head.
Maybe Franco had a mother fetish, but I certainly wasn’t the motherly type. Nico told me I had the body of an adolescent boy. I began to shimmy and moved backwards, edging away from the two men who suddenly seemed foreign and strange and faraway. They watched me move as I closed my eyes and ate up their stares. I traveled into another dimension, beyond the creatures that circled like extras from a sci-fi film. I was a voyeur of my own life.
• • •
It was the time of year when the season turns grey and brisk with crystals of frost that form before dawn. I closed Nico’s red front door gently behind me and walked past the strangely configured broken white reproduction statues from various sites in Rome. Exiting the wind-torn curtains obscuring the entrance to the porch, I walked down the stairs. I breathed in, and the thick wet air seeped into my nostrils. Turning the key in the lock, I stepped into my aging hand-me-down car. The transmission was dying due to the time it was towed in second gear.
I felt poetic, nostalgic, and pure, like a virgin ready to be sacrificed to Dionysian delights or death itself. I turned down the street and drove through slumbering neighborhoods. The whole world seemed to be drowsy with hibernation. But amidst all the deadness I felt so awake.
My long monotonous shift at work would have little meaning in the knowledge that I was living an extraordinary life. I took risks that my friends would never dream of. I couldn’t care less about protecting my emotions if it meant it would hold me back from really living. But I wanted the parallel life to stop. I was tired of all the people from my past that shook their heads over things they didn’t understand. Though I loved them, there was nothing between us anymore. And I hated regressing back into the Lauren I had left behind, the one who faked everything just to be accepted. Then I thought of the costume I had worn the night before, and realized, that too was an act.
July 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
A recurring dream I’ve had for the last three years – I am forced, for unfinished reasons, to return to my alma mater, a small Christian University. I am told that I have to think a certain way, act a certain way, go to Chapel and pretend that I believe when I pray. If I don’t do all of these things, I will not be allowed to graduate into adulthood.
I am a 34-year-old agnostic atheist. The dream would not be so terrible if it wasn’t for this fact. It would even seem kind of fun to go back to school. It wasn’t a bad place, and I really enjoyed my time there, especially my studies.
A friend of mine said, that it seems like most people that are raised in the church eventually wizen up and leave faith behind. Quite the contrary. Judging from what I have seen in my Christian high school and college, I would say 5% have left the church. I have no way of knowing if they have grown out of faith altogether, and on that count, it may be more like 1% (I might even be the 1 of that percent). I am intrigued to know if there are any others.
The theology of my education was indoctrinated into me from the time I was born. It began with my mother who was at the height of her “Jesus Freak” phase, when I was “miraculously” conceived after years of trying for a second child. My young life was immersed in Bible stories, songs, memorized verses. Then Sunday school, Vacation Bible school, Praise Night, tent revival meetings, Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, The Gospel Bill Show, Tammy Faye Baker on the PTL club, Christian school from third grade through my senior year of college. I was not allowed to go to a Buddhist friend’s house, I was spanked for asking what the word “witch” meant, and Disney movies were all of the devil. Every influence around me was a Christian influence. There was nothing else.
From my religious perspective, as a child, it did not seem strange, or even wrong, that God supposedly commanded the Israelites to commit genocide at Jericho.
It seemed normal, at least in the Bible, for Lot to offer up his own daughters to be gang-raped, protecting his houseguests from a similar fate.
And when Noah’s son Ham saw his father’s drunken nakedness, and told his brothers about it rather than covering him up right away, it was normal for God to condemn Ham’s descendants to be “The lowest of slaves (Genesis 9:25).”
In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, he writes, “Shouldn’t a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists! In any case, if Jesus really was born of a virgin, Joseph’s ancestry is irrelevant and cannot be used to fulfill, on Jesus’ behalf, the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah should be descended from David (Dawkins, 120).”
In a study of 168 Israeli children, the kids condoned the well-known story of Joshua’s act of genocide. But when all the names and places were changed, they condemned it.
“Religious leaders are well aware of the vulnerability of the child brain, and the importance of getting the indoctrination in early. The Jesuit boast, ‘Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man,’ … In more recent times, James Dobson, founder of today’s infamous ‘Focus on the Family’ movement, is equally acquainted with the principle: ‘Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience – what they see, hear, think, and believe – will determine the future course for the nation (Dawkins, 206).”
Though religion was ingrained in me, at school I often wanted to ask questions. But there was an unspoken rule that it was inappropriate to ask. If you asked questions of the Bible, your faith was faltering, you were weak, you were a failure, you lacked virtue.
“Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to ‘respect’ it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings (Dawkins, 346).”
The idea that question equals failure permeated my entire consciousness to the point that I was afraid to ask questions in all of my other subjects as well.
Judgment was a huge fear for me. Everyone was always watching. So rather than falter in front of them, how about, just do nothing at all. Sit in a corner, and pretend you don’t exist. For eighteen years, that’s exactly what I did. I was not an exemplary student, to say the least.
Women barely exist at all in the Bible. I clung to the stories of Ruth and Esther for dear life. They were all I had. Mary, the mother of Jesus, certainly wasn’t worthy of admiration. She is described as being more like a vessel than a person. Jesus treated her poorly. He directed his followers to leave their families behind to join his hippy movement. Reading the Bible, it’s difficult to figure out where “Christian Family Values” came from.
When I was twenty-one, I chose to walk away from the church. I decided that I no longer wanted to battle against my own human nature. I longed to fully accept who I was so that I could find happiness. I didn’t think about my departure much beyond that basic need. For the next ten years, I avoided the concept of faith and religion completely.
Instead, I spent that time doing the basics. I had to rebuild my life and deprogram my brain (not an easy task). I put myself in uncomfortable situations so that I could learn, grow, and figure out my own path. I went through an inter-faith phase, and had a year or so of being enamored with mumbo jumbo, third eyes, magickal practice, and shamanism; but I never explored what I came from.
Three years ago, I was finally ready to face all of my fears surrounding the culture of faith. At first, when I started my research, I was horrified by the realization that all of my life I’d been lied to by people who actually believed the lies they told. I was extremely angry. I couldn’t pick up the Bible without feeling disgusted and repulsed. I expressed my rage in some of my past blog posts which (going viral) attracted the ire of some very hateful Christians. One accused me of wanting to be gang-raped by five guys on a pagan altar. When you come from Bible culture, this is not an “out there” thing to think.
As a woman (according to the Bible) I am a descendant of Eve (no matter that so are all men). Therefore, I am an evil temptress who can’t be trusted, and I need to remain under the protection and the thumb of my husband or father, who will keep me in line. I am not a man’s equal (since I come from his rib, and he was there first after all), so it’s okay to take me down a few notches and skewer me as a sexual deviant to take away the blow from my viable arguments against religion.
You can teach a normal, healthy human being the practices of religion, but the fact that they subscribe to blind faith makes it positively unhealthy. The more extreme the faith and the acts behind it, the more the rewards in heaven multiply. Thus, suicide bombers abound.
I had a good talk with my brother in-law last week. He and my sister are Bible translators in Papua New Guinea, though they are home on furlough. He gets sick of being judged that he is going to act or feel a certain way on the basis of his beliefs. I get sick of being judged by Christians that I am selfish and evil simply because I do not live by faith.
Unlike the Christian faith, I don’t believe that we only subscribe to morals for fear of punishment or hope for rewards. I don’t believe that I am a hopeless, fallen soul with no control over myself. I take full responsibility for all of my actions, for my well being, and the well being of those around me. I don’t believe my dreams will be handed to me on an answered-prayers-platter. I believe in working hard to make my dreams a reality.
A friend was visiting not long ago and said to me, “I forgot that you are an atheist, because you are just so spiritual.”
I’m not sure what this means exactly. I am in awe of the universe. Is that spiritual? Is my spirit separate from my body? There is no evidence that supports that.
Scientists believe we have discovered the origins of the universe. Though the theories make a great deal of sense, I wasn’t there, and I will never know what actually happened. And that’s okay, because I am merely a collection of matter, ever-changing, and living on this marvelous stage of life, lucky to be here, honored with the magnificence of it all, never ceasing to be intrigued and amazed by my journey through art, life, words, loves, dreams, and actualizations.
Could it not be, that we have come into existence by the actualization of atoms, which create the same feats in our own lives? From particles to beings, from beings to mass movements. If you believe something enough, it will come true. That is why I still believe that prayer actually does tend to work. In prayer or meditation, you have set your mind to something, and will (hopefully) lay the groundwork to fulfill that need.
I no longer feel angry when I pick up my Bible. For the first time in my life, I can enjoy it simply as a piece of literature. Well, on second glance, maybe not. That is wishful thinking in my case. It could only remain as a piece of literature to someone who was not affected by its life consuming goals. Such as, the way I was not affected personally by learning about Greek mythology. No one ever told me I had to live by the commands of the great and all-powerful Zeus.
In Philippians, Paul’s words remind me all too well of what I have left behind:
“… I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-3:11).”
According to Ignatius, Paul was eventually decapitated as a martyr under the rule of Nero. He is not the first martyr or the last. He is not the first to give everything up over his lame powers of perception – believing in the great white light, spirits, visions, what have you. As I read the words now, I feel sorry for his loss. I admire that he lived his life with passion. But his blind love cost him his head. It also cost him the chance at finding truth and happiness in the one life he lived.
June 16, 2013 § 3 Comments
The title of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, refers to a comment her mother made shortly before Jeanette left home for good. They lived in working class Manchester, England. Her harsh, adoptive mother was a Pentecostal, obsessive-compulsive, abusive woman who hated life so much she hoped the Apocalypse would arrive soon. Mrs. Winterson never slept in order to avoid sleeping with her husband. She was in denial of her physical self. She often locked Jeanette outside or in the coal cellar overnight on freezing cold nights.
“She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have a choice (Winterson, 1).”
To escape, Jeanette turned to books, and then she fell in love with a girl. When Mrs. Winterson found out, a brutal exorcism ensued, including three days of starvation, and an over-zealous minister who tried to convince Jeanette (in a perverse fashion) that men were more suited to her needs than women. Of course, they failed at making her play the game of pretend. If Mrs. Winterson taught Jeanette anything, it was to be stubborn. And after living in that house all her young life, nothing could break her.
Jeanette soon had to leave home, though she was only sixteen. Her passion for literature brought her to Oxford where she was left to herself with three other women to study on their own. Shortly after college, her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, became an international bestseller and she has won numerous awards since.
I feel a strong bond with Jeanette, as though we’ve met up a few times and swapped stories. Each time after, she hurried back to her intensely private life, while I was left wanting more. Strong women have that effect on me.
I could write here about my family, about how I grew up in a Pentecostal home, but I’ve written about that dozens of times, not to mention in my memoir No End Of The Bed. I’m at that point right now, where Jeanette was with the release of Oranges, except that I was not published by a major, and I only sold twenty copies in the first month.
I had this idea in my head that people would go buy the book right away, and word would spread extremely fast, like an internet video going viral. But in this case, word spreads slowly, and finding an audience is a process that builds on itself through time, energy, and creativity. The hero’s journey of the struggling writer continues, and I am still faced with a giant uphill battle to win the narrative in my head. In other words, my dream still feels crazy, and a little out of reach.
I am often working ten-hour days on writing, marketing, and publishing. No one is looking over my shoulder, I’m not punching a clock, and I haven’t made a dime. In fact, I’ve spent every cent that I made in the last three months and more to make this a reality. I sent the book out to reviewers who probably won’t give it a second glance. Whether they write about it or not, it’s important that they see it and know that it exists, and that quality books will keep coming from Knotted Tree Press in the future.
Without writing, I become an unbearable human being. When I stop, my obsessions go into strange territories. So I wonder, what would pre-feminist Lauren look like? Would I look like Mrs. Winterson? Would I have made everyone around me miserable? And without the benefit of knowledge, would I have been a religious extremist? Would I have remained in an adolescent state – lacking in awareness of others, narcissistic, self-absorbed.
“I suddenly realised that I would always have been in this bar that night. If I hadn’t found books, if I hadn’t turned my oddness into poetry and the anger into prose, well, I wasn’t ever going to be a nobody with no money… I’d have gone into property and made a fortune. I’d have a boob job by now, and be on my second or third husband, and live in a ranch-style house with a Range Rover on the gravel and a hot tub in the garden, and my kids wouldn’t be speaking to me (Winterson, 208).”
We all have the capacity to find our sweet spot from the work we love. Sometimes, it takes a lot of bravery to lay claim to the work that you love. Quite possibly, most people hate their jobs. The only way to get through it is to do something you love after or before work. At an art studio last week, I overheard a man say that he wished he studied art instead of nursing. But the nursing affords him the time and financial stability to do the art. He’d just come off a night shift, and would be in class all day. In fact, most of the really dedicated artists are older and retired. They gave up their passion for thirty years, and now go to studios five days a week, working tirelessly.
Without writing, I don’t think I would have grown as I have, or become as aware of my life and the lives around me. It’s a system of processing information and coming to more questions, and even some conclusions.
In my head, just like Jeanette, I have another life, a Plan B that I’ll probably never fall back on. I think a lot about real estate. I imagine myself negotiating and making deals (things that in real life I utterly failed at as a Literary Agent). I pass by expensive historic homes when I walk to work. I watch when they come up for sale, I look to see who’s selling them. I wonder what the stories are of the people who live there, and long to solve all the mysteries of domestic life. See? I begin in sales, and end up literary. But in the real estate dream-life, there are returns for all of my hard work. I am rewarded for knowing my own value. It eases the reality of the life I am living.
“I know now, … that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance (Winterson, 38).”
What matters most is that the people who have read No End Of The Bed came back to me with rave reviews with such comments as “mesmerizing,” “brave,” “painted pictures with words,” “couldn’t put it down,” “loved the dialogue,” “has the power to help people.” Everyone finished it within two weeks (surprising to me for how busy they all are, especially the new moms). I went from feeling horribly exposed, to feeling wonderfully connected. Friends I hadn’t seen in a long time met up with me to share their own stories. People I’ve known since college looked at me with greater understanding. They questioned their choices in comparison to my own. Everyone talked about different scenes in the book. And no one seemed shocked or turned-off by some of the extremely sexual content. Neither were they offended by the feelings I expressed against the church. The rush has since died down, and now it’s up to the people I’ve never met to read the book and come to their own conclusions.
This morning I read about the publishing trajectory of the trilogy Fifty Shades Of Grey. I haven’t read the books, and couldn’t even get through the first page, but there are some comparisons to be made with No End Of The Bed as far as S&M content. E.L. James was first published by a small indie publisher in Australia with an e-book and print-on-demand in May 2011. The books gained momentum on blogs and social media, gaining a deal with Random House for somewhere around a million dollars in March 2012. The books sold 25 million copies in the first four months. So even in this case of the fastest selling books, success did not come overnight. It took time and persistence.
In Winterson’s novel, Sexing The Cherry, she explores time. Her mother looms in the character of a giantess. The narrative flips from the medieval to the present. We are asked to consider time and the dangers of puritanical thinking. Time is the story, and with it, the domino effect of lives from past to present. Earth seems like a magical place, except that it isn’t, if you inspect it close enough. We are not the result of miracles. Life occurs from hard work and persistence, from the smallest organism, to the most complex.