What I’ve Learned, On Living As An Artist

December 27, 2014 § 5 Comments

I’ve never written a how-to post before – my main mode is usually to bring you philosophies, ideas, and experiences of art, religion, and books. But coming up to the New Year, I’m thinking a lot about how I live my life, and how everyday I strive to achieve my utmost in creative output – whether through gathering information, writing, or making art. Maybe some of what I’ve learned along the way can help you achieve your goals as well – either as a reminder, or a guide. However, everyone is different, and the following is only what I’ve found works for me.

We live in reality – a place where bills need to be paid. The key is to find a job where you’re partially in control of scheduling, with a boss who understands and appreciates what you do. Or better yet, work freelance where you’re generally your own boss. I used to think that working nights would be best for me – but in truth I just slept most of the day and stayed out too late. The problem with working as a server is that you spend the night serving people who are out having fun, so you think you deserve some fun for yourself after. It also takes a few hours post-shift for that amped up energy to fade out.

Something that took me many years to learn – your only addiction should be the act of creating. An addiction to a substance is mind numbing – keeping you from accessing your full potential for awakeness and progress. An addiction to socializing can be useful for getting your work out there, but generally it stems from a need to feel loved, and this can get in the way of productivity. My priorities are family, work, and then friends. It’s not easy to make that call on friends. I allot myself the time to see people outside of work up to three times a week (rather than the every-night-escapades I had in my twenties).

The key to being productive is to establish a routine. In a perfect day, I wake up, and make the same breakfast that I make everyday of the week (this eliminates extra decision-making, and keeps space open for more important issues). I make my French Press coffee, peel a Clementine, dole out vitamins, fry an egg with a sprinkling of garlic powder, butter some toast, and pour a cup of orange juice. Then I sit down to eat, and read something informative – either magazine articles, or art books. I check email, and then write a chapter – either for my book on religion, or for a novel based on Bohemian Paris in the 1920’s. When my energy flags, it’s time to go to the gym. This gets the blood flowing again, and keeps my body functioning properly. Afterwards, I come home, shower, and make one of two lunches – either lentil soup or garlic naan with avocado or hummus. Then I watch 45 minutes of trash television to give my brain a rest. After this, I make a strong cup of coffee with my Italian percolator, and disappear into my studio where I play Joni Mitchell or Jazz. I spend the rest of the afternoon and evening building canvases, prepping them, painting, sculpting, planning, researching artworks. By 7pm, I’m exhausted. But it’s time to make dinner. I cook a delectable portion of protein, with a tasty salad sprinkled with olive oil and vinegar, afterwards, some chocolate for dessert, and then a movie or a documentary with my husband. This is a perfect day.

Unfortunately, when I stick to this schedule, I never get out of my cave except for that brief time at the gym, which is right across the street. Once there, small talk questions feel strange because I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. There’s only enough room in my head for books, ideas, and projects – so my short-term memory is terrible.

Also, in reality, this schedule gets thrown off constantly by art modeling. With all the rushing around, it takes me two days to clear my mind and be productive again. I store a lot of pain from the poses, and that too takes recovery time. So I’ve decided that for the New Year, I’m going to mark in pencil the days that I am available to model, and the days that are for my own work (to avoid over-booking or erratic schedules). Hopefully, this way I’ll be less apt to get into the stressed out, anxiety place. The work you do in your own time matters and needs to be prioritized. This has recently paid off with the sale of my largest painting – allowing me to work as a writer and artist full time for at least the next five months. A much needed change of events after developing a bad case of Sciatica from a difficult pose, which cost me the ability to walk for two days. This too, was a reminder to work harder as an artist, rather than for pocket change as a model. I want to give my utmost, and the utmost I can give is in art and writing.

An important aspect of living creatively is to keep your mind open. Explore not just styles and forms that you like, but also the things that you don’t understand. There is something to learn everywhere, in all facets. If you stay holed up for too long, you lose viable chances for synchronicity (or connections) that produce more ideas for great art. In my downtime, I visit galleries, museums, go to plays, restaurants, and explore antique shops and boutiques. Sometimes I’ll run into an art friend and learn something new as we talk. Sometimes I’ll see artwork by people that I know, which makes me feel happy for them, while also inspiring me to work harder.

In the realm of success, there will always be someone who is doing better than you are. It’s hard not to feel envious – but that envy is an important force that can motivate you to go beyond your own perceived limits. I often read a magazine that highlights the “It People” of the Seattle arts scene. Some of them are talented. Many of them are just popular and great at promoting themselves and their ideas. I can’t help think that they will probably be here today, but gone tomorrow. I can never understand why certain people win the awards, while the other more talented people don’t. It makes no sense. Art is subjective. So I say to myself – would I rather be the boy band that gains tremendous popularity and then burns out fast from over-saturation? Or would I like to be the person who continuously works hard to create great work with a long career – like Leonard Cohen for example. The answer is obvious.

Often, when I’m not in my studio, I think that art is crazy. I wonder why I do it, and why I feel the need to do it. Yet while working, I am completely absorbed in a meditation, and unaware of anything else. Nothing outside of it can touch me. Maybe that is the answer. Or it’s the constant surprise of images and shapes that blossom in front of me. It seems like magic.

I don’t have the same questions about writing. Writing is how I process and grow – it’s second nature to me now. My problem with it is, that not nearly as many people read my writing, as I would like. Words also create barriers between people, and often my words inspire people to attack me and hurl hateful comments in my path. For some reason, they think this is appropriate when they haven’t even met me. Similarly, I often assume that they are angry psychopaths who spend all their time in dark basements.

One major thing that I have learned from the experience of having my writing out there is that once the writing is released, it’s no longer mine. On one hand, the writing might have been true of me when I wrote the piece, but as time passes, it no longer is. It only exists now for the reader, and their experience of the piece is separate from myself. Whether they affirm the piece, or hate it – it’s no matter. What happens out there isn’t really important, and you can’t take it personally. It’s good to avoid all reviews and comments as much as possible. While on this blog, however, I enjoy the dialogue that a post can inspire.

Getting lost in the meditation of writing or painting, undergoing writer therapy, having epiphanies, solving problems – as they say, the joy is in the journey. There is no joy after the fact. I do it for the process. Once it’s done, I’m done with it too. We rarely know the extent of the effect that our work has on other people, and once the work is out there, it’s no longer yours. It’s for everyone else and how they interpret it.

In all honesty, I wish that the only people experiencing my work were people I’ve never met before and never will meet. It would be easier that way. People have certain perceptions of me, so if they read my memoir, for example, they’ll suddenly find out that I lived this whole other life that they might find distasteful, strange, or odd. They come to know things I don’t even tell my closest friends. For this reason, even though I’ve written a second memoir, I might not publish it. We’ll see. I’m choosing to be less personal now, which is something that happens with age.

More and more, I find, that people outside of my art subculture have a hard time understanding me. I too, have a hard time understanding them. It’s always been the case, but it seems to be getting more extreme as time passes. Maybe it’s because, again, I’m getting older. The bank teller assumes I work a corporate job, and wonders why I’m out of work so early. No one outside of an art studio gets what I do for a living, and they automatically think perverse thoughts about what it means to be a living nude.

This is another core of being a creative person. Groups are dangerous places where progressive thinking is stunted by peer pressure. In education, you might end up with hundreds of students who all are ingrained to think the same way, draw the same way, with little that is unique or groundbreaking about what they are doing. In religions, progress has been stunted for thousands of years by the commitment to never question faith or explore anything outside of it. In politics, fascism has ruled in the same way. Corporate culture, again, plays on delicate balances of rules and standards.

I am nearing the end of my 35th year, and I’ve been watching creative people fall off the map in order to make ends meet. It happens for several reasons. Number one is that they have kids. People often go to extremes as young parents. They can get insanely religious, or obsessed with being healthy, or driven to make as much money as possible. Number two, the older you get, the more that fears of financial insecurities can loom. We start thinking about health concerns, how quickly time passes, and age.

Even though I only make enough money to get by, there are still things that can be done to lessen my financial worries. I just started an IRA retirement fund, for example. I’m hoping to invest 15 – 20% of my income. I also do my best to live simply. I wear variations on the same theme every single day – black leggings and a shift dress (again, less decision-making). I’ve learned to cut my own hair if I have to. In my single days, I never had a car or a TV – I could still do without both if it came to it. The thing is, I’m happier living this way than I ever was as a kid who had every material possession I wanted. Doing what you love is the most important thing in life. Sacrifices feel like nothing in the face of losing that. People come and go, but your passion stays with you and keeps giving back. In fact, it’s the passion that has always drawn people to me in the first place and vice versa.

The last, most important thing to remember is that being an artist is not a selfish act. I get sick of hearing that to be an artist you have to be a narcissist – said in the most spiteful way. To explore one’s own psyche and reveal it to the world is a courageous activity. What other psyche do we have? The only one we can see into most fully is our own. And in that lies the stories that connect us together and unify our total human experience. The artist makes the viewer or the reader or the listener feel less alone. The artist tells us, you’re not the only one who’s had crazy experiences that are hard to understand. Life is hard, but we have beauty to make sense of it. It’s this creativity that keeps us sane. It keeps us asking questions, and builds our civilization into something better than it was before. The artist is a giver – maybe not of their time (which is so limited in the face of creation), but of their ideas, perceptions, and philosophy. Art is how we grow.

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Clits Up!

November 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

A year ago I went to Susie Bright’s reading for her memoir, Big Sex Little Death.  She signed my copy “Lauren, Clits up!  Susie Bright.”  She told some interesting stories about traveling through the country on her book tour while I sat wondering what the Puritans would think about her book title – if you have big sex, there’s bound to be a little death, or maybe even a lot.

“One brother killing his other half, his soul mate, was sensational enough – but add “hardcore” to it, and it was as if everyone in the sexual counterculture were on trial.

Reporters called me: “Did you see it coming?  Were you pressured?  Were you afraid?  Did you get high with them, take it up the ass before the guns came out? Their questions were crazy because they all assumed that sex had led to violence.  Not despair, not religion, not the empty bottle of abandonment (Bright, 303).”

Artie had been on a violent binge, and Jim shot him – the Mitchell brothers behind the famous O’Farrell theater strip club in San Francisco where Susie’s friends worked.

In life, there is death.  The religious right would have us believe that death equals sin.  But all of life is merely a cycle that our egos strain against.

In the same way, movements are born and then die.  Manifestos have flaws, so we build off the old to create the new, hopefully improved, trains of thought.

Susie Bright has been at the forefront of movements in our history – grabbing life by the balls since she was a teenager running rampant in the Communist party.  She was attacked, dodged bullets, and sacrificed her individuality for the cause.  But amidst a shift, she was accused of betrayal and kicked out, most likely for not being a drone.

Several years later, she was influential in forming the lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, with a group of strippers.  For years they struggled to stay afloat amidst political battles of the Andrea Dworkin/Catherine MacKinnon variety.  At that point, many feminists were joining with the religious right in the fight for anti-pornography laws, and the magazine found more support from gay culture.

“We were too obscene to glue together.  All of us, the women in erotica and in sex education, ended up paying what amounted to enormous bribes to be printed at all.  And the printer’s risk?  Zero.  The U.S. attorney general’s office, to this very day, has the same attitude toward women’s sexual potential as that held by the Victorians: They really don’t believe lesbians have sex (Bright, 259).”

Blatant, in your face, unapologetic women who don’t need the male gaze to feel beautiful or sexual is apparently, a frightening thing.  The women at the magazine received death threats and accusations of every variety.  Eventually, the pressure to stay afloat amidst so much opposition and lack of funding literally broke the magazine’s back.  Susie’s life reached another movement, that of motherhood, teaching, writing, and sunshine in Santa Cruz.

“I had to Protect the Baby, but I ended up Protecting Me…  Malingerers, fakers, and self-destructive impulses were red-tagged and booted (Bright, 287).”

I am not a mother, but I relate to this feeling from my experience of being a wife.  Through my husband’s love for me, I came to love myself in a new light, and suddenly had no patience for the crazies, the neurotics, or the people who take me down a notch for no reason.  As I became aware of someone else’s needs, I became more aware of my own.  Love transformed, turning the past into stories, rather than painful emotional ties.

Like Susie, I have that desire to capture my personal history and encapsulate it – not only because it tells of my life, but also because it celebrates the people I have known, the cities I lived in that have changed since then, the zeitgeist that is no longer.  We have all evolved, and it’s one of the reasons why we need to write it all down, or paint it, or film it, or photograph it – so we can remember how far we’ve come, and see more clearly, where we are going.

 

Life Is Never What You Expect

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I once had a professor who said, “You live one life, but you have many lives within it.”  The same can be said for a book of short stories.  They are all unique, but each story is connected, and wouldn’t be complete without the others.

Aryn Kyle’s collection “Boys And Girls Like You And Me” is honest and full of humor over the sad circumstances of life.  Her characters all want to really live, but life is never what they expected it would be.

“That was the real bitch about time: Everything true would become false, if only you waited long enough (Kyle, 123).”

I am hard at work, putting the finishing touches on my memoir.  In the last week, three people who are a part of those stories have died.  Two of them were shot and killed in the Seattle shootings.  Drew Keriakedes and Joe ‘Vito’ Albanese.  I first saw them when the show, Circus Contraption, started about eleven years ago.  As the bandleader, Drew wrote all the whimsical music.  The show went on to New York City (where I was so homesick I went to see them three times in a row) and performed internationally as well.  When Contraption came to an end, the two were in a band called God’s Favorite Beefcake, and performed once at a friend’s wedding.  The day of the wedding I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me.  But I didn’t.  I got shy, even though I had spoken to them before in New York.  Their music was genius in that vaudevillian sense.  There was no one else like them.

The last thing I ever thought would happen was this.  The last thing that should ever happen to beautiful artists who spread joy and laughter and music throughout the world is violence.  And all because some mentally unstable guy got out of the house with a gun and decided to go on a shooting spree before he shot himself.

All moments and all people pass away, but art gives us the remnants of what once was.  I realize more than ever, the importance of capturing these moments in my history, and all the beautiful people I have known.  My generation has such a limited experience of death.  Death is a reminder that my introversion is a waste of love I could have given.

Life is short, life is intense, life is funny and sad and unpredictable.  We’ll only make it through if we hold each other up.  It just takes being vulnerable again, to learn how to try.

In memory of Arthur, who also passed away last week, I would like to share this poem I wrote about him ten years ago.  He was a beautiful man. 

Arthur’s Kiss

Smooth into me

like butter, you ooze

flicker glisten skin

glide cross fingers

no angles pointed joints

just round solid

foundations formed

through anticipations

refused content.

Elite Syncopation

April 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

In E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime we are taken into the vulnerabilities and motivations behind such historical figures as Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman.  We are witness to the making of revolutionaries and criminals.  War is on the horizon – the great equalizer between massive wealth and massive poverty.

Each character ricochets off the next, creating a stream of events flowing from one to another.  The book begins with Evelyn Nesbitt.  Her beauty causes a murder among the rich and powerful.  Her picture sends newspapers flying off the stands.  She becomes the standard model for every sex goddess that follows after her. “Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few.  The answer is By being persuaded to identify with them.  Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out on her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich (Doctorow, 71).”

One of my favorite scenes involves J.P. Morgan, who in his quest for Egyptian mysticism spends the night in a Pyramid seeking a sign of his greatness.  He only finds that the place is infested with bed bugs.  His feeling of elite superiority to be in such a place is even more diminished when he is led out in the morning to find a team of ill-mannered baseball players goofing off on the ruins.

Coalhouse Walker, a liberated black man, seeks justice against the crimes committed against him.  He turns into a revolutionary willing to sacrifice his life, staking out J.P. Morgan’s library of artifacts and rigging it with dynamite.  As Booker T. Washington tries to reason with him, Coalhouse replies, “It is true I am a musician and a man of years.  But I would hope this might suggest to you the solemn calculation of my mind.  And that therefore, possibly, we might both be servants of our color who insist on the truth of our manhood and the respect it demands (Doctorow, 238).”

Throughout is the rage that we are experiencing in our own time in the same phase of a century – rage against the one percent.  I grew up around wealth.  I went to high school blocks away from Bill Gates’ mansion in Bellevue, Washington.  My sixteen-year-old classmates drove BMW’s and Mercedes’.  My mother wanted to make up for doing without as a teenager, so she bought me one thousand dollars worth of clothes every fall and spring.  I learned quickly, that having everything you want doesn’t make you happy.  And after college, I had no idea how to deal with real life or live on very little.  It took years to train my brain how to stop being magnetized to extravagance.  Eventually I gained the survival skills I needed.

My number one lesson was that I was too impulsive to own a credit card.  As a teenager I’d never looked at a price tag, but now I became an obsessive bargain hunter.  I sought out the cheapest market in my neighborhood and bought all the food I needed for a week for under $40.  I learned to like my natural hair color and taught myself how to cut my own hair.  Instead of buying beauty products, I only use almond oil.  Natural remedies have replaced doctors and prescriptions.  When buying clothes I tend to do day’s worth of research, and think out my choices and price options for the best quality at the lowest price.  It pays to buy things that last.

I have yet to own a car, though I did spend six months puttering around on a sporadic 1974 Honda CT90 motorcycle.  I realized my own two legs were more dependable and I like the exercise.

I’ve been living on random jobs for eleven years telling myself that I can keep doing this while I wait for that book deal to happen.  And every year has seemed like the last year I will do it, to the point that it amazes me that this distant carrot could keep me going in the same way until the day I die.  I’m okay with that.

Jobs always come up when I need them, like magic.  But there is a constant scramble for backbreaking work.  One of those jobs is as a part-time contractor.  I am the person wearing dirty overalls, up in my head all day sanding, patching and painting in the routine movements of a machine.  When I work in public places, I note that people regard me as being beneath them.  When I wear my normal clothes, the same people regard me as their equal.

I sometimes work for a friend, serving food and mixing cocktails at parties.  We work for the one percent.  I hate the feeling of subservience the very rich can make you feel.  You’re not allowed to really exist.  And I’m good at being a shadow on the periphery, taking care of their every need.

At one party, the couple was our age, in their mid-thirties.  He worked in commercial real estate and she did nothing but buy designer clothes for all I could see.  She didn’t know how to work the stove, and he couldn’t be bothered with knowing where anything was in the kitchen.  They owned a mansion with forty-foot floor to ceiling windows with a full skyline view of the city.  The kitchen counter was also forty-feet long.  The house itself was built like a fortress with a ten-foot wide wooden door opening into the courtyard, and a glass door twenty-feet tall to the house.

Usually the very rich live in houses that are not to my taste.  But in this place I found myself becoming more and more green with envy as the night wore on.  I was disgusted with myself for feeling this way.

They were lonely people living at the top with the usual token gay bestie who worshiped their lifestyle.  The husband did the usual boasting of only flying private, and told boring tales of doing without comforts in foreign countries.  He was anal and obsessive compulsive.  You could see he wouldn’t have gotten this far, this fast, if he hadn’t been.  Everyone was slightly bored and more amused by the view of the city than the company.

I appraised their lame choices in art and thought of the paintings I would hang instead.  I imagined where I’d put the grand piano and how I’d rock star the place out.  Desperately, I wanted to go back to my own life so I could begin to forget.  Then back at home I kept looking over towards their neighborhood from our balcony, pin-pointing exactly where that magnificent house stood amongst the crevices of the hill.

Is it bad, or is it okay to find motivation from being around the rich?  On a good day I feel like the upstanding socialist – equality for all.  And I am lucky to have the life I lead – rich with experience, vibrant, full of love and time enough to write.  But as a human being, we are all competitive by nature.

It all reminds me too, that there is a part of me that is still that spoiled adolescent.  She resides deep in my subconscious, causing me to make impulsive choices every now and then.  Like J.P. Morgan, sometimes our illusions of grandeur need to be taken down a notch by bed bugs in the Pyramid.

Disney Princess Nightmare

March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Imagine you are living in a universe where everything is pink, every girl is a princess, and men are vague figures on the periphery, only appearing when a girl needs saving.  This to me sounds like a nightmare, and yet little girls are taught that this is a dream come true.  A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Orenstein give a lecture based off her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, defining exactly what is wrong with princess culture in girl land.

“… princesses avoid female bonding.  Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married…  and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.  Their value derives largely from their appearance.  They are rabid materialists.  They might affect your daughter’s interest in math.  And yet…  parents cannot resist them (Orenstein, 23).”

In the Disney Princess franchise, for the first time we are allowed to see the Disney Princesses grouped together as long as none of them are looking at each other.  They each exist in a universe, all their own.  They only make friends with those who are not on equal footing; such as crustaceans, raccoons, birds, dwarves, fairies.  No one is as special as they are.

Not only does princess mentality isolate girls from other girls, inspiring competition and a lack of empathy; but it also creates a huge divide between girls and boys.  Boys are given active toys that include all the colors of the rainbow.  They are encouraged to be doers, and to learn through play with tool sets, chemistry sets, etc.  For girls, however, there is a major emphasis on primping and materialism – spa day, shopping, and make-up for your six year old.  The girl’s version of a chemistry set revolves around learning to make perfume.  In the Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition, girls can go on shopping sprees, buy a mall or a boutique.  This all teaches them to strive to be spoiled and valued on the basis of their appearance.

At a toy fair, Orenstein observes:  “The preschool girls’ section was decorated with a banner on which the words BEAUTIFUL, PRETTY, COLORFUL were repeated over and over (and over) in pink script…  In the next room, a banner over the boys’ section, scripted in blue, exclaimed, ENERGY, HEROES, POWER (Orenstein, 51).”

Words used for girls are passive descriptions of how an object looks.  Boys on the other hand get all the action, the doing, the winning, the leadership.  Over and over boys and girls are ingrained with these perceptions at an already difficult stage of social development where they are first coming to terms with categories of gender.

“By the end of the first year of preschool, children spend most of their time, when they can choose, playing with others of their sex.  When they do have cross-sex friendships, they tend not to cop to them in public – the relationships go underground (Orenstein, 68).”

Some of my earliest memories are of playing with my friend Patrick.  My dad’s favorite story to tell is of me at around age four playing football with Patrick and his little brother Freddy.  Apparently I pushed Freddy down and he went crying to his dad.  His dad turned to him and said, “But that’s how the game is played, son.”  At a later age, I can assure you, I would not have had the guts to push a boy down.

Since I was the second child, my parents were a little lax with teaching me a few basics, so Patrick taught me the alphabet and I taught him a few ballet moves.  I loved playing Heman with him and I was convinced that boy’s toys were better.  Barbie was fun, but all she did was primp and go to parties.  Her big climatic moment was when she danced with Ken.  They would fall in love and begin to fly.  Then they would go home, take off their clothes and lie naked on top of each other in their Barbie bed.  My neighbor friend and I would gaze at this mysterious act with awe.  All the effort went into making Barbie look as beautiful as possible so that Ken would sleep with her.

Heman was active.  He was a hero.  There was something more empowering about being a boy.  I was jealous.  I was also jealous that Patrick didn’t give a shit about what people thought of him.  One day he pulled down his pants and peed right on the sidewalk.  It didn’t matter that there were ten other kids playing around him when he did it.  I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that free.

As soon as we entered kindergarten, though, Patrick rejected me.  He wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a girl in public.  I felt heartbroken.  I realized our friendship could only exist in my mind as a memory.  But I still admired him from afar.  Matters were made worse when in the first grade we were all lined up to go in after recess.  I was at the end of the line, Patrick was up ahead, and the boy in front of him (who I didn’t like), yelled out, “You like Lauren?!”  It was as though the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do was like me.  Everyone started laughing.  Patrick looked humiliated.  I wanted to disappear.  It was hard to understand why this was such a horrible thing.

So then we entered a new phase.  Since Patrick “liked” me, I now had a crush on him.  This explained to me why we were no longer allowed to talk to each other.  Everything became secretive, underground.  It was now all in the non-verbals, like when he silently chased me on his bicycle.  I pedaled as fast as I could, laughing hysterically over the excitement of the chase.  For a few short moments, he was actually acknowledging that I existed.

At that point the major gender separation in toys was really just beginning.  It was the early eighties, that big bust of consumerism.  My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears – all inactive toys that were cute and had no real function.  I barely knew what to do with any of them, but of course wanted them all.

Much more memorable is the summer when the girl next door and I decided to make a mud factory out of the piles of dirt behind the garage.  We made mud pies and even mud hot dogs, which my aunt told us, looked more like poop.  Then there was the year in grade school that I started an icicle hunt at recess – a game that spread like a virus till the whole grade school was involved in a battle of who could collect the most icicles, as well as the biggest.  I felt like a HERO.  I felt POWER.  I felt ENERGY.  It felt good!

When Peggy Orenstein finished her lecture on princess culture, the audience was invited to ask her questions.  Every woman that went up to the microphone bumbled through her words, skittishly made apologies, and skipped backwards through the aisle like an uncertain little girl.  Then a young man got up to ask a question.  He spoke directly with authority.  When he was finished he calmly walked back to his seat with assurance.  Just in that moment, it was easy to see, how we are all shaped by society’s messages on gender.

It’s time for women to create a new female archetype for the future – heroic, intelligent, with guts, courage, charisma and empathy.  She is prepared to fight to protect the right to be anything she wants to be.  A woman who doesn’t need saving, yet understands that we are stronger when we unify.  She is the best in all of us.

 

 

European Sampler Platter

February 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

In my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to tour Western Europe in a student group.  We traveled through Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Normandy, Paris, and London for three weeks, and I chose to extend my stay for two more weeks in Paris, London, and Edinburgh.  At one point, we hit four cities in 24 hours, and I experienced culture shock in each new destination.

The energy was frenetic in Rome.  Vespa’s buzzed between lanes of traffic and came inches away from our feet in alleys.  Buildings loomed majestically and echoed with centuries of history.  Sexy people were everywhere in tight pants and bright colors.  My fellow classmates made embarrassing comments like, “The women here dress like whores.”

They taunted me for checking out the men and I started a running joke, “I’m admiring the architecture.”

When the men approached us, “American girls!  Where are you from?”  One of the girl’s snapped, “Don’t talk to them!  They’re probably in the mafia!”

I desperately wanted to talk to them, but every time I made an attempt, the girls pulled me away.  The boys at our school looked nothing like Italian men, didn’t know how to dress, and never acknowledged us as sexual beings.  It was thrilling to be noticed, even if they noticed everyone.  I didn’t care.

I felt as I usually did, that my classmates were from the backwoods, and had no compass for reading other cultures.  I began to completely disassociate myself from the group entirely.  I did not want to be identified with them, and started doing whatever I could to blend in wherever we went (something I have mastered so well over the years that in foreign countries, people ask me for directions).

Though the others were amazed at religious sites, I felt sick over the obsessive power of the Catholic Church, and the awe instilled for the church through art.  We were told that the foot on the statue of Saint Peter had been replaced because it had been worn away from too many kisses of the devout.  I watched as people broke down in tears, so moved to kiss a stone foot.

I never quite got over how much I loved Italy.  I’d been so excited to see the other cities, that I failed to grasp completely, the place I was in.  Austria was beautiful, while Germany was the exact opposite of Italy.  We went from anarchy, passion and wine to precision, sterility, and beer.

In Bavaria, amidst the opulent rooms of Kind Ludwig’s Hunters Palace, I actually passed out on the floor.  Once again, the history of squandered wealth, over-consumption, and insanity overtook my psycho-sensitivity.

On the outside, I managed to put on a happy front, and had a song to sing for every place and time.  But I felt increasingly alone, and recorded my thoughts privately in a journal.  I figured out how easy it was to get lost on purpose and lose the group.  In Paris I lost them in the Metro, and realized I hadn’t been keeping track of how to get back to the hotel.  I stared cluelessly at a metro map when a little man approached me, “Come with me!  I can take you where you want to go!”

“No thank you.  I’m fine.”  I learned quickly to make it look like I knew what I was doing and spent the afternoon wandering the Champs Elysees.

When the tour ended, the other students went home or broke off into small groups that I met up with now and then.  In hostels I was suddenly exposed to the sort of people I’d been kept away from all of my life.  Aimless wanderers hoping to hook up with someone, bragging about how many bottles of wine they’d finished off in a night, solving the mysteries of humanity through astrology.  Before this, under the scrutiny of our group leaders we’d been lucky if we could sneak off and drink a glass of wine.

In Paris I stayed in a crappy hostel and caught something, possibly from brushing my teeth in the tap water.  I was later diagnosed with a strange combination of virus’s that resembled a cross between Mono and Hepatitis.  My neck swelled up to the size of Rocky Balboa’s, and I needed to sleep all afternoon.

By Scotland I was very weak.  I walked through the ruins with a girl from Quebec.  On her first day in Scotland a guy on the street yelled cuss words at her for no reason at all.  She hated it there, but I kind of enjoyed the grittiness of the culture.

The day before I met her I had a fit of extreme anxiety and depression (a common occurrence back then).  I realized that if I took a walk without my ID, and got hit by a car and died, no one would have known my identity.  Insignificance and immortality hung over my head, and I fingered my laundry cord, trying to think of a place to hang from.  Preposterous, since I didn’t even know how to tie the knot.

I had met someone in a nightclub in Portland before the trip, a trombonist whose band was #2 on the pop charts in Paris.  It was strange to hear their music on the radio.  He had a golden look about him, and was everything I’d ever dreamed of – intensely creative, passionate, and most unbelievable of all, attracted to me.  In every city I kept seeing his face over and over – in the server in Austria who winked at me, in the Englishman who gave up his seat on the tube for an older lady, in the sexy dancer who stole the show in Fosse.  I was so obsessed that I bought tickets to see the show again, but an understudy filled in for my dancing man.  I was afraid that being gone for so long, the trombonist would disappear, just like the dancer.

For the last few days of my trip, I left my hotel where I’d had breakfast with stamp collectors and workingmen, and took the tube into a wealthy neighborhood to stay with an American couple that could put me up for the weekend.  When I arrived there was banana bread and tea waiting for me on the table.  They gave me a large room with a queen size bed, sink and vanity in my room.  It felt like a luxurious paradise after all the dank empty rooms and nasty beds with springs poking up into my back.

I was painfully shy at the time, but as my trip progressed, I began to talk to people more and more.  The desperation of traveling alone with little contact stretched me out of my comfort zone.  I was about to come into a new place in life of empathy.  And my journey through Europe would change me, most noticeably after I returned home.

That following summer I would fall in love with the trombonist, or think I did, and begin to write obsessively about everything that I felt.  I learned that in order to truly experience people, you have to take risks.  I didn’t want to be like the other girls on my trip, constantly shying away from life out of fear.

This week I read one of Henry Miller’s lesser-known works, The Colossus of Maroussi.  As World War II broke out, Miller left Paris and went to Greece where he found a spiritual place, uplifted by the history of gods who share our humanity.  He was stunned by the white lightness of the landscape, the generosity, the poverty, and the women who resembled queens, even in such a harsh way of life.

“To live creatively, I have discovered, means to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak (Miller, 206).”

Europe was really the beginning of my life as a writer – learning to breathe into the world, awakening to my senses.

What Kind of Girl Are You?

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Growing up, I never really talked to any boys until I slept with one.  And by that time, they were no longer really boys – especially since I was twenty-one and I gravitated to older men.

In my senior year of college, there was a speaker at chapel who seemed more suited to Junior High students.  He neatly categorized the different stages of a relationship through a ladder analogy.  The bottom rung was eye contact.  The second rung was conversation.  The third rung was holding hands.  The further up the rungs you climbed, the more dangerous it became.  He told us it was best not to go past the third rung before marriage.

I turned to the girl next to me and said, “I started at the top rung and worked my way down.”  She gave a nervous laugh.  But I knew plenty of people who followed the ladder rule – my sister for example.  She and my brother in-law never kissed until a month before their wedding.  She was disappointed that they didn’t quite make their goal of waiting.  Their friends however, did.

At my college the divorce rate among the alumnus was huge.  Years after, I heard women complain that they didn’t enjoy sex with their husbands.  From birth onwards – girls and boys were taught that sex is dangerous, taboo, disgusting, perverted, depraved, sinful, dirty.  And then one day you find ‘the one.’  You get married and then all of a sudden – sex is beautiful.  But actually, often it isn’t.  Because how do you shake all of those old perceptions that are ingrained not only in your mindset, but in your body.

Growing up in Christian schools, education on sex was extremely limited, and friends offered silly stories that had no bearing in actual life:

“If you don’t have the gene for curling your tongue, then you can’t French kiss properly.”

“A woman is a rose.  To each man she sleeps with, or gives a part of herself, she gives away one of her petals.  If she sleeps with too many men, soon she’ll have no petals left.”

This conveniently excludes the fact that a rose is a perennial and comes back every year.  There is no direct experience in these ideas.  Admitting direct experience is taboo.  Denial even sometimes remains after a girl appears to have swallowed a watermelon.  And of course, denial is also the reason for the failure to buy condoms or birth control in the first place.

The dangers of repression became glaringly obvious one day when a group of girls decided to streak through campus.  Every year it was the tradition for guys to do this, and it was always at a very public event.  The first year it was while we were all on the lawn watching ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’ in 3-D.  All of a sudden naked guys were streaking past the screen – odd because at first it seemed like part of the movie.  The next year they rode their bikes through a festival.  And the third year, some girls from the Basketball team wanted to join the tradition.

They went streaking through the canyon by the dorms – and strangely enough, guys started chasing them down, driven by mad lust.  Something comical and bonding and freeing turned into something horrific.  Most of the girls darted down a gravel path, trying to get away.  They dove into the bushes to hide, getting scraped by stones and branches.  Only one saintly fellow came and offered clothes to get them back to safety.

This all reaffirmed for me my distrust and lack of interest in the guys at my school.  I had a long list of issues.  For every six girls there were only four guys.  Overall, they were unattractive, lacking in life experience, introverted with women, hypocritical.  Basically, they were a direct reflection of myself, and I did not want to be who I was.  Up to that point, I had always been at the hands of environment and religion – ingrained to think the way I thought.

Among many girls at my college there was a celebration of the infantile.  My friends sported the same haircuts they’d had since the third grade.  They liked to wear t-shirts and sweatshirts with cartoon characters emblazoned on them – most popular being Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse.  My roommate insisted on putting up hideous posters by Ann Geddes of babies in flowerpots and dressed as pea pods.  They favored the pastel colors of a baby nursery – pink, lavender, lime green, baby blue.  Bedspreads ranged from candy-colored stripes to polka dots.  Their binders had pictures of puppies and kittens in the front.  And yet – they were adults between the ages of eighteen to twenty-two.

These women preferred to remain in an infantile state because it was easy. One year I asked all the girls on my floor if they would rather marry for passion and adventure or for comfort and security.  Every girl chose comfort and security except for my roommate and I.  They went to college to get their M.R.S. degree and I listened to them complain if they didn’t get that ‘ring by spring.’  Marriage was protection from the dangers of being out in the world.  A husband would take care of them, protect them, control their lives and make the decisions.  They would spend their time scrapbooking sentimental memories, making banana bread, volunteering at church.  They would mistrust any environment not labeled ‘Christian.’  They would attempt to repeat the entire system by ingraining their children with the same unrealistic worldview.  They would secretly acknowledge that their husband was not a prince.  They would feel trapped, but the world without a husband is the great unknown.  They’d never been in it, and never wanted to be.

I just finished reading Carlene Bauer’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.  Maybe I was too excited to read a book that seemed comparable to my own developing memoir.  But she failed to draw me in.  I spent the entirety rolling my eyes, just wanting her to get over herself.  Was it because I relate in all the parts of myself that I don’t like, or because I saw so many of the girls that I grew up with?  Probably, a little of both.

Bauer grew up in the Protestant church, attended a small Catholic college, and then moved to New York to become an editor, still clinging to her virginity.  She eventually leaves religion behind, but not prudery.  She excuses it by saying that she is a perfectionist.

“Used improperly, said church, sex could addle you beyond repair.  If someone who didn’t love you saw you naked, you would become Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass, eyes gone wild and trembling, wanting to drown yourself in the bathtub because your awakened appetite could not be satisfied (Bauer, 176).”

God wasn’t really the reason Carlene Bauer didn’t get out there and throw herself into the depths of life like she really wanted too.  It was only herself holding her back – her fears, her introversion, her lack of confidence.

“Maybe my body was what was weighing me down, not God, and if I could just learn to forget about my body, my mind could finally, finally be free (Bauer, 62).”

The title of her book is ironic.  Not That Kind of Girl.  For the entire memoir, it is strikingly obvious that she has always longed to be that kind of girl – the kind of girl that lives a wild life, with passions and loves, throws caution to the wind, a real bohemian.  She relates to Sylvia Plath and looks up to Edna St. Vincent Millay, and chides herself for not being nearly as interesting.  Though I am happy that she is a success as a writer and has found her way outside of the beliefs that held her back, I wanted her to become what she always dreamed of being.  I saw more potential for her, and I hope she finds it for herself.

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