How I Learned To Be Okay With The Bible

August 27, 2014 § 4 Comments

When I first began writing my book on how religion keeps us from being happy, I couldn’t even open my Bible without feeling a deep-seated sense of disgust. Simply removing the blue leather clad book from the shelf made me ill. I couldn’t wait to put it back again. The Bible represented years of pain and depression. It reminded me of all the friends that disowned me when I left; all the love that wasn’t there; tricksters under the guise of miracle-workers; control freaks; condescending misogynist leaders caught with their pants down; shame; hatred for outsiders; and lies that spread fear.

A year later, and the Bible is on my work table all the time. I love digging in to find the specifics of every story I’ve heard so many times that it’s surprising to find each one is completely different than I remembered. Instead of having to read it in order to believe it, I can now read it in total shock that I once believed it, and be amazed by that insanity. I love the Bible more now than I ever did as a Christian. It was a chore to read it in my place of belief because it never felt completely alive. I no longer have to fight that feeling. It is now simply an interesting piece of literature.

What I’ve learned through writing books is that the place where you start has zero resemblance to the place where you end up. The issues I write about still make me angry, but the anger has transferred from my own life, to the lives of others. I see now, that what I’m writing can help people. In talks that I’ve had with those who are struggling, I see that it helps them to understand they are not alone in their misgivings – the conclusions that they come to are their own journey, and I am just there to present a different point of view.

The history of world religions is a fascinating story of thought patterns that spread like a virus. When at its most insistent to spread, dogma pounded down the dissidents, and bloodbaths followed. More people have been killed for the sake of, or at the excuse of, religion than any other motivating force. This result usually first takes place a few hundred years after the religion is first born. The initial phases of a new belief system are a golden age of love and community. When that era is long enough in the past to become mystical, power-hungry individuals turn those teachings into a means of furthering hierarchy. This results in conquest of other people groups, a stamping out of other religions, and the intertwining of church and state. All of these issues have had detrimental effects on societies, wiping out advancements in philosophy and science with the destruction of thousands of books, cultures, and people groups.

The finest moments of history have been in eras of doubt – Greek philosophy and science, the Renaissance, and even the era we now live in. The heretics of yesterday are the heroes of today. Even within religion, those who experienced doubt were able to advance ideologies on a different route, though they were first viewed as Atheists. Buddhism developed out of Hinduism as a rejection of the deity structure. Zen expanded from Buddhism into the enlightened path of the individual. John Wycliffe was an early dissident of the Catholic faith and called for the separation of church and state. His body was exhumed after his death and he was burned at the stake. The early Christians were the Atheists of their day in the rejection of Roman paganism – a religion that furthered the state rather than the individual.

I am on the path of doubt. Which might be viewed as negative to some, but to me, my life is open to philosophy and closed for business to dogma and illusion. My parents were over for dinner last Sunday, and for the first time, my dad actually noticed the bookshelf full of research for the religion book. He said, “C.S. Lewis is swimming in a sea of negativity.” I replied, “I don’t need the books on Christianity because it’s all in my head. It’s the entire education you brought me up in. And I really don’t like C.S. Lewis.”

I continued on, explaining what some of the books meant for me. How Karen Armstrong revealed the entire history of religion, how Sue Monk Kidd woke me up to patriarchy, how Christopher Hitchens made it okay to get really angry, which led to the first steps of my recovery. I didn’t mention that the reason why I don’t like C.S. Lewis is that I found his arguments weak and that it seemed as though he rejected Atheism in favor of peer pressure (Tolkien was instrumental in his conversion). It was also a way to return to his childhood self after the loss of his parents – what Freud would call the juvenile need for God.

It’s true that the entirety of Christian thought will remain inside my mind for life. No one needs to remind me of it, or recap something I might have missed. For the hard facts, I am just like a Christian – I need no other books besides the Bible to explain what the Bible actually says. What is written there is completely different from what Christians say in the books they write.

A year ago, writing the religion book seemed like an insurmountable feat – like climbing Mount Everest. There was so much information to wrap my head around, so many books to read (and still read), and so much excess baggage of writing to get to the good stuff for a final draft. If you look at the entire project all at once, it seems impossible. But broken down into bits of chapters, week by week, it grew. It’s still growing.

There have been times where I was so sick of this topic that I wanted to give up and start writing a novel. Every time I tried, I bounced right back into the current book. I also had to deal with some resistance from a guy in my writer’s group. Overall, however, the group has been invaluable, prodding me in the right directions, asking questions, pointing out the spots that needed filling out.

I’ve been asked many times, “Why are you writing this book?” There are many reasons. I find it important to fight against dishonesty. That dishonesty has harmed millions of people. It’s created shame where there should be none. There is nothing flawed with the way that we naturally are. We are organisms within the scheme of nature, not spiritual entities trapped inside of bodies, battling between good and evil. I’m writing this book because I’m tired of seeing the same things happen to people I love that happened to me fifteen years ago. At some point, a negative cycle must be broken.

At the end of the Bible, in the prophecy of Revelation, God decides to break his negative cycle as well. He realizes that creating the earth was a disaster, and the only thing to do is destroy it and cry, “Do-over!” He bids the angels to torture humanity, then begins the mess by throwing people into a giant wine press, where their blood flows up to the height of horses bridles for 180 miles. He turns the oceans into blood and kills everything that swims, and uses the sun to scorch those who remain. Then he shuts the lights off completely. Satan is a mere pawn in the escapade that gets locked up for a thousand years. When the dragon is released, he spurs the resurrected into a war across the four corners of the earth (the world was still flat), and is then tossed into sulfur and destroyed.

In the end, every character is a pawn – from humans to angels to the devil himself. Victims of a stage play that ends as a tragedy. Rather than a story of love, the Bible ends as a series of abusive relationships. And what does the next world look like? There is no mention of improvements that will be made or how a very flawed God will fix himself to make things right. Will he do away with his insane need for affirmation, his explosive jealousy, and his desire for puppets rather than humans? I would love to read the sequel to this gripping piece of fiction. And no wonder why, as a Fundamentalist Christian, I was scared to death of even living life.

 

 

 

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Time For Change

June 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

For about six years now, I have been writing about the books I read here at The Synchronistic Reader, and my blog on a previous site. I’ve enjoyed the experience, and grown a lot from the gift of getting to process books through writing, and interacting with you, the readers.

In the past several months, however, the format has begun to feel stale for me, and I’m realizing that it’s time to make some changes in my life and re-prioritize. The blog takes up a large portion of my time, and I feel that I need to use that time wisely towards finishing my current book project, and shifting towards freelance journalism to promote that book.

I’m also feeling drawn to move past the straight memoir format into other styles of writing. I’ve noticed that through the years, I’ve told some of the same stories more than once. It’s time to stretch my writing chops and share the stories of other people, maybe even some fictional characters eventually.

I will be using this site as a way to keep all of you updated with news, upcoming publications, and random musings. Thank you so much for being a part of The Synchronistic Reader, and I hope that you’ll stick around for the upcoming ride.

In the meantime, enjoy The Book Experience Project over at Knotted Tree Press – a foray into the influences behind writing my memoir, No End Of The Bed

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The Benefits Of Persistence

June 16, 2013 § 3 Comments

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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.

 

The Life of the City

February 13, 2013 § 12 Comments

A man in my writer’s group often makes the comment that the rough draft of my second memoir could use more plot.  Writing a memoir is a long process of layering, of recalling memories that are revived through old journal entries.  By the end of the process, there is always a plot, but never it seems, before the final draft.

It made me think of all my favorite books.  They don’t follow a traditional narrative arc, but they do capture life itself – ‘Post Office’ by Charles Bukowski, or any book by Henry Miller, for example.

In real life, plot does not take the same shape as in a novel.  It only exists as something to be noticed from many years past.  It’s a narrative device to hold the reader’s interest, a method of pacing and cliffhangers.  In life, we are not aware of the plot until we have reached an entirely different evolution of self.

My second book is difficult to build since it captures the time I spent living in Hoboken, NJ/New York City.  There were always a million things happening at once, much more than what should be captured on the page.  In a three year span I was a poet, a belly dancer, a singer/songwriter on the mandolin, a percussionist in a bossa nova band, a hostess at a popular restaurant, a literary agent, an artist’s assistant for someone famous, a pool player, a coffee drinker, a groupie, and a mad downer of whisky.  I was out every night, and working every day.  Many universes collided, which is part of the fun, and exactly what made it so fascinating to live through.

In New York, the parallel life shifted between being very poor, while often being among the extremely rich.  Within my tribe there was a great deal of tension within the “us verses them”.  We despised the rich.  Abused them if they came within our dive bar territory.  And yet, we often depended on the rich to get by.  To play those games, you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t.  There was a massive growing process that took place within that struggle, and a process of letting go.

This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s mostly memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’.  It’s the first book by Hemingway that I have ever enjoyed, and I’m surprised that I gave him another chance.  I never lose faith in him, though I don’t like any of his novels (minimalism, no adjectives, run-on sentences, bare expanses, macho posturing).

Of ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway writes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.  But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Is there a plot in this book?  Of course not.  It’s a love letter to Paris and his time spent with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the love he shared with his first wife Hadley, and their baby, Bumby (including Bumby’s babysitter, a cat named F. Puss).

Hemingway makes Fitzgerald sound like a tiresome alcoholic with a cuckold for a wife; Zelda, a wife jealous of her husband’s talent who makes him drink to distract him from his craft; Stein, an egomaniac with no patience for women other than Alice.  To get through it all, Hemingway drinks plenty of whiskies with soda and lemon juice (a delicious drink).  And then, just when you feel he’s really had enough, supreme, in all of this, is the joy of being a writer in a city like Paris.

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed (Hemingway, 91).”

By the end of the book, you feel the sadness that Hemingway experienced at the loss of this world he inhabited, and his young family.  The rich were drawn to his success and left him feeling empty.  Other women drew him away from Hadley and filled him with regret.  But in the end, there was always Paris.

“We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached.  Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.  But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy (Hemingway, 211).”

In ‘A Moveable Feast’ the place becomes the plot.  No matter how many people pass through, or how quickly they appear and then disappear.  This is the life of the city: a constant rotation of people and experiences that you should never expect to last.  But it’s beautiful while you are at the center, watching the menagerie orbit around you.

Fear Of Being Exposed

January 31, 2013 § 121 Comments

I am in the final stages before releasing my memoir, and for a few weeks there, I dealt with a paralyzing fear.  All I could think about are the attacks people will make on my character (though I’ve been attacked by readers before, on numerous occasions).   Or the ways in which certain people in the book will feel misrepresented or insulted (though I did my best to tell my story as it actually happened).

I listened to my dad telling stories about my sister and I over family dinner, and realized how unique each of our stories and perceptions really are.  He had no recollection of what we were really going through at different stages of our lives.  A bitter drink turned sweet with distance.  In fact, everyone from my youth has little idea of the double life I lived, now captured in my book.

“The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, “you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy (Bayles, Orland, 39).”

In all truth, I prefer people that I don’t know at all to read my work, rather than people who know me.  It’s okay for a stranger to not like it, or not get it, but when it’s your friend, it means that they don’t really get you at all.

In the midst of my publishing fear phase, a friend leant me the book “Art & Fear – Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking”.  As soon as I began reading it, my fear subsided.  I was able to fully focus again on the process of making art, rather than fearing the result of my art.  And I remembered how amazing it is to be where I am at, and see that the creation of this book all happened through mad stubborn persistence, diligence, pain, tears, upheaval, countless rewrites, and that fleeting feeling of triumph.

“Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit (Bayles, Orland, 9).”

In the beginning, I imagined I would write a novel.  My boyfriend at the time so fascinated me that I had to capture him with words.  I thought it would just be a story of him, but it grew and grew into a whole community.  How I got there, what I was searching for, and how it all ended up.  In the end, it was not really about him or them at all.  It was about me.

I thought it would be finished in 1-2 years.  It would be published by a major with a huge book advance, become a best seller, and I would receive a movie deal within the year (how wonderful it is to be naïve and clueless).  As I slugged away at horrible jobs that paid practically nothing, this image of the victorious author got me through the worst.

Then there was the issue, that in my twenties I partied so hard and lived so much to the fullest (which makes for much of my subject matter), that it was hard to find time and a morning without a hangover to write.  But no matter.  I still lugged my computer to the coffee shop when I could, on my one day off from work a week.  Eventually, even in the early morning hours.

“To the artist, art is a verb (Bayles, Orland, 90).”

Bit by bit the pieces grew organically, and came to fit together.  The book started as a third person novel, then a novel in the 1st person, then with voices of two other characters thrown in.  Finally, three years ago, I was able to find the courage to admit that it is a memoir.  But I would not have had the guts to say what I did, if it hadn’t started out as fiction.  I also wouldn’t have come to know the other characters so well without that extra exploration.  Did I mention that I began writing this book in 2002?

“The artists life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because he imagines it to be fast (Bayle, Orland, 17).”

It still amazes me that I have not given up.  But on the other hand, it doesn’t amaze me at all, because I had no other choice.  I couldn’t release it from my brain until it was all written down.  And when it was finally done, it lifted like magic, and I was free of it.

I am at an age now, where the idealism begins to fade away.  I’ve watched plenty of friends give up their craft for stability.  Life is hard.  Most artists don’t survive as artists once they leave the supportive community of school.  After that, it’s just you and your art, and good luck getting people to care about what you do.  Your friends are not necessarily your fans.

Facing the fact that my book will be available to the public, I wonder how my life will change.  I will do everything I can to see that it’s successful, but there is the fear that it won’t sell.  I won’t know until I take that risk.  And whatever happens, it will still be a foundation that I can build from.

Years ago, a friend of mine read several chapters.  Paul was a young techie nerd, who was bored with life, and struggling to find social skills.  He kept talking to me about one of the main characters: a binging, partying, player who puts on a debonair act.  He became obsessed with this guy.  It didn’t take long before he was turning into him.

Suddenly, Paul was out every single night, getting wasted, and hounding women wherever he went.  In a bizarre turn of events, he married an older woman within three months of meeting her.  But he continued to go out every night, and slurred to me that he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten sucked into the institution.

At one point, he had been my best friend.  But soon, it was too embarrassing to go anywhere with him.  He was rude to bartenders who were my friends.  He was loud and obnoxious, trying to see how many curse words he could fit into one sentence.  He went from being madly intelligent and witty, to talking in circles without making any sense.  It was like watching Truman Capote’s downfall.

Was it the book?  Or was it because he also had feelings for me?  Or maybe, I was not responsible at all, and he was just on that course looking for an avenue to go down.  I don’t know.  But it was a disturbing realization that the book might be a little dangerous for the slightly unstable.

“Artmaking grants access to worlds that may be dangerous, sacred, forbidden, seductive, or all of the above.  It grants access to worlds you may otherwise never fully engage (Bayle, Orland, 108).”

I hope that my memoir shows that the world is never exactly as we are told it is, and it is up to each of us to find out for ourselves.  Every person has the right to be an adventurer, an explorer of life.  To Think for themselves.

Of course, it is dangerous to really live.  To take chances, and be open to people who are different from ourselves.  But it’s the only way to find out who we really are.  If we live in fear, we’ll remain in a bubble where nothing really happens, and nothing can really grow.

“Insist that the world must always remain x, and x is indeed exactly what you’ll get (Bayles, Orland, 111-112).”

I am excited, that soon, with the book release, my life will open up to new possibilities.  It will be out there, speaking for me, doing the work that I put into it for a decade of my life.  I will keep you all updated when it is released.

Do any of you have book release experiences to share?  Was it uplifting?  Did it feel like a let down?  Did it open your life up to new things?  Please share.

 

 

 

 

Dosing Freud

December 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

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While reading, Dora – A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch, I became one with a character I would not exactly identify with in real life – a wacked out teenaged nightmare.  I attended Lidia’s reading a few months ago, where she explained that Dora was based off of a case study by Freud.  His patient Ida (given the pseudonym Dora in his publication) was diagnosed with Hysteria due to her symptom of Aphonia (loss of voice).  Ida’s father was having an affair with Frau K, and Herr K had made advances on Ida.  Freud was certain that Ida had secret wishes to be fully seduced by Herr K, but in actuality, her desires revolved around Frau K.  His misplacement of Ida’s desires, and her abrupt exit from their therapy sessions caused him to conclude that he had failed her.

Lidia read about Ida in college, and the story stayed with her for years.  Dora – A Headcase follows a similar plotline, though it is based in modern day Seattle with a few guerilla filmmaking joyrides thrown in.

To be honest, there were a few Seattle details that were slightly off, and I had to suspend my disbelief.  For example, there is no 7-Eleven downtown, not until you get to lower Queen Anne.  There is also no Shari’s restaurant, only in the suburbs.  And a high-rise condo on Capitol Hill was not quite believable since there are no buildings in my neighborhood over eight stories high.  But this is fiction, after all, and I have too much pride in my city.

“You know what?  Seventeen in no place to be.  You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin.  You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock.  You pierce your face or you tattoo your skin – anything to feel something beyond the numb of home (27, Yuknavitch).”

I remember this feeling distinctly.  Hell, I have even felt this as an adult.  When I was seventeen, I felt trapped in a life that wasn’t my own – it was my parent’s.  Everything in me was pulsing, charging, held back in a cage that made me want to implode.  All day long in high school, I was force-fed a bunch of crap that had no use in everyday life (I was right about that one).  At night I numbed myself on episodes of Oprah Winfrey, and tried to sneak in MTV when my parents weren’t looking.  And then I’d find something like A Clockwork Orange – a movie that so disturbed me it pretty much changed my life.

I was banned from the macabre, the dark side, the body, the taboo.  But in order to understand all of life, you need to be given more than just a window with a view.

At the time, my experience, my education, was all within film and television.  Nothing was happening in my life.  You could sum up non-existent dramas in your head (as teenagers do), but they never played out.  I’d be lucky if a crush talked to me just once a year.  I was in the dork’s club.  And my only outlet was art.

“You know, when you can’t talk, talking sounds different.  Everyone sounds like a soundtrack of talking instead of like people…  like they are on a stage and you are in the audience – and all of their voices suddenly sound…  like art.  It’s comforting (121, Yuknavitch).”

Ida aka Dora runs amok.  She does everything I wish I’d had the balls to do when I was a teenager, and am glad that I didn’t.  As she finds a way to dose her therapist Siggy with an almost lethal dose of Viagra and Cocaine (his drug of choice, of course), it’s cringe-worthy.  He just wants to help her, yet she does everything she can to rage against him.  Siggy is just another cage that she wants to climb out of.

From there, the book becomes a wild roller coaster.  Around every chapter there’s a fresh twist of “oh shit.”  What is distinctly missing is high school.  But it goes unnoticed, the way that a lack of parents in brat pack movies goes unnoticed.

What becomes obvious is just how much Yuknavitch enjoys her craft.  You can see her laughing with glee in a room somewhere as she comes up with these crazy teen lingo sentences, putting herself in a tailspin of writer frenzy.

Like Dora I had no voice.  I went through long periods of time never talking, just observing life floating by.  People could shout at me, pinch me, push me, and I would still say nothing.  I was a voyeur of life, not a participator. Everyday I wanted to die.  I wanted to feel something and then have it all be over for good.

As I age life becomes more vital.  All of that creative energy was untamed back then, and yes you could say I had Hysteria, because sex brought me to life.  Now my days are pure expression.  I don’t want to die before I’ve sent all of my art out into the world where it can domino into someone else’s experience of pure, beautiful life.  The greatest gift is to be told that my writing has given others a voice.

Culture Over Color

August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next.  She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration.  I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.

The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience.  When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s.  The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time.  The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.”  … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”

This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today.  When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people.  At every single reading, it always happened.  Rather than action, it was reaction.  I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist.  A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck.  By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility.  You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life.  You must take action, no matter the obstacles.

Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today.  Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely.  She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it.  She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.

Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree.  “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”

Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery.  Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him.  She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community.  But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession.  He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people.  Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.

“…  Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice.  You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”

At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.”  She is rich with an empty life.  Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring.  A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet.  He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is.  They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida.  She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.

But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together.  In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love.  She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self.  Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.

“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any.  Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”

Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie.  I spoke to a poet the other day.  He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce.  But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet.  When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”

I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”

It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken.  All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human.  Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals.  I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.

What I thought was love was only fantasy.  And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist.  Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.

Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties.  Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous.  She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime.  Still, the charges damaged her career.

She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs.  Ten years later she died in a welfare home.  She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved.  Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.

But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me.  I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out.  Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output.  Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer.  If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write.  In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves.  I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.

 

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