Category: essay

The cost of hate

We as a species can be so filled with judgment.  Visual creatures, we can be easily seduced by both beauty and similarity.  We like what makes sense without having to struggle, so we gravitate to people of like minds because we find that the most comfortable.  I understand this.  My whole life, I have been on the outside enough to witness how people can cling to the familiar even when it is destructive.

Only, that avoidance has led us to a terrible place.

Today, neo-Nazis are protesting in Virginia.  As I stared at news feeds with tears in my eyes, I realized I cannot be silent.

Hate has taken over too many souls.

One alt right terrorist ran his car into a crowd of counter protestors. At least one person has died.

What has made this acceptable?

From what mental illness does this murderous disregard for other human beings spring?

I am outraged.  I can’t deny the anger bubbling up within me as I write these words.  With all the volume I can muster, I want to scream at those alt-right Nazis: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?  You are damaging everyone; no one less than your own soul. The people you are so busy dehumanizing are just as vital and beautiful as you perceive yourself and your loved ones to be.  No race, or religion, or income bracket, or gender, or sexual orientation, or political opinion can make someone less human.  Neither can those qualities make someone better.”

The alt-right has opined about the hardships heterosexual, cisgendered white people have suffered, but to blame those difficulties on people who do not believe or look as they do is madness.  It could be a comfortable insanity, one bred from generations of racism and blame, continued because it is easier than analyzing why those prejudices are there, but that is the opposite of an excuse.

Is this as simple as being terrified of economic vulnerability and a changing world, but not being able to widen their view to realize that everyone so suffers? I know no one who is secure financially, for whom a death or an illness would not upend everything. 98% of the country is in the same boat.

I am troubled by the entire concept that people who look like me want to take the country back.  The United States was founded by immigrants who stole land from those who were already happily living here.  We have paid a high price for the sins of our history – genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese Internment.

Do not imagine that this has nothing to do with the current situation. We are barreling down the same exact path. Not to mention, those protesting have a twisted but tight grip on the past.

Of what consequence is it to those neo-Nazis and alt right protestors spewing hate that the same sentiments were what fueled the Holocaust and Apartheid and lynchings?  Did they ever study the horror of the Civil War?  Given the T-shirts, the confederate flags, and swastikas, it appears to be a point of pride.  They are lionizing people who committed crimes against humanity, who spoke for the worst that we can be. Given the love of Hitler I saw proudly displayed in tweet after tweet, it seems that they would willingly throw their souls into a bonfire to revel in hate and the delusion of supremacy.

Take our country back implies oppression.  That we could be two generations away from mass lynchings, genocide on the scale that it boggles the mind, institutional racism that crippled large swaths of the country for decades and that continues to be a plague, I wonder: from whom must the country be rescued? How was this forgotten? Why did we become blind to our failings? How did we develop a taste for hate again, or has it always been a secret passion in the hearts of so many?

I cannot move past my revulsion over this orgy of hate.  There is no good that could ever come from it. With every speck of news I wanted to primal scream, howl out my horror. The willful, murderous delusion being paraded in the state of my birth, that one human being is of greater value than another, fills me with outrage.  How could we have gone through World War II, the Civil Rights movement, not to mention watching so much senseless suffering from Apartheid, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, and countless other examples large and small, only to have parts of the population that want to charge down those same roads again?

Only, I cannot hate them.  I cannot feel like they are less, even if I am terrified of their madness. I know better, because I know that we all spring from the same source.

When my paternal grandmother died, my mother found a trunk filled with artifacts from the early klan.  There was my biracial mother, so studiously passing for white, confronted by the ghost of my great grandfather’s hatred.  When she told me about it years later, I wept at the sudden, acute understanding that my heritage contained both sides: the lynched and the one in the hood; the slave owner and the slave.

Like everyone else, the potential for both good and evil exists with me. It means I cannot hate those who protest on behalf of hate; but, oh, God, I can pity them because they keep themselves from such wonders.

One of my closest friends told me about his work within the gay community after Stonewall.  But those protestors could not hear how brave and strong he was, because they could not get past the condemnation of his journey. Likewise, they would not be able to watch the queer-trans couple that is a model of compassion and love, without letting judgment cloud their eyes.  They cannot hear stories of the brilliance of black men and the unbreakable resilience of black women, because they have to feel superior.  To me this is a crushing sadness.  What is missed when hate is the focus!

Because they judge so quickly, so wrongly, choosing to embrace a caricature of the foreigner, those protesters could not appreciate the stunning beauty of Spanish prose, the lyrical miracles tucked inside Sufi poetry, the way that other religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, and countless more can enrich their experience of faith.  Because of their race and faith, those protesters wearing swastikas and confederate flags could not hear the wisdom of Archbishop Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, which makes me want to cry for them.

I wonder if their faith is too fragile to acknowledge other paths up the same mountain.

Given their hatred of everyone who is other, I wonder if they have forgotten “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” because otherwise  they could not be driving cars into crowds of counter protestors.

Honestly, I am having a real problem right now.

This experience is pushing my compassion to its limits.

I wonder if this is how my mother felt as she dragged that trunk down the stairs, staring in horrified disbelief at the books that called half of herself a monkey and an ape and accused an entire race of idiocy sight unseen.  It must have felt like such a betrayal; the hidden hatred of people whom she had lived with and helped.  I wonder how much of it was rage and how much of it was just despondency when she poured lighter fluid on that hood and robe and those awful books and lit them up.

That hatred became ash, dead and dust like the man who had worn them.

Right now, I am in pain, stumbling through my own journey, aware of how many of those people protesting would hate me because of my heritage, my physical health, my economic vulnerability.  I keep wishing to Christ that I am not simply shouting these words into the void when I say:

STOP WITH THIS TOXIC INSANITY.

Every human being – and that is what both those they deride and they are – is a worthy, valuable person.

I don’t care what you believe, who you love, with what gender you identify, from whence you came, what language you speak, you are worthy of compassion and love.

If we disagree politically, if we believe differently, that is no excuse.  We can still peacefully coexist. We cannot condone or encourage the mistreatment of others.

I am praying that everyone who protests for hate finds some ease for whatever agony drives them to this madness.  I hope they can stop before they start a war or harm more innocents.

Because, here is the kicker, all of us are human and capable of discernment.  We all have souls – and for this I pray, if for no reason other than saving themselves, turn them away from hate.

The Larkus Ending

The first time i heard this music, i was very young.  Before school, certainly – probably between three and four.  i remember listening to it, not for the first time, in the darkened den. This journey in music always struck me into silence. Perhaps that is why my mother put it on.  Once that opening grabbed me, i let very little other sensation come in. For awhile, i felt things.  My pajamas had footies and was made of the softest cotton.  i felt safer in those than i did in a nightgown.  The couch held me gently, its fluffy cushion under my head.  My mother read by lamplight, having turned off the overheads.

In all likelihood, she was hoping that i would fall asleep, but when the entire symphony joined that singular melody, like a group of angels following the first sad one to comfort it, in a crescendo of glory, i lost any connection to my responsibilities or her expectations. In that darkened space, i laid on my back, and dissolved into the lilting music.

i soared.  By the time i had heard it three times, i became utterly convinced that this was written just for me, to lift me out of my life and take me sailing through the sky.  The sighing melody alternated between sadness and joy, the singular and the plural, echoing down to my fingertips and toes.

To this day, i hear the first notes of that music and i am as enthralled as a child again, floating on clouds and rising through the air. The crescendos and the moments when one or two instruments seemed to take to the winds in isolation left me thrilled. From repetition, i knew they would not be alone for long. The subsequent swelling of sound made me fill up to bursting with joy.  It gave me hope. Maybe the same would be true for me. Maybe, someday, i would not be lonely any more.

If i had known that the instrument i heard was a violin, i probably would have demanded lessons, despite listening to my older brother’s rather taxing abuse of the instrument.

As the last three beats of the song faded away, i sat up on the couch, stretching the fabric covering my feet and legs as i crossed them. “What is a Larkus?”  i chirped, “And why is it Ending?”

It took a second for my mother to pull herself out of the novel.  Then she looked at me dumbfounded for a moment.  “What the fuck are you talking about?” Her voice was deep but not unkind.

“This song.  You told me it was called The Larkus Ending.  What is a Larkus?  Why is it ending?  And why is it so happy about it?”

She stared at me for a second before she started to laugh, “Oh, my God you are retarded.  I told you it was called THE. LARK. ASCENDING. by Ralph Vaughan Williams.”

My shame at my perpetual stupidity quickly surrendered to more curiosity.  “What is a Lark?”

“A bird.”

“OOOOH.”  Suddenly i knew why i had been flying through the sky in my footie pajamas.  That was why the music freed me from the ground.  “Can we listen to it again?”

She sighed, but was still clearly entertained by my mistake, “Will you be quiet?”

Bouncing on the couch, “Yes!”  Bouncing some more, “I will!”

“Alright.”  Very slowly she marked her place in the book and then she got up from her chair and walked over to the record player. Before the first notes started again, I had gone back to laying on the couch, ready to lose myself in the music. “Seriously,” she spoke to herself more than me, “I ought to just put this on a reel to reel for you, so you can listen to the damned song on endless repeat.”

She eventually did. It was fabulous.

 The Lark Ascending was the first experience of what would be a love affair with music.  i can get drunk on harmony and melody, without the help of any other intoxicants.  Songs that have become good friends, ones to which i consistently turn when i am in need.

To this day, the Lark Ascending is a miracle in my life.  The other day at work, i was exhausted and frustrated.  i had lost the ability to pretend that i was anything other than on the edge of what i could take mentally and physically.  During my last break, i retreated to the comfortable chairs, put on headphones, and listened to the Lark Ascending at full volume, from beginning to end.  i miss the soft cotton footie pajamas, but i still soar when i hear that song.  It left me strengthened enough that i could get through the last stretch of my shift.

The tiny girl that still lives with me remains convinced that this particular sequence of notes was written just for her, so she could fly no matter how lonely and sad she felt.

on issues of common sense and bravery

She told me this yesterday.

You have to understand your role in this.  You are too nice.  You let people get away with too much; even a nice person is trained to treat you badly because you let them get away with everything.

Sadly, she is not wrong, although there are a few good friends – herself included – who have managed to avoid being consumed by the dark side.

Still, her words keep echoing in my mind, keeping me up until much too late last night and randomly charging through my mind today.  Historically, i have had a problem with this.  Very few things in my life are worth fighting over: my friends, my animals, the welfare of a child, my ability to make art.  Otherwise, someone else’s urgent need often overcomes my lukewarm desires.  Moreover, i like being helpful to people when it doesn’t cause me undo pain and suffering.

chaoswithin_11x14When i do gently set limits, it often works.  However, when i am forced to emphatically put my foot down, or most often, just walk away from someone who has proved themselves to be a chronic asshole, they are shocked.  They see my stubbornness, anger or rejection as something unreasonable, because they might not have known that it existed until they broke my give-a-damn.  But, even people as mushy as me can feel their give-a-damn snap, like thin, fragile a bone, right in front of their heart.  Once this occurs, i will be cordial and polite, which some people do mistake for niceness, but by then it is too late.  The damage has been done, the transgression has gone far enough to make that person no longer worth time or energy spent figuring them out, and, invariably, the individual has done something to hurt me.

So there can be a limit.  i am not completely spineless, i am simply missing a few vertebrae which makes me unnaturally bendy.

However, her words keep echoing, in part because they are augmented by voices from the past.  When the evil dog came the house when i was four and bit everyone: “If the dog bites you, you have to kick him.  Otherwise, he’ll just keep biting you and it’s your fault.”  When i was being pounded on by another kid at school: “If you just kick him in the balls, he’ll lay off – otherwise it’s your fault that he’s still bullying you.”

Perhaps it is part of living in this world with a vagina, but i often feel like i am responsible for everything as it is (although John Callahan seemed to share the affliction.) One meditation i was given not too long ago and now frequently use is to watch the spiraling thoughts that try to convince me that i am the cause of all troubles, and see the lie in them.  It is a form of pride. i am taking on a massive influence in the cosmos that i don’t actually have – a lot of the reasons human beings act as we do are hidden, tucked inside our psyches, and have very little to do with what people do to us. We can react to someone from long ago, not the one sitting before us. I can remember being befuddled at a doctor who was yelling at me for being promiscuous (in the middle of a long, painful stretch of celibacy) before the nurse stopped him to remind him i wasn’t his sister, even if i looked like her.  You have red hair, i know loose women who have had red hair, therefore I WILL YELL AT YOU, YOU SHAMELESS HUSSY.

So were do we draw the line? How authoritarian do i have to be?  Kindness feels better within my heart; compassion comes easier from my hands.  Becoming angry comes at a high price for me, in energy and spirit, and i don’t want to pay it on a daily basis.  Therefore, how do i move forward wisely?   What does common sense tell me about people, both in specific and generally?  Certainly sometimes it is my fault, because i can be an asshole, just like everyone else on the planet.  So, when do i have to be brave and admit my fault, and when do i have to be strong and stand up to the bully, even though he is just bullying me?  How do i learn how to be courageous and also accept that i cannot utterly re-arrange the wiring of my brain to become some fierce hard-ass?

If i figure this balance out, i’ll let you know.  Until then, even if i’m being nice to you, remember i do have a give-a-damn, and it can break.  Moreover, so does everyone else you know.

 

 

 

Courage, anger and bitterness

When she died, I went on a binge of reading and listening to Maya Angelou.  One exchange has haunted me more than others: hearing her say, during her conversation with David Chappelle,

“…you continue to grow and you develop courage, the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  If you have seen and known the truth and had enough courage to change your way of thinking, to say ‘hey, everybody, you know what I said last week, I don’t believe that anymore, a little child just straightened me out’…

This message came at a good time.  I have been having difficulty with courage lately. My goals have been soaring out of reach, I have been struggling to maintain heart, keep moving forward, and not let myself be deterred. Too many days, it is all I can physically manage to come over here to the studio and sit in front of the computer writing – the more demanding parts of the job seem impossible. Sometimes, the fantasy of just packing up my car and running away from the bills and the instability and the struggle and the loneliness can feel intoxicating.  Only, I remain. Creating fills me with such passion and joy, I cannot abandon it even if I know my world is collapsing beyond repair.  Night after night, I find myself thanking God that I have had a chance to write and paint and throw. It is my salvation. I keep coming back to work, wondering quietly in the back of my mind if I have crossed over the line from courage to insanity.

While I was on board with courage being the greatest virtue, Dr. Angelou captured my attention with the possibility that changing our way of thinking can be courageous. As soon as I heard her utter the words, I saw great truth in it, but I kept wishing I could ask her about the other side of that statement.  For me, choosing to believe in the still, quiet voice within my own being – demanding I remain steadfast, keep the faith and keep trying – can take more courage than I believe I possess.  It has been frighteningly easy for me to be seduced into other ways of thinking.  There has never been a shortage of people willing to tell me I am foolish for having these dreams and for following them.  For every person who talks about talent, another will look at me sadly and suggest I get a real job.  I am much too porous to what other people say, to the judgments leveled by those within earshot.  Alas, even once I remove myself from negativity’s vicinity, their words might continue to rumble about inside my head.

Today, the most toxic judgments arise from within my memory.  There continues to be a strong undercurrent within my psyche – echoes bearing the voices of those I once loved to distraction – that I am not enough, that I cannot manage on my own, that I cannot make a difference in the world, that God has no use for me.  My dreams, to them, were follies – and I could not defend myself against their cruel logic at the time.  Almost all art, they equated to vanity – particularly that of some of my favorite writers and artists – not to mention my own meager attempts.  Frida’s self portraits were ripped off the walls as examples of egotism.  Vincent was nothing but a sad madman.  Poetry was a waste of time. Well, perhaps the poetry of others might have some merit, but no one would ever be interested in what was going on in my mind.  Even Dr. Angelou herself was disparaged, something I find acutely ironic given the immense outpouring of grief over her loss.

 

The long journey I have taken with art seemed to give these judgments power. Some aspects of my work, like throwing, came very slowly to me, and others, like writing, have transformed magnificently over time.  The fact that I was not a prodigy seemed to negate whatever drive or potential I might possess.  But, I have kept writing, kept throwing, kept painting and over the years I have gotten better.

Can courage manifest itself as stubbornness?  Does defiance require bravery?

 

Another quote from Maya Angelou and David Chappelle’s conversation rumbles about my mind.  I have been thinking about bitterness a lot lately. Both anger and bitterness have always terrified me. I watched my grandmother and others martyr themselves on those terrible altars, but Dr. Angelou helped me see a greater difference between the two when she spoke these words in response to David Chappelle’s questions about the assassinations of the 60s and anger toward those that let such things happen: “If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone or you are too sick to angry.  You should be angry.  Now, mind you, there’s a difference, you must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer, it eats upon the host, it doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure.  So you said, anger, yes, you write it, you paint it, dance it, you march it, you vote it, you do everything about it, you talk it, never stop talking it.

She is talking about social injustice, about bigger problems than people who would step on your spirit and dreams, who see every misfortune that befalls you as indication of some failure or weakness on your part. But still, selfishly, I took those lines, held them to my heart, and applied them to my life.

I have avoided anger like the plague and tried to pray my way out of whatever bitterness might come to take its place. Out of the two, bitterness had always frightened me more – it colors how you see the world.  There can be no possibility for change or joy if bitterness has settled over everything, like some kind of corrosive blanket.  However, like everyone else, I have suffered other people’s cruelty and heartlessness – but typically, I let myself choke on it rather than react with outrage. Whatever anger I would feel could be vented later, uselessly, against an innocent ball of clay, or in the privacy of my solitude, or in the company of trusted friends – who may just try to talk me out of it by offering up the transgressor’s point of view.  The few times I have truly lost my temper, the people hurting me acted like it was insanity.  My anger, they insisted, should not exist even if there was a reason for it. Anger meant I was a bad person. The very fact that I was angry meant that their transgression no longer mattered, only my reaction did.  It trained me that anger, in any form, was bad and to be avoided.  I learned the lesson too well; I have been grievously hurt and not fought back, paralyzed by both fear and this deep sense that my anger could be nothing but a sin.

As I listened to Dr. Angelou over and over, transcribing those sentences bit by bit, I began to realize that by stifling anger, I stifled change. It works for individuals as well as societies. Moreover, by refusing to give my anger any quarter, I kept myself more porous. Neglecting to call out abuse for what it was when it was happening, making excuses for the people who where hurting me, drowning my anger in justifications, forcing myself to believe some invisible quality in me made me deserve whatever injuries befell me, accepting lies as reasons – I left myself more open to bitterness, to the belief that things could never be different or get better.  Seeing their side of the story with such tortured compulsiveness, attempting to disarm my own reactions, made me have to agree with them on some level.  ‘Yes, yes, maybe I am a bad artist.  Perhaps God does want me to be alone, and that is why this happened.  Maybe I do not deserve to succeed.  Perhaps my words should not be read.’  Continuing to work with those messages shoving each other around inside my skull could not be considered courageous so much as an act of survival.

In the middle of this dreary afternoon, about the forth pass making sure I had the words about bitterness and anger exactly as Dr. Angelou uttered them, I suddenly had a spark of understanding: I can be angry. Anger does not mean I have to break things or curse wildly or lose myself to wrath or behave like those who have injured me. It will not break the world if I say, “Those who tried to tear me down, who broke me to bits, had no right to do so.  I refuse to believe what they said, I will not accept their judgments. Not on any level of my psyche. My very cells reject them.  They were wrong, and cruel, and I evict them from my mind.”

thisismylife_smMy art rode ahead in this understanding – some of my poems and stories and paintings have been defiant and angry – but my ego kept lagging behind, the remedial student that it has always been.

So sitting in my studio, still steeped in the echos of Dr. Angelou’s glorious voice, I realize I have come right back to what she said: “courage to change your way of thinking.”  The words concerned me, because I felt like I changed my way of thinking to suit others too often – that their reality had always been stronger than my own – but I see how right she is, even for my immediate need.  Casting off other people’s projections, particularly the ones that I had feared were true, staring at myself and making up my own mind who I am and what I should do, how long I should try and whether or not I will ever surrender, allowing myself to be angry at ill treatment and letting all of those lessons permeate every one of my atoms, that will take real courage.

And, I believe, changing my thinking in this way will also give me more courage to persevere right now, in this exact instant, when I cut my feet on this rocky path.

earrings and other things

For whatever reason, I have felt more keenly aware that who I am today can only be a speck on a continuum of being. The process of living has proved to be an ever-changing becoming. Even though that sounds woefully metaphysical, the awareness of it walked with me all day today.

When someone dear to my heart talked about how much she was struggling with depression, all the times when I stood on the perilous edge, convinced that life had no hope or meaning, lined up inside me like small steel balls, each one as though they were fully separate manifestations of self. In every case, the sensation of hopelessness overpowered me, convincing me that who I was had always been a static, worthless mess. In time, that perception was proven to be a lie, but I recall how fierce and deadly it had been in the moment. Each repetition flowing through my memory testified that I had no way to comfort for her other than acknowledging shared pain.

altered self portrait hurricaneA few hours later, as I re-pierced the upper holes in my ears that had gone unused for nearly two  decades, I remembered the day I had them pierced, when I was about twelve, and I thought it was so cool and rebellious. That girl could have been standing beside me, fleshed out on her own, a separate being altogether. Likewise the slightly wiser version of me who realized a few years later that my action had delighted my mother; the skilled use of reverse psychology on her part had finally paid off. I had done something feminine. The twelve year old, the teenager freshly irritated from epiphany, the woman in her late twenties who gave up on earrings altogether and this person wincing briefly in the mirror all queued up like separate bubbles: singularities in time and space connected by this continual, shifting consciousness.

The sense of separateness permeating today made wonder how much true control we have in each specific instant. Forces drive us that do not speak out loud. Hindsight makes nearly every action seem obvious, miraculous or embarrassing. Yet none of these reassessments and reinterpretations give justice to my full mindset in the moment I originally acted. At the time, my motives were frequently primal or incredibly simple: I really wanted my ears pierced, because it makes the magpie in me happy …

This doubling awareness – now and then staring at each other, both having maintained a delusion of permanence – kept on getting stronger. It reminded me of how people describe remembering past lives, only I just had this one continues awareness pointing out individual moments when I dreamed I was solid.  Perhaps my art made it easier.  Each poem was like a Polaroid of a moment, quite possibly bearing no real truth to who I would be by the time the lines were done flowing from my pen.  Going through a huge amount of my art to make my social media interactions easier, I found each piece evoking specific events and inspirations, and none of them were close to how I would approach the subject today.

I spent some time staring at a painting of my ex, rendered when we were still happy. It struck me how profoundly those interactions formatted one part of my continuum, but no longer define me. Twice in two days I have talked about him, remembering how desperately I loved him, how I drowned in that love long after he broke my heart leaving, and that experience too had this surreal distance. The woman who loved could have sat beside me, her loss palpable due to proximity, but she remained separate – not actually part of the fabric of my now.

How my relationship with myself has changed since we were together. The woman writing these words barely understands the one who wailed with grief so long. Even the great traumas of childhood, or perhaps most especially those ordeals, have taken on the qualities of an echo. The memories can be vivid when I am forced to bring them out of storage, but they cannot evoke the power they once did. Likewise, all the moments when I thought I was blessed, or freakish, or quick, or magical, or cursed, hold the same separateness to this instant’s manifestation of me.

For awhile, my entire understanding shifted: right now became more real than all those memories put together; the constant evolution of my being held more sway than my perceptions of who I was or who I am.

Tomorrow, I might look at this essay as describing an isolated event, one particularly acute instance of sensation, when the world turned slightly on its side to give me a glimpse of myself I would normally have missed, and remember it with the same tinges of the surreal. That alone might be all it takes to create me anew again.

blackouts

Usually, I find myself writing the keywords after I have written the blog, but tonight they came first. I think the last few in particular are more of a request for my life than a goal for the blog: loneliness, creativity, hope, endurance. Those are my prayers tonight – may the latter two help ease the first and stoke the second.

I had been feeling lost – the weather and my health cobbled me. All these days without power would have been bad enough, but having my vision impaired has not helped. My main solaces when I am housebound, writing and drawing, became unreasonably difficult. I have been thinking a lot about the other generations of people that lived in this house, how completely wimpy we must seem to them, complaining about what they would have seen as charmed lives of abundance. I could recognize that I have no reason to complain, and yet, I struggled. My mind restlessly churned over story and sculpture the whole time the weather, power and my physical weakness kept me from work. Again, it was proved that the words, clay and paint are the foundation for my sanity. Separation from them involves pain.

Today, the blackout lifted (and returned, and lifted, and returned, and lifted,) I went to the studio. I was able to sculpt. As my hands moved over the clay, I marveled. A deep, opaque veil had formed around my spirit – my inner light had been blocked by this stress and fear and frozen darkness. As her curves came to life under my fingertips, I started burning bright once more.

Creativity, hope and endurance.

.Here is a link to the sculpture’s preview video, if you have access to Facebook

Pieces of Loneliness: Boston

An excerpt from my work Pieces of Loneliness.

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“I am not alone.”  She looked earnestly into my eyes. The progress of this ancient woman, slow and unsteady despite the walker, had been straight as an arrow toward me. Without asking, she had lowered herself into the chair beside me, and heaved her coat and scarf and the first of what appeared to be several sweaters into the chair opposite. Her announcement had followed immediately upon her settling down. “I have a son. In Boston. He’s a banker. I wasn’t supposed to be here alone getting groceries.”  Each thought followed the next haphazardly, like so many child’s blocks put into a precariously uneven tower. Still, there was no end to them. “He was supposed to take me shopping, but he’s a banker. A very important man. He had to work.”  She bore her gaze into me, her eyes a bright blue despite the veil of age. Their expression defied me to distrust her. “He’s my son. If he didn’t have to work, he would be here. Helping me. But, he’s a banker. In Boston. He had to work.”

Her thoughts kept repeating themselves. She faced me, focused her voice toward me but never seemed to be completely talking to me. She never asked anything or gave a moment for me to respond. When my friends arrived, they warily took tables across the cafe, and waved me over. i made excuses and rose to join them, only to watch their faces fall in horror as she struggled to her feet to follow me. Slowly she gathered up her walker, her sweater, her scarf, her coat, bore them across the room before taking a seat beside my friends’ table. The whole way, she kept talking, “I have a  son you see.”  Our conversation could not withstand her drum-beat of loneliness. “He’s a banker. In Boston. A very important man.”

Irritated and frustrated, my friends ate as quickly as they could and began to drag me toward another restaurant where we could talk without interruption. As soon as the old woman lost her audience, she turned her focus to the woman on her right. The declarations had continued unabated, straight through our mumbled goodbyes, our putting on our coats and the change of her monologue’s direction. She stared into that woman’s face as intently as she had mine. “He would be here, to help me, but he had to work.”

As i checked out, one of my friends kept hissing chastisements in my ear. “She was crazy!  Why did you encourage her?”

“i didn’t encourage her,”  i shrugged. “and i don’t know that she’s really crazy. Maybe she’s just lonely.”

“Oh, she is.”  The cashier whispered as she leaned in to me. “Her son has never come to visit in all the years i’ve worked here.”

A Good Christmas Story.

The writer in me wanted A Christmas Story. Already, I had written a tale about Easter, one of my favorite pieces, filled with angst, sarcasm, and the redemptive strength of faith – even at a time when the main character has no clear idea in what she is believing other than love.

The idea had came to me while visiting friends. They began to set up for Christmas right after Thanksgiving – absolutely awesome in their joy and anticipation. It challenged my assumptions. Their experiences and mine cannot be more different, and history colored all our perceptions. Last year was the first in five that I felt acknowledged in a good way – even though the feeling, I am sure, was unfair. Too many tragedies and heartbreaks had happened in December, the month bore a burden of deep suspicion. Still, the visit had been marvelous and their Christmas Spirit infectious. Surely, theirs is a better way to be, enjoying a holiday that I tolerated or ignored.

In their living-room, I resolved to write a story for the people like me, the solitaries, those unwillingly without a lover or children or family, those stuck in the kuiper belt of society. Surely, I could find something in which to anchor my own peculiar joy that could be the basis of a Good Christmas Tale. One where I did not have to have the financial wherewithal of a Scrooge to make a difference.

Once I got home, things started happening. First, I was overcome with anger at someone’s selfish, thoughtless act, one that adversely effected my business. At least, I kept telling myself, that the transgression did not come from a place of malice and premeditation, for if I allowed my thoughts to venture onto that ground, then I descended into a new level of fury. Alas, I hate being angry with anyone other than myself. It feels unchristian, unkind and dangerous – for my spirit, if not the person evoking my ire. I am enough of a Christian & Buddhist to be committed to non violence- well, in my actions, for I cannot always stifle my imagination.

Happily, my irritation acted like sand in my shorts; it prompted some vigorous movement. Ideas about change and growth for my business started to take shape, moving from the conceptual to the practical. However, success is not guaranteed. I know this. Yet, I took great comfort in being filled with possibility. The fear and exhilaration of change, even transformations that will take awhile to come to fruition, can feel like a gift all by themselves. And, these plans gave me something to focus on as the next bump threw me around onmy path.

I got the flu, and quite quickly thereafter it evolved into bronchitis. Asthma made the recovery from that more difficult, which appears to be its job. All the extra income I had wound up being thrown into prescriptions rather than savings. For nearly two weeks I had to focus on second string work – no less important, but tasks which do not require as much stamina and strength. As I grew more frustrated and sorrowful, for I get woefully discouraged by these health-mandated detours, I reminded myself of how lucky I am to have this business, to possess the freedom to take time to poem, read, paint, draw, plan my next steps and, most of all, heal.

In the middle of this morass of physical misery I resolved to do something extravagant. I had already done a few things for myself while I was away and immediately after returning: bought some new clothes, some face cream for my rosacea, gotten my ears re-pierced, but the self-directed spoilings fail to satisfy. There are people who have done amazing things for me this year, and I wanted to thank them. Instead of pottery or sculpture, I used what little cash I had on hand to buy gifts. No one got anything particularly extravagant – and a few still got pieces of my art – but I rooted myself in gift giving. I bought expensive bows and cheap wrapping paper. On a day filled with particular pluck, I brought the tiny, Charlie Brown style Christmas tree from the studio and set it up in the living room. With help, lights went in the window. Underneath the tree bending under the weight of lights and ornaments, I set up the gifts going out. I felt such joy. Twice, maybe thrice, I listened to Christmas music – medieval, but still rich with Noels. Maybe, I thought, this can be the base for my story. I try to be as giving as possible, although I am chronically cash poor and pottery rich, but there is something special about doing it for Christmas.

About a week ago, the weather remembered it is winter. Snow fell. The studio had to close for two days, in part because of my health and in part because of the danger of a super slick driveway. Then, starting this weekend, the ice took hold. We have been without power for two days. The groceries bought for my solitary celebration have either frozen on the porch or gone south in the warm fridge. Christmas presents, by in large, have remained undelivered. I dare not think of the supplies, clay, glazes and paints frozen in the studio. Those losses could be extreme. Without a working phone, for those lines decorate my driveway, I have not been free to call many friends and wish them a happy Christmas. The vulnerability and isolation would be crushing, except for small gestures of kindness. The neighbor lending me wood, the good friend who harassed me to go to the hospital and the other amazing friend who sacrificed her Christmas Eve to drive me around icy Bangor to get even more prescriptions and spend time with me when I looked like a demented pirate.

Yesterday, during the worst of the ice storm, the right side if my face went slack. I drooled while I nebulized. In the shower, I felt a terrible pain in my jaw and came out to discover my lips were half drooped. As the day went on, perceiving light and form became acutely painful. My right eye began to weep compulsively.

The first friend wanted me to brave the ice, call an ambulance, do anything to see a doctor. I refused, acknowledging it could make me a fool. However, as angry as my inaction made her, I stayed in bed. I could not shake the deep, wordless voice within me that cautioned me to stay home and assured me this situation was not life threatening. All will be well. Her growing frustration, so plain in the texts trickling through my dying phone, kept deepening my calm. I agreed to go to the hospital in the morning and true to my word, after hacking my car out of its icy sheath, I started the long, unpleasant trip to Bangor. Driving is so much easier when using my eyes is not painful, and when those wonderful devices provide clear vision rather than odd, blurred smears.

Plus, the drool and the constant weeping from my eye had become off-putting.
I kept thinking “Merry Christmas, you idiot.” Here I had been searching for a Good Christmas Story and I found a farce, some kind of comedy of errors.

The instant I arrived at the ER, they took me in. As soon as the nurse saw me, she diagnosed me with Bell’s Palsy, and wondered aloud if I might be pregnant. Laughing, I said it would go with the theme if Christmas if I were, because I have been in a long stretch of disgruntled celibacy. She reassured me that she had been through this before herself while carrying her son, gave me advice on using straws and eye patches, and left me for the doctor. He confirmed her diagnosis, showed me how to tell the difference between that and a stroke, and gave me prescriptions for steroids (doubly helpful – I will be able to breathe better and it will help the droopiness), eye drops, eye ointment and again suggested an eye patch since my lid won’t close.

As I sat there, waiting to get the prescriptions and discharge papers, wondering how bad the bill would be for the visit, the meds and the odd accessory ($55 for the latter two,) I realized that it was Christmas Eve. Honestly, it had not fully processed until that moment. All the days off and foul weather had messed up my sense of time. ‘This would have been my 19th wedding anniversary,’ I thought, and felt shock that the acknowledgement didn’t slay me. I continued to comfort myself, ‘I am not having a stroke, or any of the terrible things this could have been, nor am I overly invested in my appearance.’ Indeed once I was able to see clearly, I became fascinated by this odd geometry on such a familiar canvas.

As the day wore on, and my friend joined me for lunch after December 24th proved to be the worst day possible to get prescriptions filled at a large chain store, things started looking even better. Neither the drool nor the unevenness nor the weeping were truly bothersome. My appearance was never refined enough to bear the burden of my self-worth, although it would stoke self-loathing on occasion. This detachment has helped today. Closing the studio became a guilt free proposition since the driveway was blocked by the cables on one end and a fallen tree on the other. Both the pain and the vision problems cleared up the minute drops hit my parched eye. My mind was clear enough to nearly make my lunch companion choke on a chicken wing over a particularly wicked theological joke. To her credit, she only giggled a little when she watched me have to pull my lips away from my teeth long enough to bite down and gnaw at my lunch. The nurse was right, straws are my ally. I savored the first long, cold drink I had been able to manage in thirty hours. Then, my friend willingly drove me hither and yon while I sought out firewood, lamp oil, marvelous wet food for my animals and the all important eyepatch.

Almost inevitably, I came home to a cool, dark house, but that was okay. i felt no fear, only relief. The log I added to the fire was coaxed into flame by the coals. Oil lamps were refilled. Candles lit. I said a quick prayer over the studio: not to let clay, glaze and paint freeze if possible. But I kept myself from panicking over the losses. Whatever I face on that score will be recouped somehow. The lights in the window stayed dark, but I knew they were there. The gifts under the tree will be delivered late, but it made the left side of my face smile broadly to run my hand over them. They exist. I have people to whom I can give such things. When the fire alarm chose an hour before midnight to die, I found a fresh battery and enough stamina to whine until my tenant changed it. I did not have a stroke yesterday. My foolishness did not cost me as it could have. When I realized it was Christmas Eve, I discovered that I am no longer heartsick, even if I have to admit to occasionally severe loneliness. The distance that settled in after the tragedy of my divorce, when the man I so loved kept telling me that God wanted me to be childless and alone and suffering, so he only did God’s Will ensuring those things, has healed enough that I can pray and paint my yearly Madonna and Child without angst. This blackout has made my animals actually want to cuddle, and I can pretend it is for love as much as the desire to steal my body heat.

As I have written these words, it has become Christmas. I look out the window for a star and find a voluptuous, generous moon. In the light of a single candle I keep remembering a power outage from 1999. I had just gotten sick and lost what I thought would be my career. Certainly, all that I thought gave me value had gone up in flames. My redirection and total commitment to the arts had already occurred, but I kept tormenting myself with the thought I was wasting my time. Who could care about my work? How could it ever matter? The compulsion to create could not be denied, but I had no confidence in myself.

In that holy place, I begged and pleaded for an answer to the question ‘Am I on the right path?’ Shockingly, I received a response through a sudden, inexplicable power cut. Indescribable love filled that darkness, so huge it made me tremble, so depthless I could have drowned in it. I suddenly knew why angels always started out with some version of “Do not be afraid!” – the veil between the Divine and the soul being ripped away is humbling in the extreme, even as it brings on ecstasy. In that moment, I swam in an ocean, I became a beloved drop, simultaneously the same as and cherished by the Lover.

This prolonged darkness has been more quiet. As much as I love my home, my animals, my technology and my stuff, I am beginning to develop faith that I can make it through without almost all of those comforts. They ease my path but they do not define me. Although I am not eager to test this faithful hypothesis, I take comfort in it. At some point, I developed resilience; over the past few years, I have been forced to prove its existence repeatedly. Perhaps as a result, my needs do not scream as loudly and desperately now as they did at the time of that miracle. Wonderfully, tentatively, I am beginning to develop a firmer understanding that my emotions, even acute ones like anger, fear and anxiety or the prolonged ones like loneliness, depression and self-judgment, have no power to separate me from God. They might fool me into thinking I am unloved and without value, but eventually, the scales fall from my eyes. As my inner dialogue has lost power over me, so have the manipulations of others. The window of disbelief stays open for much less time and slams down harder. No one knows secret truths about me but God and myself.

I am even beginning to forgive myself for my distractability, weakness and mistakes.

As recalcitrant and weak as this flesh can be, I have found more ease within it. Joy weaves its way to me through pain and gracelessness. The fears of my ego do not plague me as badly. Unbelievably, I can coax affection and kindness toward myself as easily as I fall back into the habits of self-recrimination and anxiety. Happily, I have been feeling brave – like there is nothing holding me back from leaping into the unknown – because I know I can survive the loss of the things to which I am attached. Already, I pour my heart and soul into creating because it brings me sublime purpose and joy even when it is going badly. When it is going well, nothing else can compare. I am ready to give myself the gift of equally resolute and profound faith in the work I create as I have in my calling to be creative.

This is not really a Christmas Story at all, I suppose. Certainly no great works of fiction have leapt into my mind while I babbled about my personal journey. The triumph of writing something longer than a poem is mitigated by going off topic. I know what I have done to light a fire inside myself this Christmas has been meager, incomplete and shallow. I have not experienced a divine dream or another life-altering moment of connection to God tonight. Admittedly, my story bears few parallels to Mary’s – I have no children, no family. I am no saint. However, I am harmonizing with some of the best themes of the season: I overflow with deep peace, love and gratitude at this particular moment – and for me, inside this cold, dark winter’s night, with my mortality writ upon my sagging face, life feels for all the world like it is just beginning.

— And with those words, my iPad’s battery died.

I am uploading this on Christmas. I still do not have power, my face still does not work. It is cold and I stink on my third day without a shower. I feel more alone than ever, more anxious about what has frozen in the studio, but I am also swimming with gratitude and joy at being alive. Merry Christmas!

Thanksgiving

i spent Thanksgiving with a dear friend and her family.  While the food was so good it was nearly a religious experience and the chance to be in another environment filled me with excitement, the thing i was most grateful for was watching this family in action.

An abundance of love flourishes within these walls.  All members of this family interact with each other in sublime safety and comfort. They have survived troubles, all while staying together. Even when the children tease each other, there remains a deep sense of kindness underneath. This past summer, i wrote about witnessing similar belonging and contentment within a group of sisters, but this experience has been just as reassuring.  Indeed, i have known this family for years and the same feelings that were evoked on Thanksgiving had were abundant in previous visits.  i watched them open their home to more than just me – they included others in their celebration with absolute acceptance.  The deep compassion they have for their elders left me awed. My friend, in particular, filled me with gratitude as i watched how she took care of everyone within these walls. She moved through this house like a focused hurricane.  No need went unmet.

Her maternal love felt tangible –  a force of nature. As her husband said, their children are their pride and joy – with the full depth of Truth in his voice.  Even though their daughters are nearly adults, they still come to Mom and Dad for hugs. She and her husband remain deeply in love, something impossible to hide even if they wanted to try.

This glimpse into the daily life of this family has left me filled with contentment.  Life is never without difficulty, nor should a completely smooth existence be the goal, and these friends are as we all are, beautifully imperfect, but it is nice to know sometimes humans have the capacity to get love right.

 

Pieces of loneliness – Prophet and prayer

Today i have done very little but write.

Yesterday, despite feeling wretched, i rearranged my living room again.  My desktop – my last fully functioning computer – had to be moved out of the Studio last fall so that it would not be damaged by dust.  For the past year, i’ve been trying to keep the integrity of a living room while making the space as writing friendly as possible.  Well, i finally gave up on that balancing act.  i’ve been doing too much writing and i am sure to do even more over the winter.  After i made a little writer’s nest for myself in the corner, i started writing. Until the wee hours of the morning, i was typing out more of the strange little story about a girl named Rosemary.  Unexpectedly, one of the main characters died – for some reason this disturbed my dog enough that he got up, huffed at me, and walked out of the room to sleep somewhere else – probably because surprise exploded out of me.  When i woke up this morning, feeling better but still far from good, i decided that i could spend the day being a writer – which means i could take it fairly easy physically.

At any rate, after i worked more on Rosemary’s story and wrote a few poems, i started editing Pieces of Loneliness again.  i have already put up two recordings of chapters – Orbit and Vacuum.  Now, i will present two more.  Pieces of loneliness work mixes fiction and non-fiction, poetic prose and essay. These two chapters show how these different styles work together. Prophet is completely fictional (i wish it were read by a man, since the main character is male, but hopefully you can put up with my voice reading it); whereas Prayers traces a day when i was making seventy-two ceramic intentions.

Alas, but audio files are too big to upload here, so i provide you with the links.

Prophet

Prayers

Here’s the link to my website, if you want to hear more prose.