31 July 2009

Men, Part 1

There is a school of thought that suggests the high frequency of violence among New Orleans' young black men is the result of a confused understanding about the meaning of "man," of what it means or takes to be a "man." I would re-frame it as a variety of" identity crisis". Neither label speaks to the spiritual aspect. And there is ALWAYS a spiritual aspect.

I am the mother of a man. This great life experience was -- and sometimes still is -- a powerful teacher. At the time of my life when my son was born, human males were a gargantuan, gut-wrenching, mind-fuck mystery to me.

As a child, boys had been fascinating and scary to me. I avoided them and at the same time, in my secret heart, longed for them. My closest encounters with them occurred in sixth grade, which was also the year my parents found "dirty" cartoons in my school bag. I don't remember being personally confronted about them; only my mother making one of her legendary "trips to school" on a dark, rainy morning...and a replacement teacher appearing a few weeks later to finish the school year.

Middle school was... Well, in middle school boys and girls were kept separate with rigorous vigilance by school administrators and teachers: Home Ec versus Shop, Girls PE and Boys PE (I assume they had PE; I never saw the uniform the boys wore for PE or saw them in class....Did they have PE?) I had a couple of male friends from orchestra. Those boys were different from the rest of the boys. Easier to talk to. Not so coarse.

Brainy boys weren't coarse either but they weren't easy to talk to. They often had highly under-developed social skills. Whether it was math or science, their obsession or prowess had been apparent since they were little boys and there was still no getting through to them socially. They were the brunt of jokes not only because of strange physical or behavioral traits, e.g., a queer haircut or picking their nose and examining the product; but also because humans are animals -- especially children -- and so their shyness and social immaturity drew alpha dogs to dominate them.

In high school, dating became a central and defining component of the culture: on one side were the kids who dated and "went together" and broke up and attended Prom and exchanged jewelry or clothing. On the other side, where I lived, were the kids who did not date. Some were budding lesbians or gay men. Some hadn't reached the developmental stage where such things mattered at all.

I had a few male friends. Mostly they were gay. Or they were smart. Or they were musical. Or some or all of the above. Charlie Ellis was a special case. Larry Basham was a special case. (The details of those two relationships are best reserved for discussion at another time.) In all cases, they were all male and consequently profound mysteries to me but at least we could talk.... Unlike the guys on the Dating side of the divide.

My son's gift to me was an opportunity to relate and observe a male in an intimate ongoing setting. The mystery deepened but the ongoing intimacy of our relationship also permitted/nurtured an appreciation of the common ground of maleness and femaleness.

For a long time now, my address book reveals more male contacts than female. This intrigues me. Males are still mysterious but in a different way: their strangeness is more familiar to me though the motivation behind some of the strangeness remains baffling. Yes, each man I know is uniquely himself. And, there are recurring behaviors, outlooks, propensities, etc. that I've come to identify as "typical male." Perceived sometimes with amused affection, and sometimes with teeth-clenched frustration.

Some of my insight has come from experiences as an erotic dominant. The arrangement has never provided the completeness of sexual satisfaction that I continue to dream of; but it has been rich and fun and educational. In a list of "Best Times Ever," a substantial number would include sexual dominance/submission. And in the consensual vulnerability between a dominant and her submissive, a lot of pretense and self-protective defensiveness (offensiveness) can melt away. I get a look at what he fears, loves, longs for, remembers, regrets, aspires to....

It is a spiritual thing.

Does anybody have that kind of access to the hearts and minds of young black males, here in New Orleans or anywhere? What do they fear, love, long for, remember, regret, aspire to?

Yesterday my catty-corner neighbor, a 40-something Black guy, said for many boys their self-esteem is so "fragile" (my word) that it takes a gun to protect it. That makes sense to me. But, assuming this is an undesirable psychology, what's the solution? Where and how does one instruct and transform the situation?

27 July 2009

The Poem

So one part of today's lesson is "Thank God for friends".

Another part is: you must ask for what you really want (Rumi).

And the last part is: Bill is an angel.

Here's the poem I wanted to post with yesterday's blog entry.

Recognitions by Irving Feldman

Not the God, though it might have been
savoring some notion of me
and exciting the cloud where he was hidden
with impetuous thunderstrokes of summoning
-it was merely you who recognized me,
speaking my name in such a tone
I knew you had been thinking it
a long, long time, and now revealed yourself
in this way. Because of this, suddenly who
I was was precious to me.

Now I can never lose it again....

26 July 2009

To Be Known

About a week ago, a new friend recommended OKCupid, a social networking site that places more emphasis on matchmaking than Facebook but less than Match.com. It's a fun site with its focus on tests and surveys, playful sense of humor and diversity of methods by which to make contact with other members. The "staff robot" searches for people who might make good friends or lovers and delivers them to the user's "Quiver" for consideration, listing "Match", "Friend", and "Enemy" percentages to the right of the harvested member's photograph.

Some of the matches delivered to me so far have been very interesting people. Their voices in the narratives on their Profile pages are strong and intelligent and open. I really imagine I am perceiving the minds and souls of these people. Like this one--

I'm very warm and compassionate but intensely intelligent and curious. I prize people who are self-aware and self-honest. I want to understand everything but am really baffled by the human race. Nature makes the most sense to me, I am a wilderness kind of person. I love literature, poetry, philosophy and making music.

--from a woman who lives right here in New Orleans. I want to meet this person. I dropped her a line

Subject: I would like to meet you

Would you like to meet?

There's a lot I want to say in response to the self-description in your Profile but I'd like to see if you're listening or interested before I "launch".

If you decide you'd rather not meet, please accept my sincere best wishes for your life. I'm glad you're on the planet.

It was easy to write her because, just from reading her profile, I felt somewhat acquainted with her. She was familiar to me. I understood her words and I also felt something more of her between and behind the lines.

For a month before I learned about OKCupid, my experience at eHarmony had not been as positive. There is a sterility and blandness about eHarmony that feels somehow "Mormon" to me. But disguised. Like Dick Cheney in a Hawaiian shirt.

In an effort to preserve the utmost privacy for subscribers, eHarmony maintains a negotiator-gatekeeper role through the open stages of communication between members/matches. For me the resulting separation between my "match" and me has left me feeling frustratingly distant and powerless.

In addition, the delivered matches are...well, they're not matches. I have closed 71 matches: 18 because I felt no chemistry while reading their Profile; 53 because they never responded to my initial communication. I give them 2 weeks and then close the file. How can an unresponsive man be a good match for woman for whom communication is the first rule? It's a deal breaker and I indicated this in every way possible when I registered at the site.

I feel no familiarity with these men as I read their Profiles. They hunt and play golf and train dogs. They are 5'7" and never read and God has been the most important person in their life. They never drink. Their Profiles do not include a photograph and they are uncommunicative online. It seems a very long journey to make a friendship, let alone a marriage, with most of these guys.

Out of the blue, a brief, cryptic email from SG landed in my email box two days ago. Steve G. My first boyfriend. About 34 years since I last heard from him. The cryptic email mentioned something about Facebook and I was prompted to reactivate my account there. Ah, Facebook. They don't even pretend to be a dating site. Their mission is to help me "connect and share with the people in [my] life." It's a strange space: where I can feel both invisible and over-exposed at the same time. Where someone's attempt to "connect and share" with me can feel like an invasion of privacy.

Or like a gift.

A few friends quickly fired "welcome back" messages and that felt good. Steve's request for friendship was waiting for me and I granted it. A recent thumbnail photo of him appeared alongside the request. Who is that man? I thought. Perhaps in a larger image I would have seen some trace of "My First Love" in that face but he just looked like a middle-aged white guy yesterday.

This morning he wrote a longer message. But for awhile yesterday, as I pondered the first mysterious email and could make nothing of it and my brain frantically sought meaning, tried to translate or decipher or intuit the mind and heart behind the words.

My emotional clock rolled back 37 years and I was 17 years old again and in love with a boy. I remember how lost and drowning I felt in the relationship. My self esteem was much lower then and I desired more than anything to be what he wanted. I thought if I became exactly what he wanted, he would love me forever. But I couldn't figure out what he wanted and he couldn't tell me what he wanted.

It was hell: but being 17 and naive and inexperienced (and having watched too many Hollywood movies and heard too much popular song and spent too many years in church...) I thought Love was suffering.

The intensity of the fear, abasement and need that washed over me yesterday was surprising. After all these years! Whoa! I thought. "What was that?!" I think it was the last gasp of The Girl Who Loved Steve.

It helped that this morning's email was addressed to "Dearest Donna Maria," my birth name. A name that no longer rings even a distant bell of identification in me. The greeting distinguished Then from Now with crystal clarity.


A young friend of mine doesn't see the point of marriage, whether formal or common law. She views attempts to form lasting partnerships as unnatural, running counter to the innate and pervasive fickleness of human nature. When she told me, I jumped into a response argument without first shaping it completely in my mind. She remained unconvinced at the end of the conversation.

I want to relate the yearning for commitment to reaching a certain age or a universal hunger for something boundless or for some persistent certainty but I couldn't put it into words.


I wasn't allowed to see "They Shoot Horses Don't They" when it first ran in 1969; but from the trailers, I knew it was about a marathon. The concept fascinated me because I sensed a potential for stripping away pretensions and defenses.

I fantasized about marathons for years after the film was released. The facade of personality finally penetrated, shattered, worn down! Nothing left but the bare, unadorned essence of the person! The ecstasy for me was not about being relieved of the weight of pretense; the exhilaration came from the warm gaze of the Other on my exhausted innocence, from finally being seen.

And that -- the yearning to be known, to be seen -- is probably the prima materia of all my dreams of love. It fed my desire for Steve 37 years ago. And sparked my decision to cancel my eHarmony membership. It's there when I step onto a stage to play or sing or speak. And it inspires me when I write. Here. For you.

Note: There is a beautiful poem by Irving Feldman called "Recognition" that belongs at the head of this post. It seems I cannot hold onto the poem. I first saw it in The New Yorker magazine and clipped it and taped it into the journal I kept at the time.

Of course, that journal is lying in a storage unit in CA and I am in New Orleans. Twice in the almost-five years since locking the storage unit, I've craved the poem strongly enough to contact the New Yorker and request a copy. And twice they've complied.

And twice I've misplaced the poem--storing it on a computer that didn't belong to me or inadvertently deleting the email containing it.

I wrote to them again tonight and if/when it comes I'll post it here.

19 July 2009

The New Place

Artist: James S. Copeland [www.artnsanity.com/Nudes.htm]

Things are very good. Life gets like this sometime: everything I want comes to me.

I live in the Bywater neighborhood now, where I've wanted to live for a long time. For a few days, I fought anxiety about no grocery store in proximity...and strained financial resources...and running out of time to finish plans for the workshop I'm leading next month in New England.

But four new piano students have appeared in the first two weeks and a music store is opening about 4 blocks from my front porch. A friend introduced me to a great little warehouse market in easy biking distance.

Last weekend I got a call from a musician I met months ago at the old
Spotted Cat (I can never remember the new name....I'm pouting....too much has changed). The night we met, he was playing this crazy, energetic, 20s-era stuff. Really exciting and fun.

At the break, he bummed a cigarette and we talked about duets and piano music generally and I gave him my number. He came over Tuesday morning. An amazingly talented young man. I hope I see him again.

Artist: Undine CG

It's that New Orleans "lazy fair" thing again: to thrive in this place you have to get out of the house, and open your heart and soften your gaze.

A growing sense of imminence wafts through my life now. Like Summer of '77 in Bloomington, IN.

...a friend and I walked through a night falling so gently on Dunn Meadow; it looked like a velvet commons where fairies might appear at any moment. The sky was dark blue enamel flecked with diamond chips. With no soundtrack playing, the world was breaking my heart with its beauty that night.

And I knew something was up. Could feel it. Like I was walking through the set in a holographic dictionary for the word "imminent." I told my friend I'd never felt so saturated with possibility.

A day or two later I discovered I was pregnant.

Pregnancy is not the promise this time but the shimmery quality of the last few weeks is like fairies giggling from their hiding places along my life route. What's up?

05 July 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

I watched "Wilde" last night, Brian Gilbert's biographic film on the life of Oscar Wilde. Actually I've been watching it for two days. My ear doesn't track English accents well so it takes several listenings to grasp dialogue.

Beyond that, the story sparked deep resonance in me for reasons not immediately apparent. Watching the film, sleeping and dreaming on it, walking around with the story inside me for a few days and, now, writing about it is an attempt to understand what's going on with me...

I'm still apartment hunting. It's hard work because the gap between the way spaces are described in ads and the reality of their condition and location is huge in New Orleans. It's hard because it's god-awful hot right now and I'm mostly making my way via public transportation. (In my dream of New Orleans, all bus stops are situated either under a shady tree or a shelter; and buses run on time.)

It's hard because the market rate for air-conditioned apartments that don't leak and aren't located in blighted neighborhoods exceeds my regular monthly income.

And it's hard because I'm in denial. Or have been. From time to time, as a girl, something would catch my fancy -- like traveling to Africa or learning to play the harp or throwing a Sweet 16 party -- and my mother would chuckle and say "You've got champagne taste and a beer budget," meaning my dream or desire was unrealistic and unattainable.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

But I believe my dreams were byproducts of the classical piano lessons and ballet classes, the Sunday afternoons at symphony concerts and art galleries, the instruction in poise and etiquette that filled the days of my formative years. These activities fostered champagne dreaming.

And they have a lot to do with who I am, what I desire, what I believe is possible, today.

My family's middle-class values isolated us somewhat in the small town where I grew up. "Who do they think they are?" was a common retort by residents of the housing project up the street or the neglected, dirt-lawn homesteads in the vicinity. We were "aspiring" and they were not.

I still aspire: one the one hand, to overcome my middle-class sensibilities. To not care about possessions or status or security. Moving into my present address, I thought "No one in my family would ever consider living in a house or a neighborhood like this." It seemed a triumph of sorts that I would consider it and attempt it.

On another hand, aspiring to live as a dreamer in a culture where having a plan, saving for tomorrow, locking the doors, not looking foolish and avoiding mistakes are paramount.

It is my dreamer aspect that empathized so strongly with the Wilde film. Blinded by his infatuation with a beautiful boy and aspiring to not only live by his ideals but to educate the world, to lift the grimy mundane masses and enable them to see what he saw, he pursued legal protest against an accusation of sodomy issued by the beautiful boy's father. The protest ended badly: two years of imprisonment and hard labour that destroyed his health, family and career. He died less than three years after his release -- penniless, far from home and alone.

The film omits any mention of Wilde's post-prison reflections on his life. Did he have regrets? Did he see the world and himself differently? Did he change his ways?

Is everyone like me: desiring to see myself clearly so I can make choices in keeping with my true nature? How deep and wide is my courage of conviction? I readily confess now that although I can live in relative squalor, the discomfort costs me. I have bad dreams and I complain and, sometimes, I cry. I confess that eating and sleeping and walking and working in high heat is taking its toll.

I confess that moving to the beat of a different drum, swimming against the tide, is exhausting. On balance, I am grateful for my life, unswerving in my commitment to my calling; but, as Wilde discovered, the body can suffer tremendously in the process of staying true to ones ideals.

It is no one's fault; there is simply an incompatibility between the World as constructed by the unconscious consensus of the majority and the envisioned World of those who dwell, as I do, along the margins of the "bell curve."

Those inside the curve (or trying to be) offer me a hand from time to time. Most recently, it was suggested that including criteria like space for my piano and on-site laundry in my search for lodging is small-minded. "You can always put your piano in a studio and teach off-site. And you can take a taxi to do laundry," my acquaintance suggested.

I always pass on good advice. It's the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself. ~Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, 1895

Clearly my acquaintance is champagne dreaming and disregarding my current beer budget. But is there an ounce of useful information hiding inside her otherwise useless advice? In the film, a close friend begs Wilde to abandon his mission seeking legal recourse. He knew that society would not, could not hear the "different drummer" that guided Wilde's life but Wilde disregarded his friend's advice and pressed on.

Artist: Chris Ofili “No Woman No Cry” (1998)

So we are born and are shaped over time by external and internal forces. A mysterious and amazing process, these forces are inextricably interdependent. And, voila, a person is created. A person who can never clearly discern or analyze the forces that created her. A person with some measure of power to change and direct the forces within and without her.

There's Oscar Wilde. And then there's Dolly Parton (see clip at the foot of the page) who has apparently stayed true to her desires and created a comfortably livable life.

How much power and influence do I have? Those motivational speakers who swear it's all up to me are lying.

What story is being told through my Life?

I desire the answers to these questions. I desire some relief from this heat. I desire affordable housing where my piano is not considered a liability (and the landlord is not despicable).

Are such desires a recipe for bondage, disappointment and ruin?

"When in Rome....." is only feasible to a point. Doesn't the Nigerian in Rome remain a Nigerian no matter how adept s/he is at assimilation?