17 December 2013

Wondering on the Eve

in utero wp editionby scissors-hands
Fifty-nine years ago Now 
I was curled inside my mother's womb on the brink of farewell to the only Home I'd ever known. Soon to breathe in a way I'd never known. I had no idea of the journey that awaited. I had no ideas. 
Or words.
I was warm and wet in the womb sojourn. No night no day no wondering.
I am wondering Now
was the womb the first sojourn. Where was I before that place?
I am wondering about the brink where I rest Now and the journey that awaits.
Perhaps I have no idea. Only words.
A conspiracy beyond me moved me into this unknown world.
And I'm wondering.

13 December 2013

Have You Heard the One....

I was a little worried yesterday:  There are too many Sojourner in the 21st Century (SITC) posts now to remember exactly what I've said in each. What if I repeat myself?

I abandoned the worry (and, if you know me at all, you know this was easily accomplished) by reducing the issue to its plainest, simplest terms:  I am afraid of writing/saying something I've written/said before. My assumption is that you desire and (require?) something "new" each time you visit my blog and my fear is that you will stop reading (e.g., stop loving me) if I fail to fulfill that desire.

The easiest way to avoid repeating myself is to stop blogging.  This is not a viable option since a) I want to keep blogging; and b) not blogging (i.e., disappearing from view) definitely puts the kibosh on receiving your love...

A more complicated, time-and-labor-intensive strategy would be to re-read SITC from the beginning, creating an index of topics, keywords, images, etc. as I go and then to consult said index before publishing any future posts.  

There's a good chance such an index will eventually be created since I am contemplating transforming the blog into a book; but it hasn't happened yet and, honestly, I am not willing to postpone additional blog posts until such an index is created. I'm just not....

But perhaps my assumption that you want something new every time you visit is incorrect.

Or it might be that even if I repeat myself, you won't stop loving me (or at least reading me). In which case the worry, as is often true, is unnecessary, a waste of psychic time and energy.

I'm pretty sure I've told you the story of my friendship with Laura. That friendship ended -- she chose to walk away -- when I said I doubted we would be forever friends or close friends because our value systems were so very different. I was speaking from what I knew and believed at that point in time. It sounds naive and ignorant to me today but it really was the way I looked at things then.

I thought about Laura yesterday after spending time with the one and only woman in Holly Springs who I call "friend". On the one hand, I am immensely grateful to have a friend in this town. We have some things in common -- including both being aspiring writers and both being transplants to MS from northern states.

On the other hand, we are very different from each other:  I am inclined to value my own counsel above all others -- sometimes recklessly so -- where she is more inclined to base her choices on social convention and diplomacy. In a controversy, I look first at the heart and soul of a person and she more often looks first at the impact and influence of race and politics on the situation.

As I drove away from her house yesterday, reflecting on some of the territory we covered conversationally, I caught myself thinking "I see limits. We will not be forever or close friends." I was almost immediately aware that I was about to make the same mistake I made with Laura 10 years ago.

Some of the movies and novels I love most hinge on pairings of dissimilar personalities, people who are, on the surface, very different from each other, perhaps irreconcilably so, who go on to become good and solid friends. I feel these stories deep in my soul and enjoy inserting myself into them. Such friendships are big, complex, rich and the participants become bigger and more complex people through them.  

It's not an arrangement that I've seen very often in real life. Mostly I've seen (and experienced) "Oh, so you believe THAT. Well, I believe THIS which makes you wrong and I'm outta here." It happens a lot. Intolerance for difference. Inflexible commitment to a perception of "the right" in a given setting.

I recently shared Voltaire's notion that "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd" with an acquaintance, suggesting that the discomfort and unpleasantness of doubt or "not knowing" is so great that it drives some people to violent conflict or dissolution of relationship. She replied that people who can't see that some things in the realm of human endeavor have been researched and proven to be absolute certainties, should rightly be forsaken; they are impossible and relationship with them is impossible. (Yes, we were talking about religion and the Holy Bible was the archive of "absolute certainties" she offered.)

I'm certain now that I've talked about this before. Maybe some readers realized this early on and stopped reading....and will never return.

Maybe some readers disagree with me (and Voltaire) and the conflict between our perspectives is the final straw -- they stopped reading and will never return. 

There's something in all of this feels like a bottom line of human social interaction. Something that will either be understood and peace will reign or will not be understood and the fighting and breakups will continue. 

Oil and water don't mix but something happens when they come together...

07 December 2013

Winter Birds

The land has taken on the drab colors of winter -- grey and brown and white -- so it's impossible not to notice them when they're in the vicinity. Brilliant bursts of red against the ashen background of winter trees. And it's impossible not to feel some excitement at every noticing. The color startles. Something unabashed and unapologetic about such boldness of hue.

All the more exciting to see two or five or 20 of them, a crowding cloud of cardinals, in the wooded areas to the front and rear of the house for the last several days. "Bustling" is a way to describe their activity:  flying then perching, flying then perching, twittering feathers and swiveling heads while perched, then brief hunt-and-peck missions on the ground-- only a few seconds and purposefully before making quick winged sprints back to bush or fence post. Scarlet flight:  sound in motion. Do cardinals ever sing? They have been quiet the last few days as I stood on the porch smoking but that could be due to my presence. Maybe they sing when I'm away....

No two birds seem to belong together more than the male and female cardinal. They are "birds of a feather" though her pale coloring is a somber echo of his screeching scarlet. They are companions -- so alike in form. In the uncomplicated contrast of their coloring they seem to complete each other.

[Note:  Just went out for a cigarette break and to scatter the crumbs of the last loaf I baked around the yard and on the ground beneath the trees across the street. The cardinals and other winter birds gathered....and I heard the cardinals sing.]

I woke up early today, the pain and distress of missing my son too great to allow sleep. While the coffee pot gurgled, I stood at the front door and watched industrious squirrels harvest and bury the last of the pecans. Cardinals and wrens and chickadees and other birds whose names I don't know scrambled around the bread crumbs. Others in the winged community paced or perched or pecked about on the porch and in the yard, in the bushes and trees on both sides of the street. So much activity!

The cardinals' color expressed my feeling: the bright red a picture of the intensity of my psychic pain, the muted tones of the female a visual representation of the steadfast loneliness I feel.

I think of Sojourner Truth. My identification with her is embedded in every page of this blog. She, too, was a dark-skinned, outspoken woman whose presence and manner frequently provoked antipathy in others. She, too, was regularly counseled to sit down, back off, stop saying what she was saying, stop doing what she was doing. She, too, spent most of her adult life longing for "a room of her own."

And she, too, had a son she loved who was finally lost to her.

I am discovering that there is no escape, no salve, no comfort. All the reasoning and prayer and alcohol in the world is ineffectual, provides no relief. This mother's heart is bound intimately, inextricably and forever to her child. The longing for him is an experience of bearing the unbearable, as though each breath I take might be my last.

My mother and I were estranged for the last 20 years of her life. Poring through her photograph albums last week in FL, snapshots and newspaper clippings of me as a child and a teenager, items she collected before the permanent estrangement kicked in, I wondered:  did she ever look at these things again after she closed her heart to me?  If so, was it painful?

I pondered the contradiction of her refusal to see me or speak to me while preserving a baby book with a lock of my hair preserved in a wax-paper envelope. What did it mean? What does it mean?

A Facebook friend, a woman I've never met, lost her teenage son. He went missing and she later learned he was dead. Her heart aches. Her life aches. We, her virtual community, witness some of the surges of agony. I consider that her pain must be greater than mine -- my son is still alive and I know where he is. I cannot fathom how she stands it.

The ground is frozen. Two days ago, the rain fell steadily for most of the day. That night the temperature began to fall while thunder and lightning enlivened the night. Yesterday temperatures plummeted and anything still wet from the downpour was gradually encased in ice. Today I gaze on a scene of devastating beauty: the gardenia, azalea and forsythia bushes are flattened or nearly so, their branches sheathed in ice. Vines and
grasses, twigs and leaves on the ground wear beards of hoarfrost. Icicles drape the branches of every tree, forming a bright crystal canopy overhead. The great pecan tree on the front lawn whines and groans as it bears the weight of winter.

I gather stray twigs from around the yard and toss them onto a heap of leaves raked to the curb weeks ago (where are those city maintenance teams?). The frozen sprigs make a crisp, crackling sound as they hit the icy pile. Moments later, winter birds flock to the mound, alert to some edible life beneath the surface. They peck and chirp and quarrel. They know something I don't know; they perceive sustenance that is invisible to me. 

I am scratching here, click-click-clicking the keys, clawing my way to break the frozen surface of my grief, to find the warm space of compost underneath, where the promise of Spring -- companion, shadow, echo to the bright red pain of Winter -- sleeps now as larvae and seed.

06 December 2013

Goodbye Nelson

When I heard (read on Facebook) the news that Nelson was dead, my first thought was "The King is dead." His was an undeniably gigantic life.

The weather here turned crazy last night:  rain, rain and more rain, cold, lightning and thunder. I couldn't sleep. Sat up until almost 5 a.m. reading about Mandela. This article from the New York Times, Nelson Mandela, South Africa's Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95, is comprehensive and full of things I didn't know about the man.

Born and raised as royalty. Given the name Rolihlahla -- which translates to "the trouble maker." The son of an African chief who was stripped of his authority by the British occupiers for "insubordination." There were strong clues from the very beginning that Rolihlahla's life would be large. I wondered as I read the bio, what does that kind of life feel like? It must surely include bouts with a bad cold and misplaced keys and all the rest of the mundane markers that define any life; but underpinned with royal beginnings and an unshakeable commitment to securing the freedom of your fellow citizens, maybe even bad colds are a different kind of experience.

He was a man. Married three times. I think about the wives. I think about the courtships and the first sexual explorations with each of those women. I wonder "What did he like? What turned him on? What kind of a lover was he?" Did his identities as royal progeny and "trouble maker" define his sexual appetites as significantly as they did his political and professional life?

The "shadow side" of Mandela's life:  the breakups with wives, the conflicts within the ANC and elsewhere in the political arena, the phase of violent militancy...documented but hardly seem to have mattered to the millions who revered him. Because they/we didn't know about the shadow or because they were insignificant when compared to the great accomplishments? Most of the shadow revealed in the NY Times obit was new for me. I always assume the imperfection of every human, great or small; and, short of meeting a celebrated human like Nelson Mandela face-to-face and hanging out with him for a season, I accept as fact that I do not know them. I cannot see them clearly; their greatness and shadow are offered to me through the distorted lens of reports by "the media." I don't for a moment take these reports to be "the truth."

As always, coordination of the funeral, memorials, tributes, etc. now become the focus of those who survive Mr. Mandela. From the top levels of government where issues of security, protocol, transportation and staging are paramount, to the crowded mid-tier where family and friends will wrestle with who gets what and who sits where -- we move now into Act Three (Act One being his journey into the limelight and Act Two the work and fruition of themes and missions introduced in Act One), which will be of only slightly less historical significance.

My preoccupation, as ever, is with the nitty-gritty realities of the players in Act Three:  President Zuma, Winnie, the clarinetists in the military band, the maintenance workers who will clean-up after the final post-death event. I want to hear the story of the 9-year-old daughter of the undertaker who finds a battered signed copy of Long Walk to Freedom on her father's desk a week after the Mandela funeral; or the maid who cleans Oprah Winfrey's hotel room the morning she returns to the U.S. Or the rest of the Nelson Mandela story that will never be written in history books.

05 December 2013

Back...and Forth

Ebb and Flow   Photographer:  Matt Tilghman
I read somewhere recently that scientists are still in search of answers to why we remember, the biological imperatives for memory, a complete organic and chemical mapping of the process of remembering. Under different circumstances and provided appropriate prompts, I might have joined their ranks and made the investigation my life's work. Memory has intrigued me for a very long time.

It is fascinating, for example, how a perfectly lovely day can be negatively impacted by the sight of a woman wearing a dress like one my 2nd grade teacher wore on the day of some classroom crisis, an event that slept unobserved in my mind for decades. Where is such a memory stored in the mind and why is it stored? Why don't we remember everything? Or do we, in fact, remember everything but only have access to particular memories?

"Ebb and Flow #8 (from the Ebb and Flow series). Drawing. Artist:  Doug Russell
Over Thanksgiving, in my sister G______'s Tallahassee home, my pulse and breathing commenced the rhythms of anguish as I noticed the photographs scattered throughout the house on walls and bookshelves:  various groupings of my mother and siblings and grandmother, shot in an array of locations and events. I do not appear in any of them. Looking at the photos, memories were evoked although the pictures depict times and spaces I  never visited, Memory and emotion swirled and swelled with enough force to affect my heart rate and bring tears to my eyes.

I stood alone before these images and felt the loneliness and yearning of a lifetime, while echoes of voices and music clamored and collided in my mind's ear.

Several large cardboard boxes sit in my sister's dining room. They contain photographs and other memorabilia from my mother and maternal grandmother's lives. By G____'s report, the boxes have been largely untouched since they were deposited in their place against the wall. The project to sort and distribute these sentimental artifacts has not advanced. "Oh, you go ahead and take care of it," has been the response of visiting family members.

A motivation for my Thanksgiving visit this year -- my first visit in almost 8 years -- was to assist in the sort-and-distribute project. With quickened pulse and trembling hands, I jumped in on Day Two. As I worked, it occurred to me:  perhaps in my position/role as "outsider" I have an fortitude that makes the task less painful than it is for the "insiders." Or, my pain is of a different kind.

There are few things I enjoy more than standing smack dab in the middle of a jumbled mess and being charged with creating order. As I worked, my fondness for organization would rule...and then be obliterated by a flood of heartache and memory....then rise again and fill me with pleasure and inspiration as the design of workable system emerged. What drives that fluctuating flow? Instantaneously, gripped by a wave of heartache, I lost the sharp focus and bright-burning creative energy that moments before had my fingers flying on the keyboard as I entered data into my spreadsheet. I felt heavy, my hands lay thick and lifeless in my lap. I stared at the photographs...into the eyes of people who love me but would rather not be around me.

In the present moment -- the here and now where I am real, where I have body and mind -- contemplating "back then" -- photographed worlds where I do not appear, existing only as a memory in the minds of the people who do appear, my vitality is sacrificed when painful remembering surges.

I want my vitality. How to not remember....  Or how to become stronger than Memory.

01 December 2013

The Surface of Things

Day Four of a visit at my sister's home in Tallahassee FL. There is truly "no place like home." The psychic characteristics of Family zones, are so distinct; there must be a setting on the holodeck.... The alteration to reality that I experience in the company of my family is unique and mysterious.

As a young adult, whenever I returned "home" for a visit, a violent headache would set in a few miles outside the city limits. The phenomenon was predictable as daybreak and I never traveled home without Excedrin (and, in later years, Aleve) in my backpack.  Growing up, I was "the child who has headaches," but once I left home the headaches stopped...except during journeys home.

After the Big Argument of 1998 during a "family reunion" in Lake Tahoe, I was persona non grata and did not visit parents or siblings for awhile. Short of telephone conversations once or twice a year with my sister G____, there was essentially no contact between me and my family.

When my mother died in 2012, after a prolonged illness that had been kept secret from me, I was formally disowned by my siblings.  After a couple weeks, G_____ emailed an apology for her emotional over-reaction and we have attempted reconciliation by telephone from then until now. The repair of the relationship rests solidly on not-talking about the wounds and not asking questions. The taboo topics are tacitly understood and, with a few accidents on my part, the peace has held in the silence.

The silence and masking have been stressful for me. I didn't realize how much until last night. We went together to see "The Book Thief" and I believe its exploration of themes like death and forgiveness, honesty and honor (to name a few) affected me, stirred the deep waters. I was quiet enough on the ride home for G____ to remark "Are you tired?" "Maybe a little," I answered. "Mostly just thinking about the movie." She thought the film was too long and had no plot.  I found it moving and profoundly relevant to our family -- but I did not say so.

Hans Memling, Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara
(Detail), early 1480s; oil on wood.
I suffered last night:  headache, indigestion and despair. I felt untethered and flawed...and exhausted. This morning, I perceive my conflict with my family as a clash of cultures. I was born predisposed to inquire and analyze and plumb the depths, into a tribe committed to the preservation of smooth surfaces. Where they strive to maintain a beautiful, undisturbed lawn that matches the beautiful, undisturbed lawns of every other house on the street toward securing social harmony, I am inclined to turn the soil to see what lies beneath; to plant vegetables wherever there is sunlight--even in places deemed inappropriate by social convention; to delight in the surprise of things growing where they will, the emergence of weeds and worms and mysterious blooms.

My sister lives in a large, well-appointed house. This morning on TV, Oprah is interviewing "an expert" on spirituality.  Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" is mentioned and I make a note to re-read it. The set furnishings look very much like my sister's living room and the discussion in the interview sounds like the discourse in the books of my library. My sister is riveted to the screen, listening to strangers speak openly about things we do not discuss in my family. I am wondering what she makes of it...

20 November 2013

The Eroding Common Ground

Sam Harris' recent blog post, The High Cost of Tiny Lies, set me thinking. As you may have noticed, Honesty and Lying are big issues for me and sit near the top of my list of "most visited sites."  Harris says
We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions...and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust.
and I agree. You may recall Adrienne Rich's eloquent essay "Women and Honor:  Some Notes on Lying," posted here in its entirety six years + one day ago (... perhaps my "thing" about lies and honesty has a cyclical momentum?) in which she says
To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship, ...leads one to feel a little crazy.
Leaving for now a precise defining of "personal relationship," consider this:

You and I spend five minutes together, during which time we enact the ritual rhetorical "How are you?/I'm fine and you?" (though, in fact, you are heartsick about your husband's gambling addiction and I am desperately lonely), you say "So good to see you. You look great!" (though, in fact, you are reading pain and distress in my face and posture) and I say "Thanks! We ought to get together more often..." (though, in fact, I have assiduously avoided contacting you, illogically fearing that your family's misfortunes might contaminate my life.)

I don't deny the possible individual comfort we may each derive merely from sharing space for a few minutes. My question is:  how is the spiritual solvency, the honor and integrity of our relationship served by this interaction? Do we know each other better? Is the friendship deepened? Have we added a brick to the foundation on which our "friendship" rests? We tenderly exchanged some pretty....little...lies. We could say no one was hurt in the exchange; and yet, I see this as an example of that "corrosive" effect Harris mentions. I walk away from such an interaction trusting people and myself a little less.

The webs we weave with our pretty little lies can be viewed as trap or protective cocoon or safety net. It's been argued that without pretty little lies, society would fall apart (whatever that means...). But the liar who seeks to conceal her vulnerability from the world, to be perceived as Strong and Happy and Normal, is trapped by her lies on the afternoon when a personal disaster (the legendary "rain" that must fall in every life) and she needs a shoulder to cry on. And what comfort or protection is a security blanket woven from the mendacious assertion that the U.S is "the greatest nation on Earth....everybody wants to be us" in the face of "their" protests, escalating in volume and violence, that "No You Aren't & No We Don't"?

The Harris piece was also noteworthy for taking on the Santa Claus question, something that came up annually for me when I was raising my son.

I never indulged the Santa Claus myth with him, i.e., gifts didn't come from Santa, they came from me and Nana and other people who loved him. Santa was like Little Bear and The Transformers and other entertaining imaginary entities vividly evoked in literature and popular culture. They exist -- just not in the corporeal realm (although you will run into real people in costume -- just part of the fun.)

I heard more than once that by choosing to be "honest" about Santa I was inflicting psychological wounds that would never heal. (Note: I admit the jury is still out on that one. There is an unmistakable "rage against ______" energy in evidence in my adult son. Maybe that's my fault?)

Rich says that while the liar may claim she is lying to protect her friend's feelings, she is actually thinking of herself. She is trying to control how she is perceived by her friend and others. But I was actually thinking of myself when I told my son the truth about Santa:  I just didn't feel up to the work of maintaining the deception. (My mother held it up as further proof of my "laziness" and there's some "truth" in that.)

All of which relates, for me, in some way to the follow-up correspondence and interactions between the founder of the Oxford writing group (discussed here recently in The Lonely Writer) and me. I've received two or three additional email messages from her and she also attended a presentation I gave a few weeks ago at a local UU church and approached me afterwards. In writing and in person, without making a forthright accusation, she has referenced a distinction she makes between "aggressive honesty" and "assertive honesty". As she sees it, the well-adjusted person seeks " to be assertive - expressing what I need or feel in a way that is honest yet not threatening to the hearer."

It's a lovely goal. For me, however, the challenge of taking responsibility for someone else's feelings, making sure they are never threatened by anything I say or do, is daunting. I'm up for the work of scrupulously monitoring my own intentions (admitting I fall short sometimes), keeping tabs on the motivations underlying my words and actions and apologizing when I inadvertently step on toes. To be honest...I don't believe my telepathic, intuitive and psychic abilities are adequate to the "higher math" assignment of calculating in advance how anyone -- close friends or casual acquaintances -- will interpret or respond to my words, actions, choice of attire, etc.

In an interesting twist, which I pray is the last scene in this saga that has grown tiresome to me, she sent an email reflecting on the last gathering of the writers and its aftermath. The correspondence included several misstatements/lies/discrepancies and I wrote a response, attempting to correct the errors.

Turns out I was inadvertently included in the Recipient list for that email. She responded, in part:
I did not mean to cc you on the earlier email, it was a mistake. I'm sorry to have disturbed you. I wish you all the best, Alex.
I would be happy to discuss the things that concerned me during your critique of my work, but I don't think this interests you.
May God Bless you with His Very Best,
Ironically, this woman's "niceness" and "assertive honesty" feel like pretty little lies to me. She wasn't "happy" about what she calls my "critique" (which consisted of asking her if "N-word" was written that way in the original piece she read or if "nigger" was spelled out in the essay and she used "N-word" to be polite around me, the only person of color in the circle) and I don't believe she'd be happy discussing that critique with me now, two months after the interaction in question. I do feel "a little crazy" every time we interact. I have reached a point of certainty that no matter how much compassion and empathy I might summon from the depths of tenderness in me, if I continued this discussion honestly, she would see it as an act of aggression. 

And so, no hard feelings (some exasperation but no animosity) I bid her an honest and less-than-fond farewell.
John William Godward (1861-1922)
A Fond Farewell

We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions—such as the poetic license I took at the beginning of this article—and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust. - See more at: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-high-cost-of-tiny-lies#sthash.dlImOONY.dpuf
We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions—such as the poetic license I took at the beginning of this article—and seemingly tiny lies that damage trust. - See more at: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-high-cost-of-tiny-lies#sthash.dlImOONY.dpuf

14 November 2013

Spoiler? The Film or the Society?

It's been a week...

Sunday morning I overslept and drove 100 mph to Oxford to present on "Playtime in the Real World" at the Unitarian Universalist church.  The presentation went well. Two of the women from the writer's group were in attendance, including the one I discussed a few posts ago in The Lonely Writer. (More later, perhaps, on that encounter...)

Sunday night I met C_________'s flight in Memphis and, with only minutes to spare, we drove over to catch the 7:00 p.m. showing of "12 Years a Slave" at the Malco theater. As we approached the ticket booth, his brother was exiting the theater in the company of his date. A sweet little coincidence. Hugs and 'hellos' all around. "Did you see...," I began. "Yes!" they responded in chorus, the brother with a smile and the date with a stricken expression. "Just 'over the top'!" she gasped.

Chuckling, brother tried to shush her. "Don't ruin it for them.  Enough said..." She was beside herself and repeated, "Just...over...the...top!"

Her reaction confused me:  I'd seen one or two promo trailers for the film, many months ago, and anticipated a restrained, PBS-style docudrama based on a true story. How does a docudrama go "over the top"?

Brother added something like "It's good but it's heavy."


Four days after seeing the film, I am still struggling to find words to describe the film and my reactions to it. There is an undeniable heaviness but there's nothing "good" about this film. All I could say on Facebook the next morning was
Just saw the film 12 Years A Slave. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.....

My reaction was deeply visceral. My stomach churned. My mouth was dry. Anger. Sadness. Mortification. Disgust. I felt duped by the promos. A Google search -- surveying the culture...am I the only one who thinks the film is perverse, dangerous, and artless? --  led me first to the Rotten Tomatoes site. The use of the word "brilliant" in their review triggered a strong fear reaction and the realization that fear had been gurgling beneath all the other reactions since a few minutes into the film.

I don't mean that any of the images on the screen frightened me; I mean that the idea of living among people who could watch the same film and come away saying "brilliant" and "good" frightened me.

I found some relief from my emotional pain and cognitive confusion on Monday -- not my own writing but a superb review of the film by Armond White writing for the New York Film Critics Circle.

Among the passages that say "it" better than I could:
Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history...

For [director] McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features...

...showcasing various injustices...

...torture porn...

...a repugnant experience...

 ...Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
 My "share" of the review on FaceBook spurred lively discussion -- some of it off-thread in private messages. My initial fear was  aggravated to learn of Rev. Otis Moss III who rented three Chicago theaters and transported 700 of "the faithful" to see the film. This African American minister of the United Church of Christ's "study guide" to assist post-film discussion is published on the Huffington Post site. It includes questions like:
The film shows great brutality and beauty. What, in the film, showed you the power and genius of black people?
The painful scene of Patsy being whipped by Solomon puts the audience in the scene with Patsy and Solomon. Why was it important for the filmmaker to show this scene in this manner?
The film shows Northup as a caring husband and father. It is rare to witness Hollywood films portray the image of a Black man as compassionate, sensitive and strong. How does the director show Solomon as a multi-dimensional man who is loving, caring, and committed?

It is profoundly unsettling that people who wouldn't drop a dollar into the hands of a homeless person they passed on the street (for fear they might use it to 'get high') are self-righteous and eager to put 10 times that amount (or more) in the pocket of a filmmaker and industry that regularly get high from the willful manipulation of public sentiment and revision of history for financial gain and celebrity.


Yesterday I talked to a woman who saw the film with her husband and daughter last weekend. She found it disturbing but believes it is an important film that people should see because "unlike Roots, it doesn't sugar-coat the history of slavery in the U.S. It gives us the real story. People need to know the truth."

This is a woman I like. A member of the sizable community of Ph.D.'s living here in Holly Springs. I didn't know where to begin to respond to her. What can I say to a scholar who needs only a "based on a true story" caption at the start to accept a movie as "truth people need to know"?

People Are Strange by Kurmis Meditouja

I'm going back to my cave now.

03 November 2013

Marriage: The Final Frontier

As a single woman who views marriage as one of the Final Frontiers (I have a list...), I followed the link to a blog post entitled Marriage Isn't For You with a little smile on my face. The whole thing -- how and why people choose to do it, what goes on behind the nuptial doors, the ingredients required to produce the courage and confidence to pronounce before witnesses that you want to spend the rest of your life with one particular somebody, how people find each other out of the kazillion possibilities,...not to mention the rationale behind purchasing extremely expensive clothing and paraphernalia that can only be used once -- it's all mysterious to me.

Which is not to say I've never dreamed of having a life partner, as those of you who've read this blog know very well. If there's one drum I beat regularly, it's the "where is my tribe" drum. Most of the time when I've fantasized about the Perfect Commitment, it's involved me and at least two other people. It's not an easy arrangement to create. Even the most adventurous and generous of past partners were highly resistant (at best) or adamantly opposed to the idea once I found the courage to bring it up.

Anyway, the title of the post struck notes of ambiguity and irony in me and I clicked the link with playful curiosity. The blog title, "Seth Adam Smith on a LITERAL odyssey" was promising:  I perceived some resonance between "Sojourner" and "odyssey"... 

I read the opening paragraphs with respectful attention. After I hit the "punchline" -- "...marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy..." -- I was content to skim the rest of the post. "Make someone else happy"?  Well, add that to the list of Things That Mystify Me About Marriage. How in the world do you go about making someone else happy?

As expected, the Comments were not mysterious; just more grist for the People Are Truly Crazy mill. One good thing about the internet:  people are on display in all their unadulterated imperfection. Surfing the waters of cyberspace it makes perfect sense that I've never met anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

01 November 2013

The Lonely Writer

...and so it goes.

"Strike Two" in my search for a writing group in MS that fulfills my desire "to become a better writer and support other writers toward achieving the same goal."

In the Holly Springs Writer's Circle that I launched earlier this year, I kept repeating "I don't want to lead a group" and "I'm here to become a better writer and I want to sit with other writers who want to become better writers." I believed that coming together, submitting our work for critical review and candid feedback and revisiting (and revising) our work in the light of (hopefully) valuable review/feedback, would constitute a honing of craft that would result in producing better writing.

It took me awhile to hear what the other writers were saying:  we're here because we want someone to read what we write; I write for myself because I like to write; and, (though this was never stated explicitly) this Circle provides a pleasing social outlet. Our objectives were at variance. I stopped scheduling meetings and, so far, no one has stepped up to take on that task.

In the last days of the Holly Springs Circle, I was invited to join a trio of women writers in Oxford whose fourth member had recently left the group. I was mildly disappointed that they met only once a month; and I questioned their belief that an essential proof of "good" writing is that it stands up to being read aloud. But I decided "what the hell?" and accepted the invitation.

At the first meeting, I shook things up by inquiring of a writer whose reading had included repetitions of the phrase "the N word" whether it was a substitution for the word "nigger," employed for today's reading or appeared as such in the actual work. Visibly upset by my question, she explained she was being polite on my behalf -- the lone woman of color among three women of pallor -- and, of course, she used "the real word" in her novel.

We never recovered from this incident. It was as though I'd set our boat a-rocking into an undulating rhythm that, by the laws of physics, would ripple with diminishing intensity for a long time. The writer in question, apparently the founder of the group, sent me an email the next week with an attachment outlining guidelines for group etiquette, established at the group's beginning. "I'm not calling this a 'Christian group' exactly," she stated, "but surely we can all follow the same basic courtesies as Christian people."

In retrospect it is clear that I was, again, not listening. The "time for you to get out of here" light was on but I was still focused on the "become a better writer in the company of other writers who want the same thing" light.

After an especially rewarding revision process, I decided to submit the script for "In the Silence" (my well-received piece from last year's Santa Cruz Fringe Festival) for the second meeting. This work was written expressly to be "read" aloud so I was a little excited about the possibility of calming the social waters I'd disturbed at the first meeting by sharing a beautiful piece of writing...

alas, the piece was judged to be "too long" for reading at the next gathering.

My feedback to one of the other pieces submitted that day ran along the lines of "I felt teased by this piece -- it struck lightly at a wide range of universal topics and themes rich with the  potential to connect with a reader but never opened up and showed it's heart about any of them..."

I know. Rough language. It was received as such. The leader indirectly admonished me a few minutes later by reminding "everyone" to remember that "kindness" is the first rule when giving feedback to a work.

My mild disappointment about not being allowed to read, coupled with the pain I experienced trying to find kind, constructive feedback to offer two of the writers, and receiving the following email from the leader a few days after the second meeting --

Hi Alex,

Are you going to be in Oxford anytime in the next couple of weeks? There is no agenda, I just think spending time with one another would help us relax with each other and we would better know where the other is coming from when we are in our meetings.

I went back and read the two emails I sent you - one an attachment. I want you to know I didn't say "nice" or "sweet" even one time!  So you can rest easy on that.

I did say things like humility, sensitivity, respect, and kindness, just the way we should be with people anyway. Basic social skills.

I think you can manage that don't you? If not, perhaps we could set up some cues when one of us (probably me) needs the critique tone to be gentler. People can say the truth and be calm at the same time. This is assertiveness. Assertiveness is good. Aggressiveness is speaking and acting as if one is unconcerned about how one is coming across to the receiver. This can lead to intimidation on the part of the hearer and defenses go up and critique cannot be heard. 

If this is new to you, I think practicing this group etiquette will serve you well in your other social encounters.

Right now I think you're saying, "Is she for real?"  Well, yes I am, and I can be fun and friendly,too.

I'll treat for coffee and we can see where it goes and laugh and have fun.



Write me!!!!

prompted me to write what is for me a very kind and polite and nice note today, thanking them for the generous permission to attend two of their meetings and respectfully withdrawing from the group in light of the evident "bad fit".

And so it goes....   Perhaps third time will be charmed?

29 October 2013

And Then We Die

Familyby Pejterek
I was tooling along in my (thankfully, for the present, running smoothly) little VW yesterday when NPR announced the death of Marcia Wallace, an actress I remembered well from her role as the receptionist on the old Bob Newhart Show. Dead at the age of 70.

As is habitual for me, upon hearing her age, I immediately calculated the difference between our ages. I rounded the figure down by a little bit and thought, Wow! If I die at the same age as her, I have only 10 years of life left...

It was a shocking, sobering thought. One decade left to live.

When I shared the experience with my housemate, I suggested it was an inspiring, motivating time frame, a nudge toward getting done whatever remains undone in one's life. Ever the teacher and actress, I said it the way I'd say it onstage or in a workshop, imbued with hope. But 'hopeful' was not what I felt.

What I felt was astonishment and a little fear and some sadness. I wondered Where did my life go? 

Later, I thought, Well...and so it goes. Time, a man-made construct, a popular delusion we unanimously embrace, flies and plods and ultimately, runs out. No one beats the clock. We do what we can, what we will, what we must -- and then we die. Big lives, small lives, busy or sedate, well-traveled or not, successful (or not), we all die. Time runs out.

I woke up this morning thinking about my family. About the ongoing estrangements and disagreements and silences. Often enough, my father, frustrated by the enduring lack of cohesion among us, reminds me (and himself) that Time waits for no one, Tomorrow is promised to none... These old adages are pulled up to move us toward reconciliations not yet realized...and, so far, they never work.

With my first bowl of coffee and two cigarettes behind me, what is apparent and true for me in this moment is the unlikelihood that any adage or gesture can reunite my family. The members of my near and extended family are no less complex and mysterious beings than I am, wide sargasso seas that stretch toward the horizon in every direction with no land in sight. We are as different as night and day -- and as similar as trees or blades of grass. There is little to no hope for arriving at complete understandings or unconditional affection as there is also little to no hope of ever living peacefully with the absence and disregard that has come to define our connection.

Novels and plays tell stories of tearful reunions on the occasion of a death in the family. These are not the stories of my family. Other novels and plays tell stories of a protagonist moved to make an epic journey "home" in hopes of reuniting with a loved one after decades of alienation. This is not the story of my family.

I got out of bed this morning determined to begin to tell the story of my family. My story of my family -- which by definition can be only a version or an aspect of The Story of my family, a story of necessity out of sync with the stories anyone else in this bloodline might tell.

We are a family of silences, of privately coddled injuries and unacknowledged errors as well as unexpressed gratitude, pride and longing. This morning, not for the first time, I am full of wonder and curiosity about the untold stories that guide or haunt or torment my son, my siblings, my cousins... And, fully aware that I'll likely go to my grave without ever hearing any of their stories, I will at least tell my story as forthrightly as possible.

The hands of Time sweep broadly and steadily onward. In the relentless forward leaning of Time, while I still have breath, I'll tell my story. A story that does not seek to spark a change of heart in anyone who hears it but rather to reveal the heart of the one who lived it.

25 October 2013

Self Acceptance....eghk!

Anne Lamott posted "Four Secrets That Can Lead to Self Acceptance" today. If I were to post a companion piece in response, the first secret would have to be

--Titles like "Four Secrets That Can Lead to Self Acceptance" make my skin crawl.

There's a good chance I will never recover from having spent so many years around (mostly) "white" (mostly) women of a certain age who are obsessed with learning to love and accept themselves. I doubt they're ALL living in CA but there are a lot of them in CA. Before straying into this navel-gazing throng, "loving myself" would have been a euphemism for masturbation. It is glaringly apparent from my musings on this blog, even to me, that New Age-ism and massive exposure to self-actualization/realization/discovery/improvement/empowerment/acceptance crap has left a (possibly) indelible mark on me.


I am taken by the idea of there being a  benefit to revealing certain secrets. (Kinda ties in with the previous SITC post, The Stories That Await. I'll make it my writing assignment for tomorrow and, if I find the courage, I'll share the product here.

21 October 2013

The Stories That Await

David Sedaris has a piece about his family in the latest edition of The New Yorker magazine. (It's here if you want to take a look. A good read.)  He's been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. His writing regularly reduces me to helpless, hearty laughter -- even if I'm surrounded by
strangers on a commuter train -- and then, sometimes in the next line of writing, evokes personal memories so vividly that hot tears stream down my cheeks.

In this latest piece, Now We Are Five, he writes about the recent death by suicide of his sister, Tiffany, and reminisces about family vacations at the beach when they were children. He is a keen observer of human behavior with a pitch-perfect ear for speech patterns and an unsentimental eye. As always, the narrative is distinguished by his ability to infuse accurate reportage with compassion and humor.

Among the many under-developed aspects of my own writing, I am still learning how to write about "hard" things without sounding cold and judgmental. Sedaris does this so well. He seems to see people clearly, flaws and all, while retaining affection for them. (I realize as I write this that I almost always lose all feelings of affection when I enter Critic mode.)

To date, an awareness of this skill deficit has been a primary reason I've avoided attempting any "full disclosure" writing about my biological family. I am inspired by Now We Are Five. My recollections of family vacations are vague but memories of alliances and oft-repeated parental retorts and inside jokes are much clearer. As well, much of the emotional narrative from childhood remains intact. Herein lies the problem:  intense emotional pain, those psychic spaces that still ooze and ache, makes it difficult to tell stories with affection and humor. Much of the work of healing has been accomplished but there remain a few perceived injuries to forgive.

A greater obstacle to writing a "come clean" piece on my family is Shame (and I note an associated shame that arises with that admission...). I am ashamed that my family is not "perfect" -- even while suffering no illusion that such a thing exists.

I am ashamed to be the "black sheep" of my family, ashamed of the stories that reveal how I earned the title and of other stories that attest to the influence of that title on the behavior of my siblings, my parents and myself. I am ashamed of how long I've clung to the title...

I identified with Sedaris' anecdotal descriptions of Tiffany's life. Though our high school personalities were direct opposites -- hers as a party girl and mine as a bookish, goody-two-shoes -- adulthood for both of us was in some ways a falling away from those personalities. I can imagine her, like me, viewing the devolution with a mixture of regret and nostalgia. The story of that fall (not to mention an exposé of the stressful paradox of living simultaneously as  "black sheep" and  "goody two shoes") has lived in me as a broiling potential for a long time but Shame -- so many people still alive who "knew me when"...what would they say/think? -- blocks the way in.

Sometimes, thinking about the stories of The Fall and My Family, is like approaching a battered, locked door at the top of the stairs; with the key in my hand and my ear pressed to it, I hear howls and whispers and giggling...and jump away, startled, when something heavy hits the door from the inside and run back down the stairs.

And other times, like today, after reading Sedaris' good writing, I have the sense that telling these stories is the Road Home or the Road to Freedom. As though,  telling these stories -- plumbing the depths, opening the door at the top of the stairs, coming "clean" -- is a kind of final frontier; and after the stories are written I'll be able to get on with my Life in those places where I've been stuck.

Sometimes I feel there's a whole universe of writing that will not be available to me until The Fall and My Family are written.

I am not the writer that Sedaris is and our stories are different; still, I seek to lean toward the compassionate, affectionate voice that he employs. I know intellectually that I am already free and that all the old wars are over. His story in The New Yorker points the way toward the clearing where I take the cleansing breaths that extend the wisdom of my intellect to my heart.

13 October 2013

Bra Burning, 40 Years On...

I stumbled upon the image below on Facebook today:

It appeared on the Timeline of a FB friend under the commentary:
My tatas are only free behind closed doors; to subject the masses to public freedom of my tatas is a crime against humanity I do not wish to perpetrate. Carry on.
I am investigating the possibility of relocating to Brazil in the next year. This graphic, the campaign it advertises and my FBF's commentary are illustrative of an aspect of U.S. (perhaps Western?) culture that has become more and more distasteful to me. 

She goes on to say:
I have always said that IF I had the body of a Playboy playmate, I would show it off, too - it is just not a big deal to me - except for the fact that my poor body is a poor comparison, so for the benefit of my fellow humans, it will stay covered.
 "Support Breast cancer"?  Surely what's meant is "Support breast cancer research"? And why is "breast" capitalized?

And what is the etymology of "tata"?  Take a deep breath and then check out this web page:  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tata%27s

So the group-think in my home culture is "Here's one day where females are permitted, encouraged even (!) to take off their bras. We're broadcasting this permission through social media -- you might not feel free to do so otherwise."

But lest this thing get too out of hand, i.e., enliven too much Freedom, we'll use a kinda cute-and-funny slang term, 'tata', and we won't actually show "free" breasts in the picture and we'll
use a model with a body type that conforms to the stereotypical, male-defined-and-approved size, age, shape and color waving a Victoria's-secret version of the bra-shackle over her head.

The very idea of designating a day to "set the tatas free" presupposes 364 days of not-free.

I winced to read my FBF's follow-up comment because she's a smart woman, politically sophisticated and (usually) a reliable source of rational, well-informed analysis of current events. She is among the "big brains" in my FB circle. It hurt to see her vibrant, powerful self-identity compromised by the particular brand of misogyny that taints American culture. A call for solidarity in the campaign to find a cure for breast cancer was all it took to uncover her internalization of the self-hating indoctrination that confronts women in this so-called civilized nation.

The campaign is not about "showing off" our bodies, breasts in particular; and yet, a bare female breast is so widely viewed as exhibitionism that arguments about the inappropriateness of breast-feeding in public rage on, in this free country, in the 21st century.

My two-psrt Comment on my FBF's Timeline reads
Seems like the further we go toward Civilized, the less free we feel in our bodies. Where else but in the West would this promo even make sense?
...it's only in a culture where body image is defined and shaped by the likes of Playboy that this kind of ad makes sense... 
Yeah, I want to check out Brazil. My limited investigation suggests that while strains of machismo and misogyny are undoubtedly alive and well in Brazil -- Brazil being, of course, counted among the "civilized" nations on Earth -- there is much less anxiety about female breasts. It's an anxiety that, frankly, after over half a century of living in a female body complete with breasts, I'm ready to leave behind. Sometimes I wear a bra; sometimes I don't; and it's never a question of Freedom.

Django Unchained

Well, I broke down and watched it. Promotional images like this one gave me a bad feeling. The high-pitched wailing and criticism that the film's release provoked (granted, I crept around the edges of it, walking away when the topic came up in social settings and deleting references to the film that popped up in my Facebook news feed) heightened my fear.

I was reminded of how as children my siblings and I decided in the first 60 seconds whether or not to watch the featured film on Saturday Night at the Movies:  if all of the stars were male or if the trailer contained guns or bombs or lots of scene in shadow, we weren't interested. We'd turn off the TV and play checkers or something.  I called them "boy movies" in my own mind. Movies with no women in them had to be boring or terrifying in a "I'm gonna have bad dreams about this" way.

I watched it at home courtesy of Netflix. The DVD arrived and laid a few inches from the player for over a week. For all I knew, this was going to be a Misery or Silence of the Lambs type experience. And I wasn't sure I was ready to "go there".

My journey back home to New Albany IN last weekend somehow nudged me into readiness for Django Unchained. The strongest feeling I had after two days moving among the people and places that I've known longest was a sense of how far I've come, how distant and dissimilar I've grown. Rather than serving to remind me of who I am, returning to my "roots" amplified the perception that we are all strangers here and, truly, you can never go home.

"I am sky and everything else is just weather."

People, places....movies.

And so I watched the film. It wasn't scary. I wasn't terrorized or offended or bored. For me, I was distracted from any possible terror by the poorly designed soundtrack. I just don't even want to know how that soundtrack happened. Posters like the one above spring from "boy movie" mentality, not all what I would have chosen as art director. It's a hero tale. Less another story about slavery in the U.S. than a universal story of the spiritual and ideological journey required to move from bondage to freedom .

My heart aches deeply for Tarantino now. So much of the critical yammering about the film was knee-jerk, boilerplate discourse:  the same old responses and reactions we've come to expect to words like "slavery" or "the South" or "nigger". 

I heard someone recently talking about "black film" and saw an advertisement for a web page devoted to "LGBT films" and I wondered, again, what is a "black film"? Is it the number of actors or crew involved who have dark skin?  Is it based on the racial or ethnic identity of the writer? the Director? Or is it a thematic designation, as in "This is a story about blacks" or a story black people will identify with or be entertained by or interested in?

What I love about Django Unchained is that even though there are lots of guns, I can't think of it as a "boy movie"; and even though there were fewer female than male stars, it was not boring; and even though there were, by Hollywood standards, a lot of "black" people on screen, I doubt it would be considered a "black film"; and even though it's set in the Deep South before the Civil War, it is not a film about slavery....

I love how it is larger than the familiar categories, how it spills out of any box you try to put it in.

Now that most of the screaming has died down, I think I'll read some reviews and hopefully find some interviews with Tarantino, Fox and DiCaprio.

24 September 2013

Speaking in Code

So here's what I don't get (let's say, "something else" that I don't get):

A friend invites me to accompany her to an event. I accept the invitation. The event is scheduled for two or three weeks from the day the invitation is extended. She will pick me up at a specified hour.

"Thank you," I say as type the details into Google calendar.

"You're welcome," she responds. "Now, call me two days before to remind me."


"Oh, are you thinking you may change your mind about going?"

"No, no. I'm definitely going. I wouldn't miss it for anything. I just need you to remind me a couple of days before."

Perhaps, dear reader, this all makes sense to you. So let me explain my confusion.

First, why does one need a reminder to attend something they are "definitely going" to?

Second, doesn't the request for reminder rely on me remembering to remind myself to remind you? Doesn't that sound a little crazy?

Third, how does my friend remember everything else in her life? Does she have a devoted cadre of Reminders who call or email or text her all day to remember all the things she needs to remember? Or are there certain kinds of appointments
that she forgets?

Fourth, what precludes her employing Google Calendar or her "smart" phone or any of the other scheduling technology currently available to set her own reminder? Does she not have a desk calendar?

This does not just happen with social acquaintances. Yesterday I drove to the only VW mechanic in Holly Springs and explained a little "thing" that's happening with the car. I asked if he could fix it today. He said he thought he could and asked me to write down what I'd just said. I complied and handed it to him. He said "OK. I'll come down and get your car at 9:30 tomorrow morning." I thanked him and turned to go.

"Now, just call me about 9 in the morning to remind me," he added. It is now 11:18. I haven't called him. I haven't seen him. The car is still sitting in the driveway.

A few weeks ago we had the dryer serviced. I mentioned we occasionally had "stinky" water from the bathroom sink. The mechanic said he knew what caused it and would come back the following week to address the issue. "Just give me a call on Monday to remind me," he said as he left.

I called him on Monday, got his answering machine, and left a message. "This is Alex Mercedes calling to remind you that you are coming to fix our stinky water this week." That was a month ago. I haven't seen him since.

I understand that in this town, where there is serious shortage of skilled tradesmen, there is less pressure to apply business practices that are commonplace elsewhere, like, using a calendar to schedule appointments, for example. When you're the only guy in town who fixes VWs, folks have few alternatives to doing business with you.

Still, I'm confused. Apparently, even if I provide the reminder, there's no
guarantee you'll come through. And if you know I have no other options, why ask me to remind you? Why add that layer of complexity to the proceedings? Why make me work that hard?

If you want the business, isn't it on you to do what you need to to secure it? If you invite me to accompany you somewhere and your invitation is sincere, isn't your sincerity sufficient motivation to make you honor the invitation?

It's a strange practice. I scratch my head and, officially, move on. I'm implementing my own strange practice, effective today: I no longer provide reminders to remember. It's off the menu.

But might I interest you in one of my other fine products?