27 July 2013

Forget Nice

Mostly, I just want to make sure this image exists somewhere on SITC.

I have nothing clever or exciting to report.

I'm gazing at this image (I wish I could make it even bigger on the screen)...  I'm transported and transformed.

Is the fiddler a nice guy?  Is Chagall a nice guy? Am I a nice guy?

Does nice have anything to do with anything that matters?

25 July 2013

The Writers Room

“Writers are always selling somebody out.” -- Joan Didion

Since forming the Holly Springs Writers Circle a month ago, writer-ly topics have moved into a more central place in my thinking with a sharper focus. I think, for example, about ways I might change my daily routine to  encourage a more rigorous, disciplined practice:  getting up every day at 5 instead of rolling out whenever I wake up; writing every day at a prescribed hour rather than waiting for "inspiration" to nudge me toward a blank page or computer screen; committing to seriously researching any of the kazillion things I wonder about.

Words -- reading them and writing them -- have always held a special fascination for me. Writing -- doing it myself and reading the work of others -- has always mattered. A lot.

From an early age, reading a book was a conscious choice to journey into a different world. And though I almost always surrendered completely, my awareness returned over and over to the author's presence:  the story-vehicle was being driven by someone else and I was along for the ride. I noticed the driver's skill -- or lack of skill. I noticed whether I felt safe or at risk. 

Before she left for work, my mother would write notes to the four of us. We were latch-key kids and the notes outlined chores to be completed and rules to be obeyed during the unsupervised hours after school. Beyond the content of the notes, I observed her handwriting and the words she chose, the way I could hear her voice in my head as I read (mysterious and magical phenomenon!), and the shift in my mood and worldview (though I did not know that word yet...) that the notes produced. 

Didion's statement enters my consciousness at a time when my attention and sensitivity to language and writing are high. What does the statement mean? 

I've performed all manner of intellectual gymnastics in the days since I first read it in an attempt to understand. Something about writing....something about betrayal.  Someone stands aghast and hurt by someone's words on a page...

At times, I think I have it...and then it slips away again and I don't know what Didion means.

In my struggle to think about writing and betrayal, I've bumped into two thick-bodied shadows. They have not shown their faces yet but I can smell them...and they linger.

The first shadow holds the ways in which I betray my artistic integrity at times. Shortcuts through stories to avoid offending someone -- someone who may never even see what I've written.  And other stories truncated because I doubt my ability to find words for the deeper, more complicated aspects.

The second shadow holds an unvoiced scream.  And a lament. 

We are together in a small room this week. The Two Shadows and I. 

I know I will see my own face if they ever pull back their hoods and step into the light.

I am setting a table. 

14 July 2013

Down in the Valley....the Valley So Low

I am sensitive and bookish. So when the news of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the slaying of Trayvon Martin reached me last night, my first reaction was a gasp....followed quickly by a hot flood of tears accompanied by intense abdominal pain.

It was about 2 a.m. when I read the NPR update on my FB Wall. I dragged myself out to the front porch and smoked a cigarette, staring into the dark forest across the street and listening to the chirp and squeak and trill of night insects. I felt sick and angry and powerless and sad.

After a restless night of shallow sleep, my heart still hurts and my mind is racing. I am thinking about "justice" and "crime" and "legal system" and, as is my way, I'm plunging into the dictionary. My gut says justice was not served in this case...but perhaps my understanding of terms is off. My mind and my gut say some kind of punishment should appear as the final coda in a story where an armed person disregards the counsel of an officer of the law, engages in physical combat with an unarmed person, and discharges their weapon resulting in the death of the unarmed person. But, as I say, maybe there's an error in my understanding of terms.

Following are the terms I looked up with key words and phrases relevant to the current discussion underlined.

justice (noun) 
1.  the moral principle determining just conduct 
2.  conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct
3.  the administering of deserved punishment or reward.

injustice (noun)
1.  the quality or face of being unjust; inequity.
2.  violation of the rights of others; unjust or unfair action or treatment.
3.  an unjust or unfair act; wrong.

crime (noun)
1.  an action or instance of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or to the legally prohibited
interests of the state and that is
2.  any offense, serious wrongdoing, or sin
3.  a foolish, senseless, or shameful act

legal system (noun)
a system for interpreting and enforcing law

system (noun)
1.  an ordered and comprehensive assemblage of facts, principles,doctrines, or the like in a particular field of knowledge or thought: a system of philosophy.
2.  a coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure; organizational scheme: a system of government.
3.  any formulated, regular, or special method or plan of procedure:a system of marking, numbering, or measuring; a winning system at bridge.

law (noun)
1.  the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision.
2.  any written or positive rule or collection of rules prescribed under the authority of the state or nation, as by the people in its constitution.
3.  the controlling influence of such rules; the condition of society brought about by their observance: maintaining law and order.

punishment (noun)
a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.

Note:  There's more but I'll stop with this short list of terms.

I am in over my head. My survey raises more questions:
  1. To what extent can a moral principle be legislated and codified into a legal system?
  2. What kind of an entity would be qualified to monitor conformity of a legal system to moral principle? Does such an entity exist in America?
  3. Is there also an entity established to oversee the legal system's interpretations of law? Just as it is commonplace to seek a second opinion for medical diagnoses (interpretation of symptoms), would it not be a good idea to have a second opinion for legal interpretations?
  4. How is it possible to not view the killing of another human as morally wrong and offensive? 
  5. Is the current legal system sufficiently comprehensive, i.e., does it recognize both injustice and transgressions against moral principles and provide for punishment of both?
"The Remorse of  Orestes" (1862)
Artist: William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Before the trial, addressing the family of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman said, "I am sorry for the loss of your son, I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not."
Given the pervasive linguistic laxity these days, questions and issues that arise from this statement include:
  1. 1.  Trayvon Martin was not "lost." He was killed.
  2. 2.  Is Mr. Zimmerman expressing condolences for the death of a young son? Or an apology for killing the young man? There is a difference, for me, between "I empathize with your pain on the death of your son" and "I am sorry for killing your son. I will regret my actions for the rest of my life."
  3. What significance, on the night of the killing and the day he made this statement, did Mr. Zimmerman attach to the difference between his age and Trayvon Martin's age? Why did he mention the age difference?
  4. So...if he'd known for certain that Trayvon was unarmed, he would not have fired his gun? Is his logic if armed, fire; if not armed, don't fire; if uncertain, fire?
  5. The statement reads more like an explanation or justification than an apology. "I killed your son because I was confused about his age and possession of a weapon." Was that Mr. Zimmerman's intent? If someone he loved died under similar circumstances, what would he make of being offered this statement from the killer?
I read somewhere that the Prosecution in this trial failed to make its case. So the legal proceedings were a contest, a competition between legal teams and the Home Team lost. Do we care about moral principles? Do we care enough to do the hard work of either retooling our legal system (if that's possible) to make it less of a sporting event or creating a new protocol for addressing moral transgressions?

I do not support capital punishment. I believe it is immoral to kill. I also believe it is immoral to commit an unjust act (speaking now of both George Zimmerman's killing of an unarmed person as well as the Florida court that found him innocent of all charges). If no punishment is meted out, I believe everyone --George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, the family and friends of both men, and all of us witnessing, in America and around the globe -- is done a serious disservice. The public welfare and morals are injured as the acknowledged authority proclaims "There is no penalty required for killing out of confusion."

11 July 2013

We Will Not Back Down

I was thinking to title this post "We Will Not Back Down" so I Googled those words. Among the Top Ten hits were reports on Texas Senator Wendy Davis' recent stand in the state legislature and a Canadian aboriginal group protesting a corporate invasion of their lands. (Noteworthy that there are lots of pictures accompanying reports of Ms. Davis' recent courageous stand but I'm still searching for pictures of the Canadian aborigines in other than ethnic festival shots.)

There are a few social trends that cycle through my life. (How about you?) One of them is hearing from multiple sources that what I consider to be a "best" personality feature is actually one of my least attractive features.

Thinking about the phenomenon today, it first seemed that it began when I left my childhood home, as though I entered some unyielding hallucination once outside the guidance and oversight of my family of origin. As though I came to view myself through a faulty, unreliable lens in the absence of frank feedback from the people who arguably knew me best. I lost the ability to see myself clearly and make accurate assessments of the appropriateness of my behavior.

But on deeper consideration, I remembered being perplexed even as a child by how often personal experiences of insight or freedom or joy provoked my parents to likely well-intention-ed criticism or punishment. As a bright child, I understood that survival required learning certain lessons from their interventions but I never grasped the fundamental error of my behavior. I understood, for example, that
social etiquette required discernment of when to tell the truth and when to tell a lie; but I did not understand, not really, why lies were ever an appropriate response.

I appreciated truth-speaking as one of my "good" traits, not in the least because it felt so good and simple inside.

This many years later, after a lifetime of rehearsals in the long-running, SRO production "How to Get Along with Folks", I "get it":  changing your ways is often more about maintaining other people's comfort zone than it is about feeling good in yourself or becoming a "better" person. And the value of maintaining other people's comfort zones lies in the resulting reduction of drama, obstacle and injury in your own life.

It has been a useful realization, even though I continue to regularly lose sight of it. In a given situation, I forget to go through the Checklist:  What's my objective here? What's the best approach for successfully achieving my goal? Which do I want more -- to reach the goal or to speak my mind?  Neither end is more noble. It is a matter of desire:  which do I want more in a given set of circumstances?

Sometimes the choice is simple. Sometimes my speech or action is a matter of taking a stand for something I believe in. I seek nothing from the other person; I am simply "being the change" I want to see in the World. Fully aware of the risks -- offending someone, being yelled at or arrested or killed -- the shining priority retains its primacy as a motivating principle.

These days, in the main, I'm not taking a stand. I'm just "being myself" and discovering the striking variability of response to that construct depending on geographic locale. The "enthusiasm", "imagination", and "improvisational orientation" of "myself" were applauded and courted in CA. In Holly Springs, MS they are frequently viewed in a more negative light. To the extent that I am in pursuit of some objective here -- e.g., making friends, collaborating on local "revitalization" efforts -- there is a choice to be made between abandoning or tempering these qualities OR maintaining the comfort zones of the people here.

In a recent conversation with the principal and vice-principal of the local high school I was told that my affection for the phrase "the sky's the limit" is "backward". "You want to start with something small, something you know you can achieve. Not something far away as the sky" I was told.

I didn't argue with him. I don't agree but he's entitled to his opinion and the approach he outlined may be working famously for him. Although I did not defend my position, my heart broke as I imagined him greeting new ideas from students with "That's backward thinking."

In terms of making my way in this new place and regarding the topic under consideration in this post, I view my "sky orientation" as a positive feature of my personality. I remain reluctant to trade it in in the interest of getting along here and maintaining someone else's comfort zone. Maybe I am taking a stand. Or maybe I am a fool, stubbornly choosing to shoot myself in the foot. Or maybe, like Wendy Davis and the Canadian indigenous people, I simply believe what I believe at this juncture. I am what I am.

I accept that as long as I persist in this perspective, I limit my possibilities. For now, with my head to the sky, I'll take my chances and live with the consequences.

10 July 2013

All Kinds of Kisses

Just this:

I carefully washed, peeled and sliced a cucumber onto a very pretty blue ceramic salad plate. I washed, peeled, sliced and separated a few rings of sweet onion and added them to the cucumbers. I drizzled olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the vegetables and ground some salt on top. I placed ice cubes in a glass and filled it with iced tea. I took the plate and the glass out to the back porch and set them on a small table.

I retrieved a book from my bedside table and returned to the porch.

I read a paragraph, laid the book in my lap and lifted the plate of onions and cucumbers. I carefully speared an onion ring and a cucumber slice, swirled them around in the oil-and-vinegar pool on the saucer and placed them in my mouth. Ummmmmm......heavenly.

As I stabbed the next cucumber slice, invisible gremlins swarmed between my hand and the plate. The plate bounced in the air and the entire contents slid off onto the floor of the porch.

"Damn it!" I whispered angrily between clenched teeth and slammed the book down on a chair, surprised at the intensity of my annoyance. Where did that rage come from?

After I cleaned up the mess, I arranged chunks of cheddar cheese, bagal crisps and dill pickle wedges on a new plate and returned to the porch, noting the contrast between the violence I felt when the first plate spilled and the meditative feeling of the clean-up process and second food preparation. How did that happen? Where did the rage go?

Returned to my reading, "Body Art," a story in A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories, I read:
Then Martha, like Dr. Nanjuwany, knocked at his office door. They kissed, cool cheek to cool cheek.
I read the line again. They kissed, cool cheek to cool cheek.

My cheeks felt cool. I pantomimed pressing my right cheek and then my left against someone else's cheeks. The movement felt good and the accompanying thought -- "There are all kinds of kisses. Not only lips can kiss..." -- also felt good and my mind was then flooded with effervescent pictures and sensations, imagining "all kinds of kisses":  the kiss of fingertips, of lips, of toes, of eyes. It felt like I'd never had these thoughts before and never smiled the way I was smiling.

What I was trying to explain to my friends last week was this:  When I'm asked "How are you doing?" my response is very often based on whatever is "up" for me in the moment you ask me. In the span of five minutes, alone on my back porch, I experienced hot rage, serene bliss and erotic pleasure. This is how I am. 

If you happen to catch me in the "Damn it!" phase and offer me advice or a remedy to ensure I avoid ever feeling "Damn it!" again

and I resist or reject your remedy

it's not about me being "unable to trust the advice of people who love me and are only trying to help"; it's about my real-life experience, my personal history, that makes me disinclined to embrace "solutions" for "problems" that will pass or change on their own. I don't mind experiencing "Damn it!" sometimes. On the contrary, it makes the whole thing richer. That's just me.

I long to live in a village or on a planet where even if this isn't how you experience Life, you can be OK with the fact that this IS how I experience Life and the difference between us is not grounds for conflict.

07 July 2013

Help: The Friendly Critic

Oh, I am in a tangled mood! If you read those words and immediately began devising a remedy to offer, please accept my firm rejection without taking offense. I do not want to be fixed. Please.

Photo: Don't Try to Fix Me

By: Rossen Nickolov

We can't help it (or can we?):  Something in us seeks to name or explain or categorize everything we encounter. All of our experience seems to require a label or comment. That man is mean, that woman is kind, that book is offensive. We don't easily find it in us to simply witness. To let a thing be and refrain from putting our stamp or fingerprints on it.

A related compulsive urge in us seeks to resolve or erase anything that looks like a problem or an obstacle to "fun" and "happiness."  There is a mostly unchallenged assumption among us that everyone should be happy all the time and "problems" are illnesses that must be avoided or eradicated. "Oh, Alex, you sound sad/angry/frustrated. Here's what you need to do..."

For me, no matter the ostensibly benevolent intention underlying such comments, there's an underlying message that grates my tender heart:  you are not OK. Do not feel the way you're feeling. Do not view things the way you're viewing them. You need to change. You need to be some other way than you are.

Help offered without first asking if I want or need help doesn't feel like help. It feels like a knife blade pulled slowly along an old scar, reopening an old wound.

And, in instances where I find my voice while staunching the flow of new blood from an old wound and say, "I don't want to be fixed" and the Fixer, offended by this reply, says "Well, I'm just trying to help you..." or accuses me of resisting help (the implications being that a) "resistance" is a "bad" thing and b) resistance is proof that my not-okay-ness is more acute than previously believed), I am brought close to absolute despair. We have reached a place beyond and my suffering begins in earnest. There's nothing more to say but it is likely that more will be said, by both of us.


I am grateful that this time several tasks and routines are already securely in place on my life calendar:  there's music to practice and a house to clean in preparation for a CouchSurfing guest; invasive weeds have returned to the side yard, demanding extermination and I have a submission to prepare for this week's Writers Circle. I have distractions to engage while this mood passes...as it will...as all moods do. I don't need to be fixed. I am, just like you, enduring the Weather of Living. We'll be OK. We are OK.