26 August 2013

Boy or Lady?

I am a tall, (relatively) slender, dark-skinned woman. I wear my graying hair in a close-cropped natural. I rarely wear makeup. I wear earrings when I remember to put them in.

For my entire adult life I have regularly been mistaken for a man. Usually by white men. Never, until this week, by a "person of color." I was in the checkout line at the grocery store when an older black woman, leaning on her cart in a manner that suggested she uses a walker most of the time, peered quizzically at me and asked "So, are you a boy or a lady?"

Surprised to hear the question from a black woman, I replied, "Take a guess. Which do you think?" She looked at me with a hard but not angry gaze for a few seconds before walking away without comment. After a lifetime of such queries, I now greet them with a playful attitude, treating the encounter as I would an exercise in an improv workshop.So far, none of my inquisitors has joined me in the "play".

As a young woman, like a lot of people, instances of mistaken identity offended and embarrassed me. It indicated insensitivity on the part of the questioner and confirmed deep-seated inadequacies I felt about my physical appearance. It's nearly universal:  boys don't like to be mistaken for girls; "whites" don't like to be mistaken for "black"; and Koreans don't like to be mistaken for Chinese.

It is profoundly unsettling to be mistaken for someone or something other than what we believe ourselves to be. We're outraged. We almost can't wait to tell our best friend or spouse or somebody about what just happened to us.

Since the encounter in the grocery store, I've been thinking about the strenuous efforts and sizable expenditures of time and resources we employ to unequivocally signal gender and other identity markers. It's still fairly common, for example, to choose clothing and toys and other paraphernalia in pink for baby girls and blue for baby boys. Except for rock stars and other eccentrics, make-up is for females. Even designs of eyeglass frames are gender specific (as treated to great comic effect in an episode on the hit TV show Frasier).  

In a junior high school I was once chastised by the gym teacher for "running like a girl." Years later, a boyfriend criticized me for holding my cigarette like a man. Certain hand gestures are OK for women but "sissified" and taboo for "real men." Sitting, standing and walking are also delimited along gender lines and, in some cases, racial- or ethnic-based criteria as well. (I encourage you to search for "how black guys walk" --or some variation of that phrase -- on YouTube. I'm not the only one noticing and commenting on this topic.)

And it's not just gender identity we're worried about. There's sexual preference (remember the controversy years ago when men (besides pirates...trendsetters those pirates) first started wearing earrings? One earring for a straight guy was acceptable but two sent a completely different and mostly undesirable message) and marital status (gold band on the third finger of left hand is so universally understood -- at least in the U.S -- that for a time in my 30s my friends and I regularly used the convention to dispel unwanted attention from males on "girls' night out".) and maturity (oh the mortification to be the only girl at a slumber party who didn't yet wear a bra!) and...

"All the world's a stage..."  We don our costumes -- or disguises -- and step into the spotlight of the world's gaze. Every performance is vitally important to our sense of well-being. We have failed somehow if we mean to look like a Southern Belle but the audience mistakes us for a Clown.  We mean to be seen, we need to be seen as we imagine ourselves to be.

A complication arises at the place where what I want you to see meets what you need to see, where my need for you to see me as an intelligent, independent woman bumps into your need to see, for example, an underprivileged member of an oppressed group who needs to be rescued. How do we proceed if I really need you to see me as intelligent and independent and you really need to see me as in need of rescue? Our wires are crossed. It's a complicated case of mistaken identity. Now what?

Over the years, more than one well-meaning friend or relative has suggested that I might "do better in life" if I took fashion and cosmetic precautions to make sure people know I'm female. "It makes people nervous when they don't know what you are," I was told. While it may be true that some people are uncomfortable around people who don't wear the agreed upon gender signals, I believe there are far more interesting and socially generative features of identity to explore than gender. Compare the fields of possibility that open when you find out I'm a woman to the fields that open when you find out I'm a musician or a baker or a Holocaust survivor or a flight instructor.

Costumes are fun. Jewelry and make-up are fun. I dress like a girl sometimes. I especially enjoy dressing like a specific kind of girl:  a schoolmarm, for example, or a dancer or a fortune teller.

And I have dreamed all my life of  owning a custom-made, man-tailored, 3-piece suit -- coat, vest and pants -- midnight blue with fine pinstripes, and a silver-tipped walking stick.

But I wear costumes mostly for my own enjoyment. Secondarily for your enjoyment. Theater!

Costumes and make-up aren't meant to provide you any definitive information about who I am. To get the important identity information, you'll have to spend some time with me. Take a walk. Share a meal. Ask me questions. And I don't mean "Are you a boy or a lady?" because that's more a question about you and what you need to know to calm your nerves. I care about your nerves:  let's sit still and breathe together for an hour. That might calm you down.

Then we can really start getting acquainted.

23 August 2013

La Puerta Abierta

There you are with the keepsakes and tools and amusements, the molds into which you pour Time and make the bricks of your Life. You are mostly Free, only occasionally shackled by loneliness or regret or longing.

The knock on the door.

You open it wide and invite them in. You offer what you have:  coffee, conversation and compassion. Something to eat. Some music. Some stillness. You are weaving memory. And you are making more bricks.

After they leave, you close the door and bolt it because the air in your room is changed, pierced through with something precious that you cannot create alone, and you want to keep it alive and intact.

This is not possible. You breathe it in and out and in and out and finally it is only your own air again. There's a long, frayed moment of nostalgic remembering...

...and you return to yourself and the room as it was and the keepsakes and tools and amusements. And you are as complete and content as before. You make bricks. You rest.

Don't watch the door. Don't will the knock. Bless the door. Bless the knock. Bless the visitation.

All is well.

20 August 2013

No Divide

In the 1990 feature film Misery the psychotic retired nurse Annie Wilkes is an obsessed fan of author Paul Sheldon and his romance novel series. When his car skids off the road during a snowstorm, Annie pulls his body, and a briefcase containing his just-finished manuscript, from the wreckage and carries both to her remote farmhouse to oversee Paul's convalescence.

She reads the manuscript and discovers he has killed off the title character of the series, Misery Chastain. She is outraged and forcefully demands the invalid writer to destroy the manuscript and rewrite the novel.

She is his Number One fan.

Until she isn't.

The story is a fictionalized exaggeration of something that happens every day in the real world. Friendships and affinities spring up and then, Surprise! You find out your friend is not who you thought they were. The story you thought they were telling when you met turns in a direction you don't like. You don't want to be friends with them any longer. Maybe you even hate them. They become friends with someone you don't like. They join a different church. They don't hire your nephew for an opening at their company.

Discovering that someone is not who you thought they were or
who you needed them to be or
who you think they should be

Finding out that someone is not just like you -- doesn't believe what you believe and admire who you admire and fear what you fear

Well, it is hard. It hurts. Drives people to commit murder or suicide. Robs them of sleep and appetite. Parents disown their children for behaving in a way that runs counter to their plans:  they marry the "wrong" person or choose the "wrong" career, for example.

Friendships ended during the last presidential race, strained to the breaking point under the stress of differing opinions. Hearing that someone you knew (or perhaps loved) belonged to a different political party, that they were voting for "the other guy"? Unbearable! It made your blood boil. How could they possibly believe "he" was the better candidate?!

The need to be right (or for the other person to see they are wrong?) (or maybe there's no difference between the two?) was so strong that merely knowing where you stood or expressing your opinion just wasn't enough.

The need to be right doesn't always come as hot burning acid in the stomach. Sometimes it's more like pressure in the chest. The sufferer grits her teeth; her breathing grows shallow; she almost looks like she's smiling when she says "I heard what you said but I don't think you're understanding me..." Subtext: We both need to walk out of this room seeing things my way. 

Sometimes, there's additional subtext:  You need to feel bad about yourself or You need to admit you're wrong.

It is a kind of insanity. The compulsive nature of the need. The way we are blinded by it and sacrifice so much for it. The violence we are driven to.

The smile on the face while the mind explodes with "You are crazy! You are wrong!"

The energy expended ostensibly to "make a point" when what we really want is for the other person to be some other way than they are. To believe something other than what they believe. To say something other than what they are saying.

Does it matter? Do we really want everyone else to agree with us, to be just like us? What does being "right" grant us that we don't already have? What do we gain by insisting that another person abandon their position and fall in line with ours?

These questions don't have answers. These questions serve as wake-up calls when the compulsive I'm-right campaign begins inside us. They are more mantra than query. Their contemplation leads us back. To the Oneness that is us and holds all that is. There is no divide. Only endless diversity.

12 August 2013

The Drumbeat: Fight and Insight

...at least we still have books and jazz...       

Mark, a FB friend

Every time I read the words I remember how deep and wide Life is. 
I take a deep breath and my imagination rolls out, a gleaming giggling grieving wave of possibility, embracing everything and everyone on its way to everywhere. What's more precious than our ability to dream?

Most of the men I've known (and a couple of women) would argue that sexual activity is the best thing about living. Maybe it says something about my sex life...but for me, imagination trumps sex. No contest. (When I think about it, what would sex be like without imagination?)

My friend's comment is balm and tonic for me. It has lived like a thrumming mantra beneath my day-to-day routine for a week or more. I chant it silently while mowing the lawn and folding laundry. Books and jazzzzz.....books and jazzzzz.  

I live in a town where the only bookstore is a rack of paperback romances at Wal-Mart. A town where residents find it amusing that "Nobody in Holly Springs reads." A town where the school board responded to my inquiry about artist-in-residence possibilities by referring me to the special ed teacher and the principal of the high school criticized my suggestion that "The sky is the limit" (made in reference to possible ways of integrating theater into the core curriculum) as "backward thinking."

So I appreciate reminders that "at least we still have books and jazz" and that "creativity is intelligence having fun" (another recent posting on my Facebook Wall). My spirit exalts in the awareness of others in the world who Believe.

This town is just like most towns (only moreso) in the way that Fear hisses and whispers through the social codes of conduct. Fear of looking foolish or getting a bad reputation or offending someone or moving too
fast or talking too loud. Fear of being called "unpatriotic" or "un-Christian" by others. Fear of saying the wrong thing or standing out in the crowd. Fear of running out of time. Or out of money.

Fear is the enemy of Love, Creativity, Imagination, Faith. And the war rages on. You walk around in a war zone for so long, before you know it your stride is shorter and more tentative. Your breathing grows shallow. Your appetites diminish and you lose sleep.

To love or create, to imagine or believe, requires courage.

Joni Mitchell sings:

If you can keep your head
While all about you
People are losing theirs and blaming you
If you can trust yourself
When everybody doubts you
And make allowance for their doubting too.

...If you can dream
And not make dreams your master
If you can think
And not make intellect your game

If you can meet
With triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same

If you can force your heart
And nerve and sinew
To serve you
After all of them are gone
And so hold on
When there is nothing in you
Nothing but the will
That's telling you to hold on!
...If neither enemies nor loving friends
Can hurt you
If everybody counts with you
But none too much.

If you can fill the journey
Of a minute
With sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight
The Earth is yours
And Everything that's in it
But more than that
I know
You'll be alright
You'll be alright.

Cause you've got the fight
You've got the insight
You've got the fight
You've got the insight

© 2007; Crazy Crow Music

You walk around in a war zone long enough, you internalize the conflict. You can't remember what you cared about before...or when exactly you stopped caring. Stopped daring. Your fingers hover frozen above the keyboard; the clay sits in ominous silence on the wheel. 

Your soul is a bomb-scarred landscape and you cannot find your way home.

I spent the day alone yesterday. Finishing Ellis Avery's The Last Nude. Rearranging furniture on the back porch. Plumbing the poignant majesty of Chopin's Prelude Op. 45 (Am I crazy to attempt it? Courage, dear one. Courage...). Playing "grown up and girly": giving myself a pedicure and listening to the sparkling shadow music of Miles Davis while a mud mask dried on my face. 

As the mask tightened, I thought about my tightening lifestyle:  in the house more than out of it, no dancing, the guitar case collecting dust. I reflected on the self-censoring and diligent simplifying that has come to characterize my speech. I pondered the "fun" clothes in my wardrobe, hanging in the attic cloaked in spider webs and dust. 

And I thought about how many blog posts I've composed--and then discarded--in the last 12 months. 

Books and jazzzzz.....books and jazzzz. The beat intensifies, reverberates in my solar plexus. I'm feeling it in my fingertips and my kneecaps and my teeth. I feel like a slave with a dream of freedom.

I've got the insight.

FB drops people from time to time. I don't know why. Welcome back!

Just so you know: you are a Friend whose posts do not appear on my Wall but, rather, in a filtered folder called "God and guns". I am a free-thinking pacifist and it makes me cry to see stuff like "fighting in the Lord's army" on my Wall.

I am surrounded by religious bigotry in the town where I live. I am trying to keep FB a place where I can exchange ideas, learn about cool stuff people are doing around the world, hear new music, keep up with important events in the lives of people I love....that kind of thing.

I felt I should let you know in case you start to wonder why I never comment on your posts. I check the G&G folder infrequently.

Hope you're having a great summer, Steve -- some relaxation, some lovin', some music making, some fresh produce and maybe a good book?


08 August 2013

On the Occasion of my one-year anniversary

The stories only go so far. On the telephone, friends and family ask "So how are you doin'?" and "What are you up to?"  I offer stories, anecdotes in which I do poor imitations of Mississippi dialects while illustrating the deficits in imagination or innovation or flexibility or... that appear to be fixed characteristics of MS culture. The anecdotes are true but often so outrageous they sound like the stuff of cinema. We gasp and laugh and pontificate theories on human psychology and the decline of Western civilization and then they ask "So how long are you gonna stay there?"

Here in MS, when they find out I'm a newcomer, acquaintances ask what I think of Holly Springs and Mississippi. For several months my standard reply ran along the lines of "Well, like any place, there are some charming features and some less-than-charming features." In the last few months I've abandoned that reply. The charming features are still apparent but the less-than-charming have become tiresome and frustrating and sad. I am losing the graciousness and good humor of my early days here. These days I am more likely to respond "If I could afford to leave I would."

From my time in the parallel universe that exists beyond the state borders of Mississippi, I learned about "self care". Sitting barefoot among the CA redwoods, the sound of glistening ocean waves shushing against the shore beneath cloudless skies providing a meditative soundtrack, I sat with other over-educated political liberals and attended while some teacher or workshop facilitator reminded us  that airline passengers are always instructed to secure their own oxygen mask before attempting to save anyone else. 

In retrospect, I can see that I stored the idea of "self care" in a little box of keepsakes that I rarely touched. CA culture created an environment that was extremely user-friendly for me: vibrant night life, like-minded friends and strangers, coffeehouses on every corner, interesting sights and sounds readily available. Who needed to focus on self-care when the environment took such good care of me? (though, as is so often the case "you don't know what you've got til it's gone....")

As I approach my one-year anniversary in MS, the results of neglecting self care are unmistakable:  increased tearful-ness, evaporating graciousness and humor, miserable muscle tone and dull complexion.

In a recent conversation about the less-than-charming face of MS, a local woman who moved here from New England 10 years ago reminded me that every place requires 2 years of residence before it becomes "home." Yes, yes, yes....two years.

OK. My second year in Holly Springs begins in about two weeks. I am committed to pay more attention to self care this year. There are resources available in the natural environment -- MS landscape is actually very pretty, unspoiled by excessive development and advertising. My yard is a bird-watcher's paradise and boasts a wide variety of plant species. This is good. It's a start. There's always some Light, no matter how dark the room.

The challenge will be finding the books, conversations, music, etc. I need to feed my mind and comfort my soul. I know these resources are scant in Holly Springs but I have a car. And if I'm careful, I have $75 a month discretionary/travel money. I think I'll make another sign to hang over my desk:  "How long since you got away?"