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.