Saturday, August 21, 2010

i'm no wordslinger. a wordslinger has to possess the belief that she has not only something to say but has the right to say it....even if no one else reads it. i'm struggling here.

just finished reading iris murdoch's "the black prince" which left me trembling a bit, lightheaded and not just a little ponderous. after devouring "the red and the green" and "the bell" in just over three weeks this summer, i had to stop reading "the black prince" about a month ago. i'd come to...perhaps the last 20 pages, and its density increased (which is saying a lot) in relating a deeply disconcerting ending. i couldn't take it. throughout the read i thought to myself that these were some of the most abominable (and human) characters i'd ever seen and the text one of the most depressing. through most of it i was unable to put down the book, but i couldn't bring myself to push through those last pages. so i put it aside on my desk, telling myself that i'd come back to it after some of the tumult in my life abated.

that tumult has actually increased but for some reason i picked up the book tonight and read. it came much more easily than i thought it would.

i don't want to reveal much of the book. although it's not a "mystery", it needs to be treated as one as murdoch reveals much in quite a specific order which should be respected for the sake of the reader's experience of it. this is not a book review, however, and the point is my individual response to the text.

(my heart began to beat faster while writing that last bit, because in it i claimed my own individuality and even suggested that my thoughts include a point that matters not enough to be recorded.) see how i inadvertently typed "not" in that last phrase. the mistake is genuine.

the final pages of "the black prince" were brilliant and as i'm sure most readers feel at the conclusion of such a book, my stomach had tightened and my hands were shaking. i was holding my breath and tearing up and my mind was moving to and from passages and phrases about morality, spirituality and the nature of art. this is not a sentimental book, however. densely philosophical, yes. but nothing pretty about it. i then thought that, in contrast to my statement above, that perhaps most people don't generally react so viscerally in such a situation.

naturally, i began to wonder what's wrong with me and impulsively started to attribute it to my boundary-challenged emotions. but i couldn't ignore the content of the book itself. this is how i react to the written word and always have. my relationship to words has been so strong that i do wonder at times if it qualifies as pathological. the relationship is strong but i'm afraid that making use of it requires a tenacity i lack where creating something readable is concerned.

in "the black prince", murdoch's confessor speaks of silence and art. "all artists dream of a silence they must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn." this silence is the only place in which i can create. i've written an entire essay in my head while lying in bed in a grey room with curtains drawn. i wouldn't have done it sitting alert at my desk in front of a 13" screen. words and revelations come when i'm still, usually prone, and quiet. it all can leave, however, in the time and activity it takes to find a pen and jot it down for later. there is too much delicacy in this and i'm both frightened and shamed by it. even was so bold as to walk downstairs, wash my face, and dry my hands before i'd written anything down. in most cases this would have allowed the words to slip away...but it also would have relieved the tension felt when they're there.

standing at the bathroom mirror, i realized that that might be the reason the thoughts and words fade so quickly. keeping them with me brings shaking hands and paralyzed breath, a condition which isn't necessarily exorcised by putting them on the page. movement and sound are distractions that self-medicate into a more tolerable state of being.

but tonight has been different. i reached for immediate relief by removing myself from the seated position, walking steps, adding water and a radio playing in the next room. there's ambivalence, though, because this particular time i did make a conscious effort to keep the words with me. i held on to what i'd read and what i'd already begun to write in my head...and to the physical tension which felt reassuring for one of the first times. "the black prince's" protagonist asserts that "the artist is masochist to his muse," (though this was strongly refuted by the character with the last words of the text whose beliefs and observations are perhaps supposed to represent truth.) to counter his argument, however, i'll share that my wise therapist once suggested that my resistance to finishing endeavors and creative efforts is reflected in my resistance to finish books. i usually have no less than ten books with bookmarks placed neatly back on my bookshelf. she presented me with the idea that leaving things unfinished leaves me in a state of chronic tension and that this is masochistic in itself. i'd never thought of it that way but it made sense enough to consider, of course. but, tonight i realized that the tension is the most powerful once the entire work has been read. with a work unfinished, the unknown is vague and therefore impotent. it feels safer this way.

something made me push through tonight, though, which has in fact given power to my ability to stake a claim. the lightheadedness and clenched insides somehow revealed to me that this is my relationship to words and that it's always been this way. as i struggle daily to discover why i'm here this gives me a clue.

earlier at dinner, my mother told me the popular story of when she realized i'd learned to read. it was at a very early age which caused her a great deal of anxiety and fear due to either a pseudoscientific suspicion or an archaic superstition that smart children almost inevitably grow ill and die. my mother is far from impractical or dumb, but fearing for one's child can trump everything, apparently.

when old enough to be able to print my name, i was eligible for a library card and the local librarian at the sedgwick branch in mt. airy removed the children's three-book limit in my case so my mom wouldn't have to bring me back every day for more books. i vaguely remember leaving that place with stacks of books that my mom and i had to carry several blocks home.

i'm not proposing that any of this early-ish reading activity was due to any higher degree of intelligence. i think it might have been due to some kind of dependence which i admit scares and saddens me a bit. my mother glossed over this possibility when i mentioned it tonight.

but, as time went on it became routine for me to take a book or two with me virtually wherever i went. luckily, i often carried a bag larger than my head which meant books were readily accessible in the event of finding myself bored, the only child around, or just overwhelmed by anything but the interior world. as an adult i've gone through varying phases of keeping words near me, but for the most part, i still take at least a small paperback with me everywhere i go. sunday night, i was out with friends, picked up my bag and for some reason managed to be genuinely surprised by how much it seemed to weigh. i peeked in and for a moment was surprised to find a thick paperback edition of bram stoker's dracula. but after just a second i remembered placing the book in my bag quite intentionally before leaving the house that night. one friend asked with a smile if i'd expected to be bored that night, and in complete honesty, i told him, "not at all!", and explained that this is just what i do.

i tend to be more sensitive than many to both kind and ill-intended words. i don't even necessarily believe that actions always speak louder than words. typos are excessively distracting...and in many cases a lover speaking what comes next is more exciting than his doing what comes next.

i'm not sure what all this means, and i don't think it's a helpful practice to view all of one's traits and dispositions as either healthy or unhealthy. but all this came to me as i stood before the bathroom mirror, and i was able to draw the conclusion that words and i are meant for each other and i should just consummate and get on with the challenging task of a committed relationship that can be easy to claim doesn't exist. claiming it means welcoming the tension and sometimes terrifying vulnerability that surrounds words, imperfection and even completion.

coming to terms with who you are, if you remain fearful of it, is a bit like a sentence for a crime you don't recall committing. i didn't decide for myself that words evoke the most potent emotions i have, and books can not only give life to everything that matters but serve as talismans against the intolerable as well.

it feels like an outrageously audacious to claim that i might have uncovered a some small piece of knowledge about what god created me to be. though not the most exemplary example of writing, what's on the screen now has been painstakingly formed. as unreal as it sounds, it feels like a therapeutic effort merely to write "i" and "me" as many times as i have in this one sitting. i'll be rethinking this entire revelation tomorrow.

i'm going to have work it through, however, if i intend on embracing, or at the very least coming to terms with, what emerges in the silence and stillness yet gives me a voice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

things i'm afraid of




deep sea creatures

home invasions


death by serial killer




being smothered, stuck, stifled

the evening news

how cruel people can be

revenge and self-righteousness indignation


personal anger

the possibility that my father didn't love me

that my mother loves and resents me at the same time

that i'm responsible for others' emotional wellbeing

that i'm a magnet for avoidant personalities

that i'm too unhealthy

that i'll never feel safe

that i'll never be safe

that i'll never have a family of my own

that i might not want one

that i'll never have a home of my own

that i want too much

that i'll never reach my full potential

that i won't write

that i'm entirely untalented

that i'm incapable of cutting the intellectual mustard

that if i'm not pleasing someone, i'm nothing

that i will never make something of myself

that i'm inherently obnoxious

that as i grow older i'll find more and more to dislike about myself

that i'll never consider myself in shape again

that if i'm not attractive, i'm unworthy

that i'm perpetually failing god

that i'm not thankful enough

that it will be never or too long before i find mutual, faithful, committed, passionate, respectful, spiritual, intellectual, hilarious, creative, genuine love with a man i find beautiful in his own way

that every man i don't want to leave, will

that i want them all to leave

that i'm too intense

that i'm too much

that i'm not enough

Friday, July 24, 2009

residing while black

i was sitting in the living room watching chris matthews interview journalists, politicians, commentators, and university professors, and realized that my head hurt, i felt nauseous, and i'd started to shake.

after a few days of reading news articles, op ed pieces, and engaging with people on facebook as well as in person, i'd finally physically internalized the henry louis gates, jr. incident.

though unpremeditated, obama's initial reaction and follow up was perfect. he's done everything possible to discuss the racial state of the nation yet resist favoring the african-american population in his policies and statements. i think many af-ams understand how difficult this must be and acknowledge the internal struggle it's probably causing him as the first african-american president. his reaction to the gates incident is one of the most powerful examples of how the majority of af-ams feel about race-based profiling in general and the gates event in particular. the man who has done such a superior job at maintaining a primarily impersonal persona where race is concerned apparently couldn't help but let slip some actual feelings about a proven he's almost surely experienced himself.

so if the african-american president can't help but express frustration and anger, why wouldn't dr. gates react the way he did? people continue to say that the police had to do their job, and the arresting officer could not help but bring in gates. but the only obligations the officers had was to show up, determine identity and act accordingly. if the news reports are correct, gates's two forms of identification were not sufficient, and the police who are trained to keep their cool felt so insulted and threatened by his "tumultuous" behavior that they just had to make an arrest.

i'm heartsick. not surprised or shocked, but sick not only about the situation itself but about some of the reactions i've seen on the part of some white friends and acquaintances.

as chris matthews stated tonight:

imagine the situation reversed. harvard professor, henry kissinger, an older man wearing dress pants, wire-rimmed glasses, and a tucked in polo shirt...and apparently carrying a suspected to have broken into a house that's not his own by a neighbor who somehow has no idea he's living within view of her home. the officer who approaches him is african-american, and fails to communicate the reason for the police presence. he treats dr. kissinger like a suspect almost immediately and continues to question him even after he provides two forms of ID. kissinger is understandably frustrated and maybe even belligerent...the officer interprets his behavior as being "tumultuous", and apparently can't think of any other way to settle things but to arrest him.

nothing can convince me that much of white america's reaction to this scenario would be the same as to the one we have in front of us. people would be in disbelief that the neighbor didn't know that henry kissinger is a neighbor. his age would be cited. how could a neighbor or even the police think a neatly dressed older man with glasses had broken into a house, especially in such a small community? the idea that he was aggressive enough to warrant arrest would be highly doubted. and it's extremely difficult to believe that the african-american officer wouldn't be reprimanded and called overly aggressive. but, obviously, it's very doubtful that the vigilant neighbor would have been suspicious of a neatly dressed older white man, and the 911 call would almost certainly not have been made.

so we have gates who was exhausted after a flight from china and he can't get in his house so as any of us would do, he found a way in. he's inside and police officers show up at his home. from what i understand, instead of stating something to the effect of, "sir, we're here to respond to a 911 call," they ask him to come out of his house. he's a studied scholar and a black man as well and he knows what's going on. people still doubt that this kind of thing happens, but it does. he knows that his white neighbors wouldn't be treated the way he is and he's angry. this isn't a first time thing for him. people get fed up. fed up with deferring to police who are a little (or a lot) more rude, aggressive, arrogant, physical, and even liberal with arrests because the "suspect" is black. and it's so often justified. even perfectly progressive white people who fully understand that racism is still rampant have a difficult time facing it when it becomes evident, especially when subtleties are involved.

i do not believe that this is an issue of the white officer being a corrupt and awful man, and the accompanying black officer being a cowardly uncle tom. a piece i read today made the astute observation that one of the most dangerous and awful things about racism is that it can be so insidious. the bias becomes so internalized and so natural that sometimes even the people who perpetrate it have no idea that it's part of how they view and evaluate others' words and actions. the white officer probably had no conscious intention of treating gates differently than he would have a white person in his or her home. black officers aren't immune from this either. it's clear that there are black folks who buy into the idea that we just aren't as good citizens as others. but gates knew and a lot of black people know that this incident was not free of bias, however unconscious. and to think that at this point of his life he's still vulnerable in this way has to be absolutely maddening.

there are some who are of the opinion that while this happens to black people all the time, especially men, dr. gates's situation is garnering an unreasonable amount of attention. but part of his anger is due to the fact that if you're black you are susceptible no matter what. who can ignore the irony of profiling and arresting "the nation's most famous black scholar" who holds a professorship at Harvard where he's Director of the Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research?

i'm asking people to consider that being questioned by the police might not feel the same to a law-abiding black man as it does to a law-abiding white man who has never felt threatened by the police and has never been, or known someone who's been, targeted because of his race. consider that while you might see this as a sanitized event...two individuals engaging in a silly mix-up, perhaps...that to someone who knows the "routine", to be profiled about entering your own home might be humiliating especially when you've provided what the police need to be satisfied. looking to the example of henry kissinger, i can imagine the police simply checking his ID and leaving...perhaps grumbling about the crazy old guy who got overly excited when he was questioned.

what many of us don't get is that while equal, black people and white people in this country are not the same. we have different experiences. black folks make jokes about "driving while black" but who actually believes that we think it's funny? that our brothers, sons, fathers, uncles are often targeted, frightened, humiliated. rendered powerless? this shapes us, and it affects our tolerance levels. i've seen my mother being watched when we go into a store. admittedly, i've been highly embarrassed when she does this, but she'll call the clerk or owner on it, announce that she's never coming back, and then leave. when a white couple first moved to my mom's street, the husband asked her repeatedly if she actually lived on the block. it was if he just couldn't process that my mother is an actual homeowner here. and i could stake my life on the fact that if she were in gates's position that officer would have heard a lot more than he did from gates.

what's ultimately heartbreaking as i research and peruse the Net is having to see mug shots of dr. henry louis gates whose work i've read in numerous courses. granted, mug shots always make me profoundly sad. but i've found myself getting teary seeing his, knowing that even though the charges against him were dropped, he was handcuffed, hauled away and those images will never go away. it shouldn't happen to anyone regardless of their position. but how frightening it is to truly realize that even a world-renowned scholar is vulnerable like the rest of us. if this can happen to him, one can only imagine what other targeted black people must endure.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mod Melancholy

I just read a terribly depressing piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel about the recent suicide of David Foster Wallace....and because I haven't yet read any of Wallace's work, and I could never bring myself to read Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, I can't comment on the writing of either.

It's the New York magazine pieces written in response to Wallace's suicide I'm struggling with...not the feelings of sadness or even the apparently inconsistent expressions of inevability and surprise, but...the hopelessness of Wurtzel's piece, even at the end, and the post-mortem laud of Wallace by Sam Anderson who reflects on him and his work in the Books section of the magazine.

Both Wurtzel and Anderson call Wallace a genious - Wurtzel writes that she was clued in to it at a party partly due to Wallace being particularly taken by the silver lamé leotard she was wearing.

This reference to her own self-named quirkiness is perhaps a good thing meant partially to offset the tone of the rest of the piece, but I'm uncomfortable with her direction toward stylish self in the midst of an homage to Wallace.

But I suppose it lightens her last paragraph:

"So here is the miserable truth that those of us who are given to depression are forced to face when David Foster Wallace commits suicide: It didn't and doesn't turn out well. There is no happy ending to the story of sorrow if you are born with a predilection for despair. The world is, after all, a coarse and brutal and cruel place. It's only a matter of how long you can live with it."

If I'm honest, I have to admit that I'm most uncomfortable with this last passage because I'm afraid it's true...I've felt that way time after time, as recently as last week. I'm angry at her for saying it, but it depresses me more for her opinion of his genious state to have anything to do with his ability to recognize how her party dress makes her hip amongst the burgeoning famous in a Tribeca loft.

And when you get down to it, maybe it's the hip-pifying of despair that feels the worst as I sit here writing this, shoulders drawn up around my ears....the need to self-assert even when contemplating the deepest dark despair one could imagine.

I want it to stop, and I know it won't.

It's the search for what will help us feel better, not just the clinically depressed, but all of us, even the ones who swear that they "can't complain." Sam Anderson characterizes Wallace's 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, as well as his writing, as "life-affirming, practically Buddhist." The search for relief is universal precisely because Elizabeth Wurtzel stated something true. I can't contradict her when I've watched the news, seen that someone has passed away from an illness or accident and felt envious that he doesn't have to be here anymore - and most importantly, doesn't have to agonize over whether or not to take the manner and timing of his demise into his own hands.

Clearly, whatever David Foster Wallace was doing, didn't work. As Anderson says, his approach was spiritual, "positive", almost Buddhist. But it wasn't enough. And that's what I've found, when the practice of a generalized positive approach based on will is used to cope with depression and despair. I know I sound cynical and angry, and I know it's because I'm sitting at a computer right now, still in my pajamas at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon because I've seen it firsthand. I'll probably always struggle with my own clinical depression, and am recovering from a break-up with someone suffering from depression, anxiety, significant intimacy issues and a need for perfection. Until he virtually broke down, he tried to make things better by reading self-help books, including Pema Chodron's "The Places That Scare Us," and essentially tried to transform himself into a picture of a Buddhist monk living in the big city.

I own "The Places That Scare Us" and have read it, even recently, and it's impressive. I mean it. It's sincere, wise, profound, and moving. I just don't think it's enough, and I'm frustrated. I saw my ex struggle so hard, trying desperately to make himself be and do the things the book suggests, and wonder why he couldn't transform himself...why he couldn't use his own will to achieve a state that takes monks who practice constantly years and years, I presume. And I took particular notice when Sam Anderson writes that he likes to imagine alternate endings to Wallace's life...perhaps joining a Himalayan monastery. My ex talked at times about how he might just not have been meant for this world...that perhaps he should've become a monk...Catholic? Buddhist? He considered seriously that he needed to be extreme in his resignation from this world that hurts so much. I do remember one instance, however, when he conceded that even monks have to live with each other and themselves, and that perhaps it might not be the ultimate retreat he imagined.

Is that what it takes to find relief in this world? Complete removal from virtually everything?

Sometimes I think so, and this comes to me when I read pieces like Wurtzel's and browse through magazines like "New York" and "Philadelphia", and see society and entertainment headlines online or on television. Even Facebook makes me cringe at times.

I don't know that "will" can relieve us of the need to compare ourselves to others, and ruthlessly mark achievements and failures in both ourselves and others...trying to be relevant and smart and cool because the fear of failing in these areas are valid. I've seen people reject friends and acquaintances, current and potential, when they unwittingly reveal their humanity (humanness?) by saying, doing, wearing, writing, or even listening to something that doesn't measure up according to whatever's deemed acceptable. I'm guilty as is everyone, because unfortunately, it's so terribly human. And as most of us know, it's all based on our own fear of being irrelevant, unloved and most awfully, unlovable.

But it's vicious. This constant comparing and assessing might be one of the most dangerous psychic and spiritual crimes out there because there's no way for anyone to win...the measuring stick is a purely subjective tool, and it justifies treating both ourselves and others abominably. Objectification at its worst...seeing others as only mirrors that reflect our own worth. Doesn't this extend to acts of oppression and violence on a global scale?

I think there's violence in being constantly exposed to the onslaught of cultural self-assessment that's out there. And it's so incredibly easy to just jump in and participate, because you have to be interesting, knowledgeable, cool (what does this even mean?), acceptable, and exceptional all at the same time. It's exhausting, and my response is often to withdraw because I can't handle it. At times, it's all I can do to get through a day feeling like I can face the next one. But that need to achieve something of be someone of worth...isn't inherently the problem. It's the reasons why, and what we put ourselves and others through as we continue reinforcing it with meaningless or at least deceptive methods.

Sometimes I lie on my bed and think about being in this room, this house, this city, spinning through the universe and how God doesn't give a good goddamn about who we know, what we listen to, and what we wear. I think God does care very much about our melancholy and despair and wants us not to rely on our own sheer will to feel better about being here...even our spiritual will. Spiritual practice is one thing. But the idea of constantly putting forth, even in the case of trying to receive, can be deceptive. I don't know the exact formula needed to feel worthy and loved especially in the face of what the world offers—which can be a great deal but often seems to fall short. I don't know exactly how to let go as both the Buddhist and the Christian traditions require in the interest of personal and communal peace.

The culture of comparison, though...a human, not a regional, economic or ethnic one...never seems to do us much good unless we look to others with compassion as sources of inspiration. It takes a lot to keep living. Wurtzel and Anderson are both right about that.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dream, January 25

This morning I woke up early which hasn't happened for a long time. Before the alarm even rang, I opened my eyes and remembered the dream I'd just had.

I think I might have been East Indian in the dream, because I was the platonic companion of an Indian princess. There was even an issue of misidentification where for a time, I was the Indian princess. Though now that I think of it, perhaps I was posing as her so she could hide herself away.

She was strong, liberated and very kind and the people around her loved her. I did as well.

The most interesting part is that at some point it was decided that I should have a husband, and my boyfriend from high school appeared. She was a wonderful princess and friend too, I suppose, and wanted me to be partnered with the right person for me. So we were trying to determine if he loved me. My very first lover was administered some sort of test - it was more like a series of questions - an abbreviated workbook? - he somberly and thoughtfully responded to these written questions, and it was determined that he did not, in fact, love me.

He was awfully resolute about it in my opinion, but, interestingly, no one at any point in the dream bothered to assess or even ask about my feelings for him. In this dream, the one he loved, was someone else he dated in high school. In the dream, though I wasn't devastated by the results of this process, I was unhappy; but, I didn't wonder about the lack of investigation into my feelings.

While my former boyfriend labored through this journey into his own heart, my princess had need to go away, but when she returned, I told her that I knew the results of this partnering process. It appeared that she knew as well, and she was sad for me, though not condescending or pitying. I can't remember her exact words, but I think I can recall her intimating that perhaps there would be someone else.

For now, however, I'd be accompanying her on a trip. Though as I oddly filled two dresser drawers instead of a suitcase, I felt alone and more like a servant than a friend.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


In late February, I will have been without my father for as long as I had him.

I read something recently (was it Palahniuk?) where a man relayed that he sometimes wondered when his father would emerge from the shadows. Perhaps he'd see him on the street? (Could that have been it?) Or was it that his father would someday come to him, having faked his death years before? Someday this man would learn that his father had to escape some sort of danger that forced him into a lengthy hiding. But his father would come back to him and all would be well. The author noted that this character was aware of what it meant, or at least what it seems to have meant, that a grown man was still hopeful for this sort of miracle. But, I understand.