Category Archives: Narrative Creation

On Suicide, And Life

My grandmother knocked on my bedroom door.  “Your mother’s on the phone, she wants to talk with you.”

I was asleep.  I rolled over and looked at the clock.  It was a little past 2:30 in the morning.

“Huh?  She wants to talk with me, now?”

My mother was a nurse and worked graveyard shift.  She was calling me from work, the hospital.

I got out of bed and went to the kitchen phone, trying to wake up.

“Hi.”

“Do you have Susan’s phone number?  Do you know where her and the girls are?”

Susan was my best friend Lynn’s mother.  Susan had left Lynn’s father Rob a few days before, because of his rampant alcoholism.

“No.  I don’t have their number.  Why, why do you want their number.  And why are you calling me now,” I insisted.

My mother didn’t hesitate, never considered the consequences of what she then said.

“It’s Rob.  He’s shot himself.  They’ve brought him into the emergency room.  It’s not good.  He needs surgery. They need Susan’s permission to go in.”

My best friend’s world had changed forever, and I knew it in that moment.  Like the way I knew the world changed when I saw American aircraft dropping bombs on Baghdad.  The morning that I watched shock and awe on CNN, I knew that world had changed forever, and that there was no going back.  Something permanent and palpable had taken place, and the world was different.

I had the same feeling when I received my mother’s morning phone call, my junior year of high school.  I  knew that Lynn’s world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same, and there was no way to go back.  I didn’t understand what that meant, I simply knew that something had irreparably exploded, that everything was now different, none of it for the good.  My mother’s call was a psychic gunshot, leaving me numb and dumb.

There was another layer of devastation in this information, because I knew that Lynn’s world had imploded before she knew it.  At fifteen or sixteen, there was a God-like knowing that had been unwittingly bestowed on me, because I knew that something horrific was about to visit my closest friend, one of the kindest, most generous souls that I have ever known, someone who would give you the shirt-off-her-back if you needed it, someone who didn’t play games like so many in our small high school did, and someone who never spoke with malice about another person.  She was kind and fun and smart and cool.  I loved her, trusted her, and envied her in the way the best friends often do, thinking her the better of us.  We never once quarreled, never bickered, and we both avoided the catty, shallow people who overpopulated our school and town.  My mother’s call was like watching a movie in which you know from the set-up that a guileless protagonist is going to suffer a terrible fate, and there’s nothing to do to stop the tragedy.

Only this was life, it was real, and the violence and destruction would irrevocably change her life, the whole of it.  In that moment of knowing, my life changed as well.

“No.  I don’t know the number where they’re staying at.  I think the Walkers might.  If someone at the hospital knows the Walker’s phone number, call them.”

I hung up.

*******

Lynn’s dad didn’t die.  The gunshot managed to blow the cognitive part of his brain out, while leaving the parts that kept him a shell of a human.  When I write, “blow the cognitive part of his brain out,” I am not being metaphorical.  He lived for ten or so years with a large chunk of his head missing, a deep hollow in his skull existed where Rob once lived.  He stayed in a long-term care facility, until his death.

The family rarely visited him.  I think it was too difficult.  Susan had lived for years with his alcoholism, and now there was this.  I think, though I don’t know, she decided to salvage the pieces of her life, with as little guilt as possible, which probably took a long time.  Lynn and her sisters couldn’t bear seeing their father wasting in a nursing home, seeing the man they loved existing as he did.  He had been a gentle and generous man, a caring father, not abusive or violent, by all accounts and evidence.  His drunken sin was melancholy, not violence.  He was a sympathetic person for whom the excesses of self-medication had long ago quit working, and whose psychic demons got the best of him.

It wasn’t until we were out of high school, three years after the attempt, that Lynn finally visited him.  “I went and saw my Dad,” she told me.  In telling me of her visit, I knew that she was confessing to me her failure to visit him before this, and unburdening herself of what she saw.  “It was so strange.  The doctors say he doesn’t know anything, but I swear he knew me when I talked to him.  There was something in his eyes, I would swear he knew it was me.  It was weird.”

I didn’t tell her that I suspected she was correct.  No, I never said that her father might be buried in there somewhere, happy to hear his oldest daughter’s voice, after so long alone in that bed.  I wouldn’t give her a hint that some consciousness might stay in that shell of a body, forced to live knowing, in some way, what he had done to himself, and his family.  I don’t know, and no one ever will.  But I know that science is learning that a part of us often remains intact when the doctors pronounce that our minds have checked out, declare us brain dead.  It’s emerging science, but its persuasive and resonates with the wild imaginings that many experience when they believe that, “there is somebody in there.”  Until science catches up and gives us a new story, empirical research trumps experience.  But I trust Lynn’s perception, and I believe that Rob’s heart or mind, something deep and residual, related to consciousness, jumped when she said, “Hi, Dad, it’s Lynn,” and took his hand in hers for a few minutes.

I wouldn’t tell her that.  I said, “maybe he did, and if he did, I’m sure it made him feel better.”  I then listened and understood when she told me that she couldn’t visit him again, for a while.

*******

When I write that “my life changed forever” because of Rob’s failed suicide attempt, I am not, again, being metaphorical.  For the only thing that stopped me from killing myself for over a decade was the phantom that Lynn relayed of her father in that bed, after failing to kill himself.  When Lynn described the scene of her visit, my mind created an image of Rob in that bed, part of his skull missing, which I elaborated and built on as time went on.    One summer I worked in a convalescent hospital, and all the sights and smells and sounds of the half-dead and dying allowed me to add details to a picture that was already horrific.  In my imagination, I saw Rob being turned, saw the oozing red bed sores, imagined the daily diaper changing, smelled those smells that long-term facilities fill your nose with, smells that rot memory’s fragrance of innocence.  All the sorry particulars about what kept him going, I filled in with excruciating detail.

I imagined that he was living out every day alone, in that shell, suffering a fate worse than the one that he had tried to escape.  I conflated the story of Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” with Rob’s nursing home existence.  Although Rob was brain-dead, because of Lynn’s description, and the flicker of life that she thought she saw, I imagined him trapped in a body, with enough memories remaining to plague him, a person with enough brain left to know that he needed changing and turning.  I imagined him waiting for years on end for a visit, a timeless steam of days, endless and empty.

I developed this prolific embellishment from Lynn’s relatively brief story.  But if I excessively ornamented her story, it’s because my psychic demons tormented me to excess.  “To be or not to be” wasn’t a philosophical question, but my confrontation with a logistical reality: will a plastic bag work, how deep does a razor have to go, are there legal poisons that kill fast and quick.  Immediacy is important, because it’s the overwhelming pain that needs remedy, without worrying about extending one’s life a day longer than necessary.  The “what if I tried and failed” propelled an alternative narrative rich in sensory detail and emotional projection, a part of my psyche warning me to think this thing through.

Failure was not an option, so when it came to taking my life, the fear of failure proved a valuable ally in the will to survive’s beleaguered battle.  When you’re in the throes of depression’s debilitating darkness, nothing really matters but finding a way to rid the mind and body of that crippling stranglehold.  Sometimes in a movie, there is a character who gets gangrene, and must cut off their own limb to save their  life.  Suicide is similar, only to cut one’s psyche from one’s self, the whole of life must go.  Suicide seems unerringly logical, for the rotting, debilitating thing needs ridding.  For those who have never lived in depression’s fathomless depths, selfishness has nothing to do with it.  It’s the pain.  Day in, and day out.  There’s no escape.  Day after day, a relentless beast that consumes everything you have and then demands more.  When the pain goes on for years, it’s like living with the infectious invasion of a gangrenous limb: though you know that poisons are spreading through you, know that the prices you are paying are too high, you don’t know how to make the thing go away, other than cutting it off.  The weeks  — no, months of my life —  that I spent researching possible ways that I might permanently rid myself of the pain, and not merely fantasize about living without it, are incalculable.  Researching my death, with a kind of scholarly ambition, was at times a part-time hobby: the idea of living without the oppressor was itself a hope, a medication.  But Rob’s failure was the story that kept me from slashing my wrists deeply enough, consuming poison, putting a plastic bag over my head, for I learned early that I needed to get it right, needed to infallibly carry out whatever method might relieve me of the unbearable torment that was my life, the existence that I lived in.

I don’t know if the fear of failure is a good reason not to kill one’s self, but it’s the one I had for too many years.

*******

Manic-depression was the diagnosis.  At my worst, I was on five medications, twelve pills a day.  The doctors incrementally increased my Prozac dosage, until I reached the maximum dose of 80 milligrams, four 20 milligram capsules a day.  It didn’t put a smile on my face, a bounce in my walk, or make me feel like life was worthwhile.  Every few months involved a new medication, a different color to add to the assortment: meadow green, pale pink, baby blue, white, sunshine yellow.  They discussed putting me on lithium, but I couldn’t take lithium, because, I believe it was the blue pill, and lithium were potentially dangerous when taken together.  There was a quasi-lithium medication, a salt related to lithium that they thought would act like lithium, while taking the blue bill.  Or that’s how I remember it.  The blue pill was important for some reason.  I had been on it for some time.  It took time to reach therapeutic levels.  It required a managed, protracted withdrawal.  They wanted to keep me on it.  Instead, they would start me on lithium’s blue-pill friendly cousin.  This pill, they assured me, would do the trick, and I could stay on the needed blue pill.

There was a story for every pill, and none of the stories translated into psychic relief.

I don’t know how long the insanity to cure the craziness went on.  Those days are lost in chemical soup.  Eventually, I felt absolutely nothing.  I was as dead inside as Rob had been in that bed, alive but not living.  I barely functioned, struggled to complete life’s basic tasks, take a shower, brush my teeth, do the dishes.  I usually had the groceries delivered.  Shopping, some people’s medication of choice, overwhelmed me when things were especially bleak.

One day, I went to my apartment balcony, picked up my cat, held him, and looked out the balcony doors.  Bleu was the new player in the unconscious will to survive.  I doubted that anyone could cherish him as did I.  I found him, because the clerk at out-patient psychiatry was talking about his Persian cat who was pregnant.  I overheard him, and  I told him that I would like one of the kittens.  He agreed, and Bleu became mine before he was born.  The horrors of the Rob narrative had weakened, from too many years of recycling, and too many years of psychic torment.  Bleu was real, and he brought a new story into my life, because I wouldn’t leave him.  My care of this little creature, despite my personal pain, affirmed something deep about me, and life.  I replaced the picture of failure, the image thwarting my darkest demons from having their way, with hope, although I didn’t know it until writing this essay.  This was the truth waiting to get out in this writing: I began a long process of psychic healing, when I replaced the image of failure with love.  This was a deep shift, a meaning that I hadn’t comprehended until this moment.  Caring for myself was onerous, but my invariable morning ritual was cleaning Bleu’s box, changing his water, and feeding him, the first thing every morning.  In these simple daily acts, I touched something beyond the pain, however briefly.  As I held Bleu and looked outside the balcony doors, stroking him and listening to his soft motor, I told myself, “I am going to live, or I am going to die, but I am not living like this anymore.”  I then did what every psychiatrist tells their patients not to do, and I got rid of my medications.  I didn’t simply quit taking them — I flushed one bottle after the other down the toilet, hundreds of dollars of meds, flushed.

I’m not suggesting psychiatric patients dump their meds.  A friend recently pointed out that it’s miraculous that I didn’t die within days, from the physical shock of withdrawal.  This never occurred to me.  I simply knew that if I were going to live, I refused to live as a member of the walking dead.  I don’t know how long I had been on meds, I think several years by this time.  Presumably, one doesn’t quit taking potent psychiatric drugs, for as long as I took them, without supervision.  So they say.  My inner voice, a voice that is perhaps documented somewhere as “hears voices,” called me to life.  The sound was the faintest whisper in my soul, but I listened.

I’m certain that a professional would scold me for being careless, for implying that seriously ill patients get a kitten, go off meds, and find happiness.  I am not.  Everyone differs.  For me, because this is my story, my life, and my truth, I write that this was a powerful day, one that stays in my memory as pivotal, on an unconscious level, a really important seed planted itself in my soul.  I gave myself a choice, to live or die.  I chose to live, and somewhere, somehow, the message took hold.  There’s no immediate happy ending to this story.  I didn’t suddenly see the light, do the happy dance, and then go live in sunshine and flowers.  The pain didn’t stop, nor did the suicide ideation disappear overnight.  The road has been long, hard, and full of major setbacks.  Including the Thanksgiving day that a too young Bleu unexpectedly died, and the crippling months following his death.  I didn’t think that I would survive.  But I did.  Because that day that I looked out of my balcony doors, held a sweet creature in my arms, and dumped my meds, I affirmed life as a reality worth living, and that I was willing to work for, despite myself.

Because this is my story, it’s my truth, as I know it today.

If you’ve never struggled with depression, my great insight, that life is worth living and working for, is obvious, and my epiphany may sound obtuse in the extreme.  For those of us with a skewed emotional lens, it is not.  That’s the disease.

The Buddhists, positive psychologists, and William James talk about habits of mind.  Meditation.  Awareness.  Finding the good in every situation.  Saying affirmations.  Writing affirmations.   Finding a truth that resonates with goodness, hope, love, and our most generous human sentiments.  Culling for the good in every situation and every person.  Appreciating nature.  Focusing on life’s abundance.  “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way” may sound like tripe to those who haven’t been to hell and back on a nonstop loop from which there seems no end.  But for those of us who have, it is perhaps the most precious gift that life offers, to simply be, and from that, to be happy, a little at a time.  Building on being, day by day, working on self-love, fostering a loving, soul centered consciousness, that’s freedom and peace.  Life does the rest.  A little at a time.  Day by day.

I believe that I now live where I live, because of the work I’ve done for the past decade.  Listening to the trees, the birds, seeing the seasons change, all of this life everywhere, I see and feel and hear, because I have known the other side more deeply than most.  Life presented the opportunity to thrive, and I took it.  There’s a synchronicity when you’re doing what you should, and listening better than before.

There’s no simple explanation about how I got from point A to point B: the road has been a lot of trial and error.  I have no answers.  I also know that I have shortchanged an important topic, one fitting for a book, into a truncated essay with a cat and some platitudes for its ending.  That’s not the point.  The point is my personal progression from a grim and firsthand knowledge of debilitating psychic pain, to a life in which I appreciate life’s most simple gifts a little more, and feel their profound happiness, here and there, as life goes on.  I call that thriving.

My experiences seemed important to write on given last week’s headlines, not because I know someone else’s story, but because I wanted to share mine, however briefly.

I have done so.

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Filed under Gratitude, Imagination, Love, Mystery, Narrative Creation, Spirituality, Storytelling, Understanding

On Truth

I’m not a big fan of the word “truth” — the people I know who cling to it most tightly tend to be dogmatists, and not much engaged with reality’s malleable and imaginative aspects.  Truth becomes a function of certainty, the belief that the world exists in a real way, and there are usually prescriptions for how we are to interpret this reality.  That seems to me counterproductive at best, functionally delusional at worst.

My assertions may sound strange, especially as I spent a huge chunk of my life studying philosophy, and pursued an equally strange creature called “God,” or enlightenment.

Love, the practice of compassion, the art of forgiving ourselves and the world, is really the only principle — I deliberately write principle and not truth — that exists, and the best we can do is approximate what that principle looks like in the moment.  For myself, the best response is usually intuitive, not something that can be predetermined.  The other stuff seems to me just the mind doing its thing, and should be regarded as such, the mind doing its thing.

These days, I’m not too enamored of the mind.  I am more or less bemused by its convolutions.

As I set down my story, and a series of other stories, I’m pretty appalled at who I’ve been, and at times gobsmacked by who I’ve become.  Not because I was such a horrible person, or that I am so demonstrably awesome now.  I’m appalled at the self-destructive behaviors and the self-loathing, the amount of unnecessary angst that I carried as a personal truth written in an unalterable understanding of my story, and my self.  It was all so warped, a singularly stellar production of my mind.  Who I was is now deeply disconcerting and very uncomfortable, the self-love and self-awareness being more constant with time.

Which got me thinking about all the melodrama and shock value that have been emerging from the pages.  I find myself wanting to edit who I was, because that person’s perceptions were so unbelievably skewed.  I know why she ended up that way, but seeing her play out the things she played out, makes me more than a little nervous.

Not in the specifics, but in the emotional lenses that got her there.  My inclination is to give her an eye roll and hit her upside the head, which was precisely the problem, because all she ever wanted from me was a gentle hug and some understanding.

So I have been questioning the issue of transparency, and if all this “truth” is really necessary in my writing.

The issue, of course, is one of courage, not the narrator’s story.  I knew when I began seriously thinking about this memoir that I would use a nom de plume, not because of shame, but because I wanted to create a safety zone.  I am crafting from memory a character, and though her story’s emotional contours and extensive experiences are framed from my history, I barely recognize her as “me.”

Two anecdotes come to mind while I buckle up and address my reservations about self-revelation, as the girl that I once was emerges from the pages.  During my recent writer’s conference, a poet who has recently published a brutally honest memoir stated, “the more specific, the more universal.”  That bit of advice sticks to my skin like something resembling “truth,” a principle irrevocable and inalienable.  Be specific, don’t elide the details to make the story palpable.  Yes, I will be choosing which details to include, to craft a cohesive story, but I must not omit details simply because I don’t like what I see.  Or worse, try to capture her in a way that makes sense, because my choices were chaotic.  At times, there’s no making sense of that person, because there’s no making sense of a soul driven but lost.  Or creative.   Or both.   That’s part of the story.  The good stuff is the stuff that makes me wince, because that’s where something like beauty or transformation or redemption emerge.   And that’s the universal, the material that binds us together.

In Buddhism, “the lotus of enlightenment blooms from the substance of the world.”  The pond in which the lotus blooms is usually the nastiest mire of gunk.  It’s not the fresh water pool of crystalline blue water in which the lotus takes root.  No, it’s all mucky, stagnant, and repugnant.  The lotus takes root in the mire, and that’s why its a symbol for the awakened soul, the one whose roots have gone down into the world, while blooming above it’s waters.

In Christian theology, it’s called “grace,” and understood in more stark terms: the more sin increases, the more grace increases.  I prefer to side with Jesus (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) and the Buddhists on sin, rather than Paul.  I think of sin as ignorance, not an abstruse theological truth requiring violence for atonement.  At-one-ment: a recycled label of belief won’t get you there, a shift in consciousness gets you close.

Which brings me to my second anecdote.  I once knew a man who wrote a memoir.  Because he was married and had children, he omitted the experiences that would have created a compelling and powerful story.  He left out all the extra-curricular sex, the buying of it, the affairs, the phone sex, the experiences that men and women need to hear, from a man’s perspective.  He omitted much of what made him human, much of his-story.  I understand why he left these details out, in deference to his family.  But while his sentences were clean and elegant, the story felt disingenuous.  Something was missing.  Actually, a lot was missing.  “The more specific, the more universal.”  The specifics didn’t just fall to the ground, they were ignored.  Yet it was all there, waiting to be told, the roots of his craft begging to take root in his life experiences.

As memoirists, we certainly have no truth telling us how to write, or what we must include.  Life may at times constrain many narrative decisions.  I choose  to write a memoir that doesn’t ignore the muddy waters, to shape my story as it comes to me, no matter how much I dislike looking at who that girl was, because I am a writer.  As memoirists, we don’t just shape stories, we shape ourselves, and our history.  I’m writing my story, and in so doing, owning my life, while creating something that I’d like to call art.  In a story’s specificity, we raise ourselves beyond our personal history, and touch those who may choose to pick up our book, read our blog entry, while we go deeper into our own personal truth, which is the only truth that life gives us.

Dani Shapiro once wrote:  “I think it may be time for a literary education about what memoir is, and what it isn’t. Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir ‘Slow Motion’ because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense. You wanted to read a memoir.”

Another friend — a man who taught creative writing, and is a published memoirist — exhorted me at length several years ago about art for art’s sake, when I mentioned the word “redemption” in relation to the craft of memoir writing.  While I value his opinion, I agree with Dani Shapiro.  Life is art, and writing is both life and art.  To arbitrarily create boundaries and insist on something like art only for art’s sake seems to me to smack of another “truth,” as though we’ve got Venn Diagram aesthetics.  “Art and art therefore art” is a valid syllogism; “art and redemption therefore life” is invalid.  Embracing life, art, writing, redemption, and letting go of the labels isn’t just easier, it seems to me closer to the art that humans have enjoyed and shared since we first sat in circles to be entertained: our storytelling ancestors didn’t tell stories in an aesthetic vacuum, they connected us to each other, and the world.  My friend’s position seems to me too dogmatic, too much a construction of the mind, although I admit that I’m probably stretching his meaning a bit to make a point.

In the craft of life, I see no reason not to be artful; in being artful, I see no reason not to redeem my life from its ignorance, while putting metaphorical pen to paper, one day at a time.

I choose to write a narrative that isn’t always pretty, but in owning its muddy waters, I may come closer to a life and craft that serenely float on the world’s waters, while fully rooted in its muck and heartache.

That’s my truth.

 

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Filed under Art, Awareness, Creativity, Inspiration, Love, Narrative Creation, Storytelling, Writing

More Creative Confluence

Last month, after some intense meditation on where next to take the book project, I discovered a conference taking place in Florida.  According to its promoters, the conference not only focuses on refining one’s submission, getting the agent, and getting the contract, but on writing from a personal and meaningful space.  In other words, the conference’s creative premise is that the quality of content is just as important as understanding the work as a product which must be presented and marketed to get an audience.

Several New York Times best selling authors will be there to help us understand the mechanics of both processes, writing and successfully submitting materials — and offering the best they have to give for those of us hammering out a dream.

When I stumbled on this conference, I felt like this was something I should do — a knowing.  I never heard back from the coordinator when I requested information on a scholarship application, and I thought, “well, I guess your gut was wrong.”  Then, two weeks ago, out of the proverbial blue, I received an application for the scholarship — tuition reduced by fifty percent.  It was the last space, and I didn’t have a dime in the bank.  I pressed for the space to be held, and it was reluctantly saved for me.

Through some very fortuitous circumstances — and I do mean, fortuitous, because I lost the scholarship twice, and got it back twice — I procured the scholarship.  “We rarely do this, we’re making an exception for you,” the coordinator wrote me last week.  Welcome to my world, I thought.  Yes, I’m the exception, and the better for it.  I’m the one who shouldn’t be here, but here I am.

I also quickly found cheap digs for staying, not easy in the heart of a Florida convention center city, and a generous friend has used his frequent flyer miles to get me there.

Here’s what’s inspired this entry.  My dear friend called me yesterday to book the reservation, and I was trying to micromanage flight times, squeezing in this and that, insisting that I could only afford to stay three nights, even though I have this feeling that I should stay the day after the conference.  I don’t know why, I just do.  Micromanaging the money and then trying to figure out how I could squeeze in an extra day wasn’t working at all: the bus trip from New Hampshire to Boston, then the flight to Florida leaves small windows for transfers and check-ins.  I got  all wound up in my predictable indecision, frustrated and not really certain how or what to do.  When pushed against the wall, I like to let circumstances dictate, pretending that I am going with the flow, when in reality I just don’t know what I am doing.  It wasn’t happening, circumstances weren’t dictating anything, I needed to make decisions.  My friend gently said to me, “here’s what I recommend,” and he convinced me to stay 5 nights in Florida.  It felt right.  Logically  insane, but it felt right.  “You will make it work,” he confidently said, without any doubt that I will do I need to do to stay for five nights in Florida.  I realized then that doing this trip right meant honoring the investment of myself that I have already made, and the conference deserves a full investment of my courage and wits.  My friend graciously swept away my insecurities, and my limited ideas.

I breathed deep.  It was beautiful and it felt right.

Some gifts are priceless, extending beyond a frequent flyer plane ticket.

With this gesture, his confidence broke new ground for me.  I majorly upped my life game during the course of one conversation.  If this is something that I know I am to do, then why would I worry about the extra bucks and set myself up for unnecessary stress because I thought I had to cram everything into a short time.  I’ve already given away most of what I own, hunkered down in the middle of nowhere without a car, and I’m going to worry about two extra nights in Florida?  His insight was part of the big picture, the thing that’s unfolding.

Yes, I will make it work. It’s not in the budget, although that assumes that I have a budget.  But I will make it work, and it will work.  Because it will.

I can also cross one thing off of my new yearly list:  “Every year, go one place that you have never gone before.”  I can’t say that Florida is a place that I would have wished to go, but I’ve never been.  So I’ve got one goal met, and since it’s early in the year, maybe I can squeeze in a visit to somewhere else that I’ve never been before 2015.

Five nights in the land of hanging chads, following my bliss into yet another leap into the unknown.

Couldn’t be happier knowing that my inner GPS and I are working it out just fine.

Not coincidently, I discovered a mesmerizing TEDTalk this past week, and it was part of the game changer mentality.

“Fake it until you become it” is a holy mantra these days.

Amy Cuddy On TEDTalks.  Twenty minutes worth investing in, if you’ve not seen it.

 

 

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Filed under Awareness, Confluences, Creativity, Inspiration, Narrative Creation, Writing

Where’s The Sex?

A recent mandala.  It's created with gold, metals, and lots of iridescence.  Peacock inspired.

A recent mandala. It’s created created with gold, metallics, and lots of iridescence, which didn’t translate in the scan. Peacock inspired.

 

This above all, to refuse to be a victim. —  Margaret Atwood

Last week, a client I’ve been speaking with for most of my professional life called.

A scientist in a prestigious institute, Tracy is transgender, in the closet most of the time.  During our first conversation over 15 years ago, my role was cast: I was the go-to girlfriend to help her explore her true self, a person in whom to confide.  Our talks explored ways for Terrance to be Tracy, while married to a heterosexual woman, and working as a successful male in the scientific community.  Tracy’s come into her own these past years, and I think she has embraced her identity as much as one can without surgery.  What I believe Tracy values is that I give her the freedom to be herself, and that I talk with her as a girl  —  which is to say, I talk to her without assuming that she’s playing gender pretend.

I am proud of this aspect of my career as a sex-worker.   I’ve been listening to and encouraging many closeted folks long before this kind of dialogue was in the mainstream.  I’ve dealt with many who didn’t fit into normative boxes.  All I’ve done is listen, and sometimes dole out too much unsolicited advice in the hope that I may be helping.

After Tracy and I spoke this past week, it bothered me to think of Tracy as transgender — a label that would have her live in a limiting psychological prison, as though she is in between one thing and another, a label that obscures her personhood.  It may be true that externally, Tracy’s life has been an evolution from one way of being into another, but in her soul,  Tracy has always been just Tracy.  She’s a devoted father, a husband, a scientist, a writer, a woman with great taste in clothes and shoes, a compassionate and caring human.  She navigates life’s complexities well, and I don’t see her as being “trans” anything.  Tracy is Tracy, a woman experiencing life deeply, as she owns her story and herself more fully.

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing these entries as a human with a wide variety of experiences.  Broader experiences than many, I suspect, which I think is necessary in order to write with some grace and substance.   Several times recently, while thinking about the handful of entries that I’ve offered, I’ve asked myself, “where’s the sex?”  “Where’s all the stuff about sex workers rights, and economics, and equality.”  The memoir that’s coming together that presumably gives people permission to write their own stories, in order to lovingly embrace every day of their lives, and not be victims of other people’s well intentioned if ignorant narratives  —  where’s all that stuff, in these entries?

Well, the sex worker story is only one story, and because I am more than just a sex worker, there are hundreds of stories that I own and live and breathe.  My problem is too many stories, not enough time (and really poor proofreading skills).

The bigger problem seems to be the label.  Society, the socialization game, deems some labels good, some bad.  Good labels:  doctor, teacher, professor, scientist, married with children, etc.  Bad labels:  transgender, homosexual, sex worker.  Although homosexual and transgender are far less onerous these days then “sex worker.”  But all labels do is keep the status quo cozy in its lethargic security blanket, nursing on inertia’s comforting, delusional milk.  None of these labels have to do with our personal depths, or capture the breadth of experience signified by the label, as well as the complexities beyond the label.  I’d also argue that many of the good labels actually perpetuate bad social norms, but probably best not to start down that road.

When Tracy and I spoke, I talked with her about my own coming out over the past couple of years, and expressed my discomfort at stereotyping sex workers as victims.  The label is sympathetic to the work’s many difficulties, and legally necessary within the context of trafficking.  However, it is psychologically problematic in helping people wrestle their lives from the grips of other people’s judgements and sympathies when we identify a person as a “victim,” especially in the context of sex work.

I’m not at all convinced that coming out as a “victim” makes one stronger — come out as a survivor, always.  That’s where to find the power.

The victim label excludes a wealth of experience, strength, insight, character qualities, and the possibilities that an individual brings to their life, and the lives of others.  It reduces a person’s life to a single experience or series of experiences, and reduces the person to a caricature.  A cartoon is a simple line drawing depicting the basic elements of form — yet most of us prefer living three dimensionally, in the world of color, light, and shade.  By slapping on the victim label we render too many too simply, preventing a more cohesive, developed portrait, a life representation that every human has the right to.

The most profound tragedy may well exist in the label.

****

After I moved to Cambridge several lifetimes ago, I visited an elderly Holocaust survivor through Jewish Family and Children’s Services.  To me, Michael was a great teacher, a simple and quiet man, living on the economic margins, with humility and dignity.  Michael had been imprisoned  in both Dachau and Auschwitz, a Polish Jew who lost everything when the Nazi’s ripped his eleven employee linen business away from him, and separated his wife and only son from him.  He never saw them again, never found them after the liberation, they became invisible under history’s weight.

He could have framed his life in the imagery and metaphors of loss and hate.  He did not.  Instead, he found a more meaningful message in his experiences.  Michael told me over my first Jewish Shabbat, that he prepared for us to share:  “the Germans were just people, too.  Just people,  just people . . .” his crooked arthritic index finger gently wagging, his round brown eyes filled with uncommon understanding.    I still see his eyes as he described to me how his ten year old son and wife were taken away, screaming, ripped from him, while he was violently ushered away by the Gestapo in the opposite direction.  The wisdom that Michael gave to me I have never forgotten:  we’re all very small players in the march of history, most of us are trapped in forces larger than we will ever understand, and we’re all just humans.

Michael understood that labels serve little useful purpose, they divide us instead of bringing us together.

And he never once used the label victim in the context of his story: he wrote poetry and prose about his experiences, which he shared, but never in his words, no matter how graphic their images of the camps, did Michael carry bitterness.  I never saw Michael carry himself or refer to himself as a Holocaust “victim.”  Rather, he saw himself as someone with a story to share, that might help others, lead them beyond hate and into understanding a reality beyond all our moral labels: we’re all just people.  Pretty simple.  No Elie Wiesel Nobel accolades, just one man’s story, wrestled from more heartache than most of us will ever experience.  One story at a time, one poem at a time, never with much fanfare, Michael put it out there, “just people.”

Whenever some well intentioned ideologue talks about the “evils of Hitler and the Nazis,” usually in the context of some distracting, moralizing  political discussion, in the heat of demonizing party politics, I often remember Michael, and the gift of his wisdom and friendship.  “The Germans were just people.”  He was such a rare and special soul that I have always considered myself unworthy of his gentle humanity, and treasure his simplicity as one of my life’s great spiritual teachings.

At first I found it odd that Michael came to mind while writing this entry — but it makes sense.  He taught me long ago that those whom it would be easy to demonize are “just people,” part of cultural forces much larger than ourselves.  They, too, have their stories, I learned many moons ago.  “Just people” is the standard I’ve tried to maintain throughout my professional career as a “sex worker,” a label that reduces an extraordinarily complicated profession into an easily digestible two word phrase for mass consumption.  A profession flippantly denigrated in the word “whore,” a term that very few have earned the right to appropriate for use.

“Just people.”  Practiced on my end sometimes better than others, because some of the damage that strolls through a sex worker’s life is not for the faint hearted or self-righteous.  That’s been my lesson in these years of work.

Sex workers are just people.  That sounds like a given, but I think it’s much easier and smarter than worrying about if they are social victims or sexual liberators, which is how such discussions frequently split among social activists: sex workers usually cast either as poor victims or heroic vixens.  But they are just people.  And because they are just people, they have a right to carve out lives and stories like everyone else, without a stigmatizing label that has less to do with their humanity than a fairly slow machine called “the wheels of progress,” a mechanism propelled by the ubiqutious fear of our creative impulse.

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Think Outside The Mandala

Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.   —   Carl Jung

jung-first-mandala

Carl Jung’s first mandala, 1917

 

I’ve worked with mandalas off and on for a long time, and I’ve been something of a Jungian for as long, though I’ve never consciously linked the two.  Until recently.

As I wrote in “Creative Confluences,” I’ve returned to making mandalas and working with art journals, creating a dialogue between hands-on works, self, life, and writing.  Mixing, coloring, painting, they inspire.  I lose myself, and, in the process, I see connections that my writing self fails to make.  According to Jung, mandalas are especially powerful, an unconscious and universal symbol of wholeness, a snapshot of the psyche artistically captured.  So evocative is mandala practice, that in Buddhist ritual, monks create an intricate, large scale sand mandala, have a community ceremony when its completed, and then ritually destroy it, in a striking meditation on life’s impermanence.

My mandalas are private expressions and suffer no such fate.  I quickly finish them, a few hours or so for each.  Regardless of the quality, I sign, date, apply a clear acrylic protectant, and place the piece in the growing pile of finished works.  They are self revelations and respectfully handled, even if they lack artistry.  Modest creatures, they are at home in seclusion —  and the better for it.  My simple works are offerings made to myself, by myself.  Playing both child and parent, I am proud giver and doting recipient.

Freedom.  It’s there, in these circular meditations.

Or, as Jung describes them, “psychological expression[s] of the totality of self.”

These expressions have become a primary spiritual practice, as I wrestle my self from myself in the middle of nowhere, while I write a book without a whit about book writing.

Everything’s connected.  The book.  The mandalas.  The spiritual journey that I set my mind to when moving here.  The dreams that appear, disappear, reappear.  The imaginative roads whose distances shimmer while I put words on the page.  Everything’s connected,  but if I try to delineate the contours, what I’m doing vanishes in its own mystery.  I don’t know what any of it means, or what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

During a conversation last week, I told a friend that I’ve stopped building the social media platform, it’s “a diversion at this juncture.  It makes me crazy.  There’s so much information, that we’re all getting stupider.  Noise, it’s noise.  Writing’s the thing, now.”

My ever patient business savvy friend said to me, “I know what you’re doing, and . . .”.

I nearly jumped through the phone in a breathless, ecstatic excitement.  Someone who knows what I am doing.  I thought my friend literally had an insight that I could wrap around my existence.  Apparently, it was merely a convenient turn of phrase.  But all I could think of during the comments that I have replaced with ellipses, because I quit listening after, “I know what you’re doing,” was, “Really?  You know what I am doing?  It’s obvious to you?  Tell me, what am I doing, because I haven’t a clue.”

I am writing.  I am making mandalas.  But I don’t know “what I am doing.”  And I’m not certain that I want to, which is frightening and beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago, I started a mandala.  Nothing was coming together, the design was strange, the color choices were off, and I was fumbling around, vainly trying to make it better.  I put it aside for several days, if not a week.  I returned to it.  It was as strained and uninspired as I remembered.  “Toss it,” I thought, “not salvageable.”  Then I begrudgingly remembered the contract that I’ve made with myself, to respect my work, no matter my feelings.  Especially the mandalas, given their now privileged status.

“Don’t throw it away,” I told myself, “think outside the mandala.”

I did.  I literally thought outside the mandala, started laying down layers around the edges, filled the space beyond its borders, created a deep teal background, and resisted the constraints imposed by the paper’s edges, filling the entire page.  I then worked on bands within the circle.  Normally, I begin from the center and work out, it avoids smearing, and allows the work to naturally unfold, as is common in mandala meditation practice.  I was working from beyond the edges and moving in towards the center.  The periphery informed the development: instead of unfolding the work from the core, I folded layers in while reaching for the center.  I incorporated the smooth and vibrant ink of gel pens, which I’d never used on a mandala, a few metallic gelatos for sheen, watercolor pencils for rich color washes, and then highlighted areas with oil pastels for added texture.

I ended up with one of the most detailed and multilayered works that I’ve yet made.

Is it one of my favorites?  No.  Aesthetically, it’s an odd thing.  Cohesive, vibrant, multilayered, yet odd.  But emotionally and creatively, it’s one of the most satisfying pieces in recent memory.  Although I’ve worked outside the mandala in the page’s empty space before, not with this degree of invention.  I’ve usually seen the empty space as part of the mandala, coming to the page with an idea of the whole, superimposing my will on the sphere and its surrounding space: I envision what I will do, and if I decide to work beyond the edges, the work is still essentially defined by the mandala’s sphere and it’s center.  I’ve rarely if ever truly thought outside the mandala, I simply enlarged its borders, while flattering myself for my cleverness.

In this work, the space outside the sphere existed on its own terms, for itself.  I was struggling with the circle’s interior, hadn’t given a thought to exploiting its periphery.  The emptiness surrounding a sphere in the middle of a 12 inch by 12 inch piece of paper was a complete unknown that I falteringly entered in order to make sense of the predetermined space that wasn’t coming together.  I had to think outside the mandala, because I hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, and I had committed to completing a ragtag work, no matter what.

“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.”

Nowhere.  Emptiness.  The unknown.  Outside the imposed limitations that we bring to experience, the “I live in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know what I am doing,” that’s where life begins, because we put ourselves beyond our cherished and limited ways of looking at the world.  This mandala’s most important narrative doesn’t exist on the page that I have signed, dated, sealed, and saved, but in the story born by stepping into a page’s nowhere, its now here, beyond the confines of an inked circumference, and my understanding of that boundary.

Mystery existed in a space that I hadn’t any presumptions about, an experience of not knowing, but that I was willing to enter.  When I saved a little faltering mandala and thought differently about its space, I mirrored a deeper reality, one rippling through my psyche and life.  I didn’t just enter an unknown space on a piece of paper, this is the life path I’ve chosen.  I’ve freed my self to live in the middle of nowhere, to write a book whose destiny is uncertain, to live at peace in this creative uncertainty, and to embrace its mystery.  In this acceptance, I’ve touched something that historically we’ve labeled as God, an unfortunately small if not unkind word.

After a lifetime of pursuing knowledge, thinking that “knowing” had something to do with enlightenment, I think I’ve come to understand that it’s not “knowing” that gets us where we desire to be.

Rather, it’s “not knowing” that deeply, radically, and beautifully transforms us, rends the veil between the ego’s illusions and our freest, most creative, loving selves.

To enter the kingdom of God, one must approach as a child, Jesus famously taught.  Perhaps he meant that one must not know.

If Buddhist monks destroy a mandala, possibly it’s not just a meditation on impermanence, but a profound archetypal leap into the great unknown, beyond understanding’s circumference, and into life’s mystery.

A leap that’s the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves, when we’re ready.

 

(YouTube video:  Tibetan Sand Mandala, Creation And Destruction)

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