Thanksgiving: One Year, Tens of Thousands of Words

Last year, I wrote an entry for Thanksgiving.

A prose poem, it described my visit on Thanksgiving morning by a group of wild Turkeys, who came down from the mountain behind my home, and hung around under my windows for a couple of hours.

They were magnificent creatures, and their arrival on Thanksgiving under my windows was for me as a mystical experience, for they connected me to things larger and wiser than myself.  Their appearance inspired a quick google into Native American legend and lore about these noble birds, and what followed was that I experienced the interconnectedness of land, history, and life’s collective consciousness, a broad, sweeping, and elusive reality.

I felt in awe of these birds who I saw as grand, teachers of a higher order.

As I remembered their visit this past week, I double checked when I wrote the entry.  I thought it must have been at least two years ago; two, maybe three.

No, just one.

I find what I have accomplished, learned, and created this past year extraordinary; more precisely, what I’ve made myself available to, and how its shaped me.  There’s no will involved, it’s willingness, and it’s a flow.  And there’s been more than a year’s worth of life lived these 360 plus days.

Last year, about this time, I was reeling from a broken heart, and the loss of a misguided love who I believed was the one; I had no idea where or how the book’s narrative would take shape, and I was at a loss for its future; and for all of my optimism, I still hadn’t learned to settle into the present moment.

I was still a creature of anxiety.

After countless miles in the mountains (an exaggeration, but a nice turn of phrase), tens of thousands of words (an understatement, because the hours tossed in editing are difficult to acknowledge), a summer of gardening, reconnecting to my visual art, a month-long fast, reading and listening to endless books on writing and self-development, nurturing relationships, hours and days in meditation, and learning to breathe and appreciate in stillness, life has done what it does: grown and proliferated and effortlessly opened itself.

 

*****

 

This past week, I thought about my first gardening this past summer.  I brought my pots in a month or so ago, and the basil and parsley and cilantro have eked out an existence in the back room, until I can afford a grow light.

The basil sits on the windowsill.  It’s leaves turn toward the diminishing sun, struggling for every minute of available light; the oversized tub of parsley that sits on the floor sends out long shoots, reaching for the window, determined to get what it needs, the light of life.  The cilantro, less so, because it’s slower grower and in a smaller tub, and its shoots are modest in their aspirations.

It’s an overworked metaphor for the soul, the plant growing in the light, I know.  But if you’ve never raised plants from seeds, watched them proliferate under the summer sun, and then seen them struggle for what they need and want, there’s an inevitable lesson: we are here to reach for the light that makes us grow.  It’s not metaphysics, it’s what it means to live.

To grow and thrive, we need our soul’s light, water, and fertile soil: and what makes one grow and flourish, may well be toxic to another.  This is the beauty of difference.  Orchids and parsley and asparagus fern don’t thrive in the same soil, sun, or watering conditions.   The conditions we need to flourish  aren’t  necessarily given to us, it’s our job to create the best circumstances for ourselves with what we have, and through our choices nourish our psyche, spirit, and body, until they work and grow together, day by day, as we turn our faces toward our light, the things that make us open ourselves to life, until we stand like a regal sunflower spreading its petals in late summer.

I’ve learned that life is simple, and thriving is our rightful nature as beings on a soul guided journey: to turn toward what inspires and nurtures, and then grow.

Writing tens of thousands of words has been part of my growth, part of my life’s light, writing until I hit my truths, the things waiting to get out, the discoveries sitting like dormant seeds.  As I work on life, the seeds start growing, and they find their way on the page.  The relationship between art and life goes back and forth, a loop that eventually dissolves the boundaries between inner realities and outer ones.  Eventually, in my mind, the distinction between inner and outer appears only as a convenient myth: everything is connected, and what I have understood as meaningless, isolated fragments wait for me to uncover their meaning and beauty.

They wait to find their place in my story arc, and this unfolding arc shows how one life relates to that great elusive life consciousness: a story connecting the individual to the universal.

In this entry, the waiting discovery planted itself last Thanksgiving morning.  The morning marked by the visit of eleven wild Turkeys, who I saw as master teachers, ancient souls visiting under my window, messengers offering me a totem of things to come.  “Abundance, fertility, nobility, awareness, connection with Mother earth, ” the animal symbolism website informed me.  Did I think a year ago that tens of thousands of words would allow me to discover more about love, life, and growth than I’ve previously known?  Did I expect that a summer of gardening and books and art and new relationships would begin nurturing parts waiting to come alive?

No.  I have lived more this year than any year before, creating, breathing, exploring, writing tens of thousands of words (in fact, hundreds of thousands), including a prose poem written a year ago, under the morning sun, and prompted by the visit of eleven magnificent creatures whose promises carried more weight than I imagined.

Tens of thousands of words later, a year having passed, and I recognize that I barely comprehend everything for which I should be grateful.  So I surrender myself to the feelings that ripple through me and travel into the ether: the joy of being alive and grabbing the scraps of happiness that float around me, catching one, letting it go, catching another, letting it go, hoping that someday I’ll see the big picture better, grabbing scrap by scrap, until the horizon’s filled with nothing but glorious scraps of bright colored tissue paper like happiness .

For I have another belief, one supported by science: as my gratitude grows, it spreads, and these feelings shape an incomprehensibly resilient and achingly fragile world, as water shapes stone.

Happy Thanksgiving.

May you see your meaningful totem, and honor its importance.

Random Thoughts On Writing

I ran across an article this past week.  Stephen King tells a story about himself and J.K. Rowling.

They were both being interviewed, at different times, and after her interview, she stormed into their shared waiting room.  “They don’t understand what we do, do they?  They really don’t understand what we do,” with a few profanities sprinkled in, out of frustration, according to King.

King replied, “No, they don’t.”

The irony amused me, because neither King nor Rowling knows what they do, and they have said so.  This is not me pontificating like a know-it-all, this time; this is what they have said, in print.  No, they don’t know what they are doing.  They just do it.  They write.  They do it over and over.  They do it until it feels or sounds or looks like they have hit that thing waiting for discovery.

Over the past two weeks, I reread King’s stunning “On Writing.”  It’s a remarkable book, and I’ve never read a King novel, am not a devoted King reader.  But if there were only one book that an aspiring writer could choose to read, in a hypothetical universe where the starry-eyed-would-be-writer may take only one book on writing with them on the road to perdition,  it’s that one.

I’ve read a lot of books on writing, especially this past year.  It’s part of what I do, as someone who works with these strange marks, collects them in words, lines them up in sentences, organizes these sentences into paragraphs, believing that I am strangling meaning from marks, words, sentences, paragraphs.

When it comes to crafting meaning, I believe writing’s soul is best revealed in Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit.”

But the work, the psychology, the habit of writing, the muse’s mystery, to which there is no mystery, King conveys with shining skill.  When I write shining skill, read: “work.”  Because the reason he’s successful is that he writes every day.  He writes and writes and writes.  And he writes because he loves it.  He doesn’t write for the fame or the glory or the money.  He writes because, in his words, “I love it.  I fucking love it.”

King has never written anything for money.  Only for the writing, the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the story.

And because he loves it, it’s all about writing, revising, writing, revising, listening, writing some more.

It’s all strange, and nobody who does it knows how it works.  I say this because that’s what they say.  They being the ones who do this thing called writing, the ones who do it really well, the ones who connect to things bigger than us all, and then bring those things to us.

I have these pages here that I’ve been working on relentlessly for weeks now.  Hundreds of pages, gutted, because it wasn’t going where it needed to, wasn’t singing.

King says, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings.”

Endless hours, numbing at times.

I sacrificed the children for the greater good.  Art.  Clarity.  Story.  Meaning.  I’m not certain for what yet, but the darlings are dead.  In the age of word processing, there isn’t even a wastebasket full of paper.

But there was a moment after said death squad visits, that I returned to the page, a day or two later, after letting the survivors breathe, and I had no idea know where some of this stuff came from.  I know that I didn’t write it, I didn’t recognize a word.

There’s someone running around my apartment who has some skill . . .

I haven’t a clue where they are hiding.

 

Annigonol ydy un iaith

“Annigonol ydy un iaith.”  —  One language is never enough.

Sometime in the late 90’s, I hiked from the Isle of Anglesey, through North Wales, Snowdonia, and down the Pembrokeshire Coast path, with the Irish Sea to my side.  I explored miles of solitude and natural beauty and ancient relics and history, an experience that I will be expanding in an essay, for a planned collection.

For today, I offer the following to honor the Scottish independence referendum, for reasons that I hope will be clear by the entry’s end.

On the first leg of my Welsh journey, I stayed on Anglesey, a large island off the western shore, that’s a short ferry trip from Dublin, across the Irish Sea.  The island is a remarkable land, as are its people.  I stayed on a 550 acre farmhouse bed and breakfast, taking day trips from this rural, comfortable base.  Mrs. Jane Brown ran the bed and breakfast, and she was a model of charm, hospitality, warmth, and a library of history about the area and Welsh lore.  Mrs. Brown gave me the kind of oral history rich in color and texture that only a native could create.

Her generosity was singular.  Mrs. Brown and her daughter-in-law took me on several day trips to places that few outsiders could have or would have known about.  One trip was to a church used only few months a year, for when the tides change with the seasons, water surrounds the church the rest of year making the sanctuary inaccessible.  There are no public programs to change this.  Instead, the locals work with the way things are, they honor nature, this ancient space, and the mystery of the two together.  The doors open and close at nature’s invitation. When the waters recede, it’s a local pilgrimage that honors life, death, and change.  Archaic, I entered a world in which rituals from nearly a thousand of years ago remained unchanged, the rough old stones and worn wooden benches whisper stories that give themselves over for a brief time. Most of the year, this space protects itself from the outside world, with the rise of water around it.

The world I entered in North Wales, and particularly in Anglesey, was rare.  Strangers were friends in minutes.  I remember tea with Mrs. Brown, her daughter-in-law, and their distant relatives who lived in an old farmhouse, near the island’s border to the channel, and the Welsh mainland.  Mrs. Brown’s distant cousin embraced me, a modern American woman, and introduced me to the entire family, including the horses and sheep, an introduction followed by warm elderberry pie fresh out of the oven, which was a large stone hearth in the kitchen, hot black tea, and lively conversation.

One does not pay for such human, “cultural,” experiences, they are freely given when people share of themselves.

But here’s the setpiece of these hastily shared anecdotes, and why I offer them today in regards to Scotland:

Mrs. Brown fixed me a lovely dinner before I left, that included her entire family, with whom I had become attached, in two weeks.  Over dinner, they asked what I would be doing when I left, where I would go, what were my plans.  I mentioned my stint to hike up Snowdonia, then I would bus over to the coast and begin my long hike down the length Pembrokeshire Coast path, eventually taking the train from Carmathen to London.  “I’m excited about London, because of the free museums,” I said.   They chuckled.

I then said, in light humor, “Maybe I’ll bump into the Prince of Wales,” believing that I was connecting my London visit with them, even though they would be miles away, trying to tell them that I would miss them, and be thinking of them, still.

The table went silent.  I looked around, and suddenly the uncommon warmth that had been given to me disappeared, and there was a palpable void.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Mrs. Browne, said curtly, “We don’t speak of him here as ‘The Prince of Wales.'”

“Okay.  I’m sorry.  But why?”  I asked, completely perplexed.  I had offended these folks who had been wonderful to me, had adopted a simple bed-and breakfast lodger as family during my time with them, and I hadn’t a clue about what I had done.

Then, raising her voice, as if to take a knife and change history in a single slash, “Because he’s not Welsh!”

Dumb American, I thought to myself, wondering how I could be so thick.

The tension dissipated, and we returned to Mrs. Brown’s lovely supper, and Mrs. Brown opened another bottle of Welsh made wine.  But I then understood that there were things not usually talked about with guests, and I also understood how deep the Welsh identity cut here in the northern parts, in the farthest reaches from England’s geographical influence.

The history made privy to me was Welsh history.  Not English history.  Not the history of the United Kingdom.  They were Welsh.  They had unique stories, and a unique understanding of the world, that they kept alive, passing down, giving freely.  The were Welsh and proud.  This identity was perhaps nowhere more clear than in the signposts written in Cymraeg.  The smaller the village, the less the need or want to translate.  You understand or you don’t.

Mrs. Brown and her family will most likely never see an independent Wales.  I’m guessing they are watching Scotland’s vote with deep personal pride, and a kinship with those who share an island with those who dictate a strained beast known as “The United Kingdom.”

“He’s not Welsh!”  I’ll never forget that moment, a moment that changed my too American perspective, and made my blood identity to my Scottish kin deeper, gave me more circumspect respect for the spirit of those who refuse the control of anyone’s history, no matter how quiet that rebellion.

Now, when I say, “I am a Guthrie, ” and remember the stories my mother gave to me about her family’s people, and their independent pioneering into the midwest, I understand something a little deeper and richer, thanks to Mrs. Brown.

 

 

Welsh Flag

Flag of Wales

 

 

Scottish flag

Flag of Scotland

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.

On Truth, Part II

Yesterday I read Brenda Ueland’s classic, “If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit,” and it’s one of the most profound books on art and life that I have ever read.  It’s basically an affirmation and exhortation to write until you hit your truths, and keep writing, stripping your writing of all pretense.  Write until you hit your authentic voice, from that place deep inside you, and continue mining, without posturing, without worrying about grammar or word choices or style.

I won’t summarize it all here — if you want to read it, if the time is right, you will.

Ueland managed to psychologically untangle me from too many years of academic study in about 2 hours: the actual practice may take longer to be realized.

In my first entry “On Truth,” I discussed my reservations about truth in writing — not just believably framing my life’s shipwreck, but how much of all this revelation is necessary.  What Ueland emphasized is the absolute need for the writer to sink into her truth, with reckless, passionate, sloppy abandon.  Over and over.  Getting it right in clean sentences elegantly hewn is less important than honestly connecting with that thing squirming around inside waiting for discovery.  That is writing.  That’s the art of writing.  So while I questioned the importance of all this truth, Ueland told me yesterday, “just do it.”  The writer or artist doesn’t know what that thing is, until they connect to it.

I recently stumbled on a Joan Didion quote, “If I had any access to my own mind, I wouldn’t have had to write.”  We don’t know our truth until we connect to it, can’t see it.  That’s why I’ve chosen this path.  For a consuming need to know and the selfish need to thrive have shaped my life, and my every major decision, including this one: to touch my truth.  I may not do it well, but it must be done, no matter the costs.

We don’t arrive at any myth building — for that’s what the writer’s engaged in, building  a myth of self and the world, based on everything and everyone that they have taken in, reorganizing it, and creating something new — until we fearlessly throw it all down, struggling with the muse as we push on, while descending into our psyche.

The revelations offered by  Ueland resonated with another epiphany I had earlier this week.  There’s a great and growing culture of internet policing and thought patrolling that quibbles over every word spoken.  It’s numbing and dumbing.  What a creative waste.  Yes, let’s get this clear, creative genius is the fire and passion and abandon of patrolling what is right and wrong on the internet.  Too many of us ceremoniously lambast people for what they say, and then govern how they apologize.  None of this smacks of allowing growth or the interchange of ideas that foster a better world.  The internet police don’t give people the opportunity to speak their truth, and then revise it as they move along.  “Once it’s on the internet, it stays there forever.”

What poppycock.  What myopia.  What lack of personal freedom we are imposing on each other.  We kill creativity, because everyone’s policing and the fear of being wrong, much like higher education, stifles the process of connecting to a deep, inner creative well.  Unlike higher education, which at least on the surface practices some freedom, even if deeply political and biased in its practices, the internet is all a twitter (allusion intended) with sound bite criticisms that offer little in substantive reflection.  I am one of the worst of the reactionaries and offenders, but I like to think I’ve given myself a little distance, recently.  (“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr is good book on how the internet is changing our brain, and, effectively, dumbing us down.)

What we do when we write is touch a truth buried inside, at that moment.  We may not hold to that truth tomorrow.  But we must first touch it, connect to it, and reveal it to our own minds.

This is freedom.  The ability to make mistakes.  “The artist,” I wrote in my journal this morning, “must assert freedom, no matter the controversy — it’s the prophetic vision that keeps us human and alive and the individual in tact.”  I’m not entirely certain what I meant by all of that, and it’s certainly ripe for unpacking.  For the boldest among us, the artist must assert controversy, because it’s the truest act of freedom, especially when too many seem to be falling prey to policing in the name of the greater good.

And I’ll make another leap, in this brief and uncensored and unrevised entry — the less we censor ourselves, the more likely we will be to touch on the greater truths buried in us.  “My truth” may eventually take on resonances of the big truths, the grand human truths, the truths of life that extend to our place in the universe, the deep mythologies that bind us, the experiences that make us all storytellers, make us all geniuses, players on earth who are also just part of an overwhelming cosmos that we’ve yet to comprehend.  When we are willing to face the fear of being wrong, and edge our way inward, exposing that flawed human creature making her way on the page, one word at a time, that’s when we’ve connected to truth, however imperfectly.

A Few Words On Gratitude

(Please note:  I wrote this entry in two hours.  It may show that investment.  I hope it offers something useful.)

Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your destiny.  —  Gandhi

 

Since moving to the outskirts of civilization, I’ve done a lot of “spiritual work.”  I don’t know what else to call it.  I’ve experienced a shift in consciousness, how I see myself, and how I see the world.  Stuff that I thought that I knew, I now understand better as a way of (B)eing.  I previously posted a piece on loving myself, “A Love Story,” but there’s a bigger picture that’s unfolded: understanding myself as part of life’s beautiful play is finally sinking in.

The myth of separation dissolves.  For today, I’m simply throwing that out there, do as you will with it, for brevity’s sake.  Perhaps by the entry’s end, it will be clearer.

The past year, I’ve worked through many conscious and unconscious stories that governed my beliefs, and I’ve left the worst of them behind.  And, yes, I do believe that these things can happen that quickly, when one is ready.  Therapy wasn’t my answer, but committing to my creativity and spiritual path has unleashed insight after insight, in remarkable and demonstrable ways.  Friends tell me of the changes they see.  I smile.  Nature is instrumental.  I’ve come into myself by realizing how simple and magical life is without trying.  Spring arrives, flowers bloom, tress grow.  All this will pass, there will be a deep sleep, and the spring will come again.

I am one with the forces I see in the seasons, and I’ve merged with life and (B)eing, because life exists everywhere, here.

Education, for its many gifts, really fucks up life’s simplicity, on a fundamental level.  We’re taught wonderful ideas, learn to ask better questions, and learn to answer with more sophistication, but self-love, awareness, and (B)eing are conspicuously missing from the curriculum funded by the incredulous student loan debt that I incurred and have since given to the Powers That Be to worry about.  I am unlearning not only my stories, and my family’s stories, but the intellect’s hubris for its works and artifacts.

Last week, during an early morning walk, the world grabbed my shoulder, and got my attention.  The sun hung low, a glowing ball shining through a perfectly clear blue sky, surreal in its clarity and depth.  The valley and hills exploded with life, innumerable greens, birds, butterflies, insects, all the critters that remained invisible to my eyes.  “I am the sky,” I heard myself think, “when light passes through me, life grows as it should, it happens without question or worry, and it will happen with or without my attention.”

God is a label.  Gratitude another label, a way that language limits lived beauty and power and grace, the ineffable experience of being alive, and being part of life’s magnificence.  “Gratitude” is how the mind places its attention, a practice that we can submerge ourselves in.  It then becomes a loop, the more we do it, the better life gets.  Beauty, joy, nature, poetry, the body’s strength, a good meal, a glass of clean water, a bird, whatever meaningfully grabs the mind and heart, no matter the circumstances, whatever feeds the soul and makes it feel alive, that’s where life presents itself.

I admit, it’s easier here and now.  But during my psychotic break while living in Manhattan, I remember focusing on a pigeon nest across from my window, as I lost my mind, my family,  faced eviction, had no food, and feared that I had entered mental nether regions from which I would never return.  The wall between myself and the forgotten homeless living on the streets was a rent controlled building that I hadn’t paid rent on in months.  For hours, I simply watched pigeons cooing and caring for each other, because I could do little else.  They gave me serenity and a connection to living.  Those hours in which I watched cooing gray birds, their nest tucked in between concrete slabs, affirmed life.  And, therefore, myself.

I’m blessed with good friends, many who have had charmed lives.  Truly charmed lives.  Money, travel, life experience, prestige.  Prestige with a capital P.  While I was cleaning houses, they were traveling the world, making medical breakthroughs, starting NASDAQ companies, the list goes on.  Yet, their lives are full of problems.  Whenever we talk, I hear of some new crisis, some new problem, some melodrama occupying the most precious real estate on the planet, their mind.  Relationships and circumstances always resolve, but you wouldn’t believe it from the way they talk.

Materially, they have more than 99 percent of the world’s population, but they believe they have nothing, believe themselves broken, believe something is wrong with them, see problems that don’t exist everywhere, and therefore create problems that do.  They scream this reality with every-other-sentence out of their mouth, in their judgements of themselves, and of others.  Instead of allowing a sunset to sink into their skin, or water’s music to slowly connect them to themselves, they fully inhabit their perceptions of the world’s failures.  To look at, touch, and smell a flower, and radically experience it for a moment, eludes them, or leaves them far too quickly.  Instead, they allow somebody’s annoying behavior or some situation rental space in their sacred mind, where we make and create the world we wish to live in.  Nothing happens in the world, without it happening in the mind, first.  I see them give away their life sentence by sentence, unconscious of where and what their attention is doing, at that moment.

This is the voice of experience writing, not the voice of judgement.

In the middle of nowhere, without a car, with a bazillion dollars owed in back taxes, student loan debt, and living, by some folks standards, a terribly uncertain future, I find myself the wealthy one, grounded and flourishing.

If I could give them gratitude, I would.  But we have to find it inside ourselves, for ourselves, if that’s what we want.  We’re free to do so, it’s all in front of us, with or without our attention.  When my friends get tired of slamming their heads against that wall, when they realize that the pain they’re living isn’t worth the prices they are paying, they will come around.  For those of us who know the talk, but struggle with the walk, it looks something like, “yes, I am grateful for x, y, z . . . but, [insert problem or complaint or whatever horrible thing that is happening far away, over which have very limited or no control over],” followed by more emotional engagement.

Most of this is fear.  Fear that life will abandon them, fear that they can’t do it themselves, fear that they’re not worth what they say they want, which is presumably peace and happiness, which costs nothing.

It’s impossible to talk about accomplishing and doing wonderful things, then dive into melodrama.  Most of us say we want all of life’s great things because we want peace and happiness, but the peace and happiness are already there.  I finally get the platitude, “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.”  I also believe it’s the quickest way to stop violence and hate, because when you’re really connected to radical love and happiness, you do less dumb shit.  I didn’t write, “no dumb shit,” just a lot less.   At some point, some of the dear souls in my life will realize that love does it’s job, and surrender to it, because they know they deserve to.  That’s it.  That’s why we’re here.

That’s when gratitude, no matter life’s heart breaks, disappointments, and setbacks, becomes a way of life, for those who want to live as fully as possible, and not practice gratitude as a period at the end of sentence filled with anxiety and doubt.

You don’t do it all at once, but you can get better at it.

This is how it looks to me, today.

 

*******

Video:  Children’s Orchestra Plays Mozart On Instruments Made From Trash

“Impoverished” children whose homes are built on a garbage dump see the world different, and create a better one.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiYFcuIkBjU]

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Thoreau admonished “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Emerson responded, “Don’t you think one simplify would have sufficed.”

As I go back and scan these entries, I cringe at their tediousness.

Simplicity isn’t making its way on the page.

That’s okay, for now.  This entry is an apology, and an acknowledgement that fiction and nonfiction are entirely different animals from expository writing, no matter how lyric and luminous an expository essay may be.  For too many years, I earned kudos for my writing, because I mastered the formula and stuck to it.  I was like James Patterson, I knew exactly what my audience wanted, and invariably used it: introduce the topic, ask a question, form a hypothesis, succinctly state the thesis, develop an argument paragraph by paragraph, nod to the alternatives, summarize the argument, then give the conclusion, usually in a clever or nearly poetic summary.  Wow them.

I did well at that formula.  Really well.  So well that I created a comfort zone that was impenetrable, as I knew how to work the formula without failing.  Much of my adult life was spent hacking out sentences in the wildly exciting craft of revision.  Revision, revision, revision.  There’s no simple way to an elegant essay, other than revision.

I succeeded in my academic studies, not because I was brilliant, but because I was willing to put in inordinate hours revising.  Sentence by sentence, I was a workhorse of wordsmithing.  I was also good at close reading, good at synthesizing the seemingly disparate, and good at interpreting metaphors, which when served by the excessive labors of revision, earned me my coveted rewards.  I aimed to please, and I knew how to impress my audience of one, my professor, if I could hide behind the work of others, use my handy dandy formula for success, and spend sleepless nights and days revising.

I’ve abandoned that model, to draw from a deeper creative well.  Those years gave me extraordinary writing practice, but now I’m dealing with my own voice, my own stories, my own narrative construction.  The consequent prose often flounders, struggles to find its way in this new landscape, isn’t always certain of itself, and the excesses of that exploration are repetitive and strained.

A criticism of the blogosphere is that there’s little editing done.  I agree.  We rarely see our work’s shortcomings without distance, and social media’s immediacy fails to recognize the space needed for writing’s refinement.  No matter how much I edit these entries, they aren’t what they should be.  They are blog entries.  They are cumbersome.  They are redundant.  They are poorly proofread, that is, with the eyes that wrote them.  They are me thinking out loud much of the time, trying to tie big disparate life elements together in a little package, and I have yet to master that creative bent without the expository essay formula.

However, I am doing what my “About” page states I will be doing here, flushing out ideas, honing my voice, and discovering more about this new territory.  In this regard, I’ve been successful.  More than successful, for these forays have richly informed my evolving narrative choices.

Simplicity is work until it becomes habit, in life and in art.  In life, it’s both discipline and awareness, daily choosing what works over what doesn’t, until habits are lived without thinking about them.  In writing, simplicity and elegance mean making every word matter.  That’s the practice of writing, and the craft of revision.  Sometimes, it’s better to throw down as many words as possible, muck around in the ideas, polish the prose as much as time allows, and then move on, having gained experience in what works and what doesn’t.

In an Ira Glass interview that I posted earlier this year, he exhorted writers beginning their career to produce as much as possible.  Just produce.  Throw it all down.  Make the mistakes.  Learn.  Move on.

In artistic terms, I think that means that the burgeoning writer will be Thoreau like, saying the same thing over and again, when one word would have sufficed.

Thanks for subscribing to these updates and following my journey.

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.

 

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.

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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.