Lessons From Art Books

When I lived in Cambridge, I had seven large wooden bookcases, stuffed with books.

Mostly philosophy, literature, mythology, poetry, and world religions.  And art books.  Oversized, gorgeous, collector’s editions.  Some I picked up at museums — I had publications from American and European museums — and others I bought simply because I couldn’t resist their beauty.

Some of my favorites were on the Uffizi, Van Gogh, The Louvre, Kandinsky, Leonardo.  And Giotto.  I loved the volume on Giotto, a magnificent publication that received glowing reviews, for it celebrated the father of the Italian Renaissance in remarkably accurate, color saturated reproductions.   The oversized edition had sumptuous fold out plates, and detailed images in which you could see the master’s brush strokes, dabbles, accents, photographic close-ups whose beauty brought me to tears.

When I left Cambridge, in the whirlwind of change and dissolution, I sold or gave away most of my books.  I didn’t mind getting rid of my other stuff, but getting rid of the books was something I never imagined I would do.

I remember crying to a friend in the middle of my bankruptcy, pending eviction, moving to the middle of nowhere chaos, “other women have children, and homes, and whatever it is that those women have.  I have my books, they represent my life, and I have to get rid of them.”  I was blathering as though I had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer with only weeks left to live.

My victim narrative was in overdrive, my books tethered to something that needed to be excised at the root level.

I can’t tell you how much it pains me to write that, now.  How transparently silly and self-indulgent I was being.  But as I spoke those words to him, I started realizing that is why the books had to go.  I was too heavily invested in an identity that wasn’t working, and I needed to let go so that I could dive into deeper creative waters.  I also needed to embrace parts of myself that I had too long-buried, under work and study and self-loathing.

I didn’t know it then.  But I do, now.

Getting rid of the books was transformative, because it meant letting go of one identity to embrace another, and I began understanding that all of this dissolution was the destruction before an inevitable creative resurrection.  My choices, however radical they may seem on the surface, were an affirmation that I was willing to do what needed to be done to get to where I wanted to go.   Which is what I have always done, with a kind of unflinching resolve when my back is against the wall.  Ironically, where I wanted to go was exactly why I had all the books: I wanted a bold, creative, meaningful life, full of a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual richness.

“She who would find her life must lose it.”

I was getting rid of the unnecessary to get the meaning that I sought.  The books were central to my intellectual search for meaning.  But I needed to shift my perception.  I was beginning an exploration in which I crafted meaning from the inside out, not the outside in.

For this reason, although I didn’t understand why, once I started getting rid of the books, they couldn’t go fast enough.  I packed them up into suitcases, called a cab, loaded the cab with the suitcases, which I then hauled down to the basement of Harvard Bookstore, that is, their used book buying department.  Sometimes someone offered to help me get them down the stairs.  Sometimes I was on my own lugging a hundred pounds of books down to the basement.  Trip after trip after trip, it took several trips a day for days to carry out the heroic task.

I won’t say that it doesn’t still sometimes pain me to realize the tens of thousands of dollars of books that were swept from my life in a matter of days.  Other women have children and homes and cars and whatever it is that they have.  I had books.  And I had an extraordinary library.  As I went through my life’s exhaustive hoarding, I appreciated what great taste I had, the breadth and scope and intelligence that I managed to stuff into my collection.  Some of civilization’s finest written works, lovingly sitting on my shelves, row by row by row.

I also had a fairly extensive collection of Folio editions, beautifully bound and illustrated classics, that lined several shelves like the kings and queens of the collection.  No used books on those shelves, just classics elegantly bound and sitting in embellished slip cases, looking grand and stately.

It was a library that I would have coveted.  I had made it mine.

The art books were the last to go, sold to the book store just days before my move.  While everything else in my life I let slip through my fingers with relative ease, the art books were precious, for they represented my life’s treasured adventures.  They represented not just beauty for its own sake, but visits to some the world’s great museums, that I had managed to tuck into visits here and there.  There was a gorgeous, red slip cased, double volume on Van Gogh that I shipped to myself from The Louvre.  The complete catalog of Camille Claudel, bought at the Musée Rodin.  Catalogs from exhibits that I made the time to visit, Kandinsky, Picasso, Brancusi.

The search for meaning lay most conspicuously in the art books.  Travel, adventure, beauty, spiritual longing, stored in two shelves of gorgeous books that circumstance dictate that I leave behind.

It took three cab trips of several suitcases, but they were gone in one day.

The several hundred dollars helped pay for my move.

 

****

I don’t have room for books, now, though I have managed to collect a couple of stacks in the art supply littered living area.    I ask for a lot of interlibrary loans from our small community library, and I sometimes access the New Hampshire public library’s online system of electronic content.

Our library is right down the road from me.  Out my front door, over the river’s bridge, down the road a couple of hundred feet.  Our librarian is incredibly helpful, always making sure I get my idiosyncratic requests from larger libraries.  She once even went to the trouble of borrowing from a New Hampshire university, though they were somewhat begrudging in filling the request.

The pubic library here is funded mostly through community efforts.  This weekend there were bake sales and book sales through the “Friends of the Library.”  These events coincided with Old Home Week, a rural fair celebrating the old historical homes in this area.  The weekend draws a lot of tourists — there’s a large craft fair held in the elementary school, the library has several events, and both our community store and our library generate a large chunk of their annual income from Old Home Week’s visitors.

I normally don’t attend bake sales or community book sales.  I rarely eat sweet baked goods, and I usually doubt that any of the books will be to my liking.  But something told me to go to the book sale.  I just knew to go.  I walked down the street to the library, and on the front lawn stood a large white awning, covering the bake sale and rows and rows of boxes of books.  Three smiling women volunteers greeted me.  Most of the boxes were of contemporary best-selling fiction, which isn’t my interest.

“Do you have anything that is pretty and colorful, maybe some photography books?”  I asked, thinking of my art journals.

“Nonfiction,” the volunteer said, “is in the library, downstairs.”

I walked in, and at the top of the stairs were two boxes of books.  On the top of one box was a book bearing Leonardo’s famous angel from “The Virgin Of The Rocks.”  The angel got my attention, immediately.   I started digging in the box, and there were old art history books.  Varying degrees of quality, but lots of books with color plates. Color plates for art journals.  I was ecstatic.  A book on Giotto.  A book on works in The National Gallery.  A book on Leonardo.  A large color book on the Uffizi.  A beautiful small book on The Louvre collections.

“Hey, are these for sale,” I asked.

“No.  Those aren’t for sale.”

My heart sank.

“Oh, wait.  One box isn’t.  Let me look at the other box.”  Our librarian walked over.  “Yes, the books in that box are for sale.”

I dove in with abandon, “Oh my goddessess,” I sang outloud.  Book after book contained plates that could be used in my art journals, a luxury I never would have allowed myself with my other art books, but here they were sitting and waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

Waiting for me, in this box, not even shelved with the other book sale books.  Art for my creativity.  Not art to sit on a shelf, but images I could use to develop my own voice, my own creativity.

I dug in deeper.  “How To Draw A Horse” found its way into my fingers, complete with illustrations and sketching instructions.  I smiled from a place of quiet if ebullient joy.  “The Year Of The Horse,” my year.  My promise of creative adventure.  (Search for “The Year Of The Horse,” if interested in reading the backstory.  The book was nothing less than Providential.)

There’s a time for simplicity.  Then there’s a time to go all in.  This was a moment to go all in.  Restraint wasn’t called for, this was a time for Blakean excess.  “The road of excess,” wrote Blake, “leads to the palace of wisdom.”

All in.

Two large stacks of exploitable art books made their way into my grateful arms, for twenty dollars.

******

I awoke last night drafting this essay in my sleep, going in and out of dreams, remembering my life as it was less than two years ago.  For it was about this time in 2012, that I was hauling books to Harvard Book Store, selling my futon and bookcases, giving away porch loads of stuff to The Salvation Army, having no clue about where my life was going.  Leaping into the unknown, yet again, with a vague idea of becoming a writer, as though it wasn’t something I didn’t already do, all of the time.

I thought of my beloved art books, and my treasured library.  I will have a library again, larger and even more voluptuous in its excesses, I believe.  But now is not that time.  Now is the time for embracing my voice, with clarity and conviction, and writing about why it was important to abandon other people’s ideas to craft my own.

Perhaps most important, I know with certainty, not the certainty that blinds you, but the knowing that’s been earned from living one extraordinary experience after another, and  learning to listen a little better to that inner voice, that there’s always another side to our darkest days, if we let life slip easily through our fingers.

We can get better at it.  We may never arrive, but a life well lived means letting life flow through you, instead of reaching for it over and over, grabbing onto something as permanent, then getting upset when it slips through your fingers, as all of life does.

“Other women have . . .” such a powerful reflection of where I was and who I thought myself to be.

Last week, I returned some books at the library, and entered a raffle to support the summer reading program.  The volunteer said to me, “Well, if you’re lucky, you will win.”

“I’m one of the luckiest people I know,” I said, with an understanding of how many in the world would look at my life and say “blessed.”

“Well, you’ve made good decisions.”

Yes, I have.  And no, I haven’t.  I have made disastrous decisions, mucked things up big time in so many ways that I’ve lost count.  But that’s not the point.  It’s always what you do with yet another inchoate draft, a seemingly irredeemable art journal page, and a major bad decision that gets you closer to where you see yourself headed, if you’re willing to work a little more with it, and then give the mistakes over to imagination and grace.  Over and over again.

This is creativity’s essence: the vision to see through failure after failure, blunder after blunder, and let the beauty emerge.

Creativity isn’t economical.  Creativity’s full of thousands of pages of wasted words, journal pages decorated in expensive mediums and then covered up by gesso, in the need to start over again.  Creativity’s full of excess, as Blake understood, an excess that is as necessary to our creative life as air and water are to our physical life.  Formula only takes us so far.  This is what religious dogma doesn’t understand, and where science fails when it demands unremitting skepticism.  The artist’s adventure, and life’s adventure, is in breaking from the formulas into failure and perseverance.

We may touch mystery in the process, learn more than we ever imagined possible for ourselves.

This morning, I remembered my beloved Giotto art book on the bottom shelf in my living room in Cambridge.  It was such an indulgence when I bought it, but I had to have it.  The closeups, the thick black lines, the vibrant pinks and blues and greens, the brilliance and passion and tenderness with which Giotto painted.  I then remembered my first visit to D. C., and my visit to The National Gallery.  I turned the corner, and there was my first Giotto.  I didn’t know The National Gallery had a Giotto, but there it was, and I immediately knew it was a Giotto.  There was no mistake, the way the infant grasped the Madonna’s hand, the unmistakable break from religious iconography into Renaissance humanism.  I gasped, and almost cried.  My first Giotto in person.

One day, I will visit Italy, and see the Giotto Saint Francis cycle, I will view his works around the churches in the Italian countryside.  But this morning is not that morning.  This morning, I took a book on Giotto that I found in a box of old books that inexplicably failed to make it to the shelves for a community book sale, and I lovingly tore out details from one of his great frescoes.  I glued the fragments on an art journal page that I’ve been working on, glued them over an extravagance of metallic blues and Caran d’Ache pigments and various lines that I created with a French curve set, obliterating some fine work, so I could cut up Giotto and make his work my work.  I gilded the page’s edges, and then I gilded the fragments.  I thought how fortunate I am to be living this life, creating this art journal page, listening to the birds, and seeing the sunlight bathe the room.

I am the luckiest person that I know, to be able to document this experience in writing, an entry that could not be written had I not given up a life that was not worth hanging onto, while embracing the uncertainty of the one waiting.

In giving up the Giotto on the shelf, I got the one I could use.

It’s a good day, and I’ve come a  long way.

Journal page in progress, with cut outs from Giotto, and the Leonardo angel who lead me to the treasure box.
Journal page in progress, with cut outs from Giotto, and the Leonardo angel who lead me to the treasure box.

Thank You, Maya Angelou

“I believe the most important single thing beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.”  —  Maya Angelou

I never met Maya Angelou, never hugged her, never kissed each cheek, never told her “thank you” in person.  I hoped that I would someday, but knew that I would not, given her fragile health these past years.

Though I never met her, I considered her a mentor.  More than a mentor, through her unique love and hope and creativity, she’s helped me believe in myself and my choices.

There was an interview with her that I found on YouTube many years ago, and in it she tells a story.  The interviewer asks Angelou about her days working as a prostitute.  The interview seems to have been deleted from YouTube, because I haven’t been able to find it for sometime.  In lieu of posting that now lost interview, I am liberally paraphrasing Angelou in the following, but the story’s heart and main details remain intact:

“I was at a book signing for [her latest book] and there was a long line, going nearly around the block.  It was during the day, and I noticed a girl in the line.  She was obviously a working girl.  Her nails were long and painted brightly, she had the false eyelashes, bright lipstick, her clothes were a working girl’s clothes, but there she was standing in line, probably after working most of the night, to have me sign her book.  I smiled to her when she came to the front of the line.  She handed me her book and said softly, ‘you give me hope.’  That’s it, right there.  That’s the whole of life.  If I gave this one girl hope, I knew I had done well during my life.”

Angelou’s voice broke as she recounted the story, and her eyes teared.

Angelou brightly shone her faith in life and love through selflessness, and, from what I have read and seen, she never buried the working woman’s narrative under shame, or lied about it.  Of all the tales she could have told about her years as a prostitute, she chose this simple story of hope.  I believe that some of Angelou’s strongest moments as a writer and a human confident in her creativity may have come specifically from her work experience, in which her originality, sexuality, and ability to love deeply were expressed.

Her poem “Phenomenal Woman” seems to me to have emerged from those years, for it is a singularly redemptive expression of self-worth, and the radiant power of the creative self in the world, no matter the world.  Though the poem can be read as a black woman’s affirmation of herself against a white class system, I believe the poem touches on deeper themes and realities, and it seems more akin to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in its spiritual orientation and celebratory grandeur.  Whereas Whitman locates his epiphany’s source in nature (“The Leaves Of Grass”), Angelou boldly locates her epiphany in her own being and body.  In its deceptively simple swagger, Angelou fearlessly seizes self-splendor, the shining self that we bring to the world, when we’re connected to the mystery in ourselves, the transcended self beyond limits, the self beyond the “I”.  Her life’s wounds dictated that Angelou dive into a profound center of love and spiritual luminosity, and spiritual beauty exudes from the poem’s seductive details, a work of singular grace and inimitable style.

Angelou will teach for decades to come, her courage echoing as a celebratory song to those finding their own voices.  This past week, bemoaning my proofreading shortcomings in ‘Simplify, Simplify, Simplify,’ Angelou encouraged me to love my writing, embrace it wholeheartedly, and continue confidently, without second guessing myself.  For a few hours after my posting my entry, I remembered the following line:  “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

Thank you, Maya Angelou.  Two kisses, and a hug.

And thank you.
 

[http://youtu.be/VeFfhH83_RE]

 

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.

 

Dancing In The Street

(The original version of this was drafted in early March.  There is no longer snow on the ground, and ice skating has given way to bicycle riding.)

All we need is music, sweet music,
There’ll be music everywhere
There’ll be swinging,  swaying, and records playing,
Dancing in the street.  
—  Martha And The Vandellas

“You’ve never heard ‘Dancing In The Street’,” I asked in a lowered voice with feigned seriousness as though everyone in the world knew something that they did not, while looking into the inquisitive eyes of my friends aged four and six.  They became quiet and earnestly shook their heads “no” from side to side.

“Well, we’ll have to change that,” I said with more feigned gravity.

“Meanwhile, let’s pretend like we have music, and let’s go sing and dance in the street.” I smiled at them.  Then, as they’ve come to do often in the days since, they took my hands, a small hand clutched my left fingers, a smaller one curled around my right palm, and they led me outside, while asking me the million-and-one ever so important questions that kids ask.

Sarah, the older sister, Jordan, and I left the village store, and went onto the main road to sing and dance under the summer sun’s retreat.

“What do you want to sing?” I asked them.

“I want Oooga Chaka, Oooga Chaka” Jordan yelled, his hand now freed from mine, arms raised above his head, his face glowing in the thrill of this positively wild adventure of dancing and singing on the village’s main road.

So “Hooked On A Feeling” it was for a few minutes — though I’ve yet to figure out how he knew this one, our exotic musical safari taking place well before the song’s recent resurgence.  We three slipped into random song and dance, led by the two star performers, in the middle of the street, on the outskirts of civilization, and we danced in the street until the sun went down.

“Hey, Lucy, look at us, we’re dancing in the street!” they laughed and shrieked to one of the locals who passed us, on her way home from the library.

“Indeed you are,” she said, somewhat amused, somewhat perplexed, mostly concerned with something more important.

Now, the above may smack of kitsch embellishment, but it’s a real story.  And I believe it’s grounded in a deeper truth than adults allow themselves to live in — similarly, I’ve come to believe that kitsch is undervalued, for related reasons.  In those moments late last summer, Sarah and Jordan became my soul friends, friends who remind me of something that need not change, but we seem bound and determined to let experience devour a precious part of ourselves: creative innocence.  One of my great joys this past year has been Sarah and Jordan ecstatically squealing my name, and then unquestioningly running into my arms during our chance encounters.  For Sarah and Jordan, life is immediate, free, loving, and nearly wholly imaginative.

I made certain that Sarah and Jordan got to sing and dance to Martha and The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” more than a handful of times, from late summer into the autumn.  Then one evening, after winter had gripped the air, and several feet of snow covered the ground, I received an email from their mother, Amanda: “Hey, I’m thinking of you.  The kids are running around the house singing their versions of ‘Dancing In The Street.’  Been doing it all evening.”

 

******

Yesterday, I ran into Amanda and Jordan at the library — Sarah was at ice skating lessons.  Jordan saw me, yelled my name, ran to me with his arms wide open, jumped into my arms, laced his legs around me, put his face to mine, puckered his lips, and kept puckering.  There we stood, locked for a minute or so, me kissing his face over and over, especially his puckered lips, him laughing and delighting in my unrestrained affection.

I let Jordan slide down to the ground, so that he could throw himself into the snow bank, before making a few snow balls to toss at me.

“So,” I said to Amanda, ” . . . I  know the kids have birthdays coming up, and I have a couple of ideas that I want you to see.  Not sure if they are age appropriate.  There’s a really cute fire truck made of recycled milk jugs on Amazon, but I don’t know if it’s too young for Jordan.  Can I send you the link?”

“Oh, that’s sounds very cool,” Amanda smiled, “but you don’t have to get them anything.  Just have them over to your house.  Really.  Just have them over.”

I understood that Amanda was being polite.  But later in the evening, I realized that these two friends really do need very little.  Amanda wasn’t being polite, she was being descriptive.  They don’t need anything, other than a friend who sees the world as they do, in all its imaginative glory.  One of their favorite games during the winter was stealing my sweater and playing “catch me” in the store.  Grandparents who give them most everything a child could want, but their favorite toy was my sweater; more precisely, my leniency in letting them steal it over and over and over for “I have your sweater, catch me if you can.”  They pushed those invisible adult boundaries, and I simply played along.  And face painting — using watercolor crayons, we spent an afternoon decorating each others’ faces and hands with fish, rainbows, sunshine, stars, and the indecipherable cryptic ornaments crafted by a four year olds’ fingers.  Or combing my hair.  They both love to have me sit in a chair and then comb my hair, while taking turns rummaging through my purse and pursuing a relentless q-and-a about its contents.

They still live in the powerful land of make believe, where the boundaries between reality and imagination haven’t been corrupted by the socialization of facts.  A tube of gold mascara becomes a magic wand; a Pilates ball becomes a dragon; a living room chair is a fortress; a blue throw rug is a river; a storage closet is a jail cell.  (Jordan is obsessed with putting me in jail for littering, despite my protests that I am innocent and my demands for a trial.)  Everything is easily transformed for them, and I remember how real and vivid imagination is when we’re young: nearly everything possible can be experienced in that unbound terrain.  Little is needed to create a universe — imagination creates the magic entry door, as well as the hills of whatever alternate landscape suits the moment.

There’s so much freedom in a mind that requires little, and demands nothing but its created pleasures.  Let the imagination do its thing, and infinite universes emerge.

It’s tragic that we teach kids to need stuff, when lands and worlds already exist for them, invisible realities of greater depth and breadth than anything we can buy them.

Our most precious gift — our imaginative self — is bartered away for banality: Barbie dolls, G. I. Joes, plastic this, manufactured that, or whatever the consolation prize.  Slowly, we replace creativity with disposable consumer items, television, and computer games.  The imagination isn’t inspired to fill in the gaps with it’s own colors and countries, engage in play that feeds the deepest part of the soul.  Unfettered imaginative play feeds us, because imagination speaks to the self that we’re in the process of unfolding, day by day.  That’s where the magic of creation resides, for the life lived fully.

Ovid claims that “[i]n our play, we reveal what kind of people we are,” and I’ve come to understand this past year how little adults play.  It took me moving from the quintessential land of adults — Cambridge and its oh so important intellectual environs, to see this truth starkly.  Adult play is rarely play — most of the time, it looks to me like a series of numbing diversions incapable of nurturing the inner life, the hungriest part of the imaginative self.  Play and work become all tangled up in a near psychotic mess that tries to pass for play and life, but more closely resembles an unconscious mishmash screaming “help me, I’m trapped, and I don’t know my way out.”

We stuff the fantasy equivalent of Doritos, Diet Pepsi, and McDonald’s burgers into our psyches 24/7, and then scratch our heads at our collective psychic malaise.

But what if we were really to take to the streets in joyful abandon?  What if we really took to the streets, to dance and sing.  Gather with friends in happy impromptu gatherings to make music and dance in the street, just as Martha and Vandella’s sang about decades ago?

We need to take our voices back, with courage and without comparison or criticism.  Imaginative adventures, for the fun of it, insisting that our responsible adult selves take a time out, banish them to the corner for a few hours, and let the inner child rule the roost for a few hours.

I was at a casual dinner party last week, and it took over ten minutes for a group of ten people who knew each other to open up and really let themselves go, to sing to the “Frozen” title track.  Adults, stymied in the privacy of a small group, socialized by years of learning what a dinner party presumably looks like, and apparently firmly convinced about what fun looks like.  Most thought singing to a soundtrack was silly, at first.  Until they reluctantly joined in.  Once they broke free, they actually smiled and laughed and embraced the moment.

The power of freeing the themselves from socialization’s expectations, from the right and the wrong of the way things are, cracked open something deep in this small group.  A small and silly foray made them laugh and experience the moment, lighten up and experience life without judgement.  It was an impressive moment, one that they won’t forget, I suspect.  Small and silly, but powerful and palpable.

There’s a wonderful internet meme that people love posting:  “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.”

My guess is that too many posting that meme don’t actually get off the computer, turn up the music, and dance like nobody is watching.  Or better yet, dance in the middle of the street, and not care if anybody is watching.  The joy and the unselfconscious experience of playing like a child dancing in the street under a setting summer sun may be the sanest thing we can do as adults.

 

[http://youtu.be/fHK2lxS5Ivw]

 

[http://youtu.be/87qT5BOl2XU}

 

 

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.

Pictures of the Backyard

I’m currently painstakingly piecing together 3 essays for posting, have ideas for about a dozen more in the works, am jotting down story ideas, art journaling, making mandalas, getting the book proposal together, eeking out a marginal income, and I’ve started training, again.  Finally.  It took me almost a year to see that I was living in near perfect circumstances for training, but that’s another essay.

I took a few photos yesterday morning, because it’s really easy to quiet any arguments with one’s doubting, lazy self when the skies are perfectly blue, the hills sing, and the trees dance in quiet unison, and I thought to share that beauty, here.  No one around, rarely even a car.  Quite extraordinary.  Also, I wanted to provide proof that I really do live “in the middle of nowhere,” most of these views less than a half-a-mile from my doorstep.

I set out yesterday morning about seven-thirty or so in the morning.  The temperature was about 2 degrees, but it felt colder.  My eyes watered, the tears freezing by the time they hit my lower cheeks, the mucous in my nose started running like a river down my throat, and when I tried to spit it out, it congealed in the cold, hit my sweater and hair, and froze.  By the time I got home, the cotton handkerchief in my pocket subsequently used for spitting was a mangled, frozen, rock hard trophy of besting myself.

I felt like I had what it takes to be a hard core runner.  Moments like that, in solitude with frozen snotty spit on an old sweater, steamy breath, tight thighs that are resisting any stride, hills that challenge then release then challenge again, the early morning sun, and an open road, make believing easy and natural.

This is my backyard, a gift I’ve been given for I don’t know how long.  I hope you enjoy the views.

The river that's about 250 feet from my doorstep.  Photo taken from the bridge.
The river that’s about 250 feet from my doorstep.

 

100_1780
I’ve learned firsthand about the magic of talking trees.

 

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Snow and stillness.

 

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Music in silence.

 

Now here.
Now here.

 

“They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf