mary’zine #76: 7-day Painting intensive, December 2010

June 6, 2018

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 “I hear the paint falling…”

When Barbara, my painting teacher, uttered those words, she was referring to someone dropping a container of paint. But I heard poetry. In my world, a lot was falling: rain outside; tears on the paper and on my face inside; mercy, mercy everywhere….

All week I painted a young man who had killed himself after holding a room full of high school students hostage for several hours. The class included my grandnephew, a good friend of the boy. During the stand-off, my sister texted me news as she heard it. I ached for my niece and her husband, who had been notified and were standing by. What a helpless feeling for all the parents who were waiting to see if their children were safe. When the students were released, the relief was palpable. No one else had been hurt, unless you count scarred-for-life. I didn’t give much thought to the young man himself.

But in the intensive a few weeks later, suddenly there he was—the 15-year-old boy who couldn’t even say what he wanted, who had no demands, except possibly the demand for attention, to be taken seriously, who knows what goes on in the mind of a teen-age boy? So I painted him with the gun to his head, in the grave, as a spirit rising from the grave. I had never met him, but his tragedy was the vehicle for 7 intense days of painting.

Having a “subject” to paint didn’t mean it was easy. Despite the easily accessed feelings, it was at times difficult to get past the doubt, the inner debate about what to reveal and how to stay true, the frequent questioning of the difference between us—was I exploiting his pain and his fate? Where was I in this story, this painting? Was it just personal, or was it capable of touching others? Did I have an obligation to broaden the theme, to take it past the small action to a more meaningful level?

At first I painted a lot of guns, bullets, blood. The boy, Sam, was a hunter, as is my grandnephew, so I painted deer as targets, then deer pointing their own guns. Sometimes the imagery becomes so satisfying to paint that you get carried away. I told Barbara I wanted to paint a forest with hunters, deer, mayhem. She got me to focus on the painting in front of me, to see what could be coming in or out. So I connected all the beings on the painting with white cords, felt the connectedness of life whether the ties are visible or not, and still she asked what could be connected. But there was nothing else, just shapes, just colors! I had made the obvious connections, she was asking me to do the impossible. But it turns out that how you face the impossible is kind of the point: Finally, I was neither fighting nor holding back, and though I didn’t think of the word at the time, I had “surrendered.”

At some point a quotation from “The Merchant of Venice” started running through my mind. It was the same quote that came when I painted my late brother-in-law many years ago.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

I painted tears falling from the faces on the painting and from the unknown sky above. I didn’t know where the feelings were coming from, what they “meant,” why I was focusing on this boy. The teacher and the other students in the classroom had done their best to keep the boy calm, talking to him about hunting and fishing… and then the SWAT team came busting in and it was all over, the boy shot himself. My grandnephew seemed to be OK immediately afterward, and his mother, my niece, was euphoric that he had survived, but post-traumatic stress will come, predictable as clockwork.

I was far enough removed from what happened that I knew virtually nothing objectively, but my feeling state as I painted Sam was a projection of his loneliness, despair, lack of choices, forced into a corner, thinking the gun and the attention of the other students would tell him what to do now, how to go on, whether to go on.

By the end of the week, my defenses had been worn down, and I was a soggy mess from crying. But I just kept following the mysterious feelings, painted whatever came next, not like clockwork but like some organic heartbeat leading me on. Expression comes unbidden, you can’t force it.  And then it happened. It was as if the feelings, so deep, so heart-felt, so powerful and seemingly destructive, eased out and spread out as if on a broad plain, flooding all my defenses and finally dissipating into wordlessness, fearlessness. This was not abstract, it was a physical sensation.

***

So the week of painting (and traveling) for me was about raining, flooding, cold particles falling, breaking the levees of self-protection, pure feeling rising, emerging with or without words, dissipating in riots of color and shape and image; and it was also the opposite: erecting boundaries, patrolling the perimeter, rifling through my own mental carry-on bags for dangerous implements of self-knowledge, thinking security will save me, in turn resisting and surrendering, tears fighting fears. It’s all related, we’re all connected, the hazards are everywhere, the target is indistinct and constantly moving, clarity is hard to find.

But in the midst of the chaos and  misdirection, the indecision and doubt, we painters persist in facing the simplest and deepest truths in ourselves, which is to say, in humanity. The effect on our loved ones or distant strangers cannot be measured, but the painting energy goes out into the world and a little more light is shed, not where the lamppost stands* but in the darkest corners where we struggle and cry, laugh and love, and live lives of quiet exhilaration.

 

The paintings. You can see the natural progression from blind emotion to more focus, stillness, love, and, finally, peace.

Sam #1

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Sam #2

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Sam #3

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Sam #4

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Sam #5  I wrote on the back of this one that it’s not finished, but I never went back to it.

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*Nasrudin, the holy fool of Sufism, looked for a lost key under a lamppost, because, though he’d lost it indoors, there was more light to look for it out in the street.

 

Mary McKenney

painting my father

May 1, 2016

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Jackson Pollock

 

Note: Some of you will have read this before, at ccesf.org or in mary’zine #54, March 2012. But I shared it in a memoir writing workshop, where it was very well received, and I thought it deserved another look. I wish I could include the painting itself, but it’s buried somewhere in the stacks of paintings in my closet.

I’m in a painting workshop. I’ve been process (intuitive) painting since 1979, and one thing about process is that you’re always a beginner. You don’t decide what to paint, and you don’t try to make a pretty or interesting picture. It’s all about the experience you go through when you’re painting.

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, my teacher Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and I’m like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in the flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating?) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to force the expression of the deep irritation in me that is covering something more meaningful.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I realize that I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis, and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time with an army buddy. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window in the front door when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor, who also had MS, once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to paint an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Ha! Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, to which I add organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I went straight to bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.

 

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William Henry McKenney

1920–1969

R.I.P.

mary’zine #75: December 2015

December 27, 2015

MARY UNMUTED

Long time, no me.

I don’t write, I don’t call….

My writing energy has been going to the Painting Studio at ccesf.org (Center for Creative Exploration).

But…

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… and what a coinkidink, I’m going to write about painting here, too, along with some other stuff. And I’ll explain what “Mary Unmuted” means.

 

As I look back over the last few weeks, I think, “What a shitty month this has turned out to be.”

 

On Dec. 3, my 10-year-old cat Luther died.

Next day I got work, which is usually a good thing, but it meant I had to miss the first 2 days of the December painting intensive.

There were a few bright moments, even some profound moments, during the intensive, but at the same time…

I was having to be on the phone every day trying to save my health reimbursement account and my flood insurance, which is required to keep my mortgage. At least I had an agent to clear up the flood premium snafu, but for the other one I had no advocate. I called and e-mailed multiple people in three institutions: my former employer, an insurance exchange, and my health insurance plan. I was lied to, given wrong information, waited in vain for people to call me back, was called unnecessarily to tell me someone would call me later.

If it weren’t for misinformation and disinformation, I wouldn’t have any information at all.

 

The result of all this effort was that I lost funding for my account for 2016: $3,000 gone poof. And there is no appeal.

 

So now, I’m feeling depressed—it’s not S.A.D. or Xmas, it’s just the confluence of losing my kitty and a lot of money in the same time period. I feel like I should have a better attitude, be positive. Instead, I feel heavy, pulled down by emotional gravity. Plus, I worry about Luther’s brother Brutus. Either he’s depressed over losing Luther, too, or I’m projecting. It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

But… onward and upward!

 

 

in-tens-ity

 

For the first time ever, I did not attend the December 7-day painting intensive in San Francisco—at least, not physically. Until astral projection becomes a reliable form of transportation, I have to rely on a web conferencing service called Zoom. It’s similar to Skype. Anyone who can’t get to the studio for a class or workshop can “Zoom in” and paint at home while being able to interact with Barbara (our teacher) and the painters who are there. I did the May intensive that way and have been taking 2 classes a week all summer and fall. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this, but it is not without its problems.

The biggest downside for me, besides difficulty in hearing what people are saying during the group sharings, is that I have to be “muted” so as not to create static, feedback, or amplified cuss words if I yell at my cat. So I have to get Barbara’s attention before I can say something, and it kind of kills the spontaneity.

 

My physical travels to S.F. over the past 11 years have been traumatic, to say the least. You can read about them on editorite.com; search “travel.” But this year I’ve had leg pain for several months and it’s not easy to walk, even with a cane. That leg is 69 years old; of course, so is the rest of me, but the leg is taking it extra hard. I think there’s a portrait of it in a closet somewhere, glowing with health.

So I felt I couldn’t deal with all the walking, the multi-drug taking, and the various demands on me physically and emotionally that result from my being in that now-foreign element, driving around a big city, having a strict schedule, and, of course, spending a lot of money to make it happen.

 

I knew that Zooming in to the intensive was going to be its own challenge. I have felt resentful at times about the distance—real and imagined—between me and everyone at the studio. I’ve likened it to being a brain in a jar; at other times, to a ghost who’s dropping a feather so the other painters will know I’m trying to communicate with them.

 

To make matters worse, I have several good friends who do the December intensive, and I was missing out not only on the hugs and conversations, but also on the lunches and dinners and the hanging out at the end of the day with Terry.

 

 

loss

 

Luther had been sick for a long time—he’d had bladder problems his whole life—and now had renal failure, blood in his urine, and he was peeing in places other than the litter box. He had lost so much weight that he seemed to be disappearing ounce by ounce. But he was still wanting to be with me or on me all the time, purring, sleeping in my arms; he still ran to the window when he saw a bird, could jump from my armchair to the top of the cat tree, and would play with an empty toilet paper roll on the bathroom floor or rassle with his brother.

 

Except for the obvious signs, he almost seemed normal, even up to the night before he died. I found him dead the next morning and called the mobile vet, Dr. A., who came right away and took the body away. It was heart-breaking to lose him, but I was also profoundly grateful that I had not had to make the decision to put him down. I’ve only had one other cat who died peacefully at home like that.

 

So, when I finished my work and Zoomed into the intensive on Monday morning, I knew I was going to be painting Luther a lot. I did, of course, but I was startled when I realized that, had I flown out to S.F. for the intensive, all else being equal, he would have died just after I left for the airport. Then my sister Barb would have had to deal with the body, and Brutus would have been alone all week except for Barb’s daily visits. I’m not going to draw any deep conclusions from this, though it would be convenient and soothing to think that “God” or The Universe had planned it that way.

 

 

an interlocutor

 

I hadn’t had work in months (I’m a scientific editor), so, according to the laws of the Universe, or at least Murphy’s law, it was no surprise that I got two manuscripts to edit just before the intensive was about to start. Most of my clients are non-native English speakers and therefore non-native English writers. This is good, because I’m quite invaluable to them, but it can be difficult to decipher what they mean, especially since they’re writing about very technical (biological) things. So I spent the weekend working harder and longer than I wanted to, and I finished the paper at 10 p.m. Sunday night.

 

 

 

 

 

painting

 

We painted for about 5 hours every day. Painting felt good, but I was ill at ease in the group sharings, during which I mostly watched my friends 1,836 miles away while they laughed, talked, and bonded as only we painters can. I was still technically a part of the group but felt marginalized, mostly unseen and unheard. This was something I had anticipated, and I saw it as a difficult but necessary lesson in being in myself rather than looking for recognition from others. I had sometimes had this feeling of alienation even when I was physically at the studio, but there was always someone to talk to there. Even making eye contact over the painting table was a form of communication. This week was a stark contrast.

 

I had painted Luther in the classes for a few weeks before he died. I painted the following on Nov. 14, Nov. 23, Dec. 7, and Dec. 11 (#1–4, respectively). So only the last two were painted during the intensive.

 

 

#1:  I’m holding Luther, Brutus is clinging to me, and previously ascended kitties Pookie and Radar are enjoying their peaceful or raucous afterlives.

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#2:  Luther (center) displays the power and immortality of the Cat World. His coffin, an irrelevance, stands empty. I am in the upper right corner refusing to be consoled by Blue Cat Being.

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#3:  I am burning up from sorrow. A Being on the left is dispensing comfort and encouragement (to keep burning).

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#4:  I’m holding Luther, who is ascending. I’m still burning, and Luther’s golden coffin is still empty. On the right, a staircase leads up to a Royal Cat Being sitting on his throne, wearing a golden cape. Below the throne is the notation C.A.T., which I later decide means Consciousness And Transcendence.

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So these paintings felt good—even transcendent—to paint, but the contact with the group was bittersweet. I had to face the alienation and the loneliness, which were very real, despite my certainty that I am loved in the group. “Knowing” something, and feeling it when conditions are not ideal, are two different things. Terry, who had flown in for the intensive from Massachusetts, made it a point to check in with me now and then, and we talked on the phone a couple times after she got back to her rental place. Occasionally, if my name was mentioned, people would wave, but I mostly experienced the sharings as if I were watching a movie starring my friends. It was an odd sensation. It was as if I didn’t exist—or did, but only (like I said) as a ghost or pure gray matter. When someone addressed me directly, as a few people did, it was like getting a hit of energy. This was instructive.

 

 

On Monday night, I said good-bye to a few people and exited Zoom when the sharing was over, but on Tuesday night I stayed and watched the scene as some people left and others stood or sat around and talked. Sometimes it can be hard to leave that place after painting all day and feeling the love. Terry and Sandra were sitting by the laptop (on which my ghostly self was displayed), and we were able to talk and act silly like we used to. Then Terry asked if I wanted to take a tour of the studio. Sure! So she picked up the laptop, and she and Sandra walked me around. I said “Hi” to a few people, and I got to see a few of the paintings. I wanted them to prove that “my flag was still there”—the Tibetan prayer flag that I had painted for the studio’s 16-year celebration gala in November—and yes it was, hanging above the windows with all the others. When I was ready to leave, the others waved and yelled good-bye. The attention was intoxicating. Suddenly, my alienation was a memory and I felt special for attending the intensive in this virtual way. This thought, too, was instructive.

 

Another bit of unexpected attention I got was when one of the painters said in the sharing that she had read the studio’s “blog” online (ccesf.org). She quoted a line about the author’s feeling “dread” as she drove to the studio. She found this “helpful”—obviously, she could relate—and then said she didn’t know who wrote it. Barbara said, “She’s right here,” meaning me. That was rewarding, because I tend to think that no one ever reads what I post there. Once again, I felt special. Are we seeing a trend here?

 

 

insights

 

During the Wednesday morning sharing, I asked to speak, Barbara unmuted me, and I told the group about the glorious tour of the studio I had been taken on the night before. But the attention I had so enjoyed brought with it the realization that I expect validation to come from the outside. I had honestly thought I was long past that belief, but those core feelings from childhood have a way of reasserting themselves when one is under stress. I love living alone and being alone, but feeling like a ghost or a brain in a jar had put into sharp relief my deep need to be accepted and reassured. My reactions during the week were showing me that I had trouble feeling comfortable even with a group of friends I normally feel very close to.

 

But one day—I don’t remember which day it was—I was speaking, and an interesting thing happened. Instead of the Zoom emphasizing my distance, I actually had the sensation of zooming toward the group on my own wave of connection. I felt like I was in the room with them; the screen, the frame, disappeared, and I was no longer an onlooker. That had also happened one time in a class, so I know it’s within my power, I can’t blame the technology for my alienation. I can’t make it happen on command, though. It’s like the painting itself, it comes alive when it’s ready, when I forget myself.

 

Wednesday was a half day for painting. The studio provided a pizza lunch, Alyssa made her signature kale salad, which of course I didn’t get to eat, and people either painted or left for parts unknown. I was looking forward to a long winter’s nap in the afternoon, but instead I spent hours on the phone pleading with insurance people not to drop me from my HRA and (different insurance people) not to drop my flood policy, which I had been late in paying.

 

That night was our traditional night (me, Terry, Diane D, and Diane L) for dining at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin. The last two times we were there, I had the Crab Louie. I’m hardly a salad person, but I love theirs—the crab, the hard-boiled egg, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and of course the dressing. It was probably the healthiest thing I ate all week. But this year it was not meant to be.

 

On Friday, the last day of the intensive, Barbara asked us each to speak about something that had touched our heart during the week. Several people mentioned the presence of Amanda’s young daughter Maia, always the center of attention during the sharings. Terry spoke about the time a car alarm went off outside and people in the group started singing in harmony with it, “transforming noise into beautiful music.”

 

I talked about the night that Terry and Sandra took me around the studio. I told them about Luther’s dying and how over the weekend I had felt uncharacteristically lonely. And then, I was surprised to hear myself say that maybe I had been lonely all my life. It felt strange to say that, because I pride myself on never feeling lonely or bored when I’m alone. The fact that this is a source of pride tells me something. But as those words came to me, I thought of myself many years ago, especially after my little brother died when I was six years old. I felt as alone then as I have ever felt, before or since.

 

And I wondered if I had shielded myself from the grief by becoming a self-sufficient “loner.” A few years later, when I was 11 or 12, I remember walking down our road, inaptly named Bay de Noc, and giving myself a pep talk about life. I had decided it was inherently unfair, and that the only way to deal with the unfairness was to allow myself to say and do anything to survive. I was actually denying the concept of living with honor. If I had known curse words back then, I would have said, “Fuck that!” It felt like I was growing up and taking the pulse of the people around me and figuring out what I had to do.

 

And so that brings me to the “present,” which is also my past and my past’s future, when I may finally be able to reverse the ignorant but self-protective armored stand I took back then. Self-knowledge, I’ve discovered, has many layers, and you have to be diligent in opening to the next beautiful, painful realization. Even at the age of 69, with or without my bum leg, which may be living a better life in that idealized closet, there is time to “change,” which is, in a way, to stop changing, running, maneuvering, rationalizing, and just being still and being myself.

 

I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

Peace.

 

(Note: If this is published with all the weird spacing I see in the preview, I will throw down my keyboard and admit defeat. WordPress changes its way of doing things every time I write a new post.)

 

mary’zine #74: July 2015

July 27, 2015

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my gay Friday

Friday, June 26, 2015. What an amazing few days in America. The Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act came down on Thursday. That was enough good news to hold me for awhile. But when I logged on to Facebook Friday morning I saw that SCOTUS had declared same-sex marriage the law of the land. I could hardly take it in. The Internet exploded with rainbows, cheers, and celebratory videos. The first couple to get married under the new world order were two elderly men. A crowd was watching. The civil servant who performed the ceremony asked the “I do” questions and finished with “as vested in me by the Constitution of the United States,” and a raucous cheer went up. In a world of so many disappointments, these spine-tingling moments are a rare treat. I wasn’t celebrating the cause of marriage for myself, because always a bridesmaid, etc., but for me it was about feeling like a proper citizen, finally, of the country of my birth.

It so happened that I hadn’t slept the night before. I play fast and loose with the biological realities of sleep. I can usually make up for a sleepless night with a long winter’s nap during the day, but on this day I was too excited. I did finally catch 3 hours in the afternoon, and from then it was on. I was on Facebook for the rest of the day and all night, trying in vain to keep up with the many postings and videos and all-rainbows-all-the-time. It would have been nice to take part in the celebrations in a friendly crowd, but Facebook proved to be a wonderful source of contact with friends and strangers. My friends Mary and Sharon kept checking in with me and sharing stories, sharing my delight and relief. They’re both straight, but as Mary said at one point, “We’re all gay today.” My emotions were all over the place: the joy of seeing lovers in happy tears… crowds outside the Supreme Court and San Francisco’s City Hall in cheers… the Schadenfreude of watching blustering clergymen claim we were all going to hell… the shock of the most extreme reactions, such as, oh, let me pick one: that we should all be executed because Holy Bible. Without Facebook, it would have been a lonely day, since all of my gay friends live far away. P e-mailed from Oregon that she was glad she didn’t have to move to Canada. But mostly, the cheers and camaraderie came from the vast Interwebs. I don’t think I left my desk between 7 pm and 7 am, long past the time when my body was saying “Enough!” I hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in two days, and by 3 pm on Saturday I was still too excited to settle down and became quite giddy.

***

Neither SCOTUS decision affects me directly: I have health insurance thanks to Medicare and the University of California, and I have no intention of ever getting married. But this landmark vote is bigger than marriage. Were we citizens before this? Sort of. We paid taxes, we voted; for all intents and purposes, it seemed, we were equal in the eyes of the law. But not really. Why, in my day… it very nearly came to pass that gay teachers and others working with children could be fired or never hired to begin with. Thanks, Phyllis Schlafly! How do you like us now, Anita Bryant? (Seems they’re both still alive; but no angry fists in the air, how come?)

It’s striking that the rhetoric of the homophobes back in the 1970s was on a par with the rhetoric now… although I don’t remember anyone promising to set themselves ablaze in protest of any pro-gay turn of events. So the fanatics are still peddling the same old lies and prejudices, most of them Bible based, but what changed was the will of the people. “The people” are not ideologues. What changes the outlook of a regular person is not the Bible thumper thundering on her TV screen but the gradual realization that gay people are not a different species, or confined to urban centers, or men dressed like women and vice-versa, but their sisters, brothers, children, friends, and a few hardy (or outed) celebrities. It was a revolution, truly. Or, OK, an evolution of slowly dawning understanding that there are gay people in all walks of life and in most if not all families.

To this day, the right-wing fanatics are trying every argument to refute the decision, to claim that the Supremes are “activist judges,” that the new order is anti-Bible and (a new wrinkle) an attack on “religious freedom.” The Bible people have not given up their constant drumming of the message: “God’s law” [as inexpertly interpreted by them] should be the law of the land; unelected judges (i.e., SCOTUS) have no authority in these matters. Even Antonin Scalia tried this argument, causing me to wonder, “So who elected you?” Funny, but all the would-be Joans of Arc suddenly shied away from the flames of martyrdom. That one preacher who promised to immolate himself if the decision went the way it did had an about-face and claimed that he had only said he might, or he would, or maybe he would if the 10,000 ministers he claimed to have in his pocket would join him. It was the classic “end of the world” prediction that has to be awkwardly explained away when the sun still rises the next day. The funniest threat was the bold claim that the “Christians” would move to Canada. A Facebook friend of mine wondered “Who will tell them?” … that same-sex marriage has been the law there for 10 years.

It’s good to know that the sanctimonious religious right don’t always get their way. One of the naysayers I came across online raved that he always “voted the Bible,” so I responded, “You can vote on the Bible? Where do I sign up?”

And wouldn’t you know it? Mike Huckabee claims he’ll “call down fire from heaven”—“if he has to.” I like that bloviating empty threat. First, you have that kind of power, do you? And second, what’s stopping you? Has he even read the Bible lately? One assumes he prefers the New Testament, but in his feeble mind he has conflated the love-loving Jesus of the New with the Old god of fire and brimstone. I’ll bet Jesus didn’t even know what brimstone was. So, Mike, and all the other hate-mongers, wake up and smell the coffee. You are a dying breed, and that is the best news of all.

Ted Cruz had the audacity to proclaim the day of the decision “the worst 24 hours in our nation’s history.” (As Sean Hannity cheerleads, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” High praise!) Worse than Pearl Harbor? 9/11? the wars and assassinations that all but dominated the 20th century? What an odd, unforgivable thing to say.

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***

One of the things that nagged at me on that monumental gay Friday was the thought of the grieving friends and loved ones of the nine people killed in the black church in Charleston 9 days earlier. The funeral of Rev. Pinckney was happening that day. I saw the video of President Obama giving the eulogy and singing “Amazing Grace” with the other black people on the dais (and one very short white woman—or did I imagine her?), and it was so moving. It made me happy to see them there, responding with grace and dignity—and without a whiff of defeat—to a sickening tragedy.

I was disgusted when some Republicans tried to turn that tragedy into an attack on “religious freedom.” As usual, the so-called Christians are trying to make it all about them. They think this is ancient Rome and they are being fed to the lions. So courageous, those martyrs. Forced to bake a cake for people they don’t approve of. It would be farcical if it weren’t so maddening. I have to hand it to them, though. They know how to co-opt a legitimate struggle for civil rights by using the same language to assert their own oppression. They have a sincere belief that homosexuals shouldn’t have the same constitutional protection as righteous gun owners. Since when does disapproval have the same status as religious principle?

To these paranoid, self-aggrandizing, smug “Christians,” who are apparently bored with being the majority religion and want to return to the good old days of persecution, I say: Who asked you? Why does our finally acquiring the civil rights that you have had all along have anything to do with you? Are we taking something away from you? Do you think it’s more exciting to be forced to fight for your so-called principles over a cake than to attend a safe, completely legal church service once a week? We are not vilifying you.

I came across a great word for their impotent fury: “poutrage.”

These wannabe theocrats and arbiters of all that is good and holy paint themselves as the put-upon victims, the humble pilgrims who only want to pray to their god in peace but are prevented from doing so by their disapproval of others having the same freedoms they enjoy. Freedom apparently means something different to them than it does to the rest of us. I say, go back to that special book of yours and read what Jesus had to say. Seems you’ve forgotten what your “faith” is all about.

FfdfP

Police state

July 23, 2015

Not to be an alarmist, but—

What is a police state? I used to think of it as working like it did in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm: the redefinition of common words (and hence the laws) coming from the top down. But if the police, at the lowest rungs of the authority ladder, get to do what they’ve been doing to (mostly) black people lately, it makes me very, very afraid. Hitler couldn’t have done what he did without the apathy and acquiescence of the German people. And now that we see a video of a mundane traffic stop, where the driver (Sandra Bland)  is upset and made increasingly more upset by the cop’s ridiculous (and mostly illegal) demands, I can just imagine that the response of millions of white Americans is, “She should have done what he told her to do.” Now, think about that. We theoretically have rights. But try to exercise them, and if you piss off a guy with a badge, a gun, and an easily bruised ego, your rights don’t mean shit. And now, if police don’t know the law, you have no 4th amendment rights, sayeth the Supreme Court.

AIDS activists used to say, “Silence = death.” Now it seems that disobedience to the police, for any reason, = death. This is dangerous precedent. Young black men are shot dead because they’re seen to be dangerous. Now a young black woman is dead in police custody because she didn’t abjectly comply with an enraged cop’s phony commands. What will it take for us to stop blaming the victim and stop treating police like judge, jury, and executioner? The Patriot Act is scary enough, because “terrorism” is the buzzword and the excuse for any governmental action. But now this low-level encounter—a traffic stop!— between a citizen and an armed authority also ends in death. So long after slavery, blacks may be “free,” but increasingly they’re treated like criminals for no reason. And the rest of us self-righteously jump on and exclaim, “She or he should have just complied!” As the German pastor Martin Niemöller said, in part, ” … they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Please, stop and think about it, when you hear yourself thinking, “But she wouldn’t get out of the car!” “But he ran!” “But he may have stolen something!” “But he was big for a high schooler!” None of these things warrants the death penalty. Try a little empathy, it goes a long way.

mary’zine #73: June 2015

June 10, 2015

I haven’t been here (before your eyes) in a long time, but I’ve been here (in the ether) all along, my mind swirling—or, not as fluid as that, more like straining, stumbling, stuttering—with so many things I could write about if I were coherent but not feeling coherent in the least.

e x … c a v a t e  good times, come on!

(think Kool and the Gang)

The metaphor I was straining at involved a thing in the real world—the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest hole in the earth, drilled by Soviet scientists off and on from 1970 to 1994, that goes 7.5 miles down into the earth’s crust. In contrast, the center of the earth is estimated to be nearly 4,000 miles down, so… nice try, boys; close but no cigar. At 7.5 miles they were forced to quit drilling because of unexpectedly high temperatures (356°F) and a nougat-like center (I’m imagining), where the porous and permeable rock behaved “more like a plastic than a solid.” The hole, only 9 inches in diameter, is under this rusted metal cap on the Kola Peninsula of Russia (Fig. 1).

hole

 Fig. 1. Beginning of really deep hole.

So, the strained metaphor was my felt need to excavate the depths of my own crusty shell, hoping to find the deep inner mantle where the past and present coexist, if not collide. (My newspaper horoscope has always used phrases like “fantasy collides with destiny.”) And if past and present are down there, then future must be down there, too—in the sense of a seed, which by definition embodies its destiny: The acorn can only grow into its future self, an oak tree.

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I don’t know about destiny, but I’ve fantasized plenty in my life. I liked some science fiction as a child, but I wasn’t that interested in aliens or distant planets. But Journey to the Center of the Earth resonated with me for some reason. For someone who wasn’t that interested in outer space, I was blown away by the idea that the Verne adventurers encountered sky down there. If only I had known the phrase “blew my mind” back then, I would have had many occasions to use it. I was only 10 years old, but still. Sometimes I think I thought more about infinity and death and other unknowns between the ages of 6 and 10 than I have since. Childhood is deep, which most adults forget. It looks so simple, even primitive. Cry, sleep, shit, eat, you’re like a tiny predictable entity—a clean slate—that hasn’t yet been filled with the detritus from interaction with the outside world. But the inside! The inside is full of feeling and thought, regardless of whether anyone takes you seriously or not. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who had big things on her mind, or maybe it was the extreme encounters I had with death and illness that made me a little philosopher, maybe a wannabe nihilist. Life didn’t look that good to me when my brother was buried under the ground and my father was ensconced in a VA hospital with MS, only to return home so changed that I didn’t recognize him. For the longest time I thought, “What’s next?” Who will die or leave me next? How will I make my way in the world? In high school I was convinced there would be no end to the misery. Every day, every week brought a challenge, sometimes new, sometimes a dreaded repetition. If it wasn’t a single event—an oral book report, a debate, a dentist appointment, a babysitting job, a piano lesson, an unasked-for and oft-rebelled-against hair perm—it was the daily curse of car sickness, pimples, awkward social encounters, acute self-consciousness, fear of being diagnosed with mental illness, and a mortifying awareness of how poor we were. I couldn’t escape any of it. Without a sane adult to explain to you that everyone goes through this kind of thing, it’s only in hindsight that you realize you were not the only one. I remember having a meeting with my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Schmidtke, and not knowing if I was supposed to be talking about the surface—grades, college, etc.—or my fears and anxieties, which were at least 7.5 mental miles down in my psyche. In one of my favorite movies, Ordinary People, I was envious of the kid who had Judd Hirsch to talk to and get a real response from. I didn’t see a real therapist until I was 46, and by that time I had come a long way on my own, through contemplation, observation, and a strong desire to understand.

So, my life has turned out pretty great, and I have the comforting thought that I probably won’t live long enough to see the world get blown up or a neo-Hitler arise from the Far Right. (How far do you think Hitler would have gotten if his party was named the Tee-Party instead of Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei? I still regret that our American Partiers did not keep the name “Teabaggers” after they found out what it meant. That would have been so delicious.)

But—where was I?—the past (like the center of our planet) still exists, no matter how deeply it has been buried or “forgotten.” I’m not sure I understand what the subconscious really is and how it works—it’s like being controlled by an invisible government (and the visible one is bad enough). I already “understand” my past in words and pictures, but I expect somehow to be able to embody the whole time-driven story that is me, the equivalent of 7.5 miles down, where it’s really, really hot and more mush than solid. I don’t think I need to go the whole 4,000 mental miles to the center—where, surely, I understand now, there would have to be “sky,” wouldn’t there? because there is so much we can’t see, haven’t examined, haven’t even imagined—right beneath our feet / brain / what-have-you.

For lots of reasons, we prefer to look to our sky—the one that’s above us, readily visible, no drilling required—for the pie or the salvation, the “something bigger than ourselves” whether we call it god or our higher self. Wouldn’t it be great to have an eternal substitute mother or father, someone / something so big and powerful that it would never die, and therefore we would never die? It would be the answer to everything, wouldn’t it? And that’s what we want, the answer to everything. Because who can live on this razor’s edge of life-and-death with nothing to hold on to but a sharp, painful knowledge that it will all end one day. As Woody Allen said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to be whole—not a hole filled with a mystery too far down to reach. I want to experience my full potential, not limp along on the fire road just because it’s wide and smooth. But that means going down, down into the deep forest or a series of dark caves or a me-shaped hole in the ground, looking to find the mythical sky or the plastic hot mess, whatever it turns out to be.

So I’ve told you the metaphor, and you can find out more about the Kola Superdeep Borehole if you’re interested. By the way, they found water down there (H2 and O molecules) and “microfossils” from bacteria billions of years old. So the drilling wasn’t a failure, just full of surprises. Like our own personal depths, I suppose.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late / to open your depths by plunging into them / and drink in the life / that reveals itself quietly there.—Rainier Marie Rilke

Climbing Mt. Etna (a guest contribution)

June 7, 2015

Ed. note: A good friend of mine, who wants to be known only as “friend from California,” is a historian, editor, and enthusiastic traveler. She writes concise and eloquent “travelogues,” complete with many photos, after each of the trips she takes with her husband or her son. Here is her story about climbing Mt. Etna when she and son Jack traveled to Sicily.

I also want to note that she is not responsible for the poor layout. I am not adept at wrestling WordPress formatting into submission.

***

The day my son Jack and I planned to go to Mt. Etna dawned spectacularly. It seemed auspicious.

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We drove south from Taormina toward Catania, then veered off to the road that encircles the mountain. The soil around Etna has been enriched over the centuries by decomposing lava, and the land is a prime agricultural area. For example, the famous Sicilian blood oranges, incredibly juicy and flavorful, are grown here.

There are two routes to get up on the mountain, one on the south side and one on the north side. We were heading for Rifugio Sapienza, a ski resort on the south side. In the summer it’s a gateway to guided hikes. From Rifugio you take a cable car up the mountain.

Rifugio

Rifugio Sapienza (photo from the Internet)  

on the cable car (1 of 1)

View from cable car back toward Rifugio

lone climber (1 of 1)

One hiker shunned the cable car and hiked up the mountain on foot. He looked up at us—wistfully? It’s a long, tough slog he’s undertaken.

The cable car ends at a little rest area, with a café and facilities. Then you pile into minivans to take you farther up the mountain. The road is compacted lava graded by small tractors.

curving track (1 of 1)

Curving track going up the mountain  

   the line up (1 of 1)

Eventually we came to a leveled area where the minivans parked. We all piled out and assembled in a big cluster near the guide. Then we set off in a long file at what was, for me, a pretty brisk pace.

Did I mention that it was cold up there?

It seemed that most of the hikers were sturdy Germans who probably did a lot of hiking in their home country. It also seemed that most of them were younger than me. Or maybe I was just rationalizing why I, age 71, had such a hard time keeping up.

small caldera (1 of 1)

Soon we passed a small caldera, and many people stopped to take pictures, or even explore the thing closer up. I was not among them. I was concentrating on not falling down.

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Closer view of the fumarole with smoke or gas issuing from the vents

strung out (1 of 1)

Pretty soon we were all strung out in a long line. Jack hung back a little because he was busy taking photos. I hung back because I was having difficulty struggling uphill and breathing.

The track we were walking on was pretty narrow, to my way of thinking. I was afraid of slipping off on either side. At one point I slipped on some loose gravel and sat down hard. People came to my aid (“Are you all right?), but luckily I was able to clamber to my feet. I didn’t fall down again the whole rest of the hike.

Bergman (1 of 1)

At one point I looked up and saw a whole line of hikers on a high ridge, silhouetted against the sky.

(Does anyone remember the final image in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”?)

“Oh no!” I thought, “I’m going to have to go all the way up there too!” In the worst way I wanted to turn around and make my way back to the parked minivans. But pride wouldn’t let me do it. So I slogged on ahead, far behind the pack, until eventually I caught up. And then—praise be!—the whole line was turning and we were circling back to the parking lot. When we got there, I was ecstatic, euphoric! I’d met the mountain, and I had triumphed!    

life on the lava (1 of 1)

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etna summit (1 of 1)

mary’zine #72: February 2015

February 23, 2015

 

best way to begin an autobiography

I was born, obviously. —Alyssa C.

 

January 2, 2015, 3:33 a.m.

I like to think that the “new year” really doesn’t affect me. It’s arbitrary, after all: dividing up time as if it were loaves and fishes. I don’t like rituals or ceremonies, either; maybe I don’t like symbolism, which seems weak and helplessly hopeful in comparison to what is. (Krishnamurti: “Hope is a terrible thing.”) Hope, resolution, affirmation are all about “the future,” as if the next arbitrary span of time may contain and reveal something that does not exist in the present moment.

And yet… sitting at my desk in the middle of the night, after spending several hours editing a paper on the inactivation of HIV in certain cells by certain proteins, I feel strangely satisfied. It doesn’t feel like a “new day” or year, exactly, but like I’m where I’m supposed to be, as if there really is a plan, a “supposed to be.” I love being awake at this hour of the night. Brutus and Luther are raising hell in the background, diving onto tissue paper left over from Christmas as if it were a pile of leaves, batting around the balls that “Aunt Terry” gave them when she was visiting. I just drank a Frappuccino, fattening liquid of choice, though I should be trying to sleep so I can talk somewhat coherently to P on the phone in the morning.

My house is full of color—from my paintings and a couple of my friends’ paintings that I somehow bamboozled them out of, and from all the many gifts my niece, sisters, and friends have given me. I am running out of both wall space and surfaces on which to display them. In my “office,” which is just an arbitrary space carved out of my large upstairs loft-like room, I have a dollhouse exactly like the one I had as a kid—maybe even the same one, for all I know. My sisters found it at a garage sale and bought it for me. Because of my fascination with bucking trends and defying the conventional, I don’t fill it with miniature furniture. When I realized I could indeed use it for anything, it was as freeing as when I first discovered that I can paint anything, or I could buy a red phone, back in the olden day of those bulky, plugged-in, dial-dinosaurs. I must have a strong streak of conventionalism after all—I fight it so much while stubbornly holding on to the idea that I have to do what I should do, when it really doesn’t matter. My mother was practical down to her bones, to the point where decoration seemed frivolous and we kids bringing her flowers from the woods across the road were “bringing dirt and bugs into the house.” She had very strict ideas about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. I’ve written before about how she told me I was wrong when I wrapped a present for my aunt Doris by positioning a large flower—part of the pattern on the wrapping paper—in the center of the package: early artistic leanings not to be fulfilled for many years. For Christmas and birthdays she bought me lots of boxed craft kits, for sand painting or jewelry making, paint-by-number sets and coloring books, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her to encourage me to let loose with paper and pens or paint: Creativity was marketed, not really used to create.

I’ve always struggled against the constraints I possibly inherited or at least was conditioned to, so my life has been a series of amazing and mundane discoveries, such as, Why can’t I have a red phone?? It’s the same process I experience in painting. The battle is never really won, between wanting to do the “right” thing and eventually discovering again that true satisfaction is in the freedom of making it up as I go. I love painting fictitious animals and exaggerated, unrealistic human figures with tubes pumping rays of light and color outside the body, and internal organs and contorted limbs not known to science or medicine. The juxtaposition of my creative self (my true self, I like to think) and my expertise in logic and language seems like it should be contradictory, but somehow it isn’t. I can have both, I can be both, and more.

Among many other Christmas gifts this year, my sister Barb gave me some Yooper memorabilia: a full-size license plate (“YOOPER—You betcha!”), a key ring in the shape of MI, with the U.P. designated “Michigan’s better half” (might be some overcompensation going on there) and magnets: “It’s a YOOPER thing… EH!,” “Michigan YOOPER Great Lakes Splendor,” and “Yooper Girl.” Sure, this kind of thing is pretty hokey, and commercial to its core, but she also found, in Schloegels’ gift shop, a small elephant made out of recycled aluminum… from Kenya! UP here we are not completely out of the loop, or the Yoop. On the dollhouse I have an old bendy girl from a McDonald’s Happy Meal and a twisted series of plastic snap-on pieces coming out of the chimney. The other day, when I was trying to make a dent in the picking up and putting away of both the detritus and the gifts of Christmastime, I noticed some red yarn on a decorated gift bag, so I impulsively tied the big Yooper license plate to the chimney on the back side of the dollhouse. Noticing it tonight was part of what made me feel satisfied with this never-to-be-imagined reentry into my home life / homeland past that I am making into my own image.

I have also discovered several warm, intelligent, creative women here whom I have been gradually meeting in person after finding them on Facebook. Facebook (!): the medium intended for young people to hook up with each other and then text back and forth when they’re in the same room, but which has become, instead, a meeting ground and philosophical forum for us oldsters to ruminate, Laugh Out Loud, and reconnect with old friends. We boomers have taken over everything. This happened a few years ago with the Honda Element, a vehicle I still want, though I understand it isn’t being made anymore. All the profit-mongers are trying to appeal to the 18-35 age group and here we are, in our 50s, 60s, and beyond acting as if we still matter, we still have preferences and a little bit of discretionary retirement income and, in all the ways that count, are as young at heart as we were back in our formative years running from tear gas and cops at antiwar demonstrations. It was a great time to be young, the ‘60s, I tell you what (unless you were a draftee or a Republican).

*

I don’t know why that reminds me, but I have no outline or grand plan, so here goes:

fd8ea8f60f66a2e88aa74e9dddb216fd  I am addicted to Pinterest, which, long story, but I came across some images of the little drawings that medieval scribes added to the margins of manuscripts they were supposedly copying verbatim (while also adding their own stories and interpretations of myths or long-past real or imagined events, which, Holy Bible). So I was “pinning” some of them onto my Art & Illustration board, and I found one that showed a man (?) on stilts holding (breastfeeding?) a baby and carrying a vessel of some sort on his head… along with a young woman and a bird down on the groundIMG_0966 doing I don’t know what. It’s a striking image, because the very idea of walking on stilts, let alone carrying a baby while doing so, is anathema to me. I posted the image on my grown godchild’s Facebook page, because she and her husband are “stilt-walkers” and can be seen far and wide doing their thing in parades, festivals, and (by the way) at their own wedding. I figured they’d like this ancient example of their art, but I was surprised when Kelly sent me a photo of her breastfeeding their darling, godly god-like child while on stilts. It was a wonderful case of synchronicity, and both my godchild and godson-in-law were amazed at seeing the medieval image. Someday I suppose Larkin will be accompanying them on their stilt-walking travels, hence keeping the hippie spirit alive for two generations past the time that we boomers mostly gave up on it.

*

A few days ago, I started writing this ‘zine with the predictable travel story about flying out to San Francisco for a painting intensive. But it felt canned, like I was just describing events and thoughts and encounters by rote. I have a lot to say about the trip, and about the painting itself, but I need it to come out naturally, or not at all. So that’s a peek into my process, in case you wanted to know.

Sometimes I think that Life is not New at all, but is mostly a rediscovery of things we’ve always known but have to keep relearning—as if we constitutionally consist of the New but go through this bodily process called Life in order to experience the New being remade from scratch, over and over again. Blissful stillness seems to be our natural state—how can Oneness be anything but Still?—because in truth that is all there Is, no differentiation, no duality. But our difficult, subjective, isolative charade of Life seems to be a reward for all that Oneness & Beingness, not a punishment as we sometimes think. There are things we can only experience in apparent separateness, such as the exquisite coming together in unlikely communion, and I’m not talking about religion here, or even “spirituality.” Just Truth, in its elusive but eternally yearned for and occasionally seen wonderment, blazing like ten thousand suns. One of my favorite fantasies is that “all will be revealed” after we die—like there will be an intimate workshop with a kindly old teacher in a seminar room with a voice that might call itself God, but not like “God” as we imperfectly imagine It. But it’s unlikely that this will happen, because we will, by definition, be returning / dissolving into the Oneness, and it is merely a childish desire to stand outside Time and Space and maintain both our precious individuality and our blissful surrender to “the time before we were born.” Without duality, you can’t really have it both ways, know what I mean?

I’ve been at this for almost 2 hours now, time for a break. You may talk amongst yourselves until Yooper Girl returns.

 

my all-time favorite explanation for what’s happening in the world; from 1992!—but it applies now more than ever

[From We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins, 1992)]

“Ventura: … My feeling is that this worldwide disintegration is going to play itself out no matter what, and it’s going to take a while, a century or two—a century or two of a kind of chaos, possibly a corporate nightmare, I don’t know, but call it a Dark Age. We had a technologically primitive Dark Age, now we’re going to have a technologically extraordinary Dark Age. But you remember what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said: ‘We die of cold and not of darkness.’

“Just around when he was turning thirteen my kid came home one night, after dark, sat on the couch, and in a kind of fury suddenly burst out with, ‘It’s fucked, it’s so fucked, man, the whole thing is fucking fucked. What do you do in this world, man?’ What could I say to him, that things are gonna be all right, when they’re not? That it’ll be okay when he grows up and gets a job, when it won’t? I got a little crazy and impassioned and I said something like this:

“That we are living in a Dark Age. And we are not going to see the end of it, nor are our children, nor probably our children’s children. And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed it and keep it going and pass it on, because this Dark Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops those people are gonna need the pieces that we pass on. They’re not going to be able to build a new world without us passing on whatever we can—ideas, art, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people: that’s something to be passed on.

“And all of this passing things on, in all its forms, may not cure the world now—curing the world now may not be a human possibility—but it keeps the great things alive. And we have to do this because as Laing said, who are we to decide that it is hopeless? And I said to my son, if you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for—trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”

*

The first thing I thought of when I read this was, of course, the painting I’ve been doing for 35 years. We are a small band of people who explore the self (for lack of a better word) through a process that uses our consciousness—that which Krishnamurti said is the same for everyone, not similar—to explore what the mind, useful as it is, cannot touch. It feels a little like going down to the bottom of the ocean and painting what you “see,” with no need for oxygen or protective devices. This is an ocean without a name, and it is completely worthy of our trust, despite the fears we have all been conditioned to. Indeed, it is the very apotheosis of the Unknown, which governs us each deep down. It can be frightening to face the Unknown, even in such a seemingly superficial way as applying paint to paper. But what results is wisdom, compassion, empathy, humility, humanity.

In a happy marriage of technology and this process that is so much more than an art form, I finally agreed to Barbara’s suggestion that I join a web conferencing site called Zoom so that I can paint at home while being in audio and visual connection with classes going on in San Francisco (ccesf.org). It’s a different experience than painting at the studio, because there is more human contact there, obviously, complete with conversations and hugs, but it makes it possible for me to paint more than once or twice a year. (I don’t have the self-discipline to paint completely on my own.) So here is a case where technology aids the passing on of what we love. It has given me a new lease on painting, without the expense and torture of travel. And just today I painted something I’ve never painted (or even thought of) before: eyeball bullets. Happy will be the future people who discover that.

*

I’ve been thinking about how childhood exists on two levels: the outer and the inner. If I tell the story of my childhood, what comes to mind are the events that happened around me or were visited upon me, the story. Of course, I had reactions to those events, and lots of thoughts, tears and fears around most of them. But what still has power for me now are a few things that were deeply personal and meaningful, not involving family, school, or indeed anyone else.

There was a time when I was very close to nature… not the thought of it or the appreciation of it as an idea, but the essence. One of the advantages of nature was that it got me out of the house. I could be alone and travel without fear through woods, picking a spot in the cedar grove way behind us on what used to be my grandfather’s land, and reading or just sitting, watching the birds and smelling the fragrances all around me.  My favorite thing to do was find and pick flowers, especially buttercups (also called cowslips, I think). I also liked violets and the rarely seen jack-in-the-pulpit, but there was something almost mystical about buttercups. I crave them even now—the frisson I would get from just touching them again, seeking them out in a semi-swampy part of the woods. They are still out there, I hear, but not where I used to find them. “My” woods are gone, or the property has become privately owned and not to be trespassed upon. And yet I have not driven out on those county roads where local people say buttercups have been sighted for a brief time in the spring. Maybe the actual flowers are not as important anymore, but something in me considers them one of the hallmarks of my young life.

The other thing I think about a lot are the little books I used to make that I would fill with images cut out of magazines and seed catalogs. Those flowers—extravagantly lush pansies and roses—pasted into arrangements with people and furniture before I knew the word collage—were equally precious to me, for all their unreality. I would be tempted to sell my soul for just one look at those books again, though I might be disappointed. I would be expecting some mystical (that word again) intelligence, some disconnect and reconnect with a creative world unlike the world of craft, like when you find your teenage diary and think you’ll encounter wisdom you didn’t know you had, and then it turns out to be mundane and predictable. I didn’t keep a diary then, anyway, because I had to hide my inner self from my intrusive mother. She wouldn’t have valued the collage books, and clearly didn’t value the real flowers, so those were two things that were solely my own: art as privacy, as distance, as a marker of my true self. Naturally, she threw out the books, like she did everything else from my childhood except, inexplicably, a crayon drawing for which I won a blue ribbon in kindergarten. She did value competition and achievement. The drawing wasn’t a great example of creativity, it was quite rational and cold-blooded, in fact. It was a barnyard scene with the requisite chickens, barn, and a farmer with a pitchfork that was touching the ground although his feet were not. There was a fence that I reasoned would hide the horse I drew behind it, so you could only see the top half of the horse—but the fence was just posts and a few horizontal pieces of wood, not solid at all! At the age of four or five, I hadn’t yet developed the great logic skills with which I have made a career.

So every now and then I think about those collage books and I know that I could make them again, though they would be very different, of course. I haven’t done it. It’s the memory I want to keep close, not necessarily the actual craft or art. I do something that is similar in some respects but doesn’t involve paste or access to magazines (I subscribe to only one, the New Yorker, which isn’t big on colorful images). I mentioned above that I am quite addicted to Pinterest, which for the longest time I couldn’t imagine the point of. You create “boards” online, that you name and then fill with images from the Internet, many of them from followers or those you follow. It’s not the same as creating art, but there is a particular pleasure in gathering these images. My boards are not highly organized or comprehensive—which is fine because it doesn’t matter. I now know that there are an infinite number of art pieces in the world, from doodles and illustrations to abstract paintings, sculpture, and blown glass. I’m not much interested in realism, which would not come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen my paintings. I can almost breathe the rightness and richness of works by Joan Miró or Franz Kline, but my Art & Illustration board makes no distinction between great art and the simpler shapes and colors found in magazines. I enjoy color and form and value them more highly than words, ironically, considering I’m an editor.

*

I think my sister Barb deserves a blue ribbon for her response to my Facebook entry, “I used to think I was a prodigy, but now I think I’m a late bloomer.” Her response: “Does that make you a Baby Bloomer?” (W)it runs in the family, I guess.

 

San Francisco > home

2 Sertraline, 2 Excedrin, 1 Tagamet, 2 Dramamine, 2 Advil, 1 lorazepam. That’s what it took to get me home from the painting intensive in San Francisco in early December 2014. Each pill had a specific job to do. I am not one to turn my nose up at a pill. Lorazepam, in particular, is a life-changer. The side of my right foot had been throbbing for hours; I thought it was just from wearing shoes all week, but it was actually the dreaded restless legs syndrome, which, I wish they would think of a more impressive name for it because it is neurologically ruthless! Just this side of unbearable.

I had gotten up at 2 a.m., after about an hour and a half of sleep, so Terry and I could return our rental car to Alamo at SFO and get through all the check-in and security business in time for my 6 a.m. flight. I was exhausted and slept for almost 3 hours of the 4-hour flight, a mitzvah of the highest order. I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the whole time, and I remember saying something out loud that I mercifully did not remember once I woke up. I had already known for a few days that there would be no blizzard in Chicago, which, once again, mitzvah.

This next observation is quintessentially “white” of me, but I am quintessentially white, with Northern blood flowing through all my ancestors and into my own veins, along with a Northern temperament, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what that is.

My seatmate in first class was a black man, professional-looking, somewhat younger than me. That’s right, I said black man right up front instead of holding this information back and later referring casually to his mocha-colored skin. I’ve read stories in which the white author used this gimmick (as I think of it) in order to appear to be color blind. I’m not color blind, I can see just fine, but I had no issue sitting next to this man, nor did I feel the need to be obsequious in the way of white liberals wanting approval for their open-mindedness. I have limited direct experience with black people. (If we say “African American,” we should call white people “European American,” but that isn’t going to happen. The majority is the default and gets to be called “people” or “men” whereas, say, women writers or black scholars are considered outliers, a social subspecies.) But I read, and from what I have read by black people about their daily experiences with clueless whites, I try not to repeat the same mistakes, mostly by keeping in mind the late poet Pat Parker’s admonition to “forget that I’m black; never forget that I’m black.” It is indeed possible to keep both things in mind. It’s a matter of respect.

I don’t know why I like to start my travel sagas at the end and then go back in time. It might have something to do with my mother’s habit of reading the newspaper from back to front. That’s how I read The New Yorker now. It’s comforting somehow. It’s like hiding something from yourself and then being delighted when you come across it.

The day’s roster of pills gave me a strange mix of feelings by the time we landed in Green Bay. I had to wait around for a United employee to find my suitcase—clearly marked by a big orange PRIORITY tag. Do words not mean anything anymore? I had been planning to have lunch at El Sarape but was too tired to go out of my way and then attempt to drive after a heavy meal. I could hardly stay awake as it was, and it was a great relief to arrive home unscathed. After a brief flurry of interest from the cats, I once again slept, but it took me several days to feel rested again.

 

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As always, I had dreaded the trip and all the various unknowns I would be faced with. But Terry didn’t want to go without me, and Barbara was quite insistent that I was needed there and needed to be there. And it was true. I had an amazing week, which I think I always say. But it’s always true, which is the real motivation to return.

It may have been day 2, maybe even day 1, when I shared in the group that “my molester” had contacted me a few days before and wanted me to do some minor favor for him. It had been 25 years since our last contact, and that only by phone, and 55 or more years since the events. A close friend I told about this urged me to “let it go”—it had happened a long time ago, and he surely didn’t know he had done anything wrong, had probably (a) forgotten all about it or (b) thought it was consensual. So, in the group, I was wondering if I was supposed to “let it go,” and if so, how, and I also acknowledged that I had “dined out” (as they say) on the story, as if it were a badge of honor, courage, or at least victimhood to have this in my past. And it wasn’t just the molestation. His driving me to school on the first day of eighth grade was, I believe, what triggered my year-long phobia about throwing up in class. I was anxious about possibly being late, for one thing, and resentful that my mother could not have cared less about such common teenage anxiety; after all, she’s the mother who turned around on a divided highway and went against oncoming traffic because she “had to get back” to a missed exit.

Part of what confused me about X, “my molester,” was that he had called his parents’ house the morning after my mother died, specifically to offer his condolences to me. I was in shock, half because of my mother’s death and half just hearing his voice (his mother, my aunt, had invited me next door for lunch). His older brother R was in the other room talking to my uncle about everyday things (one thing he contributed at lunch was his belief that a prostate exam was “proven” to be as painful as childbirth) and didn’t once speak to me about my mother. X and I had a perfectly pleasant conversation, in the way of girls or women speaking to boys or men who have done them harm: Somehow there’s a code, of fear or of inappropriateness, in accordance to which we don’t confront them, we keep it all inside, blame ourselves instead of them, and so on. But I was struck by X’s apparent sympathy and lack of self-consciousness as if, indeed, he felt there was nothing between us that warranted being nervous, or maybe even that he felt a bond with me because of those events in the cedar grove and in our basement that were humiliating for me but clearly pleasurable for him.

So I could see the wisdom of my friend’s saying I should let that past go, and I didn’t know if I was resisting that because it had become an integral part of my victim identity. Fortunately, in painting, there’s really no such thing as past or present, and the future, if it exists, is completely open. So I painted him and me, staying with the core feelings, and I did feel somewhat better just letting it be rather than trying to force a letting go. But Barbara came along and pointed out that I hadn’t painted any part of him touching me, which I’m sure was deliberate, though not conscious. So I extended the reach of his painted self, barely crossing the boundary of my painted body with black tendrils. Barbara urged me again and again to go as far as I could. I had to paint him getting into me somehow (lines going into my eyes and mouth), and even then she had to urge me (without saying in so many words) to see the part I was still avoiding, which was our lower halves. So I ended up with a painting I hated to look at, and I still don’t know the extent to which I have “let it go” or touched something deep inside that I had never allowed myself to feel.

*

It seems rather ironic that I had such pleasant encounters with men on this trip. It started on the smallish plane I take from Green Bay to Chicago. I was struggling to wedge myself into the single seat on one side, and the man across from me had two larger seats to himself. He generously offered to switch places with me, and then we kept up a conversation until we got in the air. Turns out he’s a pilot for Delta (we were flying United), and he told me several stories about awful flights he had flown. He was very solicitous about my comfort, I think partly because of the cane I take with me so I can make it through the airports more easily. (A cane is an obvious sign that something isn’t right.) I told him I was going to S.F. to paint, and described the process very generally. He said his 16-year-old daughter is creative, a writer. He said she’s very protective of her writing and her privacy. She’s careful about whom she shows it to, and only when she feels ready. I said, “Vulnerable. Being creative is on a par with being vulnerable.” He seemed dubious. I hope he remembers that, though. I felt a kinship with his daughter, and with him for caring about her. When we landed in Chicago, I said good-bye and we shook hands. He was surprised that, “unlike most women,” I have a strong grip. I like to think I shook up his world a little bit. I’m far from outgoing, but when I have a chance to make an intimate connection with someone, even briefly, I relish it. That’s how people change, I think (me and them).

All week (not just in the airports) I had a good feeling about various men I encountered. It’s a new world for me. In Chicago, my gate happened to be near Wolfgang Puck’s, which I love, so I hobbled over there and got myself a margarita pizza. As I looked around for somewhere to sit, two Indian men got up and effusively offered me a seat at their table, and I settled in to eat my lunch. More than one man helped by parting the crowds for me or letting me get in line. One guy responded to my thanks with “Absolutely! No problem!” Women were kind to me too, of course. I couldn’t help noticing that the women who helped me were not with men. And the men were not with women. Not sure what to make of that.

I think that will be all for now. There’s an omelet downstairs with my name on it, or will be once I break a few eggs. I hear you have to do that.

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mary’zine #71: October 2014

October 26, 2014

 

saga d’amour conclut

When you fall in love, it’s like you get on a moving train with your lover, and you glide across the fruited plains and want for nothing. Everything is beautiful, and you believe that it will never change. Suddenly, you find yourself in the foothills, then on the dangerous mountain roads. You’re no longer on a train, and there’s no one else around. You’re alone with your simple need, one that your lover can no longer fulfill. You don’t know when—let alone why—everything changed. Despite the rarefied mountain air, you discover that Love is Flat, like the earth once felt. And you fall off the edge, as millions have done before you.

Now that the relationship is over, I risk sounding merely delusional, a victim of my own fantastical tendencies… as if I made the whole thing up, as if she was the level-headed one all along, humoring me while keeping my intense feelings at bay. There really ought to be a fairytale—told by the Grimm Sisters, perhaps—in which a Lesbian falls in love with a beautiful Princess (who is, of course, heterosexual; did you ever hear of a dyke Princess?). It’s a classic story, but, like many other women’s stories, it was never written down, or passed down orally. Ahem. This fairytale, if it existed, would not have a happy ending. And to be a bona fide fairy tale, a happy ending is a must—as is the inclusion of a Man to rescue the damsel from whatever horror results from not being with a Man. We lesbians have to rescue ourselves, or die trying.

My story doesn’t include a Man, unless you consider the male character who stands to the side of the stage, unaware of what is going on emotionally between his Woman and the never-seen Lesbian. I’m surprised Shakespeare never wrote this story. Or maybe he did and I missed it, having gotten a D in Shakespeare in college. (I had a lost year but was redeemed after I dropped out and started smoking marijuana. True story.)

There were certainly moments when it seemed that I—as the bona fide lesbian in the situation—was doomed or assumed to be the One in Love. But I know that she felt the same for awhile, which is what distinguished the relationship from my past encounters with unobtainable women. Oh sure, she was unobtainable, but there was a beautiful (delusional) time when we were together in the same matrix of wish and desire.

 

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requiem for a mad, mad, mad, mad love

When love is not madness it is not love.―Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Friendship is solid. That’s its nature. It can take many forms: years long, or situational. Situational friendship ends when the situation is over. Usually, this is understood by both parties. Situational friendship can reconstitute itself if the new situation allows it, or it can fade from lack of contact. Years-long friendship changes to love naturally, over time, but it is still solid.

Romantic love is volatile. Most such love is doomed to failure, unless both parties allow it to change its form.

Madness is volatile. If one person emerges from the madness and wants to transform the relationship into something safer, easier—into “friendship”—it won’t work if the other one is still in a state of madness.b9b1a59a30b035eddb6f7c496968a991

It’s a loop. Fantasy is volatile. Romantic love is fantasy. Fantasy is madness. Romantic love is madness, and madness is highly addictive, given the right circumstances.

With our friends, partners, relatives, we say we “love” them. When we’re mad, we say we’re “in love.”

Mad in love feels crazy, beautiful, even miraculous. It can cross boundaries with ease: marriage, sexual orientation, age, distance all become incidental… not because they are no longer true, or important, but because they have been swept away by the madness.

This old love has me bound. But the new love cuts deep.—Joan Armatrading

Mad in love is a revelation that two people could have such strong feelings for each other, even after a brief acquaintance. The spark flies, the flame is lit. But it rarely lasts. Someone comes to her senses, someone is threatened, has something to lose, is in danger of destroying another relationship that is no longer as exciting, as romantic, as mad… but is still important, a foundation that has momentarily been shaken.

She who emerges from the fantasy, the madness, is rationality personified. Friendship makes more sense (it is solid). It doesn’t threaten anything, it can coexist with the other elements. It is freer, less draining. Less hard on the heart. No longer volatile. Like taking the best parts of the attraction and eliminating the angst, the high emotion, as lovely as that was while it lasted. It’s hard to argue against friendship.

She who is still mad understands the reasonableness, is even in favor of it. Anything to stay close to the flame. She means well. But she is mad, after all. She misses the excitement, the intensity. She keeps looking for it even after it has been pronounced dead, or transformed. There is no transformation for the mad, regardless of the promises she makes, the reasonableness she thinks she can learn to live with.

Conflict becomes inevitable. One side wants reassurance, a return to the madness (even as she realizes it’s impossible), some proof that the flame is still flickering. The other side wants the madness to end—for her, the madness has ended—but doesn’t want to lose the connection.

Accusations fly, defenses are breached. Eventually, someone has to do something, because the reasonable and the mad do not mix. Someone must surrender to reality, declare a mistrial, give up the fantasy, give up the mad.

A happy ending is by no means assured. She who is still mad believes that she can’t “turn it on and off.” She who has already turned it off regards the other as immature, manipulative; she feels duped, sad, even indignant, as if she had nothing to do with any of it: the fantasy or the inevitable division and separation.

But there is no recourse. The worst must be faced. The madness will flame on for a bit longer, but she who has been clinging to the fantasy must see that it has been supplanted by the entirely reasonable-sounding “friendship.” Even then, the relationship has been built on a lie. The center cannot hold.

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Both wish that the terms could be renegotiated, the past reconstructed, as if nothing had happened. But something has happened, and there’s no going back.

It hurts, but there is also relief (surprisingly).

Farewell to the madness. Rest in Pieces.

 

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mary’zine #70: August 2014

July 28, 2014


I think I fall in love a little bit with anyone who shows me their soul. This world is so guarded and fearful. I appreciate rawness so much. —Emery Allen

Do you think the universe fights for souls to be together? Some things are too strange and strong to be coincidences. —Emery Allen

We were all wounded in some domestic war. —Melissa Etheridge



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I could fill this whole issue with quotations on the order of: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Wouldn’t that be fun? No? OK, I’ll have to find my own words.

I went down a giant slide once, years ago, and I remember it vividly. The slide was so slick and so long, and the ride so fast, that halfway down I felt like I was going to hurtle into space, overcoming gravity by the greater force of centrifugation. It was as helpless a feeling as I have ever known.

Oh, fickle gravity, which hurts so bad when you fall out of a tree but keeps you more or less moored to the earth or to a slippery metal slide.

My new love, which I recounted in great excitement in mary’zine #68, was about to transcend gravity in its own way…. I was going to travel to visit her, we talked about things we would do while I was there… when something happened…. Isn’t it always the way? Something happens, you’re not sure what, even after extensive back-and-forths where you alternately praise, accuse, justify, plead, and despair of getting back to the used to be…. It’s what you both want, but somehow you’re going in different directions, you can’t seem to make it work, so many tears. One or both of you announce your imminent departure, then you come back, please, let’s work this out. The ambivalence is palpable, on both sides. The two of you have promised to be honest and open, not to disappear without a word. But you’re both caught in a morass of misunderstanding, seeing facts and implications with completely different eyes. What had begun as an uncanny simpatico, a field of blue flowers open to all outcomes, is suddenly charged with doubt. It’s a wonder true love ever succeeds: How do two people navigate that swampy land of differences that were such a delight in the beginning?

One night, in an e-mail that seemed to come out of nowhere, she decided we had to “redefine the relationship.” Apparently I had been taking too much, expecting too much. I read on with disbelief and increasing dread. I didn’t know how we had gotten to this place. I wanted to tell her, I am not Hitler and you are not Czechoslovakia, but the time for jocularity seemed long past. I had believed that I could say anything to her and she would understand. (From which naïve forehead of a Greek god had I sprung?) We had both said we were in it for the long term. But I didn’t know what to do with this new development.

Can a lesbian and a heterosexual woman ever be completely in sync? … maintain a close friendship, let alone a mutually declared sense of being “in love”? It seems crazy now. But I am still in it for the long love, the love that cares more for the well-being of the other than for one’s own selfish desires.

I had been in love before, and I had grown into love, but I had thought that, for the first time, I had met my match and found my equal, that we were in the same place at the same time. I felt infinitely adaptable, willing to make room for her primary relationships, feeling I was at once on the outside and on the inside, in her heart. Her daily life could not include me, and I knew that. We were not young, we had histories, and we felt we could create a relationship that was out of the bounds of normality, personally crafted to connect on the levels that mattered and careful not to trample on what had come before.

Women can do this. Lesbians especially can do this, because we were born into a lawless land already. I never wanted to have a socially respectable relationship, one that followed the rules of courtship and betrothal, china patterns and dinner parties. When I fell in love with my roommate in college, it didn’t faze me. Oh, I’m this horrible thing called a homosexual? Fine. In my late twenties, I found myself in a menage à trois with my then-partner and a young woman with two kids. How crazy, you think. Yes. But that’s what I mean. When you’re making your own rules, anything seems possible, and you believe you can overcome all manner of unlikelihoods. Of course, the threesome didn’t last or, rather, it never really got off the ground. The strangest thing about it was that my mother—my mother—after taking to her bed a few years earlier when I told her I was gay, accepted this new relationship and even sent Christmas presents to the kids from their “other grandmother.”

So that’s where I’m coming from—and now, in my sixties, when I should be done with all that nonsense—I mean, exploring—I fall in love with a married woman and honestly believe, once again, that anything is possible and love will conquer all.

I think that American gay people have, in a sense, put one over on society by seeming to be “just like them,” with all the raising of children and family values and respectable clothes and modest romance (chaste kisses for the cameras at the marriage ceremony). The thrill of acceptance—old hatreds transmuted into new laws that seemingly free us from the prejudices of the unimaginative—may or may not be transformed into the platitudinous tedium of real life. Lesbians, like heterosexuals, can cheat on each other, leave each other, do all sorts of terrible things in the name of love. One thing that seems to be different is that lesbians tend to rearrange relationships in a group so that eventually everyone at the table has slept with the hostess. This can be awkward but is, in the end, rather endearing. We are loyal, and we are not just about sex. One of my best friends was my partner for 12 years (and one of the threesome), and she has been with her current partner for longer than that. She is now as much my family as my sisters are.

 

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Although I accepted that lovemaking with my new love would never happen in reality, I kept the fantasy going in my head, loving each endearment she spoke, responding to her hints and innuendos. She was enjoying the flirtatiousness, too, but apparently didn’t know how close to the fire she was playing. I wanted to believe in the endless unfurling of a miracle. Is this not the essence of romantic love? The relationship itself had felt like a miracle. But now it was as if Cupid had pricked us both with his sly arrow and then pulled it out again, leaving us gasping for air like fish flopping on dry land.

Anyone in her right mind would have seen that it couldn’t last. Three- or four-hour phone calls, long chats online, checking for messages in the middle of the night…. But neither of us was in her right mind. Love—the booming fireworks that often begin the opening and sharing of the heart—is not a logical, clinical process. Nor is it a regular friendship, which proceeds in cautious steps, building trust and camaraderie as you go. No, this was sheer craziness, a ride not unlike the long slide of my youth that threatened to catapult me into the atmosphere.

 

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In the stream of humanity, we are but a collection of molecules, held together by friction and desire, trying in vain to individuate ourselves from the masses. It’s an odd desire, this wanting to believe we are separate, that we are not what we, in fact, are: members of a species who will float downstream until we reach the end of our run and disappear into the froth and spray of an undifferentiated ocean.

But even as we try to individuate, we are looking to meld hearts with another. It’s one of the most fulfilling things in life. It is like a miracle, finding another person who sees you for who you are, who loves you despite all the practical difficulties, the fallen limbs that often lie across the path to true union. When a new friend declares she loves you, that she is in love with you, there is no headier feeling.

 

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scared straight

I am the delinquent who will never steal again.

“Scared Straight” was a 1970s documentary that evolved into a TV series that has now turned into a program called “Beyond Scared Straight” (“because scaring teens is no longer as easy of a task”) that introduced young offenders to the reality of prison life. The idea was that the kids would be scared out of their incipient lives of crime, which must seem so glamorous and freeing when they are first attracted to it. The toughest-looking and -acting prisoners put on a convincing show for these kids, who tried to seem above it all but were mostly terrified at the thought of being passed along from rapist to rapist. I don’t know if this program worked, or if “Beyond…” scares them more efficiently, but I’m only using it as a metaphor, so let’s get on with it.

My love(r) was questioning the relationship because it was too intense and draining (as friendships between women tend to be) (you rarely hear about drama kings), and I was forced to see that I could lose everything if I didn’t stop wishing for what I couldn’t have. I had wrongly thought that wishing could remain an exciting part of this homemade, crafted-on-the-fly relationship, a personal quirk that she could accept because she would know it would never come to fruition.

But it was not to be. I was scared straight, all right, and I do not shrink from the double meaning in that term. As far as she’s concerned, I’m as good as heterosexual now. When faced with the possibility that I would lose her, I discovered that all fantasies had fled for higher ground. It was a sobering realization, and I’m still not sure how things will ultimately change between us. But it’s probably the best thing that could have happened, if we are truly destined to be close friends who enjoy and love each other for a lifetime.

 

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Am I capable of writing about this experience honestly? I wonder. I’m not writing from the point of view of the future, after a relationship is lost and I can extract hard-earned lessons from it, free to describe and analyze what happened in the spirit of a past love well fought for but not to be. I’m still fighting for it, and for a myriad of reasons I can’t offer up all the details, all the things that would identify her, all the theories of, not only what I did wrong, but what she misunderstood or projected onto me from her own past.

She will read this, of course, as she read the “love letter” that was mary’zine #68. In the throes of blooming romance, there is nothing to tell that isn’t flattering, seductive (she says I “seduce with words”), and in the service of continuing the experience.

But is seduction even possible? It sounds so manipulative, intended to dominate, to force the issue. But isn’t it more a matter of the seducer happening upon a willingness to be seduced? Cupid shoots his arrow, but the receiver must be ripe—primed—hopeful even, looking for it—to receive it.

I don’t want to consume her, or merge with the hearth fire of her everyday life. I want to be a small, bright flame that burns in her heart of hearts, like a pilot light that is contained and respectful, that honors and supports life rather than destroys.

How can I be truly honest about what happens between a lesbian and a heterosexual woman when the lesbian can dream all the possibilities and the straight woman cannot?

 

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Be the person you needed when you were younger. —Ayesha A. Siddiqi

When I opened up Facebook one morning, that quotation was the first thing I saw. I had just posted my mary’zine #69 called “Daddy’s girl,” and I thought, sure, I could have used the person I am to help me through my difficult childhood, but who’s going to help me now? Where is the person I might be when I’m 85 and can look back on this period of my life and send good thoughts down through the ether of time? It’s as if a lifetime of hard-won lessons has been flushed down the drain and I stand before you, as defenseless as a lamb.

 

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After reading my lover’s e-mail about redefining the relationship, I sat there for I don’t know how long, paralyzed, with a feeling of utter hopelessness. Blood really does run cold at such times. Cold-blooded. Check it and see. I had a fever of a hundred and three but I’d been plunged into the icy depths of a love gone cold—or so it seemed to me at the time. To make it worse, she was not going to be available for several days, so no amount of frenzied typing would even reach her, let alone get a response for a long weekend’s eternity. So recently hot blooded, I was unable to respirate let alone think lucidly.

Love is never smooth, but it’s never so rough as when you’re trying to explain a position you held days ago but did not express well and that has now been through the wringer of her perceptions and your own fears and reactions. Love starts with excitement and surprise and ends with a surfeit of words, often at cross purposes. And when you’ve been hurt by love—as who hasn’t?—you may suddenly see manipulation and plotting where once you saw only innocent attention.

I knew I had to sift down through the layers of desire and confusion and be as honest as I’ve ever been in my life. I had to answer her accusations—that all I wanted was to make a sexual conquest, that I have issues with straight women and create scenarios in which I will be rejected or abandoned because “that’s all I know.” This is Psychology 101 and not a bad guess, but I am a different person now. I have been there and I have done that.

She is not a mother figure to me. She is my equal. We are well matched in intelligence, humor, and creativity. Like all lovers, we had tried to remember exactly how this thing had happened. It’s love’s favorite game:

  • When did you first notice me?
  • When did you start to feel like you were falling in love?
  • I knew you loved me, but when you said you wanted to make love to me, that’s when it really hit me.

 

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I have lifelong friends, proven friends. I do not want for love: true love, not the sexy, new kind I was enjoying with her. But sexy and new, when going up against the old and true, has the advantage of youthfulness and a flowering in the blood that can’t be denied.

***

When I say, “I love you,” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman.

I came upon this quotation when I was googling something else, and I recognized how I was feeling. But then I was embarrassed to see that it’s from a TV show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So: —Joss Whedon.

 

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My lover’s theory about my self-sabotage via the next attractive straight woman I came upon bothered me like the pearl grinding itself into beauty inside the oyster. Only I suspected there was no goddamn pearl in there, just more pain and self-recrimination.

I imagined myself going down, down, down into the inky void of my own soul. I wanted to face the truth rather than make up stories and offer excuses or apologies.

 

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Being honest with another person can be difficult, but it’s nothing compared to being honest with yourself. I wanted to reach the rock bottom of my deluded self, push the illusions aside like so much clinging brush, and see myself with true eyes. We only half-understand ourselves under the best of circumstances. But it seemed crucial to face the hard truth or truths that would tell me which way to go—to attempt to rescue the relationship, or let it go. But going down to the rock bottom of your self is a fitful process, and you can’t help but look for footholds or a ledge upon which to rest, or reasons why this person who is angry at or disappointed in you cannot possibly be right. I kept letting go, and letting go, trying to forget the specifics and focus on the elusive truth. It was more important for me to find it than to convince her of it. I was only half of this equation, and x was still a complete mystery.

I could hardly move, could hardly breathe. I had days in front of me with no resolution, and, worse, no hope of resolution even when the time was up.

I had thought we were committing ourselves to working through the inevitable issues. We were embarked on a “friendship for life”… a friendship that she described early on as “an affair of the mind and of the heart.” We had had a wonderful time learning about each other for several months. There had been a hiccup or two, but we had got through them, which seemed to assure us that with honesty and perseverance we could get through anything.

But my desire for her—even in fantasy—had reared its ugly head enough times that she had had enough. She had thought it would “fade with time”—I’d “get over it”—an attitude with which I was very familiar. But we were each being true to our respective nature. To me, our relationship was new and exciting and had an unmistakable air of the sexual or at least the romantic. To her, it was the beginning of a long friendship—still new and exciting, but with a different result.

Finally, it was not about convincing her (or myself) of anything. Each of us had our own history that led us to this promising, intense relationship, our own feelings and the actions that could or could not follow. Consequences.

In time, she softened enough to say that she didn’t know what to do, that she wanted this “friendship for life” but didn’t know how it could work. The best scenario for her was to go back to before our used to be. We would see each other online and interact briefly. And that’s what we have done.

But I missed her so much; the feeling was palpable, visceral. There was a real connection there, and it looked like it was going to be cut off out of fear—a fear that we seemed to engender in each other, the panic of the lover wanting to rescue the drowning love but ultimately unable to save it.

I hope it works out. I love that woman.

 

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postscript

I wrote most of this issue a few weeks ago, when things between me and my love were still up in the air. They have come down to earth now, I am happy to say. Again, it was a mysterious process, what she went through, what I went through, to get to the point where we can say honestly that we don’t want to lose each other. As friends. Because we are both emotional, intense people, that will still be a factor in the relationship, but I think we are over a major hump. I couldn’t put her in a sexual fantasy now if I wanted to. And I don’t want to, because I want her loving friendship more than a dream. That is so mature of me, I know, and it was getting scared straight that finally made the difference. As my father used to say, “Wake up to the fact that you’re alive!” I had to wake up to the frightening possibility of losing this new friend, this woman I admire and cherish so much.

Maybe we will always be not far from that edge, that big, deep feeling that can turn on a dime and become scared, whether straight or not. I told her once that I felt, with her, that I was riding a bucking bronco and just wanted to stay on long enough to… what?… well, just to stay on. You don’t always know with a metaphor like that if you’re truly staying on or if you’ve landed back in the stands and can only watch the rest of the rodeo go by. I have never used a rodeo as a metaphor before, and I hope I will never have to use it again. If she’s the bucking bronco and I’m the hapless rider, I think I’ll be better off standing a little bit apart and convincing the bronco that there’s no reason to buck, I’m off her back and she is free to live her life. Hopefully with me in it.

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