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:
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 ground 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.
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.