Friday, May 21, 2010

First Fruits: Not Barren

We are called to offer the universe the best of what we have to offer. This arrangement works out nicely as it is often in our best work that we find our most joy. Even before I could read, it was clear my greatest talents lay in language. I attempted my first novel, a romance, when I was in third grade. It was three typed pages long. It was horrible and endearing. The following year, I wrote doggerel poems for my spelling words instead of sentences and read a few dozen Nancy Drew novels. Writing is my succor and in it, I am saved. And yet, the idea that I am meant to write whether anyone else thinks so or not, I have struggled most to accept. More than my mortality—it is easier to accept that I will cease to be, than it is to accept that I am meant to do something that might not be exceptional, but that even to me might be merely acceptable.

Acceptable to others? Accepting that following my calling might be humiliating at best has been its own struggle. The calling is what it is. The harvest is almost beside the point: the planting and tending make the garden. There are no fruits without gardening. The choice, then, is between productivity and barrenness.  Better to yield a few withered yellow zucchini than maintain a patch of rocky soil.

During my late adolescence, I had episodes of major depression, dropped out of college and dropped back in.

Slogging through the fog of unrecognized and untreated depression is maddening in itself. On top of the symptoms of depression itself—insomnia or exhaustion or despair or everyday sadness that is notable only in that it never lifts—not knowing what is wrong with oneself is an extra layer of madness. The internal dialogue of unrecognized depression is this: if I can just get enough sleep, I’ll be able to whatever, or if I stay up all night working on this since I can’t sleep anyway, that will help (never mind that it’s the third night in a row), or I’m failing. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I wake up in the morning? Why have I suddenly become an idiot? Why don’t I understand this? Why isn’t anything sticking? I read and nothing gets in. Everything—reading, conversation, people’s names, experiences—washes over the depressed and is gone; nothing is retained. Living in a fog, the depressed can’t see what depression is until she’s left it and is standing on a hill somewhere looking down on its dark mass. As long as she’s in it, her visibility is limited. Occasionally something emerges from the fog or she stumbles into a clearing, but mostly she lives in it, until she doesn’t. Unless she gets treated.

Writing was always the clearing. As long as I was writing, describing the experience, I was safe. Everything else might be a stinking smoking compost pile, but within the context of creative work there was clarity, purpose, accomplishment, even the occasional joy. I never sang merrily with the forest creatures, but the sunlight filtered through the trees revealing the rocks, grass, trees and flowers in the hyper-focus of the bright parts of chiaroscuro.

The problem with creative work that saves us is that it often saves no one else; that is, it sucks. It is interesting merely as the byproduct of some trauma. It often is incapable of standing on its own in the company of the pros. It is precious to us and us alone. If it accomplishes something of value, it is as curiosity not as masterpiece; the literary equivalent of coffee mug scrawls and the twee odes to catastrophe or God sold as framed prints in mail order catalogues.

On a pleasant afternoon, probably a Thursday because we were gathered for poetry writing workshop, some classmates and I were standing on the back terrace of the English and Comparative Lit Building under the shredded bark of eucalyptus trees. I told them ruefully, that I was an idiot savant. I was absolutely certain that the only reason I was accepted to graduate school was my talent: having a spotty undergraduate record and the lukewarm support of my undergraduate mentor, my portfolio must have been the only thing that got me in—that and a letter of recommendation from an important editor. My work and I had charmed him when he took up the post of my mentor, who had taken the obligatory post-tenure tour-of-Europe sabbatical.

When I still felt doors opening along my path as an undergraduate, my editor/teacher/friend agreed to an independent study consisting entirely of sending out poems for publication under his direction. I sent poems out. I got a few published in places astonishing for both their cynicism and lack of editorial standards—Win cash! Poetry contest! – and a few in places astonishing for the chutzpah of their editor/publishers, who were not much older than myself—zines associated with the punk rock subculture.

I did my best in graduate school, but when graduate school was over, I had impressed no one, least of all myself.

I knew I’d had enough of whatever it was that was the graduate school experience. And if that meant I wasn’t going to be a writer, or if it meant I’d be a different kind of writer, so be it. I was exhausted and directionless. Creative work had soured with the attempt to “professionalize” it.  Somehow being a professional writer had become entwined with learning how to teach recalcitrant teens how to write short essays and research papers.

The career center had no sage advice beyond referring me to the job board and suggesting I attend one of the corporate recruitment days. I couldn’t live off the job board offerings, and I didn’t understand how a person with experience mostly in music store sales and university physical plant work would manage to land a corporate position of any type, especially in the thick of the recession that was 1992. (In Orange County, California— an area that includes the coastal wealth of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Balboa Island— people were so desperate, they were voting democratic.)  I didn’t know what to do next.

Sitting at my desk in the living room of an apartment adjacent to what we called “Drug Street” in Santa Ana, I continued to write halfheartedly, promising myself that it would save me.  It would change everything: All I had to do was continue to write and my life would become what it should become.

I didn’t, but it did.

And now, here I am, twenty years later, having tried to find my calling down other avenues. I never really stopped writing. There were always journals. There were extension courses. Novels begun and abandoned. A screenplay about meth addiction and prostitutionbegun under the direction of friend whose own gambling and other habits seemed strangely similar to that of our protagonist—also abandoned. Forays into writer’s groups that fizzled out. Letter writing on a prodigious scale. I never really stopped writing, but I never really started either.

I was busy making a living. Getting married. Having children. Trying to find a career. All of those goals are still in process.

Some writing students enter and leave school with a kind of crippling grandiosity. Some students like myself. I never subscribed to the ridiculous ideas about artists being subject to rules different than mere mortals. Sure, there’s much to be learned along the road of excess, but dissipation as vocation just seemed stupid to me. My particular Janus head of doom consisted of grandiosity paired with its ever-present twin, self-loathing doubt. The grandiosity amounted to a delusional belief in my talent as something far different and superior. The truth—that talent is as individual and as common as, well, individuals—floated at the top of a pool of self-loathing around work ethic, procrastination, self-doubt and fallow periods of creativity. Accepting that what makes a writer is work has been hard won for me.

When Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were promoting their movie Runaway Jury, Hoffman told an interviewer that being an actor starting out in one’s career is hard because you don’t know if you’re conning yourself. The same can be said for writers. You don’t know if you’re conning yourself at precisely the point when blind faith is most needed, that is, when you have no publishing history to assuage worries that whatever made you think you were entitled to a career in writing was wholly misguided and delusional. At precisely the moment when you’re called to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, the idea that all that hard work and poverty might net nothing slouches in the corner snickering, smoking a Gauloises. The grandiose can’t help but ask what the point is, if one isn’t going to be A Great Writer. Juvenile. Embarrassing.  But there you have it.

So, there is a pruning process during which the number of writers whittles down to those too crazy to do anything else or too cocksure to admit any other possibility.  I fell into neither category. I just kept writing or sublimating creative energy into other outlets thinking that the world of real creative work was something outside and beyond whatever it was that I happened to be doing at the moment.

Like being in love, having a baby provides an important circumspect vantage point. Having produced a living human being, I’m less inclined toward preciousness regarding my creative work. I’ve made a person: what do I need to prove beyond that? The people I’ve created are a source of wonder and are more remarkable every day. What do any concerns about one’s career status ultimately matter? We are here briefly. We don’t know what’s important until after we are long gone from this life.  Think in astronomical terms. Or geological. What remains of us? What remains of what we do or of what we fail to do? Our actions are infinitely important and infinitely unimportant.

For this lifespan in the millions of years that is life on earth, what will I offer the universe?

All I am capable of offering.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Further Negotiations: Glamoured

When I was in my early twenties my confirming church, First United Methodist, called to wonder where I’d been and if I was still a member. I told the caller that I was no longer worshipping a white male god; I was a feminist pagan.  In my social milieu, people wore jackets customized with emblems, slogans, and images that broadcast one’s worldview. Some wore black leather with skeletons dancing across the back. Some wore Air Force hooded fatigue coats with red, white and blue bulls eyes carefully painted in primary acrylic. My Levi’s jacket had a white women’s symbol, the tail an upside down cross, the circle a peace sign, all outlined in metallic gold. Around this central motif twined a five- candled wreath of purple flowers, green leaves and curling vines. 

I could probably wear this jacket, if it still fit, without much consternation. It summarizes nicely where my spiritual head is at. I do not subscribe to a stern father model of God. I do not believe God is gendered. I do believe that “feminine” energy is the source of creation—how could it not be? —Why would a universe organize the visible world around a symbol system that is diametrically opposed to the spiritual world? I don’t think it would. Though, admittedly, the upside down cross now strikes me as disrespectful, juvenile and overly simplistic.

In the 80s an upside down or X’ed over cross, such as those on Bad Religion T-shirts, sought to comment not on Christ or the crucifixion, but on the organized religion the cross symbolized to those of us up on tip toe peaking in the church windows — or kicking at the turf from a safe distance across the street.  Tammy Faye Baker, Robert Tilton, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the Trinity Broadcast Network’s talking, weeping, and painted heads—the airwaves were full of an image of Christianity that was obscene and far off Gospel message. Sex scandal after scandal involved “righteous” men who had many judgmental and moralizing opinions about the sex lives of others.  Jerry Falwell declared AIDS a plague wrought by god to punish sin. While they weren’t busy opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and proclaiming God’s hatred of homosexuals, they were busy laying the groundwork for a prosperity gospel—they were happy shiny people who were happy and shiny because God wanted them to be the happy shiny owners of air-conditioned dog houses. In the thick of it Bono chided from the concert stage, “My god ain’t short on cash, mister.” 

For people raised outside an organized faith tradition in which they otherwise might have familiarity with the Gospel message, Christianity looked pretty vacant: self-righteous, self-involved, narcissistic, money mongering, whore mongering. As the “Religious Right” aligned itself with the Republican Party, the jokes about how the hookers don’t like to work the Republican Convention because those guys are really twisted when it comes to their predilections applied equally to Religious Right practitioners. They were one; upon regressive politics and policy they could both agree, and upon the subjugation of women they could both agree. By extension, the Democrats embracing their sexuality and essentially fallen state, had a healthier relationship with sexuality all around and weren’t dabbling in anything half as dark as the kinky freaks across the isle.  Or so it appeared to many others and me.

For those familiar with the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount, the spectacle of weeping and/or penitent millionaires was simply obscene. I suspect I am not the only person who turned away from Christianity when its public image coalesced with the Technicolor show that was the Religious Right. (Thank God for Bill Moyers and Sister Wendy!) 

When I turned away, I turned toward a practical application of The Beatitudes—which in my mind means some form of socialism or a form of pure Marxism divorced from the nastiness of some of its previous incarnations. For instance, I once read about an agrarian province in India in which universal healthcare and near 100% literacy are the norms. No one is wealthy, but no one has a starving intellect or belly, either. Like Steinbeck’s preacher, I like to think that once and only those needs are met, spiritual hunger will lessen as well. It’s hard to believe in a benevolent Universe if your starving child lies in your lap too weak to swat flies. 

Mysticism is my natural inclination. I like to think about God much more than I like to do God’s work. So I spent a lot of time thinking about God as understood apart from the Religious Right—as far apart as I could get. My bumper sticker at the time: Sappho’s Coming

My sister is making me a rosary to commemorate my confirmation into the Catholic Church. It will be made of garnet beads. She isn’t making it with a crucifix; she is opposed to crosses and crucifixes. As she explained in a recent phone call, “It’s like memorializing Holocaust victims with shower heads. It’s the least important part of the story.” (I’m certain a phalanx of Catholic priests would disagree.)  She intends to include a goddess figurine where the crucifix would normally go. I see no problem with that. None. I am a cultural relativist. My god isn’t their “God.” “They” are people who are not cultural relativists. My god certainly isn’t some bearded and middle-aged 16th century Italian with white hair. My god is nebulous: The Universe. My god is everything that reminds me I am infinitely insignificant and infinitely connected in relation to everyone and everything else. My god is an acknowledgement that none of us mortals know what god is or isn’t. Not me. Not the magisterium. Not the priesthood. Not the Pope. S/He who cannot be named is my god.  

Around Easter I made a new friend at work, Mote It Be, whose own blog (because he’s a big fat copycat) can be found at  Mote It Be made no secret of his interest in paganism. He quickly became my friend. This relationship has raised questions. If I am drawn to a Wiccan newbie right as I am learning the Nicene Creed by heart, what is the Universe trying to tell me? If I am drawn into an intense friendship with a man who is everything I have renounced for the sake of my marriage, in what is the Universe trying to school me?

This morning my youngest daughter carefully applied lipstick and sat in my white leather living room chair cradling the lipstick in her hands. The lipstick was tucked succinctly into the purse case it lives in, usually at the back of big sister’s bathroom drawer. (Big sister inherited all of her grandma’s makeup.) The purse case this tube lives in once held my only tube of Chanel lipstick, which cost somewhere beyond $20. The lone and prized tube of Chanel ate it when big sister drew on a wall or all over her clothes or completed some other tragic comedy years ago. Mote It Be is my tube of Chanel lipstick.

It has been nine years since I was free to get up in the morning and decide my day free of the influence and obligation of a committee of domestic terrorists. I am on-call 24 hours a day. I chose that. I still love what it means to be a mother and wife, but nine years is a very long time—long enough to forget that it is not unreasonable to ask for and receive several hours a week to one’s self.  It is not unreasonable to maintain friendships that have nothing to do with one’s husband’s professional contacts, one’s children’s playmates, the network of mommies and daddies and neighbors and colleagues and church friends that make up the routine life and friendships of the stay-at-home mom. Mote It Be, then, is my tube of Chanel lipstick, garnet with flecks of bronze and smelling like, well, Chanel lipstick (though he actually smells like some spell oil intended to incite lust—smoky, sweet and masculine essential oils).

Over the last few years on Face Book, I have been gathering my friends who knew me when nothing about me was a secret. Mote It Be is the kind of friend I used to have before being someone’s wife and other people’s mother primarily defined me. Being known, it turns out, is important. Being known for the person you truly are when you are without fear, humble and naked before the universe is important because being that person and being ok with being that person—that buoyant homeostasis—like savasana—is one of those times when the universe bends down and kisses your forehead tenderly. Profoundly connected, whole, at one.

I have been drawn to Catholicism from the start because it echoes paganism. The liturgical calendar follows the seasons of birth, growth, and death—maiden, mother, crone—at least in the northern hemisphere. The Virgin Mary’s primacy in Catholicism is particular to Catholicism, but it is also an echo of the Goddesses that historically precede her and an obvious cooptation of the fertility cults the Roman Empire supplanted. (According to the Encyclopedia of Women’s Myths and Secrets, several Madonna and Child statues in the United Kingdom, when examined carefully, reveal themselves as pairs of female figures.) Communion has its parallels across more than one faith tradition, including paganism. Voodoo is an amalgam of Catholicism and West African faith practices. And in these ways, Catholicism holds more attractive symbolism than do the mainstream Protestant traditions with which I’ve had experience.  My heathen soul is glamoured by the allure of The Mother Church.