Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Abashed Pelican


Perhaps looking inward is not the same as procrastination. When I started this blog last year, I was paralyzed by the psychic fallout of unrequited love, being laid off from a job I dearly loved, and moving with my teenage kids into my childhood home to live with my elderly mother. I felt cut loose, adrift, with no reference points--bewildered but curious about my inability to take any kind of decisive action. My first blog entry was titled "What I Did Today" and featured photos of me stroking my cat Pablo senseless, and was very low on text, asking only this:

I wonder, if I meticulously document examples of procrastination with photos and text, will it add up to a life of action?  How does a life of conscious procrastination differ from other lives?  When does consciousness lead to change and when is consciousness an end in itself? Is consciousness without action enough?

          Without realizing it, I began to answer that question in my second post, "Mission: Rescue Rajah," which was about being haunted by the war in Sri Lanka and my fleeting personal connection to genocide in a land far, far away, that's been largely disregarded by the global community. I've written about many different things that interest me, but I always return to this: Saving Rajah is my salvation.

          I fear my friend Rajah is one of the tens of thousands who have vanished in Sri Lanka, tortured or, by now, buried in a mass grave, but sometimes I don't believe it. Quite often, I imagine that we simply lost touch and he is living his life, middle-aged now, hidden away in the hills of the tea country, making a meager living and staying out of trouble. But in his last letter to me, more than 20 years ago, he said he was in trouble. If I learn that Rajah is alive and well, or simply alive, I will rejoice; but in Sri Lanka his disappearance is always possible, every day it is possible for Tamil people and their supporters to be taken away in a white van and simply disappear.

          I am still unemployed, but perhaps I'm no longer as paralyzed. I'm still bitter about the job loss, but my center of gravity has shifted to the broader question of how I want to spend the rest of my life. I was ferocious and unsuccessful in my attempts to kill my attraction to someone completely unsuitable and disinterested in me, until in exhaustion I turned my attention to other questions and now that phase of obsessive love is finally in the past. Some of the feelings and questions I've explored have had to do with childhood grudges which reared up anew when I moved in with my mother. Those ferocious, primal grievances are now also largely exhausted. The sensation is almost magical--now you see it, now you don't--so I have to remind myself that it's not just a trick, I've really worked for it and when old grievances flare momentarily they are more manageable, more gently and compassionately observed before they extinguish.

          I've indulged myself for a whole year in reading that nourishes the spirit, finding meaning on my own terms, writing about what has meaning for me, and reaching out to friends and strangers with a sense of urgency and hopefulness, answering a deep need to connect. I've often felt, and do still feel, selfish and guilty about this period of my life, but lately I also feel more empowered and sure-footed.

          My tendency to get pissed off and despair, while honest, has begun to feel counter-productive, like a betrayal of hope. In my reading, I have come across Anais Nin, whom I used to mistake for a narcissist--certainly more diarist than activist. But isn't exposing oneself the beginning of a most sincere and daring declaration of self, an invitation to a more authentic relationship, one that requires tremendous vulnerability and the courage to be deeply known? In her essays, Nin writes at length about the importance of the refusal to despair and how art has the power to transmute even grief into broad, positive change, and how a personal vision can reach into the collective consciousness.

          Then again, there's reality. In "The Audacity of Hope" Barack Obama seems to contradict himself, musing,

I wonder, sometimes, whether men and women in fact are capable of learning from history--whether we progress from one stage to the next in an upward course or whether we just ride the cycles of boom and bust, war and peace, ascent and decline.

          I wonder, too. But does it help to ponder in this way? Either way, hope is always audacious.

          Junot Diaz, the acclaimed author who writes from his particular perspective of the Dominican Republic's diaspora, offers this loving critique of Obama in a 2010 essay in The New Yorker titled "One Year: Storyteller-in-Chief."

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric...

But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all...

Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing...


A President can have all the vision in the world, be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, have a bold progressive plan for his nation—but none of these things will matter a wit if the President cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his will, his plan in the idiom of story. It is hard to feel invested in a terrible story or a confused story or, in the case of the current Administration, no story at all. 


          Eureka and Amen. (And, dear God, please let Obama win.)

          Naturally, the way to engage people is to tell a compelling story, a story in which great obstacles are overcome, in which we care desperately about the outcome, where we root for the victory over tremendous odds of a protagonist with whom we solidly identify. And we need a story that points us in a hopeful direction, fueling a commitment to care passionately about our collective future. A tragic story, a purely political story filled only with statistics and gruesome photos, couched in the objective, distanced jargon of the news media fills us with ennui. If we are to care, we have to be personally invested, and we need hope.

          The personal stories of Sri Lankan exiles must be told directly and in their own unique voices, in a lyrical narrative that is the story not only of tragedy, but of hope and determination. Who can resist the suspenseful story of an ordinary hero--someone like ourselves--a story in which readers are on some level complicit because the story is true and, while hope certainly remains, the story has yet to be finished? Because we read a true story still in the throes of its unfolding, we are in some tiny, fierce way implicated as coauthors. There needs to be a homecoming for the exiles of the world, if not yet literal, then in a profoundly imagined, shared way. Each exile must demand the right of return by imagining vividly what that might entail.

           I want to collect and present these stories, for people to love and care about. Why shouldn't I be the catalyst--not the storyteller, per se, but just a fellow outsider pointing the way irresistibly in?

           I've been thinking lately about--wait for it--keyholes. As a metaphor, keyholes are pretty corny, pretty stupid, pretty obvious, but nevertheless I've been taking pictures and they tell a very simple story of fear and redemption, banishment and welcome.




          Is this procrastination or fruition? I don't know who decides; but it's probably me.

          The painting of the pelican and the egg was given to me recently by my sister for my 50th birthday, and was painted by her son, the artist Duncan Mitchell. I don't know what it means to Duncan, or to you, but I smile every time I look at it because it seems plausible that I am, in fact, the abashed pelican who has laid this impossibly, agonizingly huge and beautiful egg.

          So, if I was pushed now to answer the original question I asked here over a year ago, "Is consciousness without action enough?" I would have to say No. No, but have patience and be persistent. It's like the old chicken-and-egg conundrum--which came first and who cares?--except consciousness is the pelican and action is the new life that hatches out of that big-assed, audacious yellow egg with the orange polka dots.



Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fifty

I considered changing my Facebook cover, just for today, to the book cover of Fifty Shades of Grey. But in the end I left my ubiquitous cloudy sky in the background; I was nervous no one would get the reference to my age and natural hair color.

          The October sky is overcast this morning. Leslie, the friend I've known longest, says, "Looks like someone shook the Etch-A-Sketch." I'd been thinking of gray TV static, but an Etch-A-Sketch best captures the flat loss. And the dumb uneasiness of a blank screen.

          I'm 50, which isn't the same as saying I'm 50, which I've been doing all year to prepare myself for this day. Yesterday I finally decided to be 49, and that was hard because I had to squeeze the whole fucking year into a day. So now among my regrets is skipping 49. Fifty is no big deal, except now I'm thinking of 60 and then 70. It's not that I have trouble living in the moment, but the moment slides so fluidly from future to past to present. It's all over the board. Who keeps shaking the damned Etch-A-Sketch? 


Monday, October 1, 2012

What If Gandhi Was An Asshole?

Gerhard Richter, "Strip"
Abstract

Conventional wisdom encourages the invention of role models to inspire self-improvement through example--because our heroes provide us with hope and guidance, motivation, even salvation. But what if these idealized constructions compromise our wholeness and humanity or our aptitude for compassion? There is no hero without a villain, but what if the two are indivisible? Should we then question the practice of what amounts to hero worship in the cult of role models? My analysis is based on field data that is purely subjective and limited to a single case study with multiple digressions. Variables were neither controlled nor measured. My results indicate that role models are as capable of harming as helping us. In conclusion, it may be beneficial to resist the urge to dehumanize our role models by compassionately acknowledging their flaws, as well as our own, in order to live more authentically.

Clues

If you believe Curt's Facebook profile, you'd think he lives in a small city in Southeast Asia.

          There are no people in his profile picture, just a public swimming pool with flat, blue water surrounded by a square, cement border and a margin of grass that looks like it needs watering. The edge of the diving board is just visible in the corner of the frame, but there is no indication of Curt, though he must be on the high dive snapping the picture.

          Most of his Facebook friends come from the Southeast Asian city, mostly young girls posing in bikinis, or in karaoke bars with big, icy drinks.

          Curt's "Likes" include one sad Country Western love song, two porn sites and a massage establishment in the Southeast Asian city.

          Posts and comments are infrequent.


Fantasies

She imagines Curt's Facebook page as the empty stage for his alternate reality, where he can picture himself with a sexual buffet of pretty young girls from a city that is 9,000 miles away, where his favorite--a girl 30 years his junior--can frolic and pose in the empty pool, just for him.

          When she asks if he took any pictures on his vacation, he emails five or six photos from his iPhone. Asian girls with big, juicy smiles and smooth black hair, posing on a bed in sexy negligee. She thinks they look like they're having fun posing, that the cotton cover on the bed is at odds with the red lacy thongs and lewd poses--the quilt looks cozy enough for a child's room and is a nice example of that country's artistry. There's an innocence about these girls, too, that Wendy can't dismiss. It makes her uneasy.

          For a moment, she tries to imagine what it would be like to have a pretty, young girl of her own. Imagine: Her only concern is to give you an endless variety of orgasms, she offers her body to you like a delicacy, and makes you feel important and happy, a posable, untroubled girl, one without guilt or demands and totally uncritical, who believes what you want her to believe, who is flattered by your attention and impressed by your wallet, enthusiastic about every aspect of who you are, who makes you feel carefree and vital, and young. Better than Prozac, she reckons. Imagine each girl is a reflecting pool, your own private swimming pool, onto which you can project whatever your heart desires and then simply dive in.

          On the third day, after the fifth or sixth photo, she finally lets Curt know she has seen enough pictures to get the idea, that maybe "less is more."

Facts

1.  Thirty years ago, Curt was her first love.
2.  Thirty years ago, she was Curt's first love.
3.  They had no other common interests and rarely spoke to each other.
4.  They were together for eight years.
5.  They have had almost no contact with each other since they split up, about a quarter of a century ago, until recently.
6.  She is divorced, with two teenage children.
7.  Curt never married.
8.  They have both taught in public schools, but she is currently unemployed.
10. Both have indicated a wish to establish and maintain cautiously friendly relations in their middle age. Their contact is largely confined to infrequent, casual emails and Facebook messages, and the occasional exchange of online articles.


Transcript of Emails Between A Middle-Aged Woman and Her Ex,
Hereafter Referred to as X

Middle-Aged Woman: Thanks for the great article...Just had a huge fight with my son,  who slammed the door on me yelling, "You suck! You're the worst mother ever!"

X: Maybe he has a reason to be angry. I see it every day on the job. Teachers are supposed to fix the results of messed up emotions of other people's children brought on by adults' self-centeredness and bad choices, people who don't pick partners who are role models for their kids, who are too interested in their own personal satisfaction and happiness. Maybe it's too easy to judge other people. I certainly don't like being judged on my lifestyle...

X: People should stop blaming teachers for their own personal issues. Most important is to be a parent, step up to the plate, be a role model thru your positive work ethic, thru the example you set, thru your actions, not just the words. Children notice these things...

X: Have a nice day.

MAW: Role models are important, but they're not real, three-dimensional people. Martin Luther King cheated on his wife and Buddha abandoned his wife and son. Both men are role models, but they weren't perfect. We don't often remember them for their imperfections. I don't blame teachers. When I was an instructional aid, I observed that teachers--in general--believed themselves to be superior to their students' parents. And the reverse was also true, parents blamed teachers. It's important to try to see the big picture, but also to live in a particular moment and engage with each other as honestly as is constructively possible.

The best teacher I've ever known was a terrific role model--a coach in the best sense. But his personal life was a wreck. He was real for his students, but outside class he's like a cardboard cut out, maintaining an image rather than a life. (I wonder whether I was more drawn to his perfection or to his carefully guarded imperfections.) Seems like there's always a gap between who we are and who we want to be.

X: I guess I am reacting to the hypocrisy I hear from them. Why get married and have children if you're not willing to work? I see too much of this garbage, whining and complaining from parents when their child self destructs in front of them. If you don't defuse the bomb early enough it will blow up. Don't be surprised when your child gets to high school, the anger was building maybe???? Easy to be critical and judgmental of other people's lives when you don't know the facts, and hard to take criticism???? Nice chatting. Stay open minded and positive.

MAW: Not quite sure what happened here. Did you feel judged by me? I didn't think I was commenting on your lifestyle, just setting some boundaries before when I said "no thanks" to the porno pics of your girlfriends--I'm not comfortable with it for myself, but I have no problem with what makes you happy. I assume we can be friends without criticizing each other, right?

X: I hope we can be friends without the judgement of lifestyles, etc. I tend to walk away from people judging me and my relationships. Nothing to do with the pictures, but I feel you make too quick a judgement on my relationships without knowing all the details. Maybe I felt you didn't have a right, like I don't have a right to judge you as a parent. I don't know the story day to day. Maybe I was trying to show you how it felt. I'm sick of all the bullshit judging. Hopefully we both learned something from the situation.



Fictional Journal Entry

We never talked because to know each other would have been a violation of an unarticulated romantic pact. I projected everything my heart desired, all that I lacked or desired, onto the screen of his beautiful face and into his touch. He mustn't interfere or the spell would break.

          Was my earliest erotic truth a lie? Do I use the same magical chemistry in my subsequent relationships, willfully overlooking undesirable traits and withholding information to induce a love-trance, a romantic sleight of hand, and then wonder why I'm disappointed?

          A magician and his audience are accomplices in a bogus relationship. The audience wants to be duped--you can't cut someone in half and then snap your fingers to make him whole again--it's all about distraction, illusion, to make the hard work of deception look like easy magic. There's no reason to feel duped, especially if you're the magician.


Self-reflection

I'm so full of shit, invoking Martin Luther King and the Buddha, for God's sake--and what was all that crap about 'living in the moment and engaging honestly'? Naturally, he was more full of shit. Motherfucker was attacking me for no reason. So do I fight back? Hell, yeah, I do--with moral superiority, baby!

          The truth is I do judge him, but I don't want to see myself as judgmental. And when I judge him--checkmate!--I make myself feel superior and avoid judging myself.

          Perhaps my relationships aren't much more substantial than his appear to be. Who decides to marry someone from another culture after 10 days and expects happily-ever-after? What about that agonizing crush on a coworker who was far too young, and with whom I had absolutely nothing in common?

          What if, rather than tallying off a checklist of acceptable qualities, relationships were about mutual discovery? What if there was no happily-ever-after constraint against which to constantly chafe?

          Why do we need to be perfect, or partial, for each other?


What if Gandhi Was an Asshole?

Gandhi used to have dark hair and wear clothes, and also, he was an asshole.

          What I mean to say is that Mahatma Gandhi is a human rights hero who transformed the world with his system of non-violent civil disobedience, and dismantled the Indian caste system, and should be revered globally for his positive influence, and he was also a racist, who early in his career was offended at being imprisoned with Black people, and who neglected his wife and son and consigned them to poverty.

          Martin Luther King, another human rights hero, cheated on his wife. Siddhartha Gautama, aka Buddha, whose teachings lead to enlightenment through compassion, abandoned his wife and son. And Michael Phelps, the 18-times Olympic gold medalist, smokes doobies.

          Nobody's perfect, even heroes fail. When their human flaws emerge, as they always do, we either vilify our role models or insist on denying the truth. Why did people get so worked up about Michael Phelps, who was dopey from the word go? Were they afraid that if they continued to like Phelps they would be regarded as potheads by association? Does liking the music of Richard Wagner automatically make you an anti-semite? Are we that undiscerning?

          Forget heroes and role models, we dehumanize each other with our unrealistic expectations and fantasies; our relationships often fail because we are unforgiving and judgmental, insisting that the other person stand in as an idealized proxy for ourselves.


Gerhard Richter's "Strip"

I don't want to be the kind of person who likes Gerhard Richter, a contemporary German visual artist. His work seems cold and overly intellectual--inhuman, really. I want you to think I'm soulful, earthy and sensual.

          I like Richter's "Strip." In fact I can't get enough of it. But what I see is not necessarily something that he or the critics see.

          As soon as I saw it, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes. Yes, really! Remember the Three Fates, in Greek mythology, who determine a human lifespan by weaving and cutting a tapestry? Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures it out, and Atropos cuts it with shears. "Strip" is the tapestry of a human lifespan, with thousands of different threads signifying a lifetime of events, ideas and emotions. There's a linear sense of time, but we can also experience the whole at once, the experience of now--good and bad, past, present, and future, all simultaneously. Get it? But I can only look at it for a second or two before the image splits into separate lines and a kind of vertigo makes me look away.

          It's damn near impossible for us mere mortals to appreciate the totality, to regard with compassion the seemingly contradictory jumble of pros and cons contained within each and every one of us. Worth a shot, though, right?