Posts Tagged ‘God’

This post is “lovely”

June 23, 2010


Someone said it at lunch. A student. I can’t remember now who. It was a warning to vulnerable, over-sensitive student-writers with flimsy self-esteem: “You gotta toughen up for these workshops.”

Twenty years ago when I took my first writing class at a college in North Jersey run by Dominican nuns, I would have agreed. Sister Bridget was a fairly kind-hearted woman but she’d rip you to shreds in front of your peers if you failed to put together a story with some semblance of meaning. But times have changed and now, successful writers with huge credits to their names (New York Times book review, New York Times Op Ed section, Granta, Harper’s, three published books, etc.) forewarn their workshop groups to be “compassionate,” “sensitive,” and to “discuss the piece’s finer points.”

We don’t want to offend anyone, now. Do we?

Here’s my gripe: The pros, who are all having nightmarish flashbacks of their MFA workshop experiences are applying these nicey nice terms (Great, Lovely, Has Potential) to everyone’s work. It’s not just my stuff that’s “great.” It’s John’s, and Jane’s and Larry’s and even Juanita’s who’s never taken a writing class in her life. We’re all “great,” and “lovely.” And there’s no distinction among us. And while this is great and lovely for our self-esteem (God forbid anyone’s sensitivities are offended) it doesn’t do squat to help us learn, grow or trust the validity of our professors’ opinions.

Granted, I’ve only been to three workshops so far this summer, but inevitably, they all begin with the same recurrent address: “First off, let me say that overall, this was a lovely piece of writing…I really enjoyed the bit about the blah, blah, blah, and I love the way you intuited blah, blah, blah…Also, I think you have a lot to work with here as far as blah, blah, blah goes.” If we’re lucky, the lecturer says this: “I have one criticism…”

Inevitably, when I’ve been workshopped previously, that “one little criticism,” no matter how clearly it comes across (which, usually it doesn’t because no one wants to offend me), no matter if I take notes and write it down in my binder and later, circle it and put arrows around it to mark its existence, goes in one ear and out the other. It evaporates. I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to be a writer that has to go back and edit her work. I want to be a writer who delivers a work of art on the first draft. I want to be the diamond in the rough. I want to be a star. And forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think others are like this too. Heck, who doesn’t want to be told that what they’ve created is a flawless shiny ball of fuzzy perfection?

But the trouble is, none of us are perfect and only maybe one or two of us (yes, that’s it) have submitted a publishable piece that has real potential at the moment it is being workshopped. And we as students know this. We have to read all the manuscripts as well and comparatively speaking, we all know what’s crap and what isn’t. So two things occur: cognitive dissonance—we recognize something as being black, but then we are told it’s white, and an internal prompt to follow the herd and be nice too. No one wants to offend anyone else. No one wants to step up to the plate and go against that social construct known as correctness (political correctness, social correctness, etc.). And why should we? We’re taught, so as to bolster our self-esteem of course, that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was rejected 20 times before someone published it, or that no one wanted to publish Bukowski for years. Not only that but the very nature of art and creative writing is subjective. Who’s really to say what’s crap and what’s not? And who am I to be so presumptuous?

And yet, this is our business. This is our life’s work. There is standard in the industry that, as students, we need to know if we are to attempt to reach it. My guess is that Obama will not “gently suggest” to McChrystal that he should resign. My guess is that Ben Bernanke got where he is by virtue of a lot of hard knocks and struggles, not by a gently cresting sea that propelled him forward with “First off, let me say that overall, you’re a lovely person…”

Bullshit.

In yesterday’s workshop I felt Big Brother was watching, controlling what we said and how we said it. And we were not given enough credit for trying to be humane on our own. We were forced into using words like “lovely,” “great” and “nice,” even if we didn’t mean it. Everyone was on guard. Even men like ______ held back their idiomatic language and bold criticism that for an entire year, inspired me to work harder and strive for better.

I am not suggesting that we denigrate or disparage individuals. There’s no place for “you suck.” But work is another matter. Work cannot be taken personally, despite the fact that it is the product of the individual. Work is in the public realm and when you put it there, it is up for criticism.

There was this kid yesterday whose piece was about to be discussed, until we were reminded to be nice. He spoke up and said, “I can take it,” but by then it was too late. Instead of a more accurate discussion of his work, he got the “this is lovely” version. And to add insult to injury, everyone talked it to death out of nervous energy. Truth is, it wasn’t bad. If he held his focus, if he removed the immaturities and judgments in his voice, if he tightened up a few parts and expanded on others, it would have read better. Would he believe me amid the phoniness that ensued? Could he trust anyone brave enough to tell him the truth? I don’t know. I hope so. Because that’s what will make him a stronger writer. And if he’s able to identify with and trust the judgment of people whom he admires, he just might be led in the right direction.

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to students not only to foster an environment conducive to learning, but to tell the truth. We need to know when our work works and when it doesn’t. The problem is, no one wants to suppose that there is one truth or that they have the right to judge. And maybe there isn’t one truth, and maybe they don’t have the right to judge. But someone needs to step up to the plate an offer up what’s known as an OPINION. Because there is a standard of good writing, and opinions count, and if a teacher is not willing to cultivate someone’s work, a student has to be willing to seek out the truth, even if it hurts. As for me, I’m looking for the truth in magazines. One thing I can be sure of is that the publishing industry isn’t afraid to tell me if my work sucks or if it truly is lovely.

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Nothing will make me feel better

June 3, 2009

I am sick. I slept maybe one hour last night. My son was up all night vomiting with a high fever that I couldn’t lower because he couldn’t keep down any advil. The image of Mr. Brass blowing his brains out kept playing over and over in my head. I feel blackened by all this. And it’s not quite over. There is a tarp hanging in Mr. Brass’ window to cover up the spot where he shot himself and the window he blew out. It’s falling down. I’m the only one on the block that has his spare key and a haz mat crew is due to come over today to clean up the mess. I’m supposed to let them in. Hello! I can’t remove a dead mouse from my house let alone witness the scene of a crime. 

So, this is all quite difficult for me to manage and keep in perspective. And yet, my Buddhist training teaches me to accept it all. DOn’t deny it. Let it in. Feel it. It’s the process of living in the moment. It’s an ugly, dark, hopeless feeling, but it’s mine and I need to own it. What calms me slightly is knowing that it will pass, as all things do. It’s only a matter of time. 

I wanted to put this out there for anyone else feeling hopeless, sad, dark, depressed. No matter what your circumstances, know that these are the feelings and traumas that make you human. We are fools to believe that there is such a thing as constant happiness, constant success. As if our lives were as simple as walking up a ladder to achieve some lofty goal at the top. We have been lied to by therapists and doctors and Hollywood and the media and made to believe that there is a place free of pain and suffering if we only have the right combination of thoughts or have chosen the right road. 

Bullshit. 

Embracing the idea that suffering is inevitable and a part of this life allows us to forgive ourselves for not being able to achieve happiness. It accepts the notion that suffering is intrinsic to life and no one is spared. It’s not a question of personal failure. It’s merely a fact of nature. And this acceptance keeps us from feeling as though we have been singled out, or hand picked by the gods to suffer unduly. 

Today I am being called to carry the weight of my suffering, my children’s suffering, my financial issues, the ugly concept of suicide, my neighbors’ pain, uncertainty and doubt. I cannot carry this alone. The weight is crushing me. Nothing will make me feel better. So, the only defense mechanism that is kicking in at the moment is rocking back and forth like a crazy person and eating bad food. So be it. This too shall pass. It’s just a matter of time. 

Suggested reading:

Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

Broken

February 2, 2009

 

beauty

I’ve spent the day in untrammeled reverie, wondering who is inside this guilty body of mine and who, if anyone, decides the truth. More importantly, I’ve been listening to Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”  for the past hour, talking to myself in a french accent and spinning around in a swivel chair. 

It is one of those nights. To be inside.   To feel the workings of the inner body and the outer as well…

I don’t regret anything at all

I’ve been thinking about beauty, and how I need to remain there, pure in thought, no matter what. And yet,  the gravity of being human is that it burdens the soul with shame. My body, tonight, is a witness. 

Not the good that was given me. Nor the bad. They’re all the same.

I remember how beautiful everything was with S. Everything was whole and pure. Even the dirtiest of thoughts we shared were guiltless and sacred and good. Love does that. It takes the ugly and makes it beautiful. It takes the profane and makes it sacred. It takes shame and transforms it into innocence. Or so you think.

It’s all paid for, wiped out, forgotten.

And as beautiful as it gets, it’s all so temporal and transient.  It’s taken away in a matter of minutes. How I remember those five little words, “I don’t love you anymore,” and how they broke me. How beautiful I was before those words were spoken. How cracked and dismantled I was after.

But then, you go back out there again, eventually,  and everything is vast and undetermined and strange. And you, inside, are amorphous, floating, untethered. Hoping to find validation in someone’s smile.

I talked to MH tonight, the friendly sinner. And he told me I was average. I was plain. There’s nothing special about me and that when a man begins to whisper things like, you are beautiful into my ear, “remember,” he said, “it’s a lie.”

And I don’t care for what’s gone by.

I don’t want to believe this. I never wanted to believe it. And yet, it’s true. Others do not make you beautiful, girl. Knowing this, is part of figuring it all out. Knowing this, makes you strong. 

With my memories, I’ve lit a fire…My pains and pleasures. I don’t need them anymore.

You go back and forth like this all your life. Searching for some sense of who you are in someone else’s world. You are loved and have value. You are left and worth nothing. Thinking outside yourself like a fool. Until, perhaps, you come to a point where you, yourself, assign something value based on nothing else but what’s inside you. You in your own little mind. And the value you assign things is yours, no matter what. And it doesn’t matter how others perceive you or how they themselves interpret things. Whether you are dealing with truth or lies. Something or nothing. What matters is what is inside the self. What matters is that you hold on to yourself, no matter what,  up against gently cresting waves or storms of transformative measure. 

My romances wiped out. With the tremblings they brought.

What matters is not to forget how love  is built. You forget sometimes when you’re  broken. You think it’s outside yourself. You cry at night and hold on to the past and try to bring back the familiar- even if it had its flaws. Because as ugly as it is,  it’s the only thing you know. It’s the only place where purity and innocence are to be found. Only there, you think. Because newness is the bearer of shame. And this scares you. There is no love to be found in the emptiness, you think.

Wiped out forever. I set out once more from zero.

But when you remember that love is not wrapped up in any of that, nor is it the consequence of certain events, but rather, an acceptance of what is, then you’re OK. You can be in a place absent of shame, guilt, innocence, purity, goodness and evil once you finally remember that you are your own answer. That only you determine your worth. You can take what MH says and let it roll off your shoulders. You can accept breaking. You can accept rejection. You can accept what you’ve been dealt.

You can enjoy the pleasure of your own skin and the way your body feels and who made it feel so good. You can forgive your shame. You can make peace with the fact that you don’t know entirely how you feel at any given time. You can be sure that beauty is not a mark of validation given to you by others, but rather something you acknowledge in yourself. All that, in itself, gives you your spark of innocence. 

You can  be happy in the emptiness, knowing nothing, experiencing nothing, because broken or not, you carry a world of goodness and truth within you.

Leap Year

June 5, 2008

He used earth words and planted gardens and liked going down south and road trips to nowhere. He had tattoos of the Devil on his forearm, and looked like God, with big blue open seeing gentle eyes that had a spirit steady and true beyond the simple human spirit. He was a great kisser. Like me. But quiet. And deep. Not deep in a click-your-fingers-at-a-coffeehouse deep; not even the kind of temporary deep you think you see in the face of a student of philosophy. He was deep like rivers that cut through canyons as old as the brachiopod lingula and the horse shoe crab.

 

I met him when I was young. In a bookstore.  Buying war novels for my father. I liked to call him Mr. Smith, but his name was Steve. His hair was long and kinky and I remember I could smell his clean, hippy, 25-year-old smell as he flushed spines in the history section.  He said to me: “You see, you have this calming affect on me. I actually want to struggle with you.” And I thought to myself, I want to run my fingers through the algebraic recipe that cooked up the lines of your hair. I was on fire. I perused picture books of the American desert and listened to Navajo tunes. I bought a dress with flowers that came down to my ankles and I wore sandals.

 

He struggled with me. And then he took off. Restless. One day in May. He rode with some friends in an orange VW bus out to a reservation in New Mexico to study art and history and eat mushrooms and pledge a vow of celibacy to the Great Spirit in hopes that one day he would understand the difference between love and lust.

 

I waited. But he didn’t come back. The Spring was over. The warm, tired, lovesick days of August too, and eventually the fall and then the winter…

 

I fell for a waiter. I made love to a Jew who became a Rabbi. I danced meringue with Paul Garcia in a club named Brazil. I kissed Doug, Scot and Eamon and the Twelve Apostles and a Moroccan named Arie. And I sold my soul to a drummer one Leap Year because I lost count on how many times he said: you are so beautiful, baby.

 

I married a Spaniard who barely spoke English and barely brushed his teeth. He was tall and lanky and had a long face like El Greco and chased me around the bedroom, “Come here, wife. My sex is hard for you.” We lived in a piso on the 4th floor of a rundown building in Vallekas, a gypsy suburb of Madrid. I made tortillas and arroz con leche and sometimes crouched on the terraza under the hot sun and watched stray cats fuck on rooftops. I cried for home. And dreamed of humidity and the green, oxygen pine trees and grass that grows with dew stuck to each blade like a rock climber descending a cliff.

 

I became a woman. Desired. Pedestaled. Unwoven. Torn. Shredded. Real.

 

I made two babies. Moved to Jersey. Bought a home. Divorced. Years passed. In the Spring of ’04 I spread my father’s ashes across the jetty down on Nebraska Avenue. Saying goodbye to the man who taught me how to love. Boyfriends came. Boyfriends went. Sons grew up.

 

I bumped into Mr. Smith at a record store one night in February. He was buying vinyl and I was perusing the Cds. I barely recognized him without his long hair. But he still talked smooth and his tattoos were all black and green. And I thought, if I had my own they wouldn’t be the face of the devil. They’d be words. Words that save me from my self, where God, not man, is the Second Coming and the Third and Fourth. Words when strung together become the only thing in life that’s real—forming a straight line like Time to a Westerner.

 

We talked about books for a while. The west.  He didn’t remember much. And so I shrugged when he asked if I wanted to go for a drink. No, I said. Maybe another time.