From “Savages in the Mirror,” Paula Gunn Allen (1974)

… The Americans separated themselves from their paternal heritage [Europe], or so they 220px-paula_gunn_allenbelieved.  They removed their maternal heritage [the natural world] from sight and embarked on the expediences of treaty, fraud, murder, mass enslavement, duplicity, starvation, infection – deliberate as well as accidental – whipping, torture, and removal.  They needed land, it is said.  They were greedy, it is said.

But to my mind, neither need nor greed can explain the genocide.  Neither can explain the raging destruction of the earth.  Neither can it explain the single-minded, horrifying assault on the tribes as tribal entities, long after Indian presence was reduced to nostalgic memory, long after Indians could possibly be a military or economic threat, so long after that even today the assault continues.  What obscure drive causes this single-minded pursuit of destruction?

America, the lonely hero, sprung full-blown out of the mind of God.  The moral condition.  The righteous imperative.  Without father or mother, alone, divided, singular, driven to destroy all that speaks of cooperation, sharing, communality.  The Puritans’ own communes couldn’t last a single generation.  I am told that “thirty years is a long time for a Utopia to last.”  (In America, I silently add.  Other utopias have lasted millennia.  But they weren’t based on the idea that a single individual was more than God.)  It seems that Americans, loving loneliness best of all freedoms, die from it.  Far from all that was familiar, the colonials learned, perforce, to view alienation as rugged individualism, making it their defining virtue.  Isolation and self-referencing became “self-reliance,” providing the basic theme for American civilization for the ensuing two centuries.

The loneliness of exploration was, and is, a compelling idea for Americans.  The lone hero still wanders, determined and self-assured, however lost, across the pages of America.  Ronald Reagan in the forties and Robert Redford in the seventies flicker in their autistic heroism across the projected screens of American life.  The Great American Cowboy is cheered for his self-reliance; the most hated American is the one who accepts society’s help through a welfare allotment.  And it isn’t a matter of virtue in the Protestant sense that creates this peculiarity: It is not that taking care of oneself is a virtue.  It is that the hero is, above all things, lonely and happy in his estrangement from all bonds that bind and cling, depend and shape.  Andrew Jackson was idolized for his singular determination to let no considerations of social need or wish, of moral or legal noblesse oblige, interfere wth his isolated, splendid determination.

In America, law substitutes for custom.  In America, society substitutes for love of family, comrade, village, or trice.  Walden is the self-proclaimed triumph of the isolated, superior individual.  Alone with nature, not in it.  Not of it.  One can be with it as a scholar is with a book, but as an observer, not a creative participant.

Indians are called primitive and savage not because they commit atrocities; everyone commits atrocities one way or another.  Indians are designated primitive because they place the good of the group and the good of the earth before that of the self.  Mexicans are denigrated not because they speak with an accent, not because they take siestas, not because they routed American heroes at the Alamo, not because they have what Americans want – a large share of North America – but because they think sangre is more important than reason, that la familia is more important than fame.  The community is the greatest threat to the American Individual Ethic; and it is the community that must be punished and destroyed.  Not because Americans take much conscious notice of community, but because community is what a human being must have to be human in any sense, and community is what Americans deny themselves – in the name of progress, in the name of growth.  In the name of Freedom.  In the name of the Hero.

A person can’t cherish glorious loneliness from within a community.  So, most women, as keepers of community, are also despised: Remember “Momism”?  We are a constant reminder of the lonely male’s need to belong to others so that he can belong to himself.  And it was the natural and necessary belonging of the Native American that so infuriated the Americans, so that those men who are America’s greatest heroes rose to commit mass murder of the tribes.  The difference between Native Americans and Americans, William Brandon says (The Last of the Americans), is that belonging is most important to the Indians, while belongings are most important to the Whites.  But what are belongings but a badge of isolation, a mountain clutter that walls one off from those around?  Thoreau revealed the most about himself (and his admirers) by saying that he felt that the name Walden was originally “walled in.”  He was most taken by the idea that Walden (or White) Pond had no apparent source for its water, and no outlet.  Entire unto itself.  A very moist desert dependent on nothing.  Caused by nothing.  Surrounded by smooth, regular stones.  A wall to keep its pristine clarity, its perfect isolation.  Secure.

It is not so strange that everyman-America hates and fears Communism.  The very word strikes at the root of the American way and at the heart of the American sickness: a communist is one who must depend on others.  A communist is one who must cooperate.  A communist is one who must share. …

It is not that Americans are lonely that matters here, but that Americans cherish loneliness disguised as solitude as though it were a wife.  They take her to their breasts and cleae to her with the determined clutch of catatonia.  They will not let her go.  They protect her with all the ferocious murderousness of a jealousy-crazed lover and will kill anything that threatens to tear their loneliness away.

It occurs to me that governments are instituted among men to keep them apart.  And so is capitalism.  And its fodder, money.  And so are “nuclear” families – highly mobile, of course.  And so is progress, the touchstone of corporationism, of the nation, and of every American’s life.  It occurs to me that the ‘melting pot’ never worked because it was not intended to work and that schools and other institutions are designed to teach and reinforce the principle that group experiences are painful, anti-human, demoralizing […] . Loneliness, the beloved of the American Hero, is a coiling clinging snake.  It is strangling the life out of the people, the families around us, killed by the murderous creation of our own minds.  Yet it is seductive, hypnotic in its murderous intent, because however fiercely loved, solitude is not really possible, in this world after all.

… And when the last Red Man shall have perished and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.  In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.  At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.  The White Man will never be alone.  — Sealth

Why is it essential that the American be self-reliant, communityless – without a place to belong, a past to remember, a beginning in the roots of time, a heritage that would give them a meaningful place in the living circle that is life on this earth?  Americans have an overwhelming, consuming need to be different.  Do we cling to loneliness because nothing can be so peculiar as this monstrous love affair with isolation?

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low tide

For a while now, I’ve used the internal shorthand of “low tide” for when I’m in a depressive period.

There’s the word “low,” in it, naturally.  And I know that it’s a temporary state, even as I know that it’s also one that will come back.  But more, it is the feeling of being left both stranded and exposed – the water has left you behind along with dead kelp and trash, and the seagulls are circling overhead to pick you apart.

But it’s been a while since I actually encountered low tide outside of metaphor.

IMG_1075 (1)Our last day on Whidbey Island, we came back to the beach during low tide.  Boat owners had known it was coming.  They had pulled the motors on board and the boats sat quietly next to their anchors.

The water had raked the sand and the tiny rivulets that were running back to the ocean were so strikingly warm for bare feet. The wet ribbed sand made “shmp shmp” shushes when we walked across it, packed hard and smooth so far out into the water, farther than I thought it possible.

And the sunlight was pulling the water out from the sand so the mist it made was luminous and numinous and I felt that I could walk out in shallow water on firm forgiving sand into the light until the edge of the world.

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My tides are going to come in, and go out, and come in again.  And that’s all right.  I’m working to finally accept that it is part of myself, like my eyes being brown or being right-handed.

But it’s a very human habit to start to mistake the metaphor for the thing itself, and then to forget the nuance beyond the service that the metaphor provides.

Talk to your neighbors, and meet your metaphors, at least every once in a while.

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The Impossible Present

I am re-reading Ulysses.  I first read it 10 years ago, when I was 19, because I needed a project that summer back in Kansas, and I wanted to read something hard.

I took it step by step, alternating with The Bloomsday Book to explicate what I read, but I understood more than I would have thought I did.  And I told myself, read this in ten years.  See what you see then.

So I am, and I am reading it slow.  A chapter, a return to TBB, then a retread of the same chapter.  Seeing the clues.  Knowing the words that I looked up before (ferial, cynosure, welshcombed), sounding out the echoes.

It may be pretentious, both the work itself and the reading of it.  But I remember (and relive) the awareness that it woke in me of my own running stream of consciousness, the intertextuality of my own brain, the cross-referencing, time-traveling thread of thought that would move from the song stuck in my head to how dry my lips are to how dry my mouth was, that first time you took my hand, to all of the other times you’ve taken my hand, to all of the songs that were in my head in those moments, to the completely grey sky afterwards when all was said and done…

And realizing what Joyce did, which was to show us that this deeply, solipsistically intricate process we all engage in is beautiful.

(Good god, imagine if Joyce had access to hyperlinks)

My thoughts still race and skip and quantum leap, but I watch them now.  I try to be aware that when I walk down a sidewalk on a sunny day, I am walking down all sidewalks on all sunny days that I have lived before.  When I approach the Ballard Goodwill once, I’m also approaching it the same time as I did one October when moving into Wallingford, crafting a mental balance sheet of promise and loss; when moving out of Wallingford (they wouldn’t take back the tiny couch I bought from them) in early May, now taking the plunge into cohabitation.  I am in those moments just as I am in this one, coming to buy the supplies for a survival kit for one.

I try to ground myself.  We remember sight and sound but we don’t remember touch unless it is happening in that moment, so I run my fingers along the rough stone wall I walk beside.  We can’t remember smell until we smell it again, so I breathe in and smell green and mulch and exhaust.

I have to remember that even when I am attempting to focus,  I am still strung out across space and time.  I have to remember when speaking with others that ‘being present’ is perhaps impossible to demand of them, as much as it is impossible to ask of myself.

Which makes those flashes of synchronicity, when for an instant we are in the same moment and no other, all the more remarkable.

 

memorial

Another thought about New York.

My first morning was at the 9/11 memorial (already mentioned).  And what kept striking me, over and over again, was how quickly the present can become archeology, the quotidian an artifact.

IMG_0664Digging deeper into the wreckage from the towers (which would itself be preserved, curated, displayed as not only a memorial but a museum piece), those working to excavate the remains of the lives lost eventually ran further into history than they intended.  They upturned bronze objects from colonial Manhattan.  A key.  A letter A.  The curl of an ornamental gate.  The figure of a soldier, his legs missing (an echo of the collateral of the wars to come).

A few days later in the Guggenheim Museum, I saw the exhibit But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa.  Beautiful pieces, all with the shadow of this history that led to 9/11 and with the shadow of the history of everything that came afterwards.

Abbas Akhavan created a piece called “Study for a Monument” – bronze casts of flowers, IMG_0773
leaves, twigs, seeds of plants native to the Tigris-Euphrates, endangered due to the development in that area.  Looking at them, I felt for a moment so keenly what I could imagine the artist intended that it’s like I was holding his hand.  The plants, doubly frail (as living things, as
endangered species), doubly transient, suddenly immortalized.

I can’t get over that moment of transformation.  A half-melted calculator that becomes a testament to… who knows? when a plane flies into a building like it’s the easiest thing in the world.  Knick-knacks that fall out of pockets or are thrown away and get buried by the rest of the city getting on with its life.  A flower before wilting being cut and moulded and cast in bronze.

A last thought: We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art between these two visits and encountered Washington Crossing the Delaware, one of the largest paintings I’ve ever seen (12 feet high and over 20 feet long).  Imagination of a moment depicted life-size.

I followed the gaze in the painting of one of the oarsmen looking down trepidatiously at the water and ice they were rowing through and saw

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a city’s skyline over a river.

Which is of course impossible; the painting was finished in 1851, long before skyscrapers.  But I love this accidental call-forward to what our nation would become, and where the painting itself would ultimately find its home.

A memorial is to the past.  What do you call a monument to the future?

Looking for the holes

I am looking for the holes
The holes in your jeans
Because I want to know
Are they worn out in the seat
Or are they worn out in the knees.
– Ani DiFranco

Came back from seeing Fun Home, the musical adaptation of Alison Bechtel’s graphic novel.  Lots of thoughts, most of which will never come down on paper, most of which will never be missed.  But –

The stage is a bit of ingenious machinery, with the ornate furnishings of the Bechtel’s meticulously curated home rising and vanishing as needed by the action, with only a thin seam on the wooden floor revealing that anything has been there.  A fainting couch, upon which the closeted Bruce clumsily suggests that a young man unbutton his shirt while handing him a glass of sherry.  The drafting table of the adult Alison, sketching out the bird’s eye view of the tragedy of her father’s life, and stunned by how very small it is.

The magic is smooth and almost unnoticeable, until the moments before Bruce decides to die, and all of the furniture he’s obsessively selected and restored and burnished for years drops into the pit beneath the floor and there is no covering.  There are holes that open and around which the actors must navigate, until you realize that like the missing stair Bruce’s family has been working around those gaps the entire time, unknowing.

IMG_0649It reminds me of the yawn in the 9/11 Memorial, where in the former base of each tower there is a deliberate emptiness into which water spills with perfect geometry and disappears.

When it comes to gay rights, we’ve progressed a lot.  Even within Bruce’s lifetime, he expresses shock about what options now exist for the young Alison coming out as a lesbian.

But when you’ve spent your life pretending the holes don’t exist, how do you go about filling them up?  Can you?  Or do you just fall in?

R + J = ?

Saw Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, my first time seeing the play as a full-fledged adult.  Whatever that means. In this particular case, it means over 20 years old.

Thoughts, haphazard.  We’ll start by starts and fits.

I know how this play ends.  Seattle Shakes markets it as a play “within our DNA,” and I have to admit that it’s not an exaggeration.  I studied it and variants of it at least three times between high school and undergrad… and I have to say, it’s only as an adult that I get it.

It’s similar to JM Barrie’s Peter and Wendy like that – about children and childhood, for adults.  About young love for older lovers, and/or ex-lovers.

In this production during the masquerade, Juliet wore a veil that altered but did not conceal – transparent, just like her.  Juliet shocks us in her frankness.  Romeo in his twisted teenage self wore a half-mask that covered only one side of his face, because as teenagers we stumble as half-people – feeling misshapen, out of focus, deformed.

When he and Juliet are finally face to face he takes off his mask entirely, and fibre-optic lights descend around the two of them, mirroring the electricity in our brains of adrenaline and serotonin and oxytocin that is love at first sight.

I heard something new this time, Lord Capulet speaking of his daughter:

CAPULET

But saying o’er what I have said before:
My child is yet a stranger in the world;
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

PARIS

Younger than she are happy mothers made.

CAPULET

And too soon marr’d are those so early made.
The earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she,
She is the hopeful lady of my earth.

Juliet is the final living child of the Capulets.  No wonder they are protective.  No wonder when Tybalt, likely his heir, is killed, Capulet’s first instinct is to make sure Juliet is safe forever.

I finally heard the nurse too –

NURSE

Susan and she–God rest all Christian souls!–
Were of an age:

Infant mortality.  It’s an odd reminder, the rarity of children who have lived into their teens.  That the surviving children were precious and fearful to their parents in a way that we cannot fully understand.

I saw something new in the friar this time too – as a chemist, he is familiar with catalysts, diffusions, careful recipes, parsing ingredients one by one and adding them in a particular order for a particular result.  How tempting to think that human beings can work the same way… and frequently, they do.

The characters were real in a way that sometimes seems impossible for myths.  Juliet was immediate and over analytic, in one breath sure that she doomed her love by speaking her thoughts too truthfully, but setting her terms of marriage in the next.  And Romeo…

What does Romeo do?  It is difficult to find an action of his that is not a reaction.  At the beginning he mopes because Rosaline does not return his love.  He goes to the dance because Mercutio bullies him into it.  He marries Juliet because that is the condition of her love; he refuses to fight Tybalt because his is Juliet’s kinsman; he kills Tybalt because Tybalt kills Mercurio; he leaves the city because of the Prince’s exile; he returns and kills himself because he believes Juliet to be dead.

His free action is to approach Juliet at the beginning at all.

limits

I had thought that by the time I was 29 that I would not longer have depressive episodes.  I knew of course that depression was a lifelong condition for some people; I just assumed without ever articulating it to myself that it would evaporate for me by the time that I “arrived,” along with the typical aimlessness and self-doubt that are still with me.  What “arrival” is or looks like I can’t say, except that I’ve expected it since I turned 22.

Bigfuck depression arrived on Sunday when I had an anxiety attack over hosting my birthday party.  Hosting is always mildly stressful for me; hosting for myself specifically is much more so.  I knew it was likely to come, just as sure as the cooler weather and rain on the day I had hoped would be sunny and warm.  It wasn’t until the morning of that the questions started – who would come?  Too many people to fit in my apartment?  Not enough?  More maybes and fewer yeses?  How much food should I get?  How much should I spend?  Why am I not good at this?  Why don’t I know the answers?  Why did I pick this date?  – until the folds inside my fingerprints buzzed with fear and I felt sick.

I can identify now what happens, which is that my judgment and instincts are shredded by second-guessing.  I walked one block between my apartment and the store back and forth three times, torn between whether to go and purchase more deviled eggs (somehow I failed entirely at hard boiling eggs) or not.  I bought them and they were uneaten.  I can predict that whatever choice I end up making in that state is the wrong one… yet I have to make a choice.  There’s no sitting things out until the world settles.

An hour before I broke down entirely and decided to cancel.  I went back on that before I emailed anyone.  I held it together while people where there and had fun, but in that state I know that my entire being is questioning – did I say the right thing? do you want to be here, actually? was that joke awful? am I putting people on edge by being so on edge myself? do you hate the food? am I the only one drinking? do you like me? what about now? – that without speaking any of those aloud I know I shadow my own celebration.

When people went home I felt I failed.

All of this has happened before.  I didn’t want to think that it would happen again, but it did, and it will.

The anxiety has passed but the bigfuck depression has set in.  It’s heaviness, and when I fight it’s the same anxiety, the same opposite-day perception of the world that I know is incorrect, but I have no other means to navigate.  Undersea all the time,
a stranger whose elbows wouldn’t work.

So maybe I don’t need to fight this time.  Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting it out.  Making sure that I and the cat are fed, coasting as needed.  Not thrashing against the wait/ weight.

Depression is not a problem to be solved.  It’s an equation that is already balanced and but gives you a sum you didn’t want.  I know that the tide will change.  I just have to wait for it.

more about bodies

The Toast recently shared a piece that featured several Playboy POTMs from back in the day (link is obvi NSFW).  Fascinating in a lot of ways, but especially in how our definition of beauty has changed over time.  The pictures are hokey and odd and the posing honestly bizarre, but up until the final one from 1972, there’s a certain innocence that’s hard to quantify.

It’s not in the posing and what is shown or not shown – it is in the bodies themselves.  While all of the women are white and thin, before the 1972 picture their breasts vary in size, nipple shape, and their skin bears the slight folds that skin does.

Starting 1972 is when the woman’s body looks like manufactured.  Beautiful, yes, pert, perky, perfect, impervious.  It is a picture that could be one from today – not just because of the hairstyle and the lighting, but because she looks plastic.

The words we use for beautiful bodies are ones that make the bodies into objects: sculpted.  Bronzed.  Built.  Cut.  Steel.  All materials that last and hold their shape, while bodies themselves grow and shrink and wrinkle and change.  Soft.

My mother is unhappy with her body.

It took me a while as a kid to realize this, that the body that comforted and held me with soft curves was not one that she liked.  That she didn’t get in the pool not necessarily because she didn’t like swimming but because she didn’t like swimming suits.

She’s tried dieting, and we always ate healthfully in our house.  She wears a pedometer and walks.  She follows her doctor’s instructions and takes it seriously, the health hazards of obesity.  That doesn’t make a difference, and this time when she visited and mentioned the latest diet, in which she lost weight and put it back on, I finally heard what a source of shame and stress her own body was to her.

I heard a woman comedian recently in a conversation say that she was just waiting for the trapdoor to finally open under her and drop her out from the success that she’s achieved.  Life is full enough of trapdoors opening – the hidden debt, the undiagnosed secret, the wrong left turn – but women in particular must walk gingerly over the trapdoor of their bodies changing and the world suddenly turning its face away.

It hasn’t happened to me, yet, but I already carry my own baggage with my body, and I still angle myself in pictures and in the mirror to try to show my ‘best side’.  To try to trick the light into showing the body that I ‘ought’ to have instead of the one I do.

I’ve seen pictures of her when she was young and she looked like me.

She visited recently and we walked a long ways to the park that is by the waterfront.  The sun was bright and hot and she was feeling the heat, as well as every incline that we encountered.  We stepped into the cool shade of several trees and I looked for a place to sit, because I could tell she was tired.  All benches were taken so I suggested the grass, cautiously.

She sat, cautiously, a multi-step process to be done with care.  We talked and looked at the boats and birds on the water.  When we got up she wouldn’t let my dad or me help her.  She rolled to her hands and knees first and then stood up that way.

It’s a test of health, she said.  Being able to get up on your own.

I have no ending.

 

Bodies

A coworker that I quite like is leaving my place of work.  The new position is at a large exciting company, doing the work that she really wants to do, and she’s been with my current organization for four years.  She’s ready for a change, and I understand.

Today she showed me a picture on her phone of a painting she had just completed for a friend.  It was physically the largest work that she had done – the canvas was 4’x5′ I think – with the face of the Buddha dissolving into luminous mist.

I asked her about giving up a physical piece of work she had created.  When I’ve been creating, the work I’ve done is always disembodied.  I can give away however many copies of text I create and still keep it.  Theatre is different in that the work is born and gone again and again for every performance until the run is over, and then it’s nowhere and nothing.  But a physical artifact you made that leaves your home to live somewhere else – that’s different.

She said that she got what she most needed from the painting by the act of creating it.  It’s a piece that reflects peace among churning, which was exactly what she needed while she contemplated this next stage of her career and chapter of her life.  It’s also a piece that was the most literally rigorous that she had done so far, due to its scale and to the texturing on the paint that the pixels on her phone couldn’t convey.

I thought about how much of my time is spent being essentially without a body beyond my eyes looking at screens and my fingers manipulating buttons.  My body reminds me of itself by noting that my neck is sore, that I’ve been grinding my teeth (waking and sleeping), that the ligaments in my wrists are working and need a break.  It reminds me of its presence by telling me that something is wrong.

Walking helps, and yoga helps, and sitting still and marveling that breath is possible helps.  Maybe the trick is to find more things to do instead of things to look at.

Oddly, my cat is amazing at reminding me that I have a body, in pleasant and not-so-nice ways.  (Reminds me a bit of this piece I just read: My Cat Saved Me From Depersonalization Disorder.)  Sometimes it’s the way that she just assumes that my lap is available to make a nest in with a confidence that I frankly envy.  The matter of fact way that she pushes her head under my hand because it gives her pleasure.  That she purrs and breathes and radiates heat.  Other times it’s the nips and the accidental scratches when I haven’t trimmed her nails enough.

But I can’t get away from the dichotomy of “my body is an animal that wants warmth and comfort and food and touch and sunlight and food and sometimes wine” as opposed to “I am an animal.”

Is the Buddha an animal?

There have been times that I would have been more than happy to dissolve into mist myself.