Friday, April 28, 2006

Inapproprate Inspirations

image © 1939 MGM

Do you remember the dreaded college application essay? You needed to preen your knowledge with batted eyelashes, while seeming serious and scholarly. Oh, and fun. Because they wanted a well-rounded student as well, but preferably one who was also obsessed with something sufficiently esoteric and earnest.

My high school English class devoted a great deal of time to teaching us how to navigate the rocky shoals of this essay. We were the high achievers, and as such were expected to make a superior showing in the college sweepstakes, scaling Ivy walls and hugging our Seven Sisters.

One ubiquitous question that year was the old standard, "What book has affected your life most profoundly, and why?" This was not a difficult question for me to answer.

When I was nine years old, our class had a library period on Thursdays. We would troop down the hall to the tiny school library and select new books for the week. The library’s collection was intended to serve the whole population of the school, so it contained everything from board books for the wobbly kindergarteners to Beverly Cleary romance novels for the 8th graders on the verge of being teenagers. However, we were all supposed to remain on our own grade level. But I made friends with the librarian and was occasionally allowed to smuggle out a romance novel camouflaged by Little Women.

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a swelled head during this time because I could read more quickly than my classmates. In frustration, a group of them demanded that I read the thickest book in the library. I followed the pointed fingers.

Gone with the Wind.

Well, it was too late to back down now, so I agreed, secretly hoping the librarian would deny me the chance to check it out and allow me to save face.

No such luck. She merely winked at me and sent me on my way.

I got home, settled down with a bowl of cereal, and began to read.

It took about a page for me to become completely engrossed. I spent the next four days in a dream, snatching paragraphs of the book whenever I could, reading in the closet, in the bathroom, on line walking back to class. I wasn’t only reading...I was living that book, gripped by the epic canvas and larger than life emotions, immersed in a world convulsed by war, by love, by hate, by passion. Finally I had found a book that matched my own dim vision of what I wanted from life--to feel and rage and love with my whole being. I fell in love with the antagonistic relationship that brewed between Scarlett and Rhett (I fell in love with Rhett, period. I tell TEG that I grew interested in him because he was "cynical and arrogant" just like Rhett). And I admired Scarlett immensely--seeing her flaws but forgiving them because she was so real--she wanted things, she chased them down. She was a dynamo. Scarlett made things happen.

When I finished the book, I put it down and went to the store for my mother in a haze. I felt bereft...all I wanted was to READ IT AGAIN. And so I did. After I was told to allow some of the other students to read it and stop checking it out every single week, I scrounged together my allowance and purchased my own copy, which I promptly read until it was in tatters. Then I bought it again, and my parents grew alarmed at my obsession. They hid the book from me. I moped and cried and carried on until they gave it back.

Thus, of course, I chose Gone With the Wind as the book that had changed my life...the book that had shaped my vision of men and women (for good and for ill), the book that ignited all of my nine year old passions for literature.

I was proud of that essay; I basked in the rare sensation that comes when you express EXACTLY what you were trying to say.

My English teacher handed it back. She had only written one comment.

"Inappropriate book choice?”

At first, I was puzzled. I had told the truth, after all. Then angry, "Obviously it was a good essay if that’s the only comment! And what does she mean by ‘inappropriate’?"

But before long, my inner Good Student piped up. She reminded me that Gone with the Wind doesn’t enjoy the literary reputation of, say, the Bible. Or Ulysses. I was flooded with embarrassment. The book which had changed my life wasn’t a Classic, wasn’t even considered a very good book. What did that say about me?

It turns out, my teacher was right, in a way. In college, I learned just how much I didn’t know about literature, how much I hadn’t read. I learned that my untrained enthusiasms were suspect and possibly indicative of a feeble intellect.

Sadly, that trend continued even while I was working at Big Publishing Houses. I tried to catch up, tried to cram classics I should have read as a child into my weekends, tried to sound smart.

But my rebellious enthusiasm betrayed me every time. I remember a colleague mocking my love for SARK’s work...even though we published her! She wasn’t Intellectual enough, and by extension, neither was I.

This has been my secret shame for too long--what I viewed as my propensity to enjoy "low art”--romance novels, soap operas, America’s Next Top Model. But what if you find unexpected inspiration in these scorned places? Love of a soap opera couple a few years ago lead me to show my writing to strangers for the first time--I wrote fan fiction celebrating them. Romance novels were the candy that got me through the hard, lonely slog of college literary criticism. America’s Next Top Model provides a humorous and visually appealing treat on a hard day. Aren’t these valuable gifts as well? A truly dreadful movie, Clash of the Titans, led me to Greek and Roman mythology. Should I have scorned that treasure because it came from an "inappropriate source”?

I’m learning that inspiration is a trickster, able to call to us in a million disparate voices...the voices of our whole soul, not only of our intellect. There is value in the odd, the crooked, the pulpy. Gone with the Wind led me to a life of passionate adoration of the written word, which yes, has contained many classics, as well as many romances, chick lit novels, and self-help books.

And it helped me win a bet with a bunch of other nine year olds.

Confess to me...what are your most secret, most cherished, inappropriate inspirations?

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Poetic Thursday: Love After Love

This poem captures a little bit of the way I've been feeling these past few days. I've spent a lot of time thinking (which came together in my last post) and my thoughts have taken me into some unexpected places. And they've brought me to a strange elation, and appreciation of myself....past as well as present. I feel a little bit like I am greeting myself with a new warmth, with a new acceptance.

I want this for all of you, too.

Love After Love
by David Walcott

The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other's welcome,

And say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Two manuscripts

Two manuscripts await me. Both are first drafts, one a novel (my first and only) and one a screenplay (my second of two). I wrote them both during an annus mirabilis while living in Chicago and working at Cool but Aimless job. The whole time I worked on them, I glowed with purpose. No longer did I spend my hours fruitlessly going online for inspiration--instead, I wrote, and dreamed, and plotted, and read.

And then I finished, and followed everyone’s advice. I put them away.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to pick them up again.

They both need a lot of work. In spite of my experience in publishing (or maybe because of it), I’m a lousy editor, and a worse rewriter. I’m usually so grateful that I found ANY words, ANY story that I can’t conceive of throwing them out and starting again. Every time I write anything, I dread that there won’t be a next time.

I know that every fledging writer should write many bad manuscripts while learning her craft. I should be able to chalk up those two stories to experience, a sacrifice to the Amateur Writer gods, and begin to work on my next stories.

I think I left too much of myself behind, though.

My novel’s main character came to me as a disembodied voice--one with a familiar rhythm. It was the street smart, swaggering sing-song that typified my mother and her friends, and the women in my neighborhood. So I listened to her tell me a bit about her weariness with living, and about the great regret that darkened her life. And I realized in the writing that as she grew into her story, the boundaries were blurring, and several elements of my own life were seeping in. I learned that at her core she felt an outsider in her family, in her clan, and in her skin. Her path was to see that she had created something beautiful with her life because of, not in spite of, her wrong turns. I wanted to show the nobility and secret tenderness in an ordinary woman’s life.

She haunts me, in no small part because I’d like so badly to give her what I’ve never quite felt...that feeling of belonging in my own life, instead of feeling like a fraud. Perhaps I lack the skills to imagine what that might look like.

She represents the road not taken--she made an impulsive mistake to avoid being in a situation where she felt like she would never measure up. I followed the path, dutifully, and feel like I never measured up.

My other heroine is almost the polar opposite of the first. All she wants is to feel like a part of something greater than herself, so she creates a history for herself that gives her life meaning and connects her to that dream. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really belong there, so she’s excluded and mocked. It doesn’t derail her, though, so strongly does she believe in herself...until she finds evidence that suggests that the foundational truth of her life is a lie. Her struggle then becomes to find a way to consciously choose her identity.

I’ve never been able to do that either. I would never have been able to keep the faith in the face of so much opposition. I can barely keep the faith in the face of applause and support.

Rilke said that its important to live the questions themselves, and these are mine--"Why do I feel like a Wrong in a world that is Right?" and "How can I have the courage to invent myself and the life I want to lead?" It’s easy for me to intellectualize this, to seek insights and explanations. I’m good at that part. The harder part is LIVING the questions--taking action that pushes back at these created boundaries.

"Write what you know," they say. I’m trying. I’m trying to KNOW how to sit with those lowdown, shameful feelings and questions...trying to KNOW how to live with and in spite of them.

Otherwise, my writing will remain in a drawer, forgotten by everyone except me.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Sunday/Monday Scribblings--Chocolat

Behold, if you will, the unassuming cocoa bean. Does it look like anything special to you? It has no flowers to attract the discerning bee. Its brown and rough exterior betrays no hint of the potential it possesses. Perhaps the cocoa bean would have remained in obscurity forever, merely a pod for the continued growth of the cacao tree. But the wise ancients saw beyond the immediate lack of promise. Something about the bean caught their imagination, and they started to play with the possibilities. I’m sure they hit a lot of dead doesn’t look like it would work very well as a weapon. Lobbing it at enemies would probably cause no more than a nasty bruise. It’s an odd shape, not very suitable as a building material. Clothing seems out of the question.

And yet, the ancients continued tweaking and poking at the humble bean. Perhaps they were unwavering in their belief that everything has a purpose to be discovered and a destiny to be fulfilled. Perhaps they stopped and started, put it aside, tinkered with something else, shared information and inspiration. Maybe they even lost hope and threw it across the field, watching it half heartedly thud to the ground, no good even as a child’s toy.

Over time (chocolate cooks best at a slow simmer, after all), the cocoa bean revealed its tantalizing secret. And the earliest version of chocolate was born, known even then as a food of the gods. Our ancient family was rewarded for their patience with a delectable treasure--a celebration!

What in our lives is like the cocoa bean? Quiet, ordinary, seemingly useless and dull? What appears brown and lumpy, misshapen? Is it possible that with a little imagination and play, some of those life beans could yield a chocolate benediction? After all, the ancients didn’t know they were looking for chocolate--they were just convinced that every seed and tree and plant has a reason. And aren’t you just as valuable to the world as a seed or tree or plant?

Maybe we could be like the ancients for our souls, tending our worthless bits until we discover their gifts...whatever they may be? We might discover something vital that could change the world.

After all, that’s how we got chocolate.


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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Poetry Thursday: Sweet Darkness

It's been a hard, hard time of it...ashamed of myself for being dissatisfied and disappointed with what I thought would fill me up. Going around and around with the same issues. Today I tried to buy progress...tried to make myself feel like a writer by buying books on writing. Not that I need these books, mind you...I have shelves of books on craft, on technique, plotting, name it. But I still feel like I need to have some marker that tells me I am moving forward. Small victory that I didn't do so, I suppose.

Anyway, I found this poem in a book I already happen to own. I love the world weary tone, and the delicate glow of optimism. Perhaps faith is most needed when it is hardest to find.

Sweet Darkness
David Whyte
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one things.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.


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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Place magic

copyright Dave's Marginal Hacks
Moving to California was the fulfillment of a dream I never thought would come true. It was the land of San Francisco and the Beats and the thud of the ocean waves on the sand. It was Height Ashbury and Beverly Hills 90210 and the Dream Factory of entertainment back when I was dying to work in film or television. Best of all, it was not New York.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love home (I grew up outside of it) but it was tagged with all things familiar, and with all things, family-iar. It surrounded me from everywhere I could see in my town, Shangri-La buildings rising in the mist, throwing the squat practical houses around me into relief. It was a thrill every time I could go into the City (as we all called it, no additional names necessary). I considered it my spiritual home, and thrilled to the final lurch of the train that threw me against my neighbor, and let me know that soon I’d be among my tribe again. New York City was striving excitement chaos hey tuck your gold necklace in stare up until you get a kink in your neck watch out for that taxi creative people lounging like art everywhere.

But it wasn’t California.

California called to me at a young age, expansive beaches and magical palm trees glowing with the white-hot sun of possibilities. Seeing it over and over again on television and in movies, I absorbed the idea that California was the way life was supposed to look, supposed to BE.

Nothing I learned as I grew older changed my mind.

California was progressive--the place where people moved to dye their hair and reinvent themselves. The place where social movements groaned and stretched and were birthed. It never failed...whenever I discovered a time period or an artist I really loved, California was in the picture somehow. California seemed...happy in a way that home seemed pinched, troubled, clouded over.

I never even thought I’d have the chance to see it--my family never traveled past the East Coast. Sure, intellectually I knew that eventually I’d have the freedom and adulthood to be able to book a plane ticket and visit myself, but that knowledge never really sunk into my heart. How could a very mere me even imagine that she could visit such a place? Didn’t they check for "cool passports" at the border?!

One of the things I’ll always adore about TEG is his way of shining the light of sense on me. He said, "Why don’t we just go there?" I stammered and shook my head wildly and admitted, "It’s always been such a dream that I don’t really think it’s possible." So, ever-practical, he booked airline tickets, told me to book a hotel, and proceeded to make my dream come true.

I looked around me a lot on that first trip, as though I was waiting for someone to shout "imposter!" and send me home on the first flight back. It was the first time I cried on the way home from a vacation.

It is still incredible to me that we made it happen--we actually moved here. To live! Is it ridiculous to admit that I always get a little charge of joy when I see my address? Well, then I am ridiculous.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

We’re moving again. Back to the Midwest. And even though I know, rationally, that things have been difficult for us here, and I also know, rationally, that TEG traveling less can only be a good thing for our little soul hurts at the thought of giving up whatever magic is in the air here...the magic that helped bring me back to my creativity. Can I find a way to keep it going, even with cold gray skies and snowy mornings? Can I find a way to uproot myself from my perennial fantasyland? I think on some level, I still feel as though I’ll never be allowed back in.

I suppose it will be a good thing to learn that California is just a place, after all? Or so I have been telling myself every day since we decided to do this.

I need to get excited somehow. Help.

(edited to add: that's where family OHT was last week...visiting our soon-to-be new home.)


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Monday, April 17, 2006

Sunday/Monday Scribblings-When I was wee

How much of your story is yours, and how much is lore? Because I can remember so many things from when I was wee. And yet I know that, factually, I wasn’t there. It was more like I was the guardian spirit of the stories, just off stage, silently laughing or shaking my head. It’s a bit like hearing so much about a movie or a television show that you feel you had the experience even if you never saw a frame of it.

If you want to imagine me at all, imagine me as an infant pulling over a somewhat-reluctant set of 4 people to another country via the planned miracle of her birth--using my diaper as a rope, perhaps. My family, like many others, came to this country in shifts--my father first, then my mother, and then three long years later, my parents were finally able to go back to Colombia and bring over my siblings.

I try to remember what it must have been like, knowing that I had a whole family elsewhere, knowing that my mother must have been sick with longing for them, even as she buried her nose in my infant plumpness and tried to lose herself for a moment. Maybe I sat in my playpen, squinting through the mesh walls, watching my mother put her head on the kitchen table and weep while she could, before my father came home from another day at the factory. Maybe she leaned down and showed me photos of her other children, carefully keeping them out of my grabby little starfish hands, and told me stories. Maybe that’s when my fascination with stories began.

So many impressions from those early days--which are my own memories and which are the softly-whispered bedtime tales about an absent brood? Does it matter?

I remember flying to Colombia for the first time--to reunite with my never-seen brother and sisters and to bring them back to the states. I almost wrote "home" but of course, we weren’t bringing them home. In fact, I was the chubby interloper from another country, stealing them away from all they knew and changing the comforting pattern of their family life. They were told flatly to love me, even though they had missed the beguiling baby years, faced instead with an unsteady toddler who launched herself at them with a torrent of words in a language they only hesitantly understood from repetitions in the classroom.

My arrival was greeted by my extended family with a combination of tolerant affection and mocking. I was a living sign of my parents’ changed status--my existence meant that they’d all be headed to the Promised Land, the US. So they were charmed by my swaying on my rounded little legs, singing "Happy Birthday" and nursery rhymes learned from Sesame Street. They were also a little scornful of what were seen as my mother’s new affectations--keeping me from playing alongside the road with the neighborhood children, eating Gerber while other family babies gleefully chomped on bistek. I was soft, vulnerable, an easy target for the other kids (and adults) who maybe had also dreamed of moving to El Norte, but lacked my Golden Ticket-self.

I wish I could remember what that first meeting with my brother and sisters was like--that’s one of the stories that never gets related much. My Mami recites facts from that day--how thin my sisters had become in her absence, how sophisticated Older Sister appeared, how dangerously like a man Oldest Brother seemed now, even as he bit back tears to see Mami again. But, I want the full fairy tale experience. How did everyone feel? What exactly did everyone do and say? I’m sure she remembers every moment, but some events invite silence.

Three year olds are great at making up their own explanations when none seem forthcoming. I’m not sure how I reconciled this new family, the endless beach and the narrow passageways of uneven pavement in front of my abuela’s store with the raucous city streets where my mother popped my stroller above the high curbs and tried to keep me out of the snow. Maybe I didn’t have to--maybe I just trusted that what I saw, what was in front of me, was reality, plain and simple. Reality was the buzzing florescent light in my grandmother’s small kitchen. Reality was the lazy ceiling fans. Reality was a hundred arms passing me back and forth like a doll, arms I only vaguely remember.

Middle Sister (before she became Punkish) was especially distressed at my arrival. After all, she had been the baby of the family before I was born, so she had the most to lose. Jealously, she watched me get all of the attention that had been accorded to her. In her ten year old mind, I was the reason she had been deprived of her mother’s hugs and her father’s smiles for three years. Ten year olds have a wonderful way of cutting through the fog of adult explanations and honing in on the essential. I’m sure the fact that she was saddled with babysitting duties didn’t endear me to her either. So she made sure to hiss in my ears that I was the ugliest baby ever, that my cousin was beautiful, and that my parents only wanted another baby so that they could live in the US with "real" children, i.e. not me.

So of course it makes sense that I was instantly besotted, and that one of my first clear memories of this time period would star her. The kids were playing, and needed to run home in time to make it to lunch. I couldn’t run very fast, so she picked me up. Finding me heavy, she tried to throw me to our other cousin, running behind us. I remember the sickening thrill of flying through the air, and landing with a gravel crunch on the road. All of the cousins circled around me, as I huh-huh-huhed my sobs. Options were discussed. Leave me there? Call a tia or tio? I think that’s when I stopped being an abstraction for her, the sister who Was Not and then Was, and became a fleshy, bleeding reality.

I don’t remember what they decided, but I do still have the scar. And my experience of flying through the air like the heroine of any fairytale, showing my sister that I might have been soft, but I would not break. And memories of my newly discovered family, back when I was wee.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mama Says Om-Delight

(Alas, I won't be around much for the rest of the OHT is going on a trip! More when I return...and have a wonderful week, my bloggy sisterhood! Sorry for the hurried nature of this post.)

Go through the window and open the door
Look left when everything points right.
Nobody expects you to climb up your own damn balcony,
Young Juliet
But the tealeaves and runes foretold endless overwhelm

So you go
Stealth maiden

With honeyed oils spread thin like desire
By fingertips and eyelashes

With spellcast words
Poetry feels new and passion tingles electric
“Gather ye roses while ye may”
Look, its still good advice.

With blurred impressionistic palette
And new eyes

Your bag of otherworldly delights in order
Slung cutting into your back as you climb
Hand over hand
On the same vine that swirls up and burrows down

It is good for you to ponder this

Open mouth
To let the cosmos in

Open hand
To catch the lightning strike

Go through the window and open the door
Piñata world bursts open
Young Romeo

Mama Says Om

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Sunday Scribblings-Real Life

After I read the prompt for this week’s "Sunday Scribblings", I pondered what I could say about real life that wasn’t totally morose and sleep deprived. So I figured I needed some inspiration and took myself out to a café for a coffee and raspberry tart. I noticed a man sitting by the window, tapping a rhythm on the table with one hand and flipping pages furiously with his other. He dunked his head to lap up his coffee like a shaggy dog.

I’m not the type to stare at men, considering I’m happily married and all. But how often do you see a man old enough to be your father engrossed in "Little Women"? And dressed in a Blink 182 tour t-shirt, tuxedo pants, and love beads straight out of Hair?

He looked up and smiled, blue eyes crinkling under a shock of red hair. I pointed to his book and admitted, "That’s one of my favorites. Although I always wanted to be Amy instead of Jo."

Something about him invited such confidences.

"So what are you writing about?" He glanced down at my notebook and saw the lone words "real life" written in the center of the page, circled repeatedly. What follows is his spontaneous soliloquy on the subject. Any inaccuracies are my fault. My hand could barely keep up with him, once he got going.


Real life is the new fantasy, man.

Don’t believe me? Look around at all the shows people watch nowadays. "Reality" this and "honest-to-God-true" that. Books that tattoo "this is a true story" all over themselves sell a lot better than most novels, even if the "true story" is written by a guy with the vocabulary of a five year old kid. I guess we think we’re all too cool and mature to bother with a little fantasy these days, so we sneak it in and pretend it’s just the facts, ma’am. I mean, look at the "truth" we’re seeing! It’s never some guy watching television and ordering takeout for the sixth straight, it’s always people eating some poor bull’s testicles on a deserted island for a million dollars. We all think that only we’re boring...and so we try to escape into other people’s realities. But we’re all wrong, man! Look at my old lady, just an example...she’s one of those White know, her great great great grandparents had to run for their lives after the revolution because they were royalty. And that’s her true life, man. She’s taking Russian classes now so that she can go there and start a band about how she’s down with the masses. And she’s 48! And I’ll bet if you asked her, she’d tell you that she’s totally ordinary.

And look at me...I followed the Dead for 10 years, met lots of people who I’ll remember forever, and met lots of others who kind of blur together, but it was beautiful. Now I own a coffeehouse, Cosmic Charlie’s, and we celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday every month! And it’s not like anyone told me that life could ever be that way—I grew up on a farm in Kansas. But that music...oh, that music was the way I wanted life to be, so I made it that way. And, uh, I’m still making it that way.

I’ll bet if people stopped trying to fit themselves into somebody else’s version of normal, they’d see how big their true life could really be—all that stuff you hate that embarrasses you, I’ll bet that’s where your soul lives. You how you remember that Aunt Alice told you that you were double jointed and so you practice handsprings on your day off? Or you can’t start your day without reading your horoscope and turning it into haiku? Or you drive two towns over where nobody knows you to sing karaoke in Spanish? Or how you started calling yourself "Daisy" after you read the Great Gatsby? It’s all beautiful, and it’s all true.

Lots of people still move to Paris to live in a garret and write poetry. Or join the Peace Corps. Or go back to school to get their PhDs at 50. Or chuck it all and garden. No matter how normal you think you are, somebody’s out there who thinks your life is just the weirdest thing ever. I mean, an Indian bride becomes the incarnation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, on her wedding day, but that’s just totally normal to her, you know? That’s just true.

Like my guru Joseph Campbell says, "The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change." These reality shows are all just showing you somebody else’s myth, but you gotta find your own myth, and you gotta live by it. I mean...something’s gotta be a dream before it’s true life, right? Who would’ve guessed 50 years ago that we’d all be talking to strangers on computers? That was somebody’s dream, or a whole lotta somebodies, and they made it happen. And it’s all beautiful.

Anyway, looks like my old lady’s done with her study group. That’s her over there, in the black mini dress. Gotta go...but remember....stop letting the people on TV live your real life for you. Be weird to be real, man! Follow your bliss! Let your freak flag fly!

This is totally, absolutely true. Except when it’s not.

(Ed. note: Just wanted to make sure to say that this is ALL fiction. I'd love to meet someone like him, too, though! Sorry to mislead. :( )


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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Poetic Thursday: The Waking

I guess I needed the constant reminder that the only way through it, sometimes, is, well...through it. The only way to learn how to write is by writing. The only way to learn how to live is by living...even when I'm lost. Especially when I'm lost.

The Waking
by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.


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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mama Says Om--She's So Unusual

In my grammar school, there were two types of girls--Cyndi Lauper girls and Madonna girls. Madonna girls wore makeup early, and dressed in ways that caused the boys to occasionally drop their books low and blush. Cyndi Lauper girls got their own share of glances, but those were usually accompanied by whispered comments, "she’s just weird, man."

I was a Cyndi Lauper girl, due to the influence of my adored Punkish Middle Sister. In my admiring eyes, she was everything that embodied Cool, and I circled around her planet like the worshipful little moon I was in those days.

She had the gift of telling an enthralling story--finding the extraordinary in all of the small events that made up our day. I credit her with my interest in mythology, because she always had a way of connecting our lives to something larger, more exciting. Bigger than our often humdrum working class lives.

She introduced me to punk (of course!), safety pins in my ears, all black clothing, defiantly short haircuts, and the East Village. She listened patiently as I babbled happily about the stories I was writing, my "pretends" as I called them, and gave me valuable advice. We created fabulous fantasy lives for my Barbie dolls (a fact that would have mortified her if I’d ever spilled to one of her few close friends).

My Mami and Papi, though, were desperately chasing after the Usual. Anything to paint a smooth smiling patina on our own fragmented experiences as immigrants, as outsiders. They wanted so much to give us that deep sense of belonging, the confidence in our new world that they lacked. Punkish Middle Sister came to this country as an eleven year girl, so bright she was skipped forward into high school. They pinned their hopes on her intelligence, not considering what an American high school really was, or whether a sheltered eleven year old from another country would fit in there.

I guess she decided that if people were going to stare at her, she would find a way to be REALLY unusual. Needless to say, my parents absolutely did not approve. "Why can’t you be normal?!" shouted in Spanish across the dinner table. But she couldn’t. She wanted to have salsa AND the Sex Pistols; she longed for the warm tropical childhood she had even as she adored the hard angles of New York City. She wanted to be an ultra femme Latina woman, but was drawn to the idea of self-creation through androgyny.

So they tried to stifle my sister, tried to force her into acceptable interests, like school, and cooking, and silence.

I think that’s why she loved spending time with me back then, her little sister seven years younger. Because I loved exactly who she was; I wanted to be exactly like her. Unlike the world (and my parents), I wasn’t concerned about her lackluster grades; I was too busy being in awe over her enormous pencil drawing of Conan the Barbarian, so passionately and sensitively done that her art teacher didn’t believe she could have created it--it had to have been done by a boy, right? I would beg her to sing to me; she had a lovely, clear alto voice she couldn’t find any use for. To me, she was good at everything artistic--she was the undisputedly best dancer in our family (and for Latinos, that’s really saying something), sang beautifully, drew gorgeously, and possessed a serious native gift for language and storytelling, all the more surprising considering she learned English in her teens. I modeled myself after her in every way, imitated her style, her charisma, her passion for all of the arts. I drank deeply from all of her dreams of bohemia and freedom.

It wasn’t all roses and absinthe, though. My sister resented me almost as much as she loved me, this native born little sister, much petted by my parents. The sister who achieved straight As almost effortlessly, and who could please Mami and Papi almost without trying. Mami demanded that my sister give up all of her afterschool activities to take care of me; after all, she had to work the second shift at the factory, and my older siblings were both in college and thus unavailable. She got her revenge in little ways--subtly stepping on my own stories, reminding me that all of the good things in our family happened before they came to this country (i.e. before I was born), upstaging my nascent attempts to sing, and dance, and draw like she did (making sure that I knew I’d never be better than she was). I was so in thrall that I never considered how hard she had it--high school in a new country, a new language, culture. Being ripped away from everything she knew and not feeling connected to my parents at all. Maybe being weird was better than being ignored, or unsure. Maybe it was her way of taking all of her awkward bits and turning them into something important, into something beautiful.

It didn’t matter what she did to me, though. I still worshipped her. And I hope, in some small way, I gave her a safe place to be fully and completely herself. I applauded her, depended on her advice about boys, creativity, life.

We’re both still struggling--trying to reconcile who we are with wanting approval from our parents, spouses, and the world. She’s given up on those bohemian dreams from long ago, but left those seeds in me. It’s hard for me to watch her disavow all of her desires from back then--I miss having her lead me there. But she has different dreams now, and maybe it’s time for me to find my own path. I’ll always miss that time, and always be grateful for her inspiration, even if she doesn’t value those ideals anymore.

Some things haven't changed. She's still moody, and creative, and defiant, and insecure. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. She's remained a fabulous storyteller. She still drives my parents insane with her ideas (only now about parenthood). Still, she’s so unusual.

Mama Says Om


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Monday, April 03, 2006

Wrestling with the shadow, and surrendering

Yes, a bad pun.
Wow, that’s a negative post title. But it’s actually a good thing.

I’ve never liked the word "surrender." It always brought to mind waving a white flag on a bloody battlefield, bowing your head with the expectation that a sword would come whistling through the air to chop it off. It sounded defeatist, resigned.

But in this depressive silence I’ve been in, I think I’ve learned to see the positive side of surrender.

I’ve written before about how powerful I find the idea of "choosing all", or adding more "and" into your life, and less "either" and "or." Most of the time, it works. I’d like to think I can keep two disparate ideas strolling around in the boulevards of my mind, but occasionally, two ideas bang and bang away on each other like two silver balls in a pinball machine. And I have to pick one. And I hate that, as it brings up all of my fears of making the wrong choice, and foreclosing myself forever to the right one. So I try to live with the bangs, and not get a headache. It usually doesn’t work, though.

This whole process just gets worse when one of the ideas is something I really DON’T want to know about myself. I pride myself on being all psychologically astute, and on being on at least a friendly basis with my Shadow (nothing special, just an occasional "hello" and distant wave). I suppose that’s a sign that my denial of the Shadow goes deep indeed--I’m perfectly fine with working on acknowledging the good stuff, the "Golden Shadow", and I’ve always got a ready list of faults handy for when I need to don the ceremonial hairshirt and flagellate away. But--the deep, murky, blasted stuff? The kind that wakes you up at 3am in a writhing shame and a sour silvery taste in your mouth? Like most people, I’d rather keep all that at a respectful distance, like, say, in the next life.

So I writhed away from it, pointed at it and said "not me, nope, no way", ran as fast and as far as I could, filling my days with monotonous draining activities, if not with my words.

When I settled down, my Shadow patted the ground next to her and said, "Let’s talk."

I started first, as usual, by trying to out-talk, out-think, out-maneuver her. We were at war, and I decided that the best offense was a good offense. I called out my most trustworthy character witnesses, presented my most compelling evidence, and delivered a stirring closing statement that would have made any Law and Order fan faint with delight.

My Shadow raised her eyebrow, and yawned.

Spent, I slumped, silent now. Bent my head for the sword strike.

Instead, something far worse...the thought I had worked so far to avoid, ignore, sandblast into oblivion. There it was.

And here it is.

I do not like being a mother. I want my old life back.

I clutched Madam closely to my chest as that ugliness loomed in me, hoping she would be able to act as an innocent shield. She stirred, made a small moue with her mouth, and slept on. And I was left alone, feeling so horrible, so small.

But I couldn’t un-know the thought, couldn’t un-think it.

So I had to wrestle with my shadow, try to face it the way someone moves forward into a cold wind. Secure in the knowledge that I am the worst person in the world.

Then a funny thing happened. Once I just sat with the thought for a while, once I stopped squirming and berating myself, I felt at peace. And I felt a sense of possibility again. Because I do not like being a mother...the way that I am doing it, looking over my shoulder at the judges, trying to keep a strangled grip on Right and Wrong, trying to deny myself frolic and fun and time. And then that other word came into play.


I’ve been afraid to surrender to motherhood, afraid to turn into one of those people keener on the price of butter and baby food than music and laughter. Afraid that I’d have to sacrifice myself (because it’s a serious given in both my family and TEG’s family that motherhood = the end of your former self. Forever. And that from now on your every waking thought would be of your child). So I’ve been resisting that, resenting that. I’ve clung to my small self while bobbing in the Great Motherhood Sea. Of course I want my old life, with its carefree pleasures and brunches out and wine soaked evenings wearing velvet! I need to accept that I MISS my time, my late nights and later mornings. Because denying that just makes Ms. Shadow sigh and flash images from that fun time, until I’m forced to be honest. Which is her goal, after all.

So, this is where my silence was leading me--to uncomfortable self-knowledge, and hopefully to a change. I need to commit to this, to allow motherhood to unfold from within me, so I can make it my own. So I can work it into something I love wholly, from the depths of me, an addition to who I am instead of a way to erase me. So I can have fun with my Madam, and push past my own fears of ruining her life, of pushing her too far or not far enough, of not following every instruction ever written. So I can wiggle out of the Perfect Mother Mold. I was oozing out of it anyway.

I’m not sure how this will all work yet--I just know that the groove of my life needs to shift, somehow. There has to be room in this motherhood gig for both Madam AND me, no? Maybe my Shadow will have advice on that too.

Come what may, I’m open now.


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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sunday Scribblings-What would you do?

Thanks to Megg and Laini for setting this up. This one is...random. I'm just feeling so shackled lately, so if I knew I couldn't fail, I'd just feel so FREE--to be a scholar, to write, to LIVE.

Like Megg, I did this one as a five minute timed write (which was all I could with the Madam's nap coming to an end).

"What would I do if I knew I could not fail"

If I could not fail, I’d be free to thunder through the earth, marking my territory like any jungle cat, words flowing like poetry and pearls from my mouth (only the swine appreciate them this time and ask for more).

I’d pack up a dollar bag full of paperbacks and fairy dust and toss some over my shoulder as I got on the plane to each new place—meditating with serene monks in China, haggling with street vendors for enlightenment in India, sipping coffee and talking revolution in France.

And when I tired of that, I’d laze—oh, I’d laze so much I’d ooze from the furniture, slide towards the bookshelf, and devour it through my open skull. I’d eat the genius of the world and drink all of the brilliance until my starry intoxicated eyes spun in time with the whirling atoms.

I’d be able to go back and forth in time—no more regrets. Enjoy it all with my mouth gaping open in laughter, and shoulders thrown back in confidence.

I’d write my words in six foot tall letters, in pink hallucination colors, on every bland surface of the world. I'd see the improbable around every corner, lthrobbing warm underneath grey business suits.

Until I curled in deep within myself, in warm cashmere hugs and honey tinged respect—diving into knowledge until I’m breathless with it. And then I’d have a Masters of Imagination, and a PhD in Exciting Esoteric Knowledge that would filter out every boring dust mote in the world and let my life shine sun-kissed and large.

I’d sing louder, spin faster, dance longer, love harder, learn deeper, travel longer, create miracles.

And people would pay to see me do it.


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