Friday, January 21, 2005

On the Cusp of Yes and No

The coronation of King George has passed, and we are a poorer nation for it. We have chosen our course, our curse. It is easy to look at the larger national picture and see where things are headed (barring some unforeseeable intervention by God or other, wiser powers), but perhaps this is only true because there is a media to amplify and reflect the will of the fascists along with a sense among people that all of it is out of our hands, anyway. I long to feel the same certainty about my own life, to see where it is going with as much clarity as I see the fate of my nation. How confident I would be in my decisions if I had yes men and women all around, a giant publicity machine churning out adoration and affirmation, and $40 million to throw a party for myself!

But down here in real life, we do not have scripted roars of approval or syncophantic disciples or rich daddies to bail us out. We have our questions, our consciences, our variables and complexities. For a long while I have been struggling with the sense that life is a textile of sorts, that the trick is to figure out how to have all the strings (survival, job or work, lover, friends, family, individual interests) woven together at equal intervals and tension, so no one thing, if snagged or knotted, completely upsets the fabric. Too much pulling on one string and the entire pattern is skewed. Much effort has to be made to soften it back into a pleasing whole. In our quiet, humble lives, we are forever weaving and being unwoven by people or events or forces from deep within our own fumbling souls. Maybe I have had only a part of the picture until now: suddenly, it seems the primary occupation of life is to learn the patience of Penelope and the adaptability of Odysseus. Sometimes, in our dark nights, we have to take out the razor and slash our lives apart before we understand that a new design is forming in us, one based on the progress of desire and intention. It's a risky business.

When I left my stultifying but secure job as a manuscript editor, one of my biggest fears was that I would have a hard time getting back on the gerbil wheel of employment. After all, we are told over and over that the best time to look for a job is when you have one. I'd be dependent! I was middle aged! What would I do with my time?! (My hours have never been richer.) A towering fortress of fear and propaganda stood between me and the unseen source of my siren song, but I was hungry enough for excitement in my life to take my chances. The résumés I now fax and mail into oblivion and hand out to friends and acquaintances feel like little tiny arrows striking a stone edifice. Boulder-sized silences vault over my head from behind the wall. Flying past, they make a sound much like "I told you so." I have become less adept at putting myself out there and wanting to convince people what an asset I would be to their enterprise. I also live in a big city now, where I lack the advantage of being a familiar face with two decades of network built up around me. The surprising thing for me is how excited I feel about being forced to find a new warp and weft for the things that are mine: my thoughts, my abilities, my contradictions, the causes of the effects I live with moment to moment. Maybe I will never have a "real job" again. A lot of people don't these days. I'll have to be creative, stitch together something entirely different than the pattern that was handed to me when I was born into the middle class at the tail end of the Baby Boom.

I am reminded of a sensation I had as a child–an uncertain time if ever there was one. I cannot connect the sensation to an actual memory of a time or place: it is more like a image describing me to myself right now. I am standing at the edge of a river, holding on to a rope that is frayed and knotted by years of use and exposure. I don't know if it will hold me, and I'm scared. But something in me rebels against the fear, and in an instant I run forward, holding tight until I am out over the muddy, churning water, and I let go. All I know from there is that gravity forces me into the stream. I cannot see whether I swim or float or am pulled under.

Friday, December 31, 2004


A year ago on this night, I was sitting outside in the with a small fire in the chiminéa when gunfire and honking horns announced the arrival of 2004. I was on the phone with my daughter, who had called to tell us that she had gotten married on the beach in Honolulu that morning. She and her husband were a couple of weeks from deployment to Iraq. I spoke to my new son-in-law on the phone and loved him instantly, unexpectedly. I did not have much hope for their marriage, given their recent arrival at the door of adulthood, but I trusted that each would carry the other to the next place as love does when it comes and goes from our lives. Earlier in the evening, my partner and I had examined the year just past and chosen one thing from many that would be our focus as we went forward from there: she chose more active engagement with the world, I chose less.

I remember contemplating the image of Janus as I hung up the phone and sat quietly burning old receipts, failed poems, and other detritus too personal for the winds of Chicago. Janus was the guardian of portals and the patron of beginnings and endings. He had two faces, one facing forward and one facing backward. Like him, I could see a whole chapter of my life ending and a new one beginning, but I could not grasp the forces that had authored them or given them points of origin and termination. When we stand at the doorway of futures past, are we more dead or alive? The question made me stop and take in the moment. Here and now I can still see the clouds around the waxing moon that fused 2003 to its successor and feel the warmth of cinders swirling around my face. I tried to imagine a grandchild who, unknown to me at the time, had already been conceived but would not make it into this world. I could feel the potential of her, but I could not see her face. Some other unseen thing was hurtling toward my life, but what was it? I had an instinct to rest up, to know who I was and what I wanted, because something was culminating in 2004 and it would shape the years to come. There was a crossroads ahead, but no map on which to locate it. Would I know it when I saw it?

As I recall my visitation of Janus, indoors tonight instead of out and facing north instead of west, I feel a sense of relief that this particular year is over. It seems right for 2004 to end with a waning moon. I do not know yet if I asked the right questions or opened the proper gates for my journey; affirmation is a process that takes its own time and carves out its own erratic course. My backward-looking face is pleased that we did what we said we would do: J. resumed volunteer work and pursued a raise and a promotion, both of which have affirmed her and restored a sense of joy in her relationship to the world. She made powerful, unprecedented contacts with people she has traveled beside for years but never really noticed. I strove inwardly in much the same way, finding my voice and valuing it, privileging it over others for a change. New friends filled in the spaces left by the ones who had fallen away to distance or divergence; bits of my writing went outside my orbit and found their own lives; our home became more reflective of our combined spirit; our losses brought surprising reconciliations; we awakened to deeper meanings and larger possibilities within ourselves. It is clear to me now the primary occupation for both of us was creativity. My daughter and her soon-to-be-ex-husband are on their way home from Iraq, having made a safe passage through their first deployment. My forward-looking face sees changes coming with a surgery, a reunion, a return to life outside myself already demanding their due on the calendar I hung up today. For the first time in three years, I noticed how I post my calendar on a door dividing the upper and lower halves of our house, the symbolic line between the conscious mind and the unconscious. Between what we can see and what we cannot, there is time laying invisible grids upon our experience, perceptual latitudes and longitudes, forcing us into the illusion that there was a yesterday, there is a today, a tomorrow is coming. In some places on our spinning world, it is already 2005. A year of wanting, watching, making, and letting go has become a fire that burns inside me now, consuming what is no longer of use and driving me deeper into this breath, this moment of my life.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Once More Into the Breach

All indications are that it is time for me to return to the world. The election is over. I've said what I have to say, done what I could do. Time to get back to not-quite-living. The inner pressure to be able to describe in one or two words what I do is growing, though very few jobs I've had since I left teaching could be summed up that easily, or if they could, reliably brought casual conversation to a screeching halt: "I run a gay and lesbian resource center" or "I edit articles on astrophysics" worked like a great deflective shield in many social situations, pivoting flummoxed inquirers back over to the brie, thinking But she doesn't look like a homo! or Astrophysics? WTF is that? Is she really smart or, like, a fortune teller? My inner dominatrix tells me I should be making money--bringing home some bacon--because that's what we do here in America, that's how we stake out our worldly claim. It's been a scary and enlightening experiment to step off the fiscal compensation scale and see what really gave meaning to my days. Who knew I liked solitude so much? How can I explain to anyone what was gained by not adding my anxiety to the traffic jams, my ego to the petty office politics, my energy to the Great Insurance Caper? I would recommend the experience to anyone. We don't spend nearly enough time doing "nothing."

Although, truth be told, I did quite a lot this year. I traveled and spoke publicly, transcribed a long series of historical documents, educated myself about the real nature of the political landscape, read widely, lost the weight I gained trying to nurse myself through each day with Skittles, wrote and sent out a complex article, started blogging, began a certification course in astrology (I told you she was a fortune teller!), and met some of my neighbors for the first time. I figured some things out about myself. I was peaceful. I liked my life.

The thing that is going to be tricky now that I value what I bring to the working world is that I am going to be far less willing to settle for a bad script. I have so often been amazed at how little our jobs actually ask from us in terms of ability or experience, even as they drain us of all energy. It's amazing how little of the work in the world is getting done, given all the hours we put into it. Maybe that is because the coin of the corporate realm is time and not people. I like to imagine there is someone out there looking for a colleague or employee who is smart, conscientious, compassionate, fair, articulate, multifaceted, and engaged; someone who can write, speak, organize, mediate, teach, counsel, manage, lift, edit, create, advocate, synthesize, coordinate, respond, cooperate, research, and learn--someone who wants to make a valuable contribution to the world but has not yet found a place to do it. Salary is negotiable. At this point in my life, it's not about the money.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Grace Note

It's a little tricky to affect an attitude of gratitude these days, with so much to be reviled and rejected--Bush and all that he connotes being foremost on my mind, of course--but 'tis the season. Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. It's all the good things about Christmas without the stress. I look forward to getting into the time machine and going back, back to the place where people still see me as 15-year-old; to houses and towns that were once home, but are not any more; back to the place where Me in the present tense gets put on hold so I can play the part of daughter or granddaughter or far-away friend. At 43, I feel lucky to still have so many people to go see: my 92-year-old grandmother is more treasured with every November because ever since anyone can remember, she has sworn This was her last Thanksgiving. One time soon, this person who was the anchor of my earliest travels in the world will be gone, and my world will not be the same. I try to tell her how much I'm aware of her influence on me, for better and for worse, but she won't have it. She's not one for sentimentality or good-byes, but it seems like she's been saying good-bye to us forever. I'm grateful for what I learned from her about paradox.

The trip back to Chicago is always quiet, as I try to reorient myself to my life as I know it, shake off the past like it's snow in my hair. Every year, I come away with an ache that feels both familiar and new. Is it nostalgia? Disillusionment? A mild case of indigestion? It's one of those feelings that has no English word, something like zeitgeist in Germany. I touch who I was once and know profoundly that I am not who they see now. But they are so many pieces of me: Leah, my niece, a little wildflower planted in my chambered heart; my nephew Sam, who once believed--and made me believe--I was a mermaid; my Sister Moon and Leo mother, the other facets of my trinity, the three faces of my Eve; my brother-in-law, father, and stepfather, who circle warily at these tribal gatherings, withdraw into their own understandings of our strange customs; my cousin Evan, standing at the precipice of adulthood, looking around to see who will be his mentor and guide; my Aunt Donna and Uncle Chris, without whom I would have never become much of anything; and my Aunt Gisele, newly returned to my life, bearing gifts and glad tidings. These are just a few of the voices in my interior, the opportunities I have had to love and be loved--my blessings.

My daughter is alive and as well as can be expected in Iraq, and we are slightly more optimistic than not that she will be "home" early in February. What does she count as home, I wonder, in her nomadic desert life? Is she old enough yet to see her good fortune and know its worth? I have let her go, but I will not cease in wanting her happiness and health. Should she return to us whole, inside and out, my gratitude will know no bounds.

I am blessed beyond measure for the year I've just had, too; a year turned inward, relieved of the pressure and distraction of the world. I've been in my own private Tibet this year and I think its quiet will mark the rest of my inner life. I've had time to write, to think, to study and read more than ever, and to be still and listen. It would not have been possible without my sweet and sunny Goat Girl, who would bear any burden for love. In her odd way, she has taught me much about optimism and hope. She has made me want to be a better person, and better yet, she has helped me become one. I can only aspire to become as generous in spirit as she already is. (Sorry, folks, she's taken.)

I am reminded lately of a vision that burned itself into my brain when I was about 30: I would see it every time I closed my eyes, a golden triangle standing on its point in the palm of an upturned hand. What does it mean? I asked. The answer came some time later, by increments and in varying forms, but its essence was ask, and you shall receive. It was more than a hotline to Santa. It was a blessing, a responsibility, and an understanding that I was already living in abundance. For all my hopeless despondency, I cannot deny that my life reflects more of heaven than hell. It was true yesterday, it's true today, and it could possibly be true tomorrow. Possibly not. For this reason I am going to spend these next few days looking wide-eyed at the good raining down in my life, noticing the way each drop radiates rings along its surface, circle into circle, forging links that bind me to then and now and whatever the future holds, weaving me into the lives of others and giving form to my intricate, ephemeral soul.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Global Soul

"The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." --Hugo of St. Victor, a 12th century monk

I have not seen nearly as much of the world as I would like, but I am wildly curious about it. Aside from attending preschool in the home of an elderly Swedish couple and a single visit to a Greek dentist when I was 11, I don't think I met people from other parts of the world until I was in college, and then they arrived in my life in a swirl of bright cloth and deliciously accented syllables from Libya, the Philippines, Poland, India, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Zimbabwe, China, Colombia, and Malaysia. My husband and I were one of three American couples in the married student housing complex that year. Four sets of cinderblock apartments faced the courtyard in which I first witnessed the midnight feasting of Ramadan and forged a rough understanding, through gestures and broken phrases, of the horror of my friend Grezyna, who had just learned she was pregnant when the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl crept across Poland. It was the Reagan era. On TV, there were instructive news clips of Iranians chanting "Death to America!" and burning our flag. Our next door neighbors, Muhammad and Zahra from Tehran, said, "If the people don't do these things, the police come and torment their families, arrest them. They write down names of people who do not make the signs and light the fires." These learned travellers were the friends who brought gifts and blessings when my daughter was born. Theirs are the faces in my mind's eye as I hear news of the world.

Later, I had students from Korea, Russia, Bosnia, and Sweden, a colleague from Argentina. It was hard not to notice their eloquent command of my native language and their surprising knowledge of the geography of my country. Their eager love for all things American baffled me, but I sensed underneath it a genuine affection for who we thought we were then: the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, and all that. I marveled at my brilliant luck of birthplaces, right in the center of the very place that people from all over wanted to call home. I learned how to pace my questions so they weren't like an interrogation, how to nudge out the details of what was missed and what was escaped when they arrived here. Their good humor and generosity never failed to astonish me.

I ventured off my continent once and went to London completely alone for a week, knowing little more about it than where to find a B&B owned by a nice Indian couple near the Paddington Station. I walked miles through the city, got off the Tube at random stops just to look around; I don't think I said more than two or three sentences to anyone the whole week. I did not shop, I hardly ate, but I saw as much as I could, and I listened. Then next week, I connected with two friends and we drove out past Avebury, Stonehenge, the moors, and the wind farms to Cornwall. Grafitti on a bridge near Bude announced CORNWALL IS NOT ENGLISH. I held this thought as we walked the coastal path in silence. For me, Cornwall became that worn path with its observant cows, its stone cairns and Celtic crosses. In that two-week period, I felt more at ease in the world than I have felt before or since.

Now I live in a city where a half-dozen languages--Spanish, Polish, Russian, Greek, Urdu, and Mandarin--jockey with English in any day of commerce. I find myself comforted by the rhythms of these conversations I cannot understand. The words are unfamiliar but the subjects are not. I feel almost ashamed that I have only absorbed the dialects of my America, though they are many. I am too shy to use even the little bit of Spanish I have learned from our Mexican waiter at our local Indian restaurant. Will I mess it up or somehow be insulting? Would it be too familiar, too presumptuous? Is it perhaps better not to paste the stamp of empire on every breath?

The quote above is from Pico Iyer's book, The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, published in 2000, before "9/11 changed everything." Iyer posits that the 12th century monk who made that observation was pointing the superiority of those whose feet are secured in heaven, but I see yet another possibility for those of us living in a country that has twisted off its foundation and suddenly does not feel like home. We find ourselves suddenly in exile in a place that was only recently the only place we knew. Freedom has taken on militaristic connotations, morality is defined in boardrooms and other dens of criminality. We can hardly bear to stay but we do not want to go. Cobalt strangers, we are, in a strange red land. Now is the moment when the veil is ripped away and we see with new eyes the world as it is, not as we believe it to be. We have become perfect in the truest sense, "without defect or omission."

We are the ones who appreciate the wonder-working powers of gay white men adopting unwanted black children, the salutary effect of Icelanders married to Turks living in Germany. We don't need to see our reflection in every shiny surface. We see God in every convergence that creates new forms. We enjoy the synthesis of seemingly unrelated elements because it affirms our integrity. We are the ones who can willingly endure the discomfiture that will upset our tribal sensibilities and nationalist tendencies, possibly even release us from the devisive delusions that drive our interactions now. Too many Americans admire George Bush for his insular, antagonistic world view, but they and George are simply scared of what's out there. It is a world that defies their simplistic categories and provincial tastes. It will not be subdued by any one god. These tender beginners fear the wild world cannot be kept from the gates of their McMansions.

The rest of us love this planet in all its dazzling complexity. We love its vicissitudes, its noise and confusion, its contradictions and knots even as we hear the single pulse underneath. We are unconvinced by the lines on the map because the image of this swirling blue ball was burned into our consciousness along with our respective languages. Many of us found families quite far from the ones into which we were born. We want to tuck our fear out of sight with our passports and money and go look for our friends in the places we don't know. In an odd way, we thrive in this disconcerting, uprooted age. We're the ones who will be here when the rest have been blasted off to Mars or Hoovered up to holiness. In this week's fondest fantasy, we reach across the latitudes and longitudes, link up across every kind of barrier to form a swift and powerful antidote to the gloating and preening snakes who have appointed themselves master of all they survey. We shift our gaze from their perceived power over us to our shared resistance. We don't wait for a leader or words of praise. We do it now, in our own remote interiors. Maybe this moment--this realization of each other, our apologies given and accepted--is the beginning of the paradigm shift we've waited for so long.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Go Ahead, Say You're Sorry

If you haven't yet seen the Sorry Everybody web site, it's worth a look. I put it off for a few days after hearing about it, but when I heard the Freepers were doing a parallel site with "fuck you, world" messages, I had to go see what had them so bunged up. (Amazing, isn't it, that they have complete power and they're still so pathologically angry?) At Sorry Everybody, you can post a picture and text to express your intelligence and humanity to the rest of the world, lest they think we are all neo-Nazi thugs. All you need is a digital image (75 KB or less) to upload to their link on the Submit page. The best part is that people from all over the world are posting beautiful messages to the 56 million of us who did not choose Bush. There are thousands of messages, and sifting through them randomly, I was humbled and reminded of yet another good thing we all have to be happy about--friends all over the globe.

UPDATE: Eukabeuk points out that a response site has emerged: Apologies Accepted. If your faith in humanity hasn't been restored yet, go there now. It will make you cry, but you were crying anyway, so go. Feel the love.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Toe-to-Toe with Evil

I just read a great essay called "Hung Over in the End Times", and while it was uplifting in its irreverance, it reminded me how much we are going to have to resist the Christian Reich on every front. We have to steel ourselves against the agitprop about how "moral values" decided the election by remembering the immorality of the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis (which would be overkill, even if they had had anything to do with 9/11, and they didn't); the immorality of diminished citizenship or indefinite detainment for any dweller in "the land of the free;" the unfettered and well-documented criminality of the Bush administration. We have to be worked into a fit of moral outrage equal to that of our fevered fundamentalists. We have to quit wasting time trying to change their minds because their minds function at a reptilian level that we who dwell in the forebrain can only access in the face of actual, direct threats to our survival. We liberal, progressive "elites" (codeword for "educated") have to understand that our survival is threatened by these nutjobs. And we have to refuse to cooperate in our destruction.

One of the ways to do this, as I have said before, is to allow ourselves to grieve for a bit, then get up off the Bed of Pain and get in touch with our righteous anger. It is a matter of principle that no country has the right to steal the resources of other nations or topple their governments because it feels like it. It is a matter of international law that people cannot tortured, a conclusion of common sense that people who are willing to die for their cause will not respond to torture in a helpful way. It's a matter of time (and not much of it) before it is plain for all to see that global warming is real and could have been prevented. We cannot expect a group of people who see the end of the world as a good thing to solve these problems or address them honestly. We have to remember that we are the majority (if you can see the world beyond our blue borders) and we are on the right side of history, evolution, progress, geography, and demographics. We have to face Shadow America in all its paranoid, fearful, zealous, death-worshipping, neoNazi manifestations and unplug our energy from it. See it, name it for what it is, call it out. Until we do, it's going to be like the Middle Ages around here.

Forget about the vote recounts. There probably was plenty of monkey business in the Diebolds, but even if it is unequivocally proven, who will force accountability? Bush's boot-licking bitches in the press? The wheeler-dealers in the Senate? The Moonie-crowning House of Representatives? I don't think so. Assume the results were jiggered in the Chimperor's favor and pour your rage into demanding your local election board provide verifiable means of voting. Be an ass about it. Insist.

Forget about being nice and getting along. Go postal. Slam the door on the plastered-on smiles of the Bible zombies who come calling to bring you the Good News about your impending doom. Counter every Republican lie, smear, gloat, and "misunderestimation" you hear. Draw loud, informed parallels between George W. Bush and other failed presidents. Remind your Republican friends that a margin of victory of three million in a country this size is hardly a mandate. Use the old What Would Jesus Do? slogan to challenge gay-bashing and punishment of the poor. Turn off the "news," and let the bloviators know why you're doing it. Salve your wounds with an exposé of the cracks that already exist in the supposed bedrock of Christian conservatism. But more importantly, reinforce the better impulses at work around you. Take care of your body and spirit. Breathe. Praise moderation and reason. Donate time and money to the causes that tweak your heart. Arm yourself with information and like-minded friends. If you go to church, sing louder than ever. Don't ever, ever apologize for being a human being who values compassion or equality under the law.

If the radicals were right, they wouldn't have to lie, steal, or manipulate to take their power from you. Remember that, but don't count on anyone else to fix it.