Feb 24

Twisted

Twisted, yeah, I knew you’d call me that. Because I spit in your drink last night at the bar. But you don’t know from twisted. Ever watch a knife fight? Circle, circle, then in for the kill, you never even saw the knife if they’re good. I’m not that good.

All I did was spit. You’re still alive.

I kick the concrete while you talk because I can’t kick you.

You want me to apologize. Say I’m so, so sorry. Or what? You’ll turn on those tough boot heels and leave? Me? That’s your threat?

You’ve got a lot of leaving behind you. I can see that. Tracks lead all the way back to seven years old when your dad left his own trail behind him. So I get it.

I just don’t give a shit.

Now you tell me to stop kicking. Your words grow weeds in my ears.

You shove me. Well, go ahead. No one’s stopping you. I could tell you I won’t do it again but it’s just a bell clanging.

We hate each other during the day but at night…well, at night. You once made a sound when you finally blundered your way inside me like what we were doing punched through your chest and wrapped a hand around your soul. Deep, river-wide, clear all the way down to the bottom, that sound.

It whispers in my heart.

“I’m sorry I spit in your drink.”

You put your arm around me, elbow akimbo around my neck. Pull me close. Lick my throat. Breath cools my skin. I shiver.

We stumble down this road, pitch and roll.

****

Some people will call this the worst example of a co-dependant, abusive relationship. Maybe they’re right. But I believe that somewhere in us we’re all suffering and it takes everything we have to deal with it. For most of us, like the two above, this means we cover it up–head down, arms in, disappear. Get by. Survive. Don’t give too much away and no one will take it, ride us, and leave us broken.

So what drives us together, two bodies colliding, what collision are we hoping, praying, to get in? Drawn on, drawn in, something in us longs for that crash, values it wildly beyond any logical measure.

It’s not the physicality of it. Come closer. Look. Better yet, see. Remember that time when someone—could be anyone, a stranger even—threw wide their door and for that moment there was nothing between you, no you or them at all, just a joining that leaves you wrecked. From then on we’re junkies, searching the rest of our lives for the handle to that door.

Not lust. Love. Know me. Crawl inside me. Live there. If I hand you my heart, will you know how to hold it? This is what we are longing for—to be stripped by someone and recognized.

Our problem is the face we put on in the morning is not the face we were born with. Even if we’re so far gone we’ve forgotten that.

And that means, in that split-second when we have a chance to open up and reach out to someone, chances are we can’t switch faces. That’s a true cause of suffering–the illusion of separation pierced, and us helpless to make anything of it.

Whatever the violences of our lives, inside and out, whatever the wreckage we leave in our wake, every one of us is capable of being transfixed by those moments of complete knowing. It explains a lot. Maybe everything.

These roots go deep.

Feb 15

Bullshit stories

It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.

I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.

I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”

He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”

It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.

I had the same response when I saw this picture:

Slap!

Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.

We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:

“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”

There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.

And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.

Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.

When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.

My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.

Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.

As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.

When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.

This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.

But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.

It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?

And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.

I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.

So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.

Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.

Feb 14

Pay attention when your writing sucks

We’ve all had those days, where we have to pry every word out of us and they only come kicking and screaming and when we look over what we’ve written, we just put our heads in our hands and contemplate a career in math.

Oo! This is sexy despair. I want mine to look like this.

Unfortunately, mine's more like this. Only with long red hair.

And we've all been here on those REALLY bad days.

Sometimes in those moments it helps to read other people’s writing. (Sometimes that only pushes us from the second picture to the third, but that’s another story.) So the other day I clicked over to Crescent Dragonwagon’s blog (highly recommended) and read this:

“Every piece of writing is essential to the writer, regardless of whether it works as a piece or not. Seeming unsuccess is as important as seeming success in our lives, as artists and as human beings.”

This is something I tend to forget. Mostly because if I invest time/energy/emotion in a piece, by damn I want it to work! And maybe, no matter what I do, it doesn’t.

And she’s saying (THANK GOD) that’s OK. You get something out, something that had to get out, and now there is space to write the next piece.

This is such a release of pressure, that not all our darlings need to be birthed into the world. Some of them need to live beneath the rocks, whispering to us, filling the void between the last good piece and the next one.

And then there’s that kicker, which she is so good at: “and as human beings.”

Why is unsuccess important to us as human beings? Personally, I’d like to succeed at everything, all the time. That would be fantastic.

But think of yourself as a stone bowl. The depth of your bowl is the depth of your soul; it indicates how deeply you can feel, relate to, and understand yourself and others. Now think of how that bowl was made. It was carved out. And that carving isn’t gentle and thoughtful–no, that carving involves metal tools and hammers and grinding and pounding. If you’re going to make a stone bowl with a piece of 00 sandpaper, you’re going to die before the first shallow depression is complete.

“Unsuccess” is the hammer–the chisel–the grinding force that breaks us open so we can feel. We need the failures, the difficult times, the brokenness that comes from daring to try something we’re not entirely sure will work, whether it’s writing or telling someone our deepest hopes and fears.

What we owe to our readers as writers, and our friends and loved ones as human beings, is a map of deep emotions, and if we keep ourselves so safe we never feel them, we sure as hell can’t write about or share them.

We all know people who do everything they can to stay comfortable, to keep their worlds safe, and they are not the people we go to when we are hurting. It is a truth that there is no one on the planet who is not suffering, but if we don’t turn ourselves inside out and share that suffering, let others know they are not alone, then no matter how hard the hammers come down, we will remain stones.

“When I find myself in hell, I stay there as long as I can.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said this and it points to the exact thing we can do to make our bowls deep. He’s not saying “Go out and find hell and/or create it every second.” He’s saying when we find ourselves there (and it’s inevitable), recognize where you are. Let it work you, soften you, shatter you.

How do you do that? You feel. You don’t numb out or get lost in distraction. And you don’t go the other way and make the feeling so huge and dramatic it becomes nothing but a caricature of itself. You stay with it–you feel where it is in your body–you let it take you but you don’t lose yourself in it. You hold on to your perspective–“this, too, shall pass.” And you realize that everyone, every person on the planet, suffers as you do. This is the birth of compassion.

Hell is a gift we have to consciously accept–we are trained in our addicted-to-comfort world to turn away, shut down, and lock it out. But the edge it provides is the only one that can cut to our cores. And as writers, sure, but how much more so as human beings, we need to feel to our cores, reach in and pull out our humanity, look others in the eye and say “Yes, I see that suffering, I see that joy, I see that anger and fear, and I am right here with you.”

Success is nice. Enjoy it. But it is not a hammer.

Unsuccess is the key to deepening the bowl.