Sunday, July 22, 2007

In Memoriam: Ron S. "Doc" Rosen, Medic, Activist, Warrior for the People

"He live[d] inside his heart, and that's a really big place."
--Sling Blade

Monday, May 14, 2007

In Memoriam: Jonathan A. Cohen, 1940-2007

I learned on Friday that my dear friend and therapist Jonathan Cohen died on May 5. He was 66 years old.

Those are the facts. Beneath the facts are more facts, and a swirling torment of emotions and questions. Jon was a beautiful, brilliant man: warm, funny, insightful, caring, extraordinarily intelligent, fiercely opinionated, but questioning of everything, in others and the world.
He was a very accomplished professional psychiatrist, politically astute and active, a talented and enamored sailor,a gifted writer, an intellectual of tremendous caliber, a generous and fun person who sank his teeth deeply into life. He was a beloved father of two beautiful, smart, healthy, worldly, caring children now grown into adults, and a challenging companion to a gorgeous galaxy of a woman. He had loads of friends whom he loved and who thought the world of him.

He hated lies, moral cowardice, easy answers. He wouldn't settle for any of them, at least that appeared the case to me. I had long sought a therapist I could work with who wouldn't let me get away with my shit, who was at least as smart as me (in the way I'm smart), who knew how to play the game and could beat me at it. Jon was so far beyond me in so many of these areas he was able truly to support me in finding my path. We didn't always get along in therapy. I didn't always agree with him, and he occasionally really pissed me off. But I could tell him that, and he would hear me, and work to change the way he approached our work together. So often I left his office more hopeful, able to continue a few days longer. He saved my life, quite literally, on more than one occasion.

I wish I could have returned the favor. Even in our friendship, which grew around and out of our professional relationship, Jon did almost all the listening and questioning. I was very bad at this. When an amazing man, full of energy, thoughtfulness, deep and diverse life experience wants to hear what I have to say (this doesn't happen that often) it's hard for me to shut up. I wish I had done so more. I wish I had made more space for him to speak about his demons, fears, moral questioning, depression, suffering.

Jonathan's suffering got the better of him last week, and this beautiful man who gave me so much, who worked so hard to heal others, took his own life. I was shocked but strangely not surprised. I was aware that he and his partner, another dear friend of mine, had separated, and that some choices of Jon's--inconsistent, from my perspective, with his strong moral compass--were involved in that separation. I had not known of his depression, although he had spoken a bit with me of his childhood and his relationship with his father. What I did know, though, was that Jon was a person of character--whatever his mistakes or failings--of decisiveness and courage. He was the kind of person capable of making such a difficult, final choice and carrying it out.

His reasons are his own. I may never fully understand them. Yesterday, at the gathering of remembrance his partner and children organized for him in the foothills of Boulder, I gained further insights into his mental state before he killed himself. He had been struggling with depression for a long time. He was unhappy in his new home in Washington state. He had never fully recovered from the trauma and injuries of his childhood. And he may not have believed or known when he died that he had been forgiven for the hurtful choices he had made.

I wonder too to what extent the political situation in the world may have influenced his decisions. Jon had a very strong moral political compass and could not abide anything he considered unjust, inhumane, dishonest. He could not excuse such behavior. As head psychiatrist on Paris Island during the Vietnam war, he tried to help U.S. servicemen come to grips with the crimes and atrocities they committed, as well as the horror they'd witnessed and grief they'd endured, to become as mentally strong, healthy, and honest as a human beings so damaged could become. His son yesterday referenced Jon's testimony in Congress against the Marines, and Mark and I wondered if Jon wasn't one of the "winter soldiers" who did so much to bring to light the evil of that "police action" and war in general.

Jon and I first met through his involvement in the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, initially in the work to end economic sanctions against Iraq. I remember like it was yesterday he and his partner, sitting on a couch in the old American Friends Service Committee offices. I remember thinking, "my God, who is this beautiful, strong, stylish couple here to join in our struggle?" We all three fell in love with each other during that meeting, and our friendships grew in earnest shortly afterwards.

Later, Jon served as our volunteer on-call psychiatrist when CCMEP sent delegations to Palestine, and some found themselves literally under fire during Israel's massive invasion of the West Bank in 2002. I'll never forget how he was there to speak with Nancy Stohlman, as bombs were falling around her, and help her decide whether to be evacuated or remain with the people. Most psychiastrists, I think, would have thought Nancy--then a young single mother--crazy for even having gone to Palestine. They would have insisted she get out of there as soon as possible. Not Jon. Jon understood why she was there, and, more than that, he understood the terrible impact her leaving might have on her psyche, the damage such guilt could inflict. He encouraged her to stay, bombs and all. He understood that survivor guilt can be unbearable, and helps no one.

I don't know that Jon believed in the spirit world, but I do, and I pray his spirit can yet provide solace and wisdom to his children. They now seem haunted by what they didn't see, what they didn't do to help him. Carrying the grief of such loss, a good dad who died too young, is more than enough; I pray they can be freed of survivor guilt, and live their lives with all the passionate engagement their father did, without his suffering.

There are lessons in this for them, and for all of us. At the risk of simplifying a tragedy of unspeakable pain, imposing meaning or pattern that isn't there because the human mind so needs them, the immediate lessons for me are of compassion, forgiveness, honesty and self-healing. I want the sense of priority and perspective I felt in the immediate aftermath of learning of his death to be what stays with me. In the past six months I too have had suicidal thoughts, on a number of occasions. I have never gotten to the point Jon did, and for that I have the love and compassion of my immediate circle to thank. I want to heal myself enough that I can provide that compassion and understanding to others. I'm not there yet, but that is my path.

At the time of his death I was extremely angry with, and felt somewhat betrayed, by Jon. All of that is still true, but it is so far from the sum total of my relationship with him. I wish I could have spoken with him, met with him, heard his reasoning, his side of the story, so I could have forgiven him while he was alive, and he could have known that he was still loved and appreciated, that his demons were understood. I assumed there would be time--time to heal, to resolve old wounds, to figure things out. And I counted on Jonathan's seemingly mountainous strength to withstand what plagued his heart.

I am not at all convinced that suicide is always a bad choice, always something to be prevented. I still don't know what to think of Jon's choice. But it is hard to see someone of such gifts, such extraordinary heart and mind and spirit, dissolve into his own grief such that it seems the best choice for him.

I do not know how to finish this, except to stop. Perhaps, sometimes, that is the only ending one can write.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Power of Refusal

In all fairness to Lauranna, I can't write this as well as she can, because she's the one who taught me about this. I can say, however, that the more I put her wise teachings into practice, the happier and more liberated I feel.

Lauranna calls it the power of refusal. Gandhi and King called it nonviolent non-cooperation. I call it liberation.

I've become, of late, an enormous fan of the concept and power of refusal. I have spent so much of my life over-spending my energies, sapping my strength trying to change people and institutions. Let me just clarify: I'm a fan of work, and of trying to change institutions for the better (or do away with them altogether). I'm a fan of living one's life in service to others, particularly one's community. I'm a fan of giving one's life for one's community.

I'm not a fan of being used, abused, ignored, disrespected, lied to, lied about, manipulated, dominated or controlled, or having my time and energy wasted on a project which cannot succeed, and which is at best an expression of ego, delusion or fear. When I talk about withdrawing my energies, it is from projects and people who promote the latter behavior, instead of--or, as well as--the former.

I discovered something recently (you know, discovered like Columbus did...something that everyone who was paying attention already knew was there). If you don't like the way you're being treated in a relationship, and you don't see hope for that changing, it's a good idea to leave. It's okay to remove yourself from that relationship. It's also okay, if you decide to stay in the relationship, to decide the terms of your engagement, the how, the when, the why, the where. Lauranna's very good at this. She's a student of the Tao of War, which can also serve one well as a Tao of Love.

Little by little I've been figuring out, mostly because I reach a point where either I end (literally) my life, or I let go of what is killing me, that I not only can but must refuse to participate in relationships that are destructive to my psyche and spirit, and--on a political level--the planet and her people. It's gotten that bad at times. It's gotten that bad a lot.

I've resisted this for years partly because I'm staggeringly co-dependent and keep thinking I can change people. I can't change people. Intellectually I know that, but co-dependency is a hard habit to break. I can be true to myself, speak my truth or live my truth, and others can decide what they want to do in the face of that. But neither through persuasion, manipulation, nor brutalization can I change people at their core. I can hurt them really, really badly. I know that. And that brutalization is certainly a kind of power, but it's not a kind of power I ultimately see producing any good.

When I get to a place of deeper honesty, I realize it's all about power and responsibility. It's truly frightening to me to realize how much of a victim I've let myself believe I am. I am nobody's victim. I'm a smart, powerful woman, who has and can make a difference in the lives of people she touches. I've been loved far more than I wish to admit, and I've hurt people who've loved me far more than I can bear to acknowledge sometimes.

But this truth doesn't jive with my self-image as victim. It requires that I really own how much I've been hurt and how much I've hurt, both give and ask for forgiveness. It requires that I risk and act far more than I do. And it requires, at core, that I change, and heal what is broken in me, what has victimized me and in turn causes me to hurt others.

That's the paradox for me, of why I've resisted the power of refusal. On the one hand, I keep thinking if I just give more energy to a relationship--with a person, an organization, a corporation, the state--I can change them from what they fundamentally are to something else. On the other hand, I refuse to acknowledge how much power I really do have to affect change if I just take responsibility for that power and use it wisely, instead of wasting it and my hope and heart on efforts which I know can't work.

I've resisted refusal precisely because it can work. There is nothing more galling to an oppressive person or institution than being ignored, made irrelevant, redundant.

Why am I wasting all your time with this navel-gazing? I'm trying to understand what we're doing wrong here, in our efforts to improve our lot. There are absolutely times we have no choice but to engage and resist. Prisoners are held captive, tortured, denied their freedom--the state must be engaged to obtain their release. Immigrants are abused, exploited, oppressed. Whatever legal rights can be obtained for them must be fought for and won. The average lifespan for an American Indian man living on a reservation is still under 50 years. That's unacceptable. Suffering must be alleviated; the people can't wait until the revolution is over to eat.

Not having to resist the corporate-state directly in order to survive is a position of tremendous privilege. I know that, and God help the next white male who tries to tell me otherwise. But in addition to our necessary resistance, the power of refusal must be engaged more. Not a refusal to acknowledge state power--a refusal to acknowledge its legitimacy.

I look to the work in our community of Shareef Aleem and Larry Hales, two brave and brilliant African-American activists, who inspire me in this regard. These two men seem to me to very clear, both about what needs to change and can be made to change, and what never will. Rather than begging the state for a police review board, or other form of governmental accountability of a governmental institution, they're working to create civilian review, civilian-controlled accountability. They're not asking the state's permission; they're going to the people, where power is supposed to--and actually does--reside.

The bloggers also do this. By creating an alternative to the so-called journalism of the mainstream newspapers, as accessible to many, they create a public space for truth which cannot be silenced by dollars and threats.

The folks who keep trying to reform the Democratic Party do not do this. I understand the efforts of those trying to stem the bloodshed of their people--a bandage will not stop a hemorrhage, but maybe it will slow it a little? But many who keep betting on that donkey do not do so with any recognition that it's an ass, not a horse. It will never be a horse; don't bet on it to win a horserace. Such folks are engaged in a tragically co-dependent, deluded dance with an institution that was not designed to serve the people, or justice, or the planet. That's not its purpose for being; that isn't what it is. Yes, you can expend all your energy trying to get Daddy to be nice to you today, or pay the rent this month, or keep from beating Mom this afternoon. You may succeed today, and maybe in the short term it's a good thing not to be homeless, or hungry, or in the emergency room. But tomorrow he's still going to be a patriarchal, violent, alcoholic bastard, and Mom's still going to be defending him.

Kick Dad's ass out, buy guns and barricade the windows, or move yourself and your loved ones out of the fucking house. Those, to me, are the options. Take away Dad's power over your life. Organize your siblings to resist him and to build a better house. Liberate Mom if you can; pray for her if you can't.

You know how you know when an alcoholic's lying? Their lips are moving.

Refuse to believe them. Refuse to listen to them. Refuse to take care of them, and clean up their messes. Refuse to make it okay for them to keep lying to themselves and others. Refuse to support them in their abusive behavior. Don't give them your time and energy, even in critique. Refuse to give them your power, and soon they will have no power at all.

Personal Imperialism: Sometimes It's Not All About You

There's this disease perfected in the last five centuries by white males called imperialism which has seeped into the groundwater we all drink, and now unfortunately affects far too many white women, and even sometimes people of color as well. Imperialism is both a personal and political pathology. It's a pathology which I for one am really over being victimized by; unfortunately I'm sure I still have a long way to go with regard to my victimization of others.

We all know what political imperialism looks like. But personal?

Not being a personal imperialist basically means approaching relationships with other people thus:

"This is my stuff. That's your stuff. I keep my stuff on my side of the relationship, you keep your stuff on your side of the relationship. You do not expect me or order me to carry your stuff, and you don't offer to carry mine. Ever. Under any circumstances."

The thing that the most die-hard codependents like myself refuse to acknowledge is that no one can liberate another person from their stuff. It's not the way the game of life is played. You can try to get other people to carry your stuff, and you can offer to carry other people's stuff. You can succeed on this front. You can impose your stuff on others, and you can drag their stuff along with yours. What you can't do, however, is lessen the amount of one's own stuff in the process. In the end, only the person who owns the stuff can do that.

No matter much you spew your shit in all directions, when you open up your rucksack at the end of the day, all your shit is still going to be there. It's a very weird physical law which pertains only to psychological/emotional stuff, but it pertains absolutely.

So, knowing that, it's very important that you neither offer to take, nor allow to have sneaked into your rucksack, anyone else's shit. It does no one any good. No one is helped by this, but the over-burdened carrier is hurt, which then hurts her/his relationship with the person whose shit they're pointlessly carrying. Pretty soon everyone's pissed off and suffering. Al-Anon 101.

Why is this imperialist? Because it's about taking up more space--in a room, relationship, country, planet--than you are entitled to. Spreading out in all directions, colonizing other people, taking their spiritual or material resources back to you--the father country. My rucksack is not a piece of real estate to which you are entitled. Neither is my mind, my body, my spirit, or my back. My rucksack is full to overflowing with my stuff. I don't have room for yours, and the previous stuff of others that was piled into to my rucksack has been breaking my back (and spirit) for years.

So what does this have to do with my title, "Sometimes, It's Not All About You"? Have you ever had the experience of someone walking into a room, conversation, life, and trying very hard to make it all about them? That's emotional imperialism.

There are those people who literally cannot stand the notion that people can have relationships, social engagements, conversations, dates with other people, even internal dialogues, and not include them. Such encounters represent a liberated zone, a space this person has not yet been able to colonize, control and dominate. It is part of the white male disease that they go mental at the thought of such a space existing in the universe. "There is no place I cannot be!!" This is the white male mantra, which far too much of the rest of the planet now chants.

Other forms of emotional and psychological imperialism:

1. Triangulation. This is, tragically, a favorite of women, particularly mothers. Many mothers cannot stand the idea of their children having relationships with each other which do not go through them. So they triangulate, they pit siblings and friends against each other, to keep themselves in the dead center of power. It's a very negative power, and doesn't usually serve to make their situation any better. Nevertheless it's very common. These people literally can't stand the fact that it's not all about them.

2. Passive-aggression. Why communicate directly what you're feeling when you can be totally dishonest and still punish the person you're mad at by stuffing their rucksack while they're not looking?

3. Drama Kings & Queens. Oh, I'm so over this one. "The world is not the world. The world is my personal stage, I am the star and director, and the rest of you are but bit players and scenery."

These folks can't bear the thought that there could be a drama (or god-forbid comedy or romance) in which they do not have the starring (and directing) role. To prevent this from happening, they keep churning out schlock dramas, dominating and controlling the theatre, sets, costumes, and make-up for years. Unfortunately, this also tends to totally occupy most of the actors, who--like desperate out-of-work actors everywhere--think this is the only game in town and they'd better get in on it. "Oh, there's a play going on. I've been given a role and this is such a nice theatre. How marvelous. Guess I'd better get into make-up," instead of "Who the fuck wrote this lousy play? I hate this fucking role--I've played it all my life and it was bad when times were good. Whaddya say we get the hell out of here and do Twelfth Night in the parking lot, audience and revenue be damned?!"

4. Occupation of Space and Belongings. You create a little space in your shared home for yourself. It's might be a desk, a chair, an altar, a closet. In various direct and indirect ways, you say, "it's mine. My little piece of the world, my refuge." The imperialist invades it, sometimes not even consciously. Because there cannot be any place the imperialist cannot be.

I write this as a recovering and repentant drama queen, passive-aggressive, co-dependent, triangulating imperialist. I am truly sorry. The world and all my relations deserved, and continues to deserve, better.

Sometimes, it's just not all about me, or you--can you grasp that? And sometimes, people need to have a space which one cannot and does not violate by entering.

Women need a space you cannot violate by entering--not physically, not intellectually, not spiritually. We need this like breathing. Trans/Queer folk need it. Indians need it. Black folks need it. Immigrants need it. Teenagers need it. God knows, the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans need it. Every writer I know needs it. Every person I know needs it.

If you don't like war, stop invading other people's space, taking what doesn't belong to you, and packing other people's rucksacks with your shit. Liberation begins at home. Begin now.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Be Human as God is Human

Today I sat in Meeting for Worship (Quaker Meeting) and as I tried to center down I found myself feeling anxious and tried to determine the source of the anxiety. It didn't take long to figure out what it was: I feared being judged by my fellow members of Meeting. Judged and found unworthy. There wasn't anything in particular I feared being judged about--just my existence in general--and I had no reason to suspect my fellow Quakers, of all people, of judging me in such a way. That's the irritating thing about generalized anxiety--it doesn't usually have a specific point one can isolate and treat, or even a rational beginning and end.

Once I realized this, though, my heart opened pretty quickly and I began to feel a great deal lighter. As I tried to quiet my mind in the silence, I talked to myself, and reminded myself that no one in that room is perfect, that we are all quite fallible humans, and all probably carrying around a similar set of anxieties. We all afraid of so much: afraid of being wrong, afraid of making the wrong decision, of doing too much or not enough, afraid of not doing the right thing, at the right time, afraid of being cowardly, weak, or just not plain good enough, afraid of needing help, money, understanding, afraid of not being totally emotionally, physically, and psychologically self-sufficient--the terrible crime that is in our society. The vice grip of anxiety this society keeps so many of us in, without our even realizing it much of the time.

Whence does this fear of being imperfect come?

My initial thought went to the heart of early Euro-American culture: Puritanism, and a quotation from the Bible (even quoted by Friends sometimes): Be perfect as God is perfect.

I've never really liked that quotation, but the more I deconstruct it, the more oppressive I find it. If we're all so busy being perfect as God is perfect all the time, where is the room for being human? I'm not a huge believer in the whole Jesus-as-God-incarnate bit of Christianity, but for a moment, let's just take for given that's true. Was not God also human then, as well as perfect? What would a society look like where we accepted and even celebrated our own and one another's simple humanity? Maybe if we weren't so busy trying to live up to some insane ideal which no human can achieve--physical, intellectual, professional, personal--we'd have a lot more compassion for the frailty of our fellow human beings. We wouldn't judge each other so harshly for being late, fat, old or young, insolvent, dishonest on occasion, inconsiderate on others, boring, ignorant, or silly. I suspect our humanity which actually take a quantum leap forward if we could overcome this self-and-communal-flaggelating assumption of the necessity of perfection.

If one spends huge amounts of time, energy and money trying to fix, hide, or deny one's own imperfections, it seems only rational that one would resent imperfection in others (we tend to resent near-perfection as well, but not quite as much since it's what we aspire to). How dare you allow yourself to be seen in that bathing suit with those thighs? How dare you dress in that shabby way, or wear your hair in that outdated style? How dare you engage in any kind of physical activity when you look ridiculous in workout clothes, sweat profusely, and suck at anything requiring any exertion? How dare you be late? How dare you bounce a check, miss that phone call, fail to return those 1,400 email messages promptly? How dare you write less than perfect prose or poetry and actually think of showing it to someone? How dare you misunderstand me? How dare you fail to confront all the evil within shouting distance? How dare you ask for help or money or hospitality? How dare you not know everything you need to know about everything and everyone you might encounter before you walk out the door in the morning? How dare you drink? How dare you eat? How dare you sing? How dare you dance? How dare you love that person?

It's a dangerous business, Frodo, walking out your door! With so much judgment from ourselves, let alone our sister humans, waiting to leap on us like a mountain lion in wait each day, it's a wonder we risk getting out of bed in the morning!

There is a feeling in my body I associate with this kind of thinking: PAIN. A severe tightness in the shoulders and neck, disquiet in the belly, joint pain, headaches. The body half of the body-mind does not like this, and is entirely clear on that point. I'm trying to listen more to my body, and what my body tells me quite clearly is this: You're human. Get over it, or die trying. Because you're going to die one way or the other, you imperfect little shit.

And yet...I moved on from these thoughts, once they'd quieted my mind and spirit, to some phrases of wisdom I've been gifted with from people I've been blessed to count among my friends.

Two of my husband's favorite phrases are "I'm just not satisfied," and "Mercy." The two seem incompatible, in a way, and it is my experience of Mark that he tends to be much more merciful towards others than towards himself. He will accept a quality and quantity of work from others which he would never accept from himself. If I'm beating up on myself, rather than join the fray, he will hold me and say "mercy, mercy." But God help him when he makes a mistake with our finances, or forgets to do something he'd planned, or doesn't conduct himself perfectly in an argument or meeting. He has a much harder time receiving mercy than dispensing it.

Which isn't to say he isn't critical of others. We both are, so much so that we've given ourselves the nicknames "Statler & Waldorf," the two crochety muppet elders who used to sit in the balcony during the Muppet Show and heckle the principle players. We've made their names into a verb, as we Statler & Waldorf everything: movies, protests, meetings, what-have-you. But we Statler & Waldorf ourselves the harshest of all.

Usually one or the other of us will try to find the positives in an otherwise depressing and disappointing scenario. It's how we've gotten through our lives to this point. But at some point the words will come out of Mark's mouth, in one form or another, "I'm just not satisfied." He has very high standards for himself and the planet, and he can't condone either being so morally or physically lazy as to not keep trying to live up to them. I have the same high standards. A friend at VSC, Yoon-Soo, tried to explain to me that I should expect people will always disappoint me because I expect them to be good, rational, sensible, generous, kind, open, compassionate and fair, and, well, frankly, most of us just don't have it that together yet, yours truly included.

It seems to me, though, that we can only really deal with our dissatisfaction in a way that doesn't kill us if we come at it from a deeply compassionate, merciful place. I had this image in Meeting of the Earth cradling me like the mother she is. Yes, I accept you with all your failings. Yes, I still love you. Yes, I'll still feed you. Yes, I'll stay with you, always. And, no, my beloved child, that's not good enough. You can do better and you must.

John Gottman, marriage survival expert, says that one of the greatest ironies in life, as in marriage, is that you must accept someone exactly as they are if you are to have any hope of them ever changing into the person you want them to be. When we are afraid, or feel unloved or judged or unaccepted, it's the most natural thing in the world for us to put up defenses. And a defensiving posture weakens and exhausts us. All our energy goes into self-protection. Self-awareness and self-critique requires the strength and power to open ourselves and shine a light in. Bring able to look with a loving but honest and critical eye at ourselves requires tremendous self-love and self-confidence, and though some can do it, it is tough to manage this in the face of the judgment and criticism and blame and shaming of our nearest and dearest. Their love and mercy, however, can empower us in ways we can scarcely imagine until that light shines on us.

I know this to be true, but acting on it is SO HARD! I want everyone to accept me as human, while I demand of them perfection!

I found myself thinking then of something my friend Lauranna taught me. Lauranna is a person of tremendous wisdom who has taught me so many good things. One of these is the power of refusal, the incredible importance of the judicious use of the word no. But I'm going to save that for next time. I have some short stories to finish. Love to you all.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Next Steps Post-VSC

Well, as Samwise Gamgee says at the end of the Lord of the Rings, I'm back.

Back in Denver. Back to the ferocious, fabulous light, and the dry, dry air, and the smog, and burgeoning city, back to the activist scene and our beloved friends and family.

And, after a crazy month spent starting two jobs at 6th Avenue United Church of Christ, and moving into a bright little basement apartment in same, I'm finally getting back to writing. I'll get together tonight with Nancy Stohlman's group of novelists workshopping their writing, and have begun editing and revising some of the stories I began in Vermont. I am still waiting to hear back from Howard Norman (our visiting writer) with his critique of the story I asked him to read. Hopefully that will be forthcoming soon. Today I'm writing Hugh to check in and see how I should send him my work for him to share with his agent.

I hope to get more writing up on the blog soon, as my writerly "insight" are seeming rather drab and dull even to me. Thanks for checking in and staying with me!

Bonding with a Fellow Reno Junkie in the Burlington Airport

This post goes out to all Reno-911 junkies. You know who you are.

I think all of us were really ready to head home by today. Folks started packing up in their minds early in the week. I was struggling to fit everything--the papers, the $1 sweaters and 25 cent paperbacks I picked up at the Johnson Church Thrift store, but managed just barely to get it all in without busting up my suitcases.

Because I had a wee bit more luggage than we were asked to bring (and for any of you future VSC attendees, the vans are SMALL so take them SERIOUSLY at their luggage limit), I asked to leave on the earlier van. As a result I had lots of time to hang around the Burlington Airport with a sister writer.

First we spent a few hours reviewing our frustrations with the issues mentioned in an earlier post at VSC. My sister writer also detailed for me her experience of tremendous heterosexism at VSC, and how she just didn't feel anyone there really got her as a queer woman. Once she put a name to it, the creeping feeling I'd been developing while there--that I really don't like most straight men--finally made sense to me. She said, after this experience, she really has no interest in the future going to residencies which aren't women-only. Some of the people of color I talked to before leaving expressed a similar statement.

Once we'd finished venting, we moved on to a far more important topic: Our just-discovered and shared love of Reno: 911. For those of you unfamiliar with this Comedy Central gem, Reno is satire. I mention this because a lot of folks don't get that. It's brilliant, very smart improv satirizing the police, and racism, sexism, and heterosexism in this country. If you don't get satire, you won't get Reno. If you do, but you don't have cable, run--do not walk--to your nearest independently owned video rental joint and get the first three seasons on DVD. It's the antidote to the horrors of daily life everyone needs. Trust me.

The Free Palestine Brigade at VSC!

I have found open and caring people here who have responded with heart and mind to these stories from Palestine, and that is no small thing; it has given me courage and the will to continue. There is also a phenomenal painter and performance artist here named Kendall who worked as a human shield in Rafah (Gaza) in 2003. He has done some gorgeously in-your-face pieces, including several self-portraits of "artist as martyr"--imagine it about as radical as you can and go a step farther! Phenomenal man!

One of my new friends here, Hugh, has even asked me to send him some of my longer pieces, offering to show them to his agent. Any of you writers out there know this is a tremendous gift, and a real testament to Hugh's self-respect and lack of competitiveness (he has no reason to be jealous of me anyway...he is a phenomenally gifted and skilled writer and poet). Of course, I'm terrified of doing this, but it would be self-sabotage not to do so. I hadn't really thought my work was ready for an agent, but he seems to think so, and that is encouraging.

Hugh and I share a political sensibility about writing which he can articulate far better than I.
Finding him, or rather, him finding me, was such a gift. And I had the privilege of meeting his partner, Maynard, yesterday, who came up from their home a few hours away to hear Hugh read. They are both part of a progressive community working on issues of sustainable energy; I hope and intend that Mark and I should stay in touch with them over time.

There have been some truly wonderful and inspiring people here, and I will take cherished memories of them with me. I can never thank them enough for the support and safety they've provided me here.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Still more Thank Yous!

The contributions towards my residency continue to come in! Thanks to all of you, I have raised almost all the money I needed to fulfill my obligations to VSC without going further in debt.

A shout out and much love to Gary Anderson of Denver & Ramallah, Gabriela Flora and Jim Walsh of Denver, Remy Kachadourian of Denver, Leona Cohen of Denver, and Ben Scribner of Boston. Your love and faith means so much. Thank you!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More from VSC: Community and Its Discontents

The community of artists here is an extraordinary group, and being among them has helped me in another crucial way I did not foresee. Looking at myself through their eyes, and sharing this experience with them, I am reminded of something I've believed for years politically, but as a white woman never really experienced, or experience only in limited ways, such as among activists. It's something I've never experienced so fully as a writer: that one's identity, to be healthy and whole, cannot be just an individual thing. We are social animals, we are a communal people, and we understand who we are in the world, to a large extent, by knowing we are not alone, and by constructing our identities in part from those with whom we surround ourselves. Culture and communal experience/identity are not luxuries, but necessities.

I have been blessed with some microcosms of such community in Denver: the women who have befriended me and with whom I've shared stories and craft through my dear friend Karen Sbrockey, and, before them, my classmates at UCD, including Nancy Stohlman; and the first regular workshop group I belonged to, organized by wondrous poet-activist Laura Hershey. Nancy has continued to be a great source of writing community for me, as has wonderful Rikki Ducornet, whose support, friendship and mentorship are a large part of what got me to VSC.

But there are 75 people here, and--in fact--no one who doesn't identify as an artist. We eat every single meal together. We support each other's work. We are each other's social life, to the extent we choose to be. We share houses and studio buildings. Our little bubble is ridiculously self-contained, but sometimes one needs that space, however temporary.

It is not paradise, despite the amazing food, and people can be assholes and jerks here just like anywhere else. Not everyone respects a certain "code of honor among thieves."

And there have been infuriating issues of sexism, racism and agism here, which some of the women have been working to resolve, with seemingly little effect. The sexually predatory behavior of some of the over 50 crowd of men has been focused exclusively on the 30 year-old-and-under crowd of women. A 39 year-old fart like me, with gray hair, a wedding ring, and interest in very little besides my work, doesn't seem to interest them anymore, thank God (finally, something to love about aging!).

The younger women have been really thrown emotionally off-kilter by some of this crap, and continue to be victimized by it. Because I haven't witnessed these events, I hear about them after the fact, mostly from young of women of color, to whom I offer my listening, solidarity, and rage. They're unfortunately satisfied with the former; I keep asking what we should do together with the latter, or what they would like me to do as their ally. Sometimes it seems to help them just to have an older woman validate their experience and reassure them what's happening to them is unacceptable, can and should be fought.

They've confronted some of the people involved, and taken some of the issues to the staff; not everything has been taken to the staff, and there is little they can do if they're not aware this is going on. But the staff should be aware, because I'm sure this is not the first group in which this has happened, and there needs to be a much stronger discussion or training at the beginning of each session, and with each visiting (faculty) artist, regarding what constitutes sexist and sexual, as well as racial, assault since so many people seem so unclear on it.

I am particularly unimpressed with the lack of solidarity from younger men here. Independent of the women of color artists, I hope to have my own conversations with the staff here, and I doubt strongly that I will try to come back here unless things change dramatically. As much as I got out of it, the apparent apathy of the staff in response to these problems is really damning. These are not little problems. This should be a safe space for all people, and young women should not have to deal with sexist and sexual verbal assault, as well as young women of color dealing with racism as well.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Update from VSC

My time here at the Vermont Studio Center is coming to an end on Friday, three days from now. I'm sorry I have really not updated you, but not sorry for the reason: Every moment that I possibly could, I've written, or edited, or re-read work to figure out where to take it, and since you all sent me here to do that, I feel good that that is where my time has gone.

I have gotten a great deal done. I have finished four stories from the short story collection based on my time in Palestine, and have begun five new stories. I'm hoping to have very rough first drafts of three done before I leave. The collection of my work I intend to send all my donors by the end of February will include the completed stories, and as many of the new ones as seem fit for distribution at that point.

I spent a fair bit of time reviewing all of the half-done writing I have been working on for the past ten years. I was shocked to realize just how much there is. One of the pieces I revisited is a novel I began several years ago and then laid aside. I had convinced myself it was one of those first novels which is just grist for the mill, and not sophisticated enough to be worth finishing.

But when I re-read what I have--about one-half of a first draft--I was surprised and happy to realize that I'd put in some real effort developing story and character. I've gotten enough distance from it now, too, to be able to look more critically at the arc of the story, and the characters, where the piece wants to go and should go to speak to its best self.

The question for me always is, is my skill up to the ambition of the piece? I worry about that, but if nothing else, this residency has been very good for teaching me that I can't critique or improve a work I haven't written, and that my fear is no excuse for not doing the writing. I carry such a ridiculous fear about doing things badly that I have kept myself from doing so many things I've wanted to do in my life--or, I've intentionally done them in a half-assed way, setting myself up to fail, because I feared giving something my all and failing anyway.

My time here has not healed me from my fear, but it has reminded me that courage means showing up and doing the work even-though you're scared shitless, which I am. It has helped tremendously being surrounded by a bunch of artists who are just as scared, and many who are not.

So, this novel...I was talking with an artist here who is also a psychic and he said, "Yes, you must finish it." Helpful. It needs a great deal of work, but there's enough of a body there--and a good premise, I think--so once I complete my story collection, that one's next up on the list.

Working on the short stories has been a very intense process. I've gotten thrown a few times by other writers' stuff, manifesting itself at times as a demand that I categorize the work unequivocally ("Is this memoir or fiction? What is it?"). However, I've also gotten tremendous support for ignoring the cartesian impulse and just doing the writing, waiting for it to tell me what it is. Interestingly, these two groups of people have fallen down almost exclusively along gender lines (I'll let you guess which gender espoused which position).

Also, especially the past week or so, I get so deeply into the space I was in while in Palestine that I begin to re-traumatize myself a bit, and it is hard to pull out when, say I have to go work in the cafeteria, or sit down to a meal, or go to a reading. I remember something Gina Huett told me about playwright Eugene O'Neill, how he would go into his study to call up all his old demons and write those amazing plays, but when he came out of his study hours later he would look ten years older. In O'Neill's case, the drink may have had something to do with that (smile). But being here, I've begun to feel a sense of what she means. It's almost like I'm in a trance state, and it's very, very hard to resurface.

The last week especially, I talk to myself--in public--constantly. I'm dialoguing with characters, with ideas, with possibilities and with history. Anywhere else I'd be hauled away by men in white coats, but here no one really thinks twice--if they notice at all. We're all "crazy" here--it's refreshing.

On the positive side, though, I feel for the first time in a long while like I'm involved with Palestine again, like I'm doing what little I feel I can right now, for those I love, and those whom I do not love but also do not wish to kill, as Adrienne Rich might say. Of course I write for me, I write because I'm a writer and because I love to write--because I can't not write. I can't write assuming or even hoping, necessarily, that my stories might make a difference--that can be crippling and also poisonous to the integrity of the work, not to mention lead to painfully self-righteous prose. All I can do is try to bear witness, as authentically as possible, to what I saw and lived, which is what I promised myself I would do when I went to Palestine all those years ago, and work to produce something which hopefully does not offend one's sensibilities with its awfulness.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Incomprehensible

Incomprehensible


words, in this order:
truck full of body parts.
child without a head.
calling myself human, after this.

your survival. why we die,
breath by breath, apart.

what we are doing there. what
we aren’t doing, here. how
we rise each morning, find
our wrists in tact come twilight.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Day One

"It's a cold rain./It's a hard rain./Like the kind you find in songs.
I guess that makes me/the jerk with the heartache/here to sing about how I've been done wrong." --Ani DiFranco, "Done Wrong"

It's Day One at the Vermont Studio Center, the rain (and brief sleet of the early morning) has stopped temporarily. The sky is pregnant with more water, and I am nervous. Open the computer. Yikes--now I actually have to use the damned thing.

So here I finally am, my own studio, still smelling toxically of fresh paint (need to open the window before I pass out), new desk, new lamps, bare and clean bulletin board above my desk on which I'll put a photo of Mark once I buy some push-pins. The river outside my window is running really high. I haven't decided yet whether to move my desk under the window (currently to my right). If I do so, I'll have the sky and trees and houses on the opposite bank of the river for my constant visual companions. But because of the height of the desk, I may lose the river. I'm not sure it's worth that.

Hmm. No success opening the window. Need to ask maintenance for help. I opened my door (it opens to a hallway) instead. Doesn't help much because the whole hallway was also just painted. Good thing United lost the suitcase with all my clothes in it, otherwise I'd probably be wearing my snow boots, which reek of water protectant way worse than the paint. I'd have brain cancer by tomorrow.

I'm not avoiding writing, just warming up. My writing muscles are cold and stiff from disuse.

The community of people here is interesting and impressive. I am trying hard not to be intimidated by them. So far I've met one woman I like a lot--Yoon-Soo, of Massachusetts (originally from Korea). Like me, she's at least in her late 30s if not 40s, and she was here once before as a writer doing prose-poems about her relationship with her mother. When she asked me how I got started writing, I laughed and said, "Well, you could say it's how I survived my mother as well!"

I woke at 6 this morning, immediately turned my alarm off and went back to sleep. Woke an hour later, feeling like I could sleep all day, but wanting to get off to a good start, so I got dressed, went and had breakfast (oatmeal with peanut butter), then packed up all my stuff in my room needed for writing and hiked the very short distance to the studio building. Need to run a request over to maintenance to ask their help opening the window--I'm starting to get rather sick, and no it's not just anxiety about being alone with the page.

I started here at 8:30. I'm now going to run my maintenance request over to the Red Mill Building (our cafeteria, the offices, the lounge, and gallery) and see if maybe United brought my bag. And go get my water bottle.

I'm not avoiding my writing, I just can't breathe.

More later.