Shaping, part two

When I think of ‘shaping’ what comes to mind is sculpture.

There is obviously a type of sculpting that is additive… I picture an artist applying lumps of clay.  But the image of sculpture that I have is, well, subtractive, which is not a word that rolls off the tongue.

Somewhere, long ago I heard or read a sculptor describe the act of sculpting as finding, exposing, uncovering the figure or object that is inside the piece of wood or marble.  That is the way I have always pictured sculpture…

Finding what is hidden inside the raw material and exposing it, setting it free.

You can see where I am going with this, I suppose.  This wasn’t a conscious motivation when I felt driven to write about the childhood experience that laid down the law for me about the importance of female appearance. But it makes sense to me today. Those ‘formative’ experiences are what shaped me.

My personal experience may be more singular than other girls’, but I can state with confidence that each of us received that layer of shaping at some time in our youth.  It still assaults us from multitudinous directions. The best that I can say is that today it is possible for a girl to also receive the message that she is more than her looks, that she has intrinsic value as a human being.

But honestly, on this November day in 2016, it is too easy to yield to the belief that the tide has shifted.  The wave has pulled back from the shoreline that we have spent so long approaching.  Okay, perhaps I’ve gone a step too far with the metaphor.  My point is that the volume of regressive voices seems so much louder than the progress we have made.  Girls now can hear positive messages about their value, but the din of female value = appearance has never lost it strength.

You know, I didn’t intend to rant like this.  I guess it is the sound of another layer of anger being scraped off.  At this point, that seems to be the essence of ‘shaping’ my life.  It is about removing each lamination that has been applied over the years, in order to expose my true self.  Like a sculptor with a chisel facing a slab of marble or a beautiful piece of wood.

Chip, chip, pause; step back and look.

What is inside there to be discovered?   Me.

I’ve provided links to the eight women sculptors that I have featured here.  Their work is breathtaking and moving.  They are each amazing. 

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Shaping

My plan was to write about shaping and living my life, as in this quote from Pearl Cleage:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

But then there was something I felt that I needed to deal with first.  Then I thought that I would not post this because it is too raw and personal.  Then I said: what the heck.ike2

The year is 1959. Imagine that. It’s the final year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term as President and still very much the 50’s. No Kennedys in the White House. No race to the moon. I am only seven, so if there is activity in the movement for civil rights, I don’t know about it. I barely see the news and in first grade, we don’t discuss current affairs.walter My childhood life is circumscribed, but seems okay, if I don’t focus on certain things at home. I can watch the mouse-clubMickey Mouse Club on TV and pretend that I inhabit that heartwarming and imaginary world.

My maternal grandmother is spending a lot of time with us in NJ, because my grandfather is in Europe for his job. She refuses to fly in an airplane, so they live apart for many months at a time. I suspect that suited both of them. He was a dapper, worldly man and by all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed his traveling adventures. She did not have a domestic bone in her body, so the relief of not having to make and maintain a home for him was, I suspect, quite pronounced. I will never know how having her mother around so much was for my mother, but since they never seemed cozy close, I suspect it was a strain.

So Nanna, as we call her, is essentially living with us, for a week or so at a time. Then someone will drive her back to her apartment for a week or so and then back she will come. Because she is so often with us, she has become a patient of our family doctor. What her ailments are, I do not know. Dr. P. has been our backyard neighbor all my life, with his office on the first floor of his home. He has just recently moved his practice into a new high-rise apartment building a few blocks away.

Nanna goes to see the doctor at least once a week and I go along with her. Whatever. I don’t suspect anything the first time they weigh me, but when they begin to track my weight on a weekly basis, I am a little confused. What’s up? Neither my sister nor my brother is being measured. Then, one day, Dr. P. who is a very large man, sits me down to explain. Nanna sits across the room, nodding approvingly.

The problem is that my size is wrong and unacceptable. He passes judgment, invoking all of his power as a medical man, to tell me that I am five pounds overweight and this is a crisis. Soon, he tells me, boys will start to pay attention to girls and I will be rejected, unwanted, because of my size. This sentence of doom is passed on to me as if by an oracle. This is my future: to be unwanted, ignored, unchosen.

I’d like to say that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand these dire predictions. On some level that’s true, since I wasn’t yet thinking of a future need for boy approval. But part of the message came in loud and clear, with every weekly weigh-in and with the change in my treatment at home. I was not okay. How I looked was not okay. My appearance was what really mattered, not my behavior, not my thoughtfulness, friendliness, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence or any other aspect of me. It was all about how I looked. My value, my worth was measured by a scale and tape measure. And they were telling me that as a little girl I was failing.

So, what does this have to do with the topic of shaping? Well, this was pivotal for me, this moment and the years that followed. In the bosom of my family I was repeatedly reminded that as a girl, what was most important was that I be attractive to boys. Doctor, parents and grandparents shaped me, with their attitudes, into a girl and then a woman who was stifling her own anger at the same time she was trying to live up to their expectations.

The ability to shape shift, to change my sense of self, did not really open up until my mother died, as Cleage notes in her essay. By that time, my rage at their ignorance and cruelty had been bottled up for decades, with occasional minor eruptions. After she was gone, there was only my father, who never stopped his misogynistic rants, never imagined questioning the belief that female value is based on appearance.

Yes, there are echoes of the revolting attitude and statements of PEOTOS here. Yes, I am angry. The cutting edge of that anger has been essential in my ability to begin “shaping and living my own life.”

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Breaking the Contract

“…Break[ing] the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.”                                           Annie Lamott

Breaking the promise not to tell secrets. Breaking open the entire, so-often-toxic idea of secrets. Transparency has become a buzzword in the public sphere over the last couple of decades. Not that it has gone very well in that sphere, of course. The nature of the beast, public life, seems to include secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulations in every public arena, from politics to business. But that’s not where I am going with this commentary. I’ll leave that to others who are more knowledgeable about those worlds. Mainly white men and those who have chosen to study and infiltrate those realms… women and people of color, for instance. Although learning a bit about those machinations intrigues me, I’m definitely not willing to invest my time to gain a thorough understanding.   jersey-girl

I am and have always been, perhaps by necessity, more interested in the secrecy and lack of transparency in the private sphere. My personal analysis is that white men, white Anglo Saxon men, men in general, have shaped the rules of secrecy in our personal lives in much the same way as in the world at large. ‘Protecting their power’ and control is one way to frame it. Of course there are widespread cultural differences of degree, but I feel comfortable asserting that this dynamic exists. I was raised in a culture that was rigorously shaped by WASP men and gender roles were fairly rigid. Men did not talk about feelings and if women needed or chose to, it must be kept out of sight. Hush, hush. No good would come of airing one’s emotions, much less troubles; that was the nearly iron clad rule.

On the most tragic level, this injunction forced women to suffer rape, sexual assault and abuse in silence. The victim-blaming and victim-shaming standards held sway for centuries and despite some advances in my lifetime, still hold women in a cage of secrecy. Trauma of any kind was something to be kept private, in spite of the obvious harm this caused to generally blameless humans, even or especially children.

Here we go…

If you have already seen something I’ve written about this, please forgive the repetition. goldtreeWhen my mother gave birth to a Downs Syndrome child in 1963, my baby sister’s very existence was kept a secret. When she died a little over a year later, the (dare I say, natural) need to mourn her death was truncated**, denied by the fact that if people did not know she had lived, how was grieving to take place? I was eleven years old. The package of secrecy and denial was tightly wrapped in a final (and I do mean final) injunction: we were never to speak of her again. The rare times that a spark of self-preservation leapt from my inner self and I spoke her name or referred to her life and our loss, I was smacked down quite vigorously.

There are chronologically earlier, and equally painful, examples in my family of the denial of reality by use of secrecy and others that came later in my childhood. They continued right through to the day I confronted my 84-year-old father about his excessive alcohol use. (The Alcoholics Anonymous program states that only the addict/alcoholic can take on that label and I agree, so I do not refer to him as such.) I confronted him and told him I had taken away his car keys. I named it, his drinking, a secret that had been protected by the family code of silence for my entire life. By naming it (and taking away those keys) I took away some of his power. He was furious, cursing me and trying to hit me with his cane, telling my mother that I did not belong in the family.

Those who know me, I think, would describe me as discreet, someone who can be trusted with confidential information; a compassionate listener, a kind and sensitive person. I also love surprises and will go to great lengths to assist in the planning of happy surprises. But do not come to me with a secret that is being held in order to protect someone who has power or that has the potential to harm someone less powerful. Mainly due to my early experiences, I’ve become a vigilante against toxic secrecy, down to my very core. I will not abide by the code of silence. I am committed to breaking that dreadfully coerced promise whenever I can.

** Truncated: ORIGIN late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin truncat- ‘maimed,’ from the verb truncare

I had no idea that truncated was also a mathematical term; I always pictured a tree trunk, like this:    5b3fopm8f7gsmkq7ovdd12xm7dlsjbclzjqimcqa1nlrx5wsughsjrwdgqwhihsc2lmds128 nablopomo_badge_2016

Breaking, Shaping, Becoming

Over the last six months, I have been slowing reading and absorbing a fascinating book, edited by Meredith Maran: Why We Write About Ourselves, Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. I found the title very intriguing; the volume includes authors whose work I have read, and many I have met for the first time, but whose books I have begun to seek out. The pieces are short and filled with insights, some of which seem to be answers to questions that I hadn’t known I wanted to ask.

Perhaps because the Big Family Holidays are almost upon us, my family of origin, 1particularly my mother, has been showing up recently, in memory. Thanksgivings were pretty miserable when I was a girl and in my mind, the turkey was to blame. She could never cook it to my father’s liking, so I remember a scene every November. I once thoughtlessly suggested that he should cook it, but that crazy idea was met with unequivocal rejection, by both of them. So, the holiday continued to be thick with stress and tension; there was usually an explosion of some sort. We would go to the high school football game, but the cozy concepts of family and thankfulness just weren’t part of the day, at least not for me.

In any event, there are a few passages from Maran’s book that I want to share. The first comes from Pearl Cleage, a prolific novelist, playwright, poet and memoirist. She is an author I am delighted to have ‘met’ and I encourage you to take a look at her work. She says:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

It has been more than eight years since my mother died and the impact of her death on my life has trickled into my existence, a little at a time. Maybe seeping is a better word, because it seems that I don’t notice a shift until it is well underway. I’ve gotten used to that sensation and in fact quite comfortable with it. I don’t need dramatic epiphanies. I will settle for what my dear friend P calls epiphanettes; a lovely and useful concept.

The well-known and popular writer Annie Lamott is the source of the next two quotes:

I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be.

blue-leavesOh my, yes. The constricting suit of clothes, (straitjacket or suit of armor?) that I agreed to wear, the girl and woman who I agreed to be, the script I numbly read, the denial of who I was born to be… That feeling of enforced agreement and the loss of authentic self casts its shadow on so many of my youthful memories. And now, that gift, that lift, that comes when someone offers the words, simple words, to describe an internal emotional state that has always seemed inexplicable. Lamott goes on to say:

With memoirs, you break the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.

Breaking the contractual agreement “… not to ever, ever tell the truth…”, “…shaping and living my own life…” and “becoming who [I was] born to be…”.

Yep, that’s the story I’m living and writing.    nablopomo_badge_2016

Attention. Distraction.

I guess I’ve come back around to choice and focus. There is the ‘big picture’ and there are hortonhearsawhobookcoverthe details. Our small lives, in terms of the Cosmos (a bunch of Whos in Whoville, I’d say, with millions of new galaxies recently ‘discovered’) and the big world wrapped around me.

Attending to details is a fairly clear description of my daily life. I notice things, those that are awry, like the placement of a rug or particular object in the house and also the quiet details of the way a cat holds its paw when it sleeps or a leaf dangles on a tree branch outside my window. Perhaps this is another benefit of being a slow person, but I cannot entirely dismiss the OCD element of needing things to be a certain way. I crave and need routine, regularity and the illusion of control. Not the healthiest of psychological profiles and also not the worst. Given a choice, I will stay as I am, which in effect proves the point.

Is it okay to be distracted by the thickness of the carpet of fallen leaves in the yard? Is it okay to fight against the distraction of the many unkindnesses unfurling around me? Paying attention (ah, I return, unwittingly, to the metaphorical link between money and time…), paying attention is an active choice and distraction happens to me. Is that true?

Buddhist philosophy would have me pay attention to the annoyance of distraction. To sit with it and the feelings that have been provoked… Like the drone of leaf blowers from a neighboring yard that are pushing headache buttons at my temples.

Yes, attention and distraction take place in my body, nestling into familiar locations, maybe mostly into my head or my heart? When I visually sink into that thickness of fallen leaves or dangle from the twig beside that fluttering red leaf, something good happens in my body. It may be the release of some hormonal chemical.

When I attend to the mechanical whine of those leaf blowers, some other physical surge happens, my muscles tense (which may be a cause or an effect of the chemicals being released) and my temper becomes short. Okay, now there is a fascinating expression: rakeshort-tempered. What the heck is the opposite, long-tempered? I know, its probably called ‘patience’, but is the implication that our temper (a contraction of temperament, perhaps?) is always present? Is the fuse always waiting to be ignited and the idea of having a short fuse describes… what?

Attention and distraction. I’m not sure if what I am writing, through the incessant sound of those leaf blowers, is articulate. I recall the scratching, ‘scritching’ and rhythmic sound of leaf raking from the days when raking was the only way to remove leaves from the grass. The rakes had metal tines (tines, like a fork?) and when used on a hard surface, sidewalk or driveway, there was a distinctive scraping sound. But even on the lawn, there was a delicious rustling sound.

And that was if you were only listening to the raking. When you were the raker, there was a surround sound/sensation effect. The smell of dried leaves is potent and you were drenched in it. Your arms ached after a while, reaching time after time to pull another swath of leaves. And there was the choice of technique… to build piles, to create rows. Usually the weather was chill and unless you wore well-padded gloves, nablopomo_badge_2016blisters were almost inevitable.

Words form the thread

Words form the thread on which we string our experiences. – Aldous Huxley

Words are the thread, form the thread. The image resonates for me, gives me pleasure, so I will explore it a bit. Words are sometimes used as weapons; words sometimes are an effort to reach, connect and communicate. They can hurt and they can soothe, even sometimes heal. They are the thread on which we string our experiences.  cherrytree

I see a clothesline, with experiences clipped on it, dancing in the breeze. Early experiences, represented by clothes, may have faded a bit, but they are also softened and somehow timeless. They sway in the glow of memory, even the difficult experiences. Adolescent happenings look a little stiff and outdated. The self-assurance of those choices, represented by outfits that were once so trendy and essential, now hang stiffly on the line, overly starched.

The length of the clothesline varies, of course, but for myself I see the adventures quite clearly, each marked by an almost iconic item. Flowing, full length skirts from the California years, followed by denim overalls worn while working as a baker and cook. Shall I go on? Where am I headed with this metaphor? Does it go somewhere? Does it need to?

Words form the thread on which we string our experiences… Yes. And words also drift like falling leaves or passing clouds. They offer pleasure in sound, in the mind’s ear. The recent loss of poet/singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen, remind me that when joined with music, the beauty of words is exquisitely amplified.

The opportunity to honestly express thoughts and emotions, using words, can be a challenge. It is also a gift. And so, today, I will look upon this blogging experience with gratitude. Were it not for the World Wide Web and NaBloPoMo, all of my words would be hidden tightly in notebooks or on crumbling bits of paper in that bottom desk drawer.

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Crows

I’ve always had an easier time writing out my thoughts and feelings than speaking them. I feel uncertain and fearful of being challenged if I speak. Even with close friends, I have the habit of self-censoring, because I somehow believe that my perceptions are wrong or will be dismissed.

I feel safer writing. I suppose that’s why I don’t share most of what I write, never have. Don’t want to be rejected for my thoughts and feelings. I fear the harshness when people express their disagreement. Truly harsh, or perceived as harsh by me? It matters not, it’s how I feel, my experience of such moments.

So, writing a blog post everyday during NaBloPoMo, ditdoteven with just a handful of readers, is a challenging task. As trivial as my post may be, I am putting my words out there.  Reflecting on yesterday’s self-doubting post, I know that some of my FLS project paralysis is rooted in this fear that nothing I have to say has merit. I know that I can string words together nicely, which I think is a result of being an avid reader all my life, but the validity of what I have to say is eternally in question.

Reading the newspaper this morning, I found that I am reflexively refusing to read any of the articles about GOP plans for the future, the progressive protests again those plans or analysis of the American electorate. I just won’t look at them. I don’t need or want that information in my brain right now. The same goes for the endless FB posts, shared by people who are angry, looking for or offering some form of hope or just generally struggling with the change that is upon us.

But I did read a piece about the Comics Come Home event last night at the TD Garden. A white, male comic made jokes about raping women on the cobblestone streets of Boston and tossed out anti-Semitic comments. And people laughed.  Meanwhile, comedienne Wanda Sykes, a black lesbian, was booed for her commentary on the election. Here’s a link to the Globe article. One thing that I find interesting about the coverage is that there is video of Sykes, but none of DiPaola’s routine is included. What’s up with that?

I don’t want to talk about the damn election, but it creeps in and provokes rage and sadness. I don’t want to give up my energy, my life force, to this negativity. I want to hoard my time and my fire and use it creatively.  Time is of the essence.

After I wrote that, I had to look up the expression. It comes from contract law. Oh, boring. The Urban Dictionary defines it as meaning: Time is the most important thing in the world. I’m not sure about that.

Crows. I heard crows this morning and I felt space open up around me, evoking the same sensation, in a way, as the stones I wrote about the other day. As a child, I heard crows in the morning while at the farm in Vermont. It was so quiet there and then I would hear the crows. My body and heart still respond to their cries with a rush of those childhood feelings of safety and spaciousness. I know that many people consider them ‘a bad omen’, but for me those cawing cries offer a promise of serenity. Funny, is it not?    nablopomo_badge_2016

Wandering

Searching for something to write about for the blog today, I scrolled futilely through dozens of old pieces of writing. I thought ‘maybe I can just recycle something or maybe I’ll be ‘inspired’… But nothing pops for me. Too many pieces that are examinations of past miseries and I want to be done with that stuff, in the same way I do not want to dwell on the results of the election. Gotta move on somehow.    trails1

Another batch of the old writing, which I find more interesting, relates to my long-standing project of collecting Food Life Stories. I must say that ‘long-standing’ is an apt description, because it seems that the endeavor has been standing still for months. Months which add up to years.

A conversation with friends at supper last night rekindled my excitement about conducting the interviews and gathering these stories. But I still don’t know how I can use the raw, first person data I’ve accumulated.      I need a writing coach!         Wait, I am a writing coach. Physician, heal thyself.

I think I’ve returned to the topic of time. I’ve already acknowledged that managing money was never a strength of mine.   Many years spent reading what writers have to say about writing has underscored the fact that it takes commitment and sacrifice to write. I have echoed this simple fact endlessly during four decades of teaching writing and coaching writers. To cop a line from the Declaration of Independence… I hold this truth to be self-evident…

Perhaps I am stuck on the sacrifice, as much as the commitment. To give up time with friends and family seems impossible. To deny my desires to read, cook, garden, nap or (now) draw can seem equally difficult. So, once again I conclude that I am not really a writer. And I trash myself and my aspirations.

Yeah, how’s that working out for you, CJ?        nablopomo_badge_2016

Well, its not.

Stepping Stones

Stones are quiet.  I love stones, an affection I have always linked to the contented hours I spent as a girl sitting atop an old stone wall in Vermont.  There is safety in stones.  I trust stones.

Almost fifteen years ago, as I turned fifty, I decided that I wanted to put a small Zen garden in the back corner of our yard, behind my vegetable patch.  The unmistakable irony is thatpath-to-tree1 the commuter rail trains pass by about twenty feet away.  Nonetheless, that was my plan, but the dream remained a dream.  Until this week, when the stones arrived and the work began…

The path starts at the entrance to my redesigned vegetable garden.  (Elevated beds have made gardening a joy once again.)  The path will continue up into the corner, leading eventually to a small stone bench beside the little weeping cherry tree, planted about ten years ago.  There will be three standing stones,  bamboo (in above ground boxes, I’ve heard the cautions about bamboo spread), other plantings and eventually a small statue.

The dream lives on and dreams take time to manifest.  So, something good did happen this week.  Here are a couple photos taken by my darling daughter (whose talented arborist boyfriend is installing the stones…)

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Failing?

First of all, I want to thank each of the folks who have offered comments on my recent NaBloPoMo posts. I wish that I were responding personally each time, but the state of my life these past two weeks has made it a huge challenge to get a post written each day. So please know that I really appreciate the fact that you read my words and take the time to comment.

Last year, Pema Chodron published a small book that contains the text of a commencement speech she gave at Naropa University in 2014. This volume was not onewave_304x400 of the ones that I pulled off of the shelf yesterday and I think I know the reason why. The title, perhaps, cut too close to the bone, that is, it seemed to name the emotion I was channeling, for myself, for women, for the progressive movement in this country.

The title is fail, fail again, fail better: wise advice for leaning into the unknown. Failing. Such an icky, defeating and defeated word. In my heart of hearts, beneath the all the heartsick feelings, I know that we did not fail. Still, I could not face that book title yesterday. After a little more sleep, some work in the garden, a visit from the little ones in my life (one and two-years-old) and a previously scheduled visit with my doctor of 35 years, I’m less dazed and more present today.

So, here is the wisdom that I found when I took fail, fail again, fail better from the shelf and opened it. The lesson really resonates for me, because the metaphor is something I have experienced physically, more than once. Maybe you have also.

This advice came to Pema from her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This story was his response when she said: “I have hit the bottom. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.”

It seems to me that many of us felt like we had ‘hit the bottom’ this past week. He shared this story with Pema, she shared the story with the graduating students that day and now I am passing it on to you.

“Well,” he said, “it’s a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there and you have a choice. You can either lie there or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea.”

‘So, basically, you stand up, because the “lying there” choice equals dying. Metaphorically, lying there is what a lot of us choose to do at that point. But you can choose to stand up and start walking, and after a while another big wave comes and knocks you down. You find yourself at the bottom of the ocean with sand in your nose and sand in your mouth, and again you have the choice to lie there or to stand up and start walking forward.’

“So the waves keep coming,” he said. And you keep cultivating your courage and bravery and sense of humor to relate to this situation of the waves, and you keep getting up and going forward.”

‘This was his advice to me. Trungpa then said, “After a while, it will begin to seem to you that the waves are getting smaller and smaller. And they won’t knock you over anymore.” That is good life advice.’

I hope to carry this advice with me going forward, as we must.

Inshallah. Ojalá. Blessed be.

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The image of the Hokusai’s Great Wave has always been one of my favorites.