Friday, January 29, 2010

Why are you so terribly disappointing?

Fortunately, this made me laugh at myself. Hard

Thanks to Dooce for tweeting. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What do I win at the end of it?

Ordinarily, I am a fan of Judith Butler:

JUDITH BUTLER is influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, George Herbert Mead, etc.), structural anthropologists (Claude Levì-Strauss, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, etc.) and speech-act theory (particularly the work of John Searle) in her understanding of the "performativity" of our identities. All of these theories explore the ways that social reality is not a given but is continually created as an illusion "through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign" ("Performative" 270). 
Generally speaking, I am a fan of creating my own reality. I like the idea that observation and performance are both informative and and persuasive. Most distinctly, I like the idea that even if I am not happy, I can sort of perform or fake my way into it.

I'm having a bit of a problem with that this winter. And I think that is okay. Several years ago, a friend was disturbed by the fact that I am pretty cheerful by nature. So, when she knew for an absolute fact that things were shitty in my life, and yet I persisted in being cheerful, one day she barked, "You don't always have to put on a happy face for me."

Like 1) I was doing it for her and
        2) I was doing it disingenuously.

I immediately apologized because she had barked at me, but since that time, I have come to recognize that my default setting is: generally a little depressed, but also generally cheerful. Yes, both at the same time. I get angry, sure, but it's usually short lived.

However, this January has been particularly oppressive (why blame January? Why not blame life? During the past few weeks, which are just coincidentally laid in January, things have been particularly oppressive).

I'm tired. I'm too tired to mend fences or engage in angry and heated debates that may ultimately result in stronger relationships. I know that I have pissed people off because their desire to engage with me has not coincided with my decision to engage back. It's just easier to ignore a lot of things right now and go watch House. Even though, I tend to feel distinctly guilty when I watch television these days, and that kind of sucks. Last night, I made myself do it anyway, and three hours later, I was feeling better.

During my work days, I continually put out little work fires, working on this deadline and that. I haven't run since... Sunday? Was it Sunday? Probably. What the hell did I do Monday? Did I run? I don't remember, but maybe. Or maybe I didn't. I don't think so-- when I run alone, I take music, and I am pretty sure my last run was with Carol, and we did a shorty and there was no music.

The cold and my schedule with the kids this week have both been oppressive with regard to running. Instead of having a chunk of time in the afternoon both to accomplish a work project and then to run, I have been squeezing in work in between my own personal taxi service. It happens.

Today, I could go running. Got one work project done already, and the kids are with their dad until Monday. However, this morning when I took the kids to school, it went from 8 degrees F to 7. It's probably warmer now. It's sunny. I could use the Vitamin D. But my knee hurts for some reason I can't identify (I certainly haven't taxed it this week), and rather than feeling empowered by the idea of running, I feel overwhelmed and cold. I can run when I am angry. I cannot run when I am on the verge of tears-- honestly, it fucks with my breathing more than any cigarettes I could smoke.

It's not just the cold. It's also just a pervasive sense of weariness this week. I am not sure that running would energize me at this point so much as break me down. I feel like I have to save every little scrap of energy just to get through each day. Yesterday, I had a headache, so I went to lie down before dinner. I asked the kids to get me up by 6pm. Tommy came in and told me to wake up, and I saw that it was 6:07, but my brain interpreted it as a.m. instead. I patted the bed next to me and said, "Where's Dereck?"

Tommy said, "I don't know," and I thought, "What do you mean you don't know? Isn't he in the house?"

No, he wasn't. He was at class, but again, I thought it was morning. I realized something was up at about two steps out of bed because I was wearing clothing. However, instead of cluing me in, it just confused me further. I made it all the way to the kitchen before I realized that I had simply taken a nap rather than sleeping for an entire night.

I really wanted to crawl back into bed and sleep the entire night, but I did not.

How do we get through these days? Ultimately, no matter what is going on, the days have the same size and shape. There are 24 hours. There is a waking period and a sleeping period. I drink coffee. I sit with my computer. I talk with my kids, I laugh, I adore them, I pet and feed my animals. I go to the grocery store. The oldest boy has contact lenses. The youngest is almost my height. Time is passing, and I mark it with these instances and occasions. I am in the final, home stretch of parenting children. Calling them children is mostly for my benefit, as they are surely, now, all young men. They are thinking and talking about what they want to be when they grow up, and I can see what they will be like, who they will become. I couldn't see these young men in my babies-- I couldn't fathom it. But I can still look at these gigantic, loping young creatures who sprout acne and facial hair and deep voices and see the babies clearly. Like it was yesterday that I held them in my arms all day, gazing and gazing at them. I memorized them. Now, they move a little too quickly for that, but they still stop for hugs and kisses, a hair ruffling (them ruffling mine as often as not), a kind word. There is lots and lots of love.

But sometimes I am not sure how I do manage to get through these days with all of the negative forces compressing me and weighing me down. I feel as though I am sort of sleepwalking through it all, and dammit, I don't have time for this. The children are growing. The children are growing! And I don't want to miss it. So, I have to stay fully engaged and present in my life, and so much of it sucks right now that being engaged and present means leaking a lot from the eyes. Then it gets cold and my face chaps, and well.

"Why do you worry so/when none of us is spared?"-- Jill Bialosky.

I know I'm complaining about it here a lot. But earlier this week, I heard this: "When someone lacerates you, you bleed. It's no different when the lacerations are emotional. These things *should* hurt you. It's a healthy response to being wounded. So, you will bleed. You will bleed until you clot."

So here I am, bleeding all over you.

Tonight, there is a poetry slam to raise money for Haiti. I am going. I adore poetry slams. Especially the ones that Kasey has been running this year. We fully expect it to be packed. Standing room only. I don't have a particular need to perform or compete tonight. I'll bring some poems, but I don't have new slam materials. This slam is for a distinctly good purpose, and it's more important to show up than to produce new work for it. I have new poetry--- but it's not slam poetry. It may be more of an open mic sort of affair anyway. We will see. I am more interested in the cheap margaritas, frankly.

But if I do read, I may read this one. I haven't performed it for this particular crowd yet, and it seems somehow appropriate for what I'm experiencing right now.

Karaoke by Wendy

All of our friends who don’t go
laugh at us

Because we go to karaoke
Every week, with great precision.

Oh, it’s Tuesday night they say
Are you going to karaoke?

My friend Kathy in Minneapolis
Calls it “Ka-row-kee”

And Jamie D’Agostino says
None of us know how to spell it.


Young man, there's no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.

All kinds of people go to karaoke:
College students, townies, medical students, Truman faculty, alcoholics, drug addicts, cancer patients, criminals
But the people we sit with are the theatre crowd.

I was so nervous around them
For the first three years

That whenever I went up to sing
My left leg shook under my clothes.

This karaoke is real karaoke. This karaoke is good karaoke.
Those theatre people? They really know how to sing.

Strummin my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song

I started going to the Golden Spike in graduate school,
Tucking my kids into bed, saying hi to the sitter
And high-tailing it to the bar.

Karaoke by Wendy.

Karaoke was packed with people every week
But then it shut down
Due to “lack of business.”

God took his revenge by striking the building with lightning.
It went up in flames like a match striking a house of playing cards.

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again.

During the past six years, we have: Left husbands, met new guys, gone to karaoke; gotten divorced; fought for custody, fought in Iraq, gotten cancer, gotten fired, gotten hired, had surgeries, gotten married, quit smoking, had babies, lost parents, lost babies, found love, graduated, started smoking, watched 9-Eleven; bought houses, buried friends, had birthdays, gone to karaoke;
During the past six years, we have laughed and cried; held crying friends in the bathroom; sung and danced; gotten drunk; flirted with college boys; puked our guts out; drunk shots; drunk gallons of cheap beer, smoked cartons of cigarettes, eaten truckloads of popcorn, and we are still singing at karaoke.

“When my soul was in the lost-and-found
You came along to claim it
I didn't know just what was wrong with me
Till your kiss helped me name it
Now I'm no longer doubtful of what I'm living for
And if I make you happy I don't need to do more”

We scour the Internet for new songs. Our karaoke friends are our truest friends because we sit there, week after week, life after life. Karaoke is our church, and our songs are our prayers, our songs are our laments, our songs are our anger and sorrows, our joys and our triumphs. Karaoke teaches us how fine pushing a rock up a hill can be.

Karaoke isn’t something you talk about or think about or muse about. Karaoke isn’t meta, and this poem doesn’t really exist, because in the end, there is only karaoke, the brief moments that you hold the words and music in your mouth, taking your turn on the stage. And somehow karaoke makes us whole, it somehow keeps us from shattering or falling to pieces or staying hunched in bed under piles of blankets that hide our heads.

Thank you for the music
The songs we’re singing

Because no matter what else we are doing, whether we are laughing or crying, holding steady or dying, we pick ourselves up every week and we drag ourselves to the bar, and we sit with our friends and our beer, and we sing.

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, were all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright

The really sad thing is that I haven't been to karaoke for a long, long time. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whine to go with my cheese.

The sun is actually shining today. As you can't go anywhere in this town without seeing someone you know, I exchanged polite chitchat at the eye doctor about the weather. We talked about how sad it is that it's a banner day in a Kirksville winter when there is sunlight.

This is going to be the most boring blog post ever. I *did* have a fairly boring day yesterday, up to a point, but the reason it's going to be boring is one of the most frustrating things to me as both a person and a writer: There are things I just can't blog about-- and there are things I just won't blog about.

One of the things I was taught in college (or, directly after college, to be more precise) is that writers should be honest. Anne Lamott directs readers of Bird by Bird to write the truth, to write for revenge, not to hold back from writing things just because the truth will hurt someone else.

However, I have noticed that she has never identified or given any details about the father of her child (or, if she has, it's because her child is now an adult) and that there are other privacy details she protects. So, is she a hypocrite, or is there a tacit "except" in the advice to young writers to write the truth. We are supposed to write the truth, we are supposed to write what we know.

I guess to some extent, I view plunging ahead and writing truths even if they will hurt someone else as melodramatic rather than noble. Other writers don't get to determine whether or not I am an artist or a true writer based on these decisions I make for my life. Even when I decide that there are more important elements of my life than these fucking symbols I'm scrawling all over the place. Ultimately, my writing serves no purpose. I mean, even if my writing survived for centuries like Shakespeare's, I wouldn't know it and wouldn't care. Making choices that deliberately undermine myself or deliberately hurt others in the name of "honesty" and "choice" will hurt me here and hurt me now. I will know it, and I will care.

It so happens that I have a lot of writerly friends, and the other day, this Facebook status caught my eye:

Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf! Writers, heed her: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery."

Well, if it's not a Headmaster or professor to whom I am deferring my vision, does that make it OK? 

I suppose the act of choosing not to write things down anywhere at any time is perhaps not the same as dishonesty, though sometimes it feels like it is. I envy writers who can write down anything, any thought in their heads, without fear of the consequences I fear. 

One bad choice. I made one bad, stupid choice (okay, I have made many, and do so all the time). But seriously, what is the statute of limitations? How many years will I continue to be punished for that choice? Of course, the fact that I have to edit myself may not seem like the worst consequence there ever was-- unless you are also a writer. 

And, perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that this is NOT the only negative consequence. 

Not by a mile. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Sighs of Fireflies in the Garden

What are the sounds of longing and regret?
Who sees the lovers who will only be friends?

The last embrace of evening,
smells of musk and cigarettes,
goodbye at the gate,
his kiss at her cheek--

one part serenade and one


I know the script.

You say how are you
And I say fine
You say how are you
And I say fine

I’m fine, she’s fine, we’re all fine
I think we’re fine

But before I can answer
my mouth cracks open and my throat is
screaming and screaming and screaming


The sunwax remnants of the afternoon
Pale yellow sky

You sitting
Legs crossed on your
Twin bed
Reading of how he
stole bodies at night
And cut them open to look at them.

We didn’t think
Of the smells or bugs
Steam rising from a fresh intestine
In the cold graveyard of a
Snowy night

How romantic, how awful
Night after night with his knife

Scrape scrape scrape
Blade on bone

Monday, January 25, 2010

Living Room

She spreads herself thinly, pat of butter
bony on the couch
her favorite afghan coming unspooled.

There is space she will never take up again.
Her ankles are so small,
sharp edges in calf-length hose
she barely sees them anymore.

She sleeps on the couch after
lunch. Cup of tea, tomato
soup, this is it. She is
older than her teeth.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Laying Bare the Essentials

When I taught Freshman comp (Writing as Critical Thinking, or WACT (Whacked)), I tormented my students with Noam Chomsky. The students hate Chomsky because he argues that the very things they enjoy most (sports, for instance) are sort of designed to breed apathy about what matters most in life. However, what Chomsky has to say cannot be reduced to a sound bite, which makes him unpopular in popular media (haha, the juxtaposition of those words strikes me as very funny).

I argue that most of the essential conversations in life cannot be boiled down easily. And that is the justification I am using for what is going to be, I promise, a monumental blog post. It is in part a continuation of many conversations I have been having with many people lately. What sent me opening my blog post page in a scurry lest I forget what I have not yet thought before I write it was a post I read in my Google Reader (which I just learned how to use).

I found out last week (can you tell it was terrible? It seems it was terrible for... everyone. We have at least that shared human experience) that a friend of mine has a blog. So, I subscribed to it, and was amazed this morning when I read a post that was actually a response to a conversation she and I had had last week, late one night with two other friends who were having an equally awful week, over glasses of leftover wine from my cupboard. I am the friend, as you will see below from her post, who asked whether she can paint when she is depressed, and whether painting gets her out of her head.

This woman is an amazing painter, truly gifted, and I am somewhat annoyed to realize that she is an equally talented writer, which I know she will take as the compliment it is intended. It doesn't help that she is only 21 years old, but I know a LOT of amazing 21 year olds. It happens in a college town.

I am going to paste her entire blog post here (with a link), so you will have the context for it. I'd rather let her words speak than try to boil them down into a soundbite. And then, I will muddle through my own response, which corresponds also to what I have been reading and thinking about lately.

So, go grab a cup of joe or a glass of wine and strap yourself in. This is going to be a tome.

I came across this statement while researching for my thesis paper, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind:
“From a postmodern perspective landscape seems less like a palimpsest whose “real” or “authentic” meanings can somehow be recovered  with the correct techniques, theories or ideologies than a flickering text displayed on a word processor screen whose meaning can be created, extended, altered, elaborated and finally obliterated by the merest touch of a button.” (Olwig, Kenneth R. “Restoring the Substantive Nature of Landscape.”)

Ever since the beginning of the semester when one of my professors spoke casually in class about how a landscape, while beautiful, says nothing about contemporary human life, I’ve been scrambling together a defense of what I do.
The idea of a landscape that is no longer a central organizing component of geographical study because it no longer describes a physical expanse of land but is, instead, a mental and verbal construct is, frankly, terrifying. It takes no great effort to imagine the environmental consequences of thinking of landscape this way, but what concerns me most are its humanistic implications. When even the humanities have turned from reality and fled to the confined room of the mind, this final stronghold of the real, the physical earth, has (if you buy into Baudrillard) evaporated in our wake.
This makes sense.
I’ve been thinking a lot, given recent personal drama, about the causes of our collective depression (easily a national epidemic). A friend asked me recently if I have trouble painting when I’m feeling blue. I explained that it’s the opposite; when I’m feeling blue, I need to paint. Her next question reverberated with me because it brushes against this nagging dissatisfaction I’ve felt with the way that we live: 
“Does it get you out of your head?”
As far as the average American is concerned, the landscape has ceased to exist. We do not live on the land. We hover somewhere above it, keeping it out at all costs. We no longer feel the seasons or experience true darkness. We go to work and school in buildings whose conditions are centrally controlled in cities miles away. We eat food that is no more connected to the natural world than are laboratory rats. When even our communities are virtual, we have no local culture, no sense of place. We send our complaints into the unresponsive darkness of a virtual world which cannot comfort. Physically and spiritually homeless,  we retreat to the solitude of our minds. We are prisoners of a new landscape of our own artifice, which, desperate to shut out what threatened our mortality, has made us not immortal but inhuman.
If a landscape says nothing about contemporary human life, it is because contemporary human life has been rendered inhuman by our own postmodern efforts to set values of rationality, abstraction and progress against culture, nature, poetry and tradition, to construct a new reality devoid of that which cannot be rationally explained. We cannot “get out of our heads” because, like it or not, we live there.
I was won over by my current method of painting after an eight-day excursion to Venice during my study abroad. During my time there, I woke up before dawn every day, shoved my supplies and easel into a canvas knapsack, and hiked out into the city, looking for a place to paint the sunrise. I spent whole days intentionally losing myself inside Venice’s labyrinth, wandering back to the hotel after dusk with three or four paintings and falling, exhausted, into bed. I can remember drinking wine with friends along the Giodecca, waiting for the light to change, and when it did — when the water turned a deep turquoise that, we knew, stays less than half an hour before turning to black — we ran to our easels in such a hurry that I knocked over my palate and shattered a jar of turpentine.
I have always made a hobby of art-making.  In Venice, for the first time, painting didn’t just mean putting a brush to canvas. It meant putting on your pants, brushing your teeth and stepping out the door each morning with an adoration for the exterior world and a mindful receptiveness to the present.
I paint landscapes because I have lived too long in the dark, constricted room of my own mind. I paint the way that I do because, like many, I’m tired of feeling disconnected and undead. Recognizing the arguments against me, I still believe in the substantial nature of a landscape which not only includes but is, in part, defined by  human interaction.
I can’t imagine that the solution to our collective unhappiness could be more of the same, and I advocate a return to the notion of the artist as poet. Art, after all, has the unique ability to achieve what other disciplines cannot:
“It is not the least, and is, perhaps, the peculiar value of art, that it is the medium in which man and landscape, form and world, meet and find one another. In actuality they live beside one another, scarcely knowing aught of one another, and in the picture, the piece of architecture, the symphony, in a word, in art, they seem to come together in a higher prophetic truth, to rely upon one another, and it is as if, by completing one another, they become that perfect unity, which is the very essence of a work of art. From this point of view the theme and purpose of all art would seem to lie in the reconciliation of the Individual and the All.” (Rilke)

This morning, even before I read the post above, I was thinking about what I have been reading lately. Last night, I had a girl date with my friend Melissa. We have been trying to get together for a drink for about six months, and last night, without much prior planning, things came together. We went to Il Spazio and she drank tea and I had decaf (oh, we are not that responsible-- we'll go out for a proper drink one of these days, but children were being transported last night) and shared a plate of portabello mushroom fries, and then ended up at the bookstore. (Do I have to tell anyone in Kirksville which bookstore that is? No? I mean, it's not like there are options. Sad, right?). [In the entire bookstore, we found exactly ONE book by Ursula Le Guin.]

We were talking about books, of course, and I told her that lately, I have been revisiting a group of books by Gary Paulsen. These books are definitely juvenile fiction, which I mention only because I started re-reading them around Thanksgiving after getting Tommy started on them (which coincided with the gift of his first hatchet). And these books are marvelous. I should specify that I have been concentrating specifically on the stories of a young boy named Brian. He survives a plane crash into the Canadian woods after the pilot of his small plane dies of a heart attack mid-flight. Brian finds himself deep in the wilderness with only the clothes on his back and the hatchet his mother has given him. He is 13 years old. 

The book Hatchet tells the story of how Brian learned to live. Not even just to survive in the wilderness alone for 54 days, but how to live mindfully and how to think. And how to be part of the world around him. In order to survive the wilderness, he must become part of it. I have had a particular need to read about survival lately, perhaps in response to feeling that I need tools to survive my own life. But I also share my young friend's desire, described above, to become more fully part of the planet. We tell the kids that we go and stay in remote cabins in the wilderness without running water or electricity each year because we need to remind ourselves how to survive without internet, computers, electricity, and toilets. 

My children spend a lot of time preparing for zombie attacks, and I admit that I encourage this simply because I think it's important to think of what we would do, how we would survive, without the creature comforts upon which we depend daily. I think I have a fear of it all suddenly vanishing and leaving us helpless. And I do not like to be or feel helpless. Not emotionally, not physically. 

I have been talking lately about the fact that maybe I should learn to have some boundaries, because I'm not good at establishing boundaries between me and... anyone. However, it dawned on me this week that I do have a boundary, and it's a pretty damn big one. I tend to take an approach to generosity and giving as almost a pre-emptive strike. I will give to you, and I will distract you so that you are not even really aware that I will never let you give back to me. I will take the role of giver, because if I take, then I have to let you in. I have to become vulnerable to you. And that might mean that I need you or even miss you when you're gone. But since I need to be able to escape at any time to protect myself, it's just easier and better for everyone (haha, or just me) if I am the giver. Then, you might miss me when I am gone, but I will be fine. I will take my sunshine away. 

I mentioned this to the fabulous Kathy Howe this week, and she understood very well because she does the same thing. She wrote to me, " It is a terribly ISOLATING habit.  There are people worthy of that trust from us and there are people that want to be there for us.  We need to allow us to trust those people." 

She also wrote, in another email, "... just remember this: the people you spend time with are an extension of you.  Choose wisely."

Kathy and I both know firsthand what it is like to choose poorly. And I think my neurotic need for independence now stems directly from my experience being very dependent for years in my life, another life. I haven't exactly achieved a balance. I have just swung the pendulum from one extreme to the other. 

I mention these things because I think my delving into books in which someone is alone with only the wilderness to survive against represents what I'd like to do. I am running away in my mind, if not in actuality. As my friend said in her post above
If a landscape says nothing about contemporary human life, it is because contemporary human life has been rendered inhuman by our own postmodern efforts to set values of rationality, abstraction and progress against culture, nature, poetry and tradition, to construct a new reality devoid of that which cannot be rationally explained. We cannot “get out of our heads” because, like it or not, we live there.
Wow. Yes. It is ironic that a way out of my head might involve greater physical isolation than I currently enjoy. And I would really like to get out of my head and start living in the world. I want to learn how to do this. What she did not mention about our conversation was that I suggested that I should begin painting landscapes and she agreed with me-- and I don't think that either of us knew in that moment about the other that neither one of us was kidding. 

I recognize my needs to escape when I go running, and I am literally running away. Of course, I run in a wide, sweeping loop, so I never get anywhere at all. I am always back where I started. To some extent, though, that's okay. It's the journey, not the destination and all that. But I have recognized for about a solid year and a half (since Karl died) a need deep inside myself to take a month and go to an isolated cabin and be ALONE. That is a tall order when you have a husband, three kids, and a job. So, I think I am always kind of frantically looking for a substitute. I retreat further into my head because it's the only way to be alone, when what I really need to be doing is being physically alone and getting OUT of my head. 

My friend and I haven't really spoken about the fact that this year we have both been on the same journey to return to the basics: We now buy our meat exclusively from local producers who bring it directly to hour house. We do the same with eggs, and feel bad about not doing so with milk, but we cannot afford to spend $6 a gallon at the rate we drink milk in this house. We concentrate on buying locally grown and produced fruits and vegetables when possible, and we have really moved from buying processed foods that have multiple ingredients to foods that have 7 or less. We make a lot of things from scratch. I never thought I would ever graduate from Ragu, but now I wouldn't touch it. I am not yet canning my own tomatoes, but you won't find white flour at my house, and you will often find homemade bread or sweet potato biscuits or red beans and rice or jambalaya or organic salads with brown rice on it. Another friend recently asked how I was doing in my desire to change our family's eating habits, and I said, "I don't even think about it anymore. We just do it."

We aren't perfect. We do have processed snacks for Christian-- but children with diabetes need a LOT of carbohydrates in very specific quantities, and frankly, if I did all of the baking to meet his needs, it would go bad before he could eat it all, but most importantly (I mean, we do have a deep freeze), I would never be able to do anything but bake. As I sit here writing this, I know that I am lying. I could take Sunday afternoons and bake for several hours and then freeze things in one-or-two carb servings. Now that I know that I am lying, I will probably have to start moving in that direction. But I realize that lasting change probably comes from small, slow changes than abrupt ones. The only things my children have available to drink are water, milk, and orange juice. We buy whole milk because it is less processed; we buy orange juice whose only ingredient is... oranges. 

However, even though our eating habits are healthier and more mindful, we plan meals well in advance and build in time for baking, I haven't yet found a way to be more spiritually or emotionally or mentally healthy, though I recognize that I strive for it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Strive isn't even the right word. I yearn for it. 

In my desire for physical isolation (be careful what you wish for, and I would not want this to come at the cost of any of my loved ones), I am not saying that I never want to be around people or society or community. Oh no. I love my people. However, I do think that I would be more whole and more healthy and more able to exist peacefully in human relationships without feeling so drained if I could just tend to myself exclusively for awhile. This seems wildly selfish to me. And that, my friends, is the point. I wholeheartedly reject Ayn Rand's philosophies of selfishness, but I do believe that "a healthy and happy mommy is the best mommy."

A happy and healthy Jen is the best kind of Jen and more fully able to be engaged in the world. There have been moments of vitriol and bitterness this week when I have felt that I was genuinely not fit for human companionship (one of those times was the night four women sat in my studio and talked about how broken we are; I may not have been fit for it, but my broken pieces needed to fit into their broken pieces for a little bit just so we could all feel more human, perhaps), and yet, I exist in the human world anyway. Sometimes, you just have to do it anyway. Most of the time. 

I have been napping a little bit more this week than I like, and I recognize that I am not even really sleeping during these times as hiding in a little cave of covers with my cat and trying to regenerate enough to finish my day. But even as I speak and think often of needing alone time, spiritual healing, every night when Dereck climbs in bed next to me, I cling to him like the baby monkeys cling to their cloth mommies. I crave touch, and I let that touch feed and give back to me in some kind of primal way that I don't fully understand but that I recognize I need. I hug my children and carry my puppy around the house. There is something about touch that I am using daily and constantly to keep me grounded and centered. I don't know what it has to do with endorphins or nerve endings-- I just recognize that I need it. I hug my friends when I see them, and I worry about the friends I have who don't (in my opinion) have enough touch. I make them hats like little hugs they can wear around all day, out of the softest, pure alpaca yarns. 

Touch is so primal, so tactile, so basic and primitive that I know I am using it because otherwise, I am in too much danger of being locked in my head, or locked into my computer, this keyboard, the never ending parade of words with which I am surrounded and trapped. 

Even though studying Modernism in graduate school very nearly led (or perhaps did) to a nervous breakdown, I still think that it is the school of thought with which I most closely identify. I was talking with Sam on Friday briefly (always in the car) about the platonic ideal of table, versus the table that exists in the physical world that we can only detect with our imperfect senses. He is reaching definitions of platonic and meta on his own-- I just try to fill in a few gaps and add some vocabulary. There is no such thing as a penultimate table. There is the platonic ideal, and its physical imitations. However, at the end of the day, we are left with our imaginations. Sam has been playing a lot lately with a lot of really cool ideas-- we were talking about the idea of a character, who is in a coma in one of the Brian books, telling the story from HIS point of view, in the coma-- and I said, "This, Sam, is meta. We are talking about the point of view and story of a fictional character-- we are having an idea about an idea about an idea."

I love meta. It is one of my very favorite things. 

My friend also advocates, in her post, for art and poetry. I read an article in The Denver Post this past week about poetry and a high school teacher's endeavors to teach it to his students (a friend sent it along to me). A lot of the commenters wrote that poetry is dead, or that they don't really like poetry, so they don't see the value of reading or studying it. 

Poetry is dead, but not because of the high school students or MTV. Poetry is dead because the poets sequester themselves in graduate programs at Iowa State, and rarely accept anything that does not fit their archetypical notions that bolster only each other. English teachers need to stop trying to convince students that Wordsworth, Longfellow, or even Ginsberg speak to them and their generation. Let them discover Li Young Lee, e e cummings, or WC Williams, or pretty much anyone that doesn't have their shorts in a twist around their egos. It isn't that poetry isn't applicable to the present, it's that the poets that are routinely taught as masters are more in love with their own cleverness and rhyming than they are with purpose. Stop teaching history and start teaching English.

As for the "art" of recitation, Socrates called those who recite the works of others cheats.
Poetry simply isn't to everyone's taste.

I don't mind hearing poetry, but I don't enjoy reading it because I struggle too much trying to make it rhyme or trying to "hear" the meter.

As a poet, and as liberal hippy commie scum, I of course felt that I had to throw my $.02 into the mix.

Given the number of poetry slams that occur across the country, I think it's safe to say that poetry is in no more danger of dying now than it ever has been. It's changing and evolving.

As long as people are writing and reading and singing, poetry will be healthy and hale.

There are particular problems with how poetry is taught at every stage. It's important, yes, to read and explore all kinds of poetry from all eras. Maybe poetry isn't to everyone's taste. I personally don't love algebra, but I see the value in learning it. Even if I will never use it.

That's one of the problems I see with how people view poetry or education in general: There is a distinct lack of respect for useless knowledge, or knowledge that has no practical application in our lives.

Eating cheesecake, playing the guitar, painting, listening to an opera-- none of these things have any practical application or purpose except that they give us joy. And so does poetry.
I agree with my young friend that we need more art, more poetry, more music, and more joy. These things can feed us too. 

I will finish by saying that the other themes I have detected (not detected-- actively sought) in my reading lately is the thriller. As I explained to Melissa last night (she does not like mysteries), "Oh, these are even worse. In these books, you know who committed the crime, and you know who the bad guy is. And you have to spend the rest of the book trying not to get killed by him."

Talk about reading about how to survive.

Now, why on earth would I be reading books about that? ;)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Promising the Air

When I was a young creative writing major in college at Ohio University in my salad days in Athens, Ohio, I had the opportunity to have workshops with a few highly-regarded writers. I had a fiction workshop with Jane Smiley, of whom I had not yet heard in 1990. I found her unpleasant and inapproachable. I went to the first two workshops with her; at the second one, she discussed my work. She had some nice things to say. I don't remember any of them. She came to class in curlers, with a handkerchief over them. She said she had no time for us outside of the workshop because she was busy writing. I didn't like her, so I skipped the third workshop, and skipped her reading.

Later, I went on to read some of her work: The Age of Grief, and Good Will. I kicked myself hard for my hubris then. I had the audacity to blow off Jane Smiley.

She went on to win the Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres (a modern day Lear), which I believe she must have been working on during that workshop. I didn't know how to kick myself harder-- not just for blowing off that last workshop, but for missing the chance to hear her read.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to attend all of my workshops with the fine poet Stanley Plumly, who remains one of my favorites. Plumly was gracious, warm, and kind. He had the nicest and well-deserved things to say about another young poet in my class named Mike Lewinski. But he had some genuinely nice things to say to me too. My only regret is that I missed part of his workshop because one of my classmates was having a panic attack, so I went out with her and we called an ambulance, and went outside to wait for it. She was having chestpains and trouble breathing, but she whispered to me that she could not go the Emergency Room because she had done cocaine the night before, and she was sure her symptoms were due to that; however, for obvious reasons, she didn't want the EMTs to know this. So, they gave her some oxygen and then they left, and I think I back to the workshop. But I don't remember anymore.

When I was searching for links for Plumly, I came across the sole, lonely review of his great book Summer Celestial, which was written by a young, midwestern housewife long ago.
That young woman doesn't exist anymore, but Plumly's poems remain as golden today as they did twenty years ago.

This is one of my favorites.

Promising the Air


A woman I loved talked in her sleep to children.
She would start her half of the conversation,
her half of asking, of answering the need to bring
the boy up the path from some dream-lake, some

wandering source, water, a river, or a road along
the tree-line of a river, she would say his small name,
then silence, privacy, the drift back to the center.
The child was the tenderness in her voice.

I can remember waking myself up talking, saying nothing
that mattered but loud enough for someone else to hear.
No one was there. It was like coming alive, suddenly,
in a body. I was afraid, as in the dark we are each time

new. I was afraid, word of mouth, out of breath.
Waking is the first lonliness—
but sleep can be anything you want, the path
to the summerhouse, silence, or a call across water.

I am taught, and believe, that even in light the mind
wanders, speaks before thinking. This piece of a poem
is for her who wept without waking, who, word for word,
kept her promise to the air. And for the boy.

Supply and Demand

At times during the past year, I have noted [with humor and goodwill] that a lot of the people I was surrounding myself with were a little crazy. I also noted that one of the things we had in common was that we had all endured some pretty scathing life experiences. To some extent, I think that it is sometimes easier to relate to people who have some scars too than it is to relate to people whose lives have been relatively serene. Particularly people who think that they somehow deserve their serene lives. It really pisses me off when I get a sense from the Serene that perhaps my misfortunes in life are MY fault, simply because I am a part of the equation. The Serene shy away from the broken because they think we (The Broken) are somehow diseased or contagious. And that's not the way it works. We are all standing over here together because we understand each other and because we know that the bad things in life can come to anyone at anytime. We have stared mortality in the eye, and we are comfortable with the knowledge that we will die, and we try to appreciate the time we have.

But this past week, I have had some very interesting and some very painful learning and growing experiences. I don't feel comfortable sharing all of the particulars. The particulars are melodramatic, and I really hate melodrama. So, I'll skip those, and instead share some of the lessons I've learned. I described my week to my running partner yesterday, and I told her at the start, "Your script is to say at appropriate intervals, 'Jen, you are an IDIOT,' and 'Jen, have you learned NOTHING from hanging around me?'"

"I don't really feel comfortable being the external voice to the voices in your head, so I am not going to say those things."

"Oh, I bet you will."

She finally said them to me just to appease me and get them over with, but I had the general sense that she didn't mean them.

She should have.

I think maybe some of my problems in life can best be summed up by the following two things I was brought up to believe:

1) I should be a nice person. My therapist used to ask me all the time why I thought I always had to be nice. I would look at her like she had two heads. Of course I'm supposed to be nice! That's like the golden rule, right? Nice?

2) I should not burn bridges.

So, let's take a look at Jen's life and some of the idiot choices/philosophies with which Jen has woken up and each day and pursued her life:

I tend to try to level the playing field I am on, so if I am one of the people who Has and I meet people who Don't Have, I feel almost a spiritual obligation to level the playing field by giving. I always say that I have been a mother since I was 7 years old. I am a nurturer, a giver. I give, and others take. These are our roles. And I have always been comfortable with these roles.

Lesson Learned: Unless your name is Sam, Christian, or Tommy, I am not your fucking mother (with exceptions for E). And perhaps instead of leveling the playing field, I should just go find a new field in which things are already level.

I have also at times gone out of my way to be forgiving and to give the benefit of the doubt. Over and over and over, with the same stupid people who shit all over me-- in part because 1) I should be nice and 2) I shouldn't burn bridges.

Lesson Learned: Some bridges should be laced with dynamite and exploded so there is nothing left. People may or may not deserve ONE second chance. But I pretty much don't owe anything to anyone except the three people, named above, whom I birthed. And I certainly don't owe things to other people at my expense.

I have also, in the name of 1) and 2) and the above philosophy about leveling the playing field, been aware that people were taking advantage of me and thought, "This is okay. I am a giver; they are takers. We all have our roles. And if I love more than I am loved, it is okay, because I am a limitless fountain of love. I have enough love to buoy all of us up."

[Jen. You are an Idiot.]

Lesson Learned: I actually am NOT a limitless fountain of love. Let's not kid ourselves: People who have a great capacity for love probably have an equal capacity for meanness and hatred. I certainly do. I try to keep it under wraps, but maybe I don't always have to do that. More balance would certainly protect me from some of the agony I have endured this week. I have no desire or plans to repeat this week. Ever. I will take steps to avoid it.

The problem is, unlike my gas tank in my car that dings and puts a light on to show me that I am almost at empty, my own personal love tank doesn't provide warnings that it is low. And last week, it was abruptly and completely EMPTY. I realized that I was all used up. Nobody had put love back into the tank [that is an exaggeration of course; some people do put love back into my tank or I wouldn't be sitting here writing this right now], so the tank was then empty.

Here's the thing. It's pretty simple, actually. I understood and received good marks in High School Economics, but I failed to apply these principles to everything that I should have. Supply and demand. When the supply is too great, the demand for it drops, and certainly its value does. This includes love. There is little difference between the cliched and folkloric high school girl who gives away her sexual favors too easily and is demeaned or devalued because of it and a person who gives unconditional positive regard to people apart from those she gave birth to. Nobody else deserves that. Too much love is never valued or appreciated. It is just always there, like sunshine. We take it for granted, we don't like too much intensity or to be burned by it, but dammit, tomorrow morning, it better fucking be there.

This was brought home to me in absolutely stunning ways this week, and then quite simply. Christian had figured something out the other day, and, because he is one of the three people to whom it is appropriate to show unconditional positive regard, and also just because I love him and he's a neat kid, I said, "Yay!"

"You always say ,'Yay,'" he retorted and went on his merry way.

If you are always the person who says yay, then no matter how sincere you think you are, how much value does that, "Yay" have?

Not a lot.

I am the woman you see who smiles at strangers as she is pushing her cart through the grocery store, and this is such a simple thing that sometimes I am genuinely baffled by people who don't smile back. I mean, is it that hard? Blah blah blah, muscles it takes to smile versus frown, blah blah blah. But on the other hand, why should they? Maybe we should smile when we are happy instead of just giving it away like an idiot [Jen. You are an IDIOT] for no reason. I'm not an animal in the wild trying to save my life or mate with these people. I don't have to fucking smile at them.

Does this sound bitter?

Yeah, and you know what? I can be a little bitter right now. I can make my berries taste bitter to protect myself. Plants get to do it, and so do I.

This past week I realized that I had been ruthlessly manipulated, lied to, and used, and that being popular has a pretty stiff penalty attached to it. Someone else can do it for awhile. I am retiring. Carol said at the end of our run, "We need new friends. We need to find new friends."

I was horrified: "NO! No more friends! We can be friends with each other, but I am certainly not looking for NEW ones!"

So, if I seem a little snippy or a little meaner, if you ask me for a favor and I tell you NO for the first time in your fucking life [and mine], well, take it as a sign of improved mental health on my part. Or, say, standards. Or the fact that my fucking tank is empty, and if you want anything else from me, you're going to have to make a contribution to MY tank.

Level that playing field, motherfucker.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Graphic Content

Edited to provide a link to the whole gory story. 

Nobody prepares you for parenthood. This much is true. But in all fairness, how could they? One of the biggest surprises I have had, though, is how much my kids make me laugh. This morning, I was laughing so hard while driving them to school that Sam asked me if I was okay.

The conversation started in the house. The boys were talking about reading stories on, and poking fun of understatement. A police officer was shot through the arm, and when asked if it hurt, replied, "It did a bit, yes."

I asked, "Was he Canadian?"

"No, British."

Then, there was the British officer, when asked about whether a crime scene at which a man had committed suicide by cutting off his own head with a chainsaw was a shock, replied, "In some ways it was, sir."

Sam continued the conversation in the car, imitating the officer first, and then immediately asking, "In what ways WASN'T it a shock?"

He continued with, "Maybe people heard the chainsaw, so they knew he was doing something with a chainsaw. Just not that."

I was already laughing at this point, and Sam looked at me. "What?"

I said, "Your delivery was just perfect,"

and Christian screeched from the back seat, "THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!"

He and Tommy have still not quite mastered the concept behind "That's what she said," so Christian is always very proud of the moments when he really nails it.

I said, "How can you cut off your own head with a chainsaw, anyway? I mean, wouldn't you die before you could finish the job?"

Don't ask your 16-year-old questions like that. For he will have answers.

"He set a timer."

"He set a timer?"

"Yes, for ten minutes, and then he rested the chainsaw against his neck."

"Hey, look at the ice on the trees!" I exclaimed, not wanting to think about the man cutting off his own head with a chainsaw hooked up to a timer, while Sam calmly continued:

"The officer said there was so much blood, he couldn't even identify a cut mark."

"How do you sleep at night, reading this stuff, Sam?"

"I sleep very well."

"But don't you have images of this stuff running through your head?"

"It's not MY fault he cut off his own head. He got an email from his girlfriend, something about breaking up with him and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and he thought she wanted him to do it."

"Just because someone wants you do to that doesn't mean you should do that," I admonished, careful to impart this important lesson to the children before school.

I just can't think of any scenario in which I would think that was a good idea. And I have a pretty big imagination.

By this time, we were almost at school, so I understated, "God, I bet that hurt," to which Sam replied, before getting out of the car:

"Well, the article said that before he did it, he poured himself a stiff drink."

Seriously. Like that would make a difference.

What Goes Unsaid

He looks at her without speaking,
gives her books.

She smokes and reads
the small scraps of papers
signed his name.

They speak publicly, politely.
They are never alone.

Just once,
he held her
hands at their parting

pressed her gently with his palms
and let her go.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Months ago
they cupped their hands around one lighter
and the tip of his cigarette
burned her right middle knuckle:

The small white scar
an emblem of

that scalds her now,
scalds her now.


hates me a little less today. And kindness comes from unexpected corners of the planet. And I am grateful. Don't get me wrong, I am also, at the same moment of negative capability, an angry, bitter, vengeful bitch today, but also grateful for the good.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


is proof that there is a God and she hates us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Last night, someone said, "Jen loves harder than anyone I know."

Well. Just imagine, then, how hard I can hate.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What in hell is happening in the cosmos this week? It seems ridiculous to complain, given the utter decimation in Haiti. But globally, among so many people I know in varying geographical locations, this week has been atrocious, if not downright scarring. I hope I'm not scarred-- but I feel like my world has been rocked to its core (again), and I really don't like this feeling. For one thing, it makes me sweat constantly. Sweaty palms make it hard to type, and then there's having to change clothes and bathe a lot.

It also fucks with my sleep.

I mean, there was a ten-minute period of stress on Wednesday night that still makes me want to burst into tears with its intensity. Not to mention the two hours of stress Monday night, added to the 13 hours of pure hell between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

I'm not sorry to be vague though. I can't talk about my own stuff, and I can't talk about my friends' stuff. Oh, well, I mean I could. I have choices. I could totally sign up for a trainwreck blog, and believe me. BELIEVE ME, I could have a huge following. That is how nutty and interesting and just plain bat shit crazy things are. And sometimes it's incredibly tempting, in a really self-destructive way. Fortunately, I smoke, so that angle is covered. But one of the things I hate about this week, about periods of my life like this, is that they make me feel tainted and stained and like this misfortune is contagious or my fault or deserved. And none of these things is true.

But I had a ping from a friend on Facebook the other morning when I woke up that said, "What the hell? Everything is imploding this week at once."

The sky, Chicken Little, is falling.

You know what really pisses me off? When my rational mind tries to have conversations with me (like it did during my post On Relationships). My rational mind says, "What's the trouble? You have adrenalin spikes, you sweat a lot, you cry a lot, but ultimately, the sun comes up, you get up, you drink coffee, you work, you eat and drink, you take care of your family, and then you go to bed. What exactly has changed? What are you going on about?"

And so, I have something I would like to say to my rational self today.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This week has been chock full of both drama and melodrama. Enough to choke a herd of elephants. And I am quite ready for it to be over.

On the Way to Des Moines

The first time, we park
across the square
from Jaarsma

we can walk, stretch our legs
breathe the air outside
the car. Three men
near a truck
filled with

lean on shovels, planting
bulbs in mid-Autumn,
late October
morning sun.
We go

Pella in the spring, brick
sidewalks, red awnings,
purple tulips

and people on the square
turn heads to speak, walk
through the rain in
silent, floured

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday Haiku

Sometimes days are bad.
Today was such a day here.
At least there's haiku.

Rock Road 35A

Two weeks ago when I went running,
the only thing between me and three black bulls
was their perception of the fence.
Staring at my hands, knuckle to palm,
I said out loud, This is just matter.

This morning I hear
the quiet swish a horse makes
rolling in the hay.
He sees me, so he stands with dignity
to watch me from the field.

A mile or more away I hear
repeated horn blasts
and turn for home, sure in the knowledge
I cannot know it's calling me, or run
a mile or more up hills in time
to answer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Adam and Eve poems

Flat Back on a Razor

like digits
a zipper seamed
up her chest
Eve dies

first   she lies
in leaves
naked he wants to
touch her he
touches her
and waits for

air he licks her
hair with his
fingers and bends
and bows and shots!
he claws her breasts

he thinks
he can peel
the stitches back
and crawl inside


Adam Undertaker

The first cut is hardest
you flinch
but she just lies there
never bleeding, lies

in sunlight, arms
quiet at her sides
her hair is so long!
spread over the grassy floor
it has become part of.

These are the days without
marble slabs, pre-

What is it like? Take something
sharp like tooth or
white like bone.
Start at the throat.

Cut her all the way down
to her... well
she doesn't have a navel.
Lungs    breast plate   heart
lie under skin dark
from a lifetime in gardens.

You stand there
bone in hand (or tooth)
and shake your head.
How do you spread the skin apart?

Ask the questions
men will ask.
Which rib is yours?
How can you tell and will you
ever get it back?


Reduced From

The fact is
Eve never really liked
gardens.  Even before

high school biology
taught us
slice a worm in ten parts

and you have ten worms
each perfectly capable of
reminding her. Snake

no more, they turn
everything to dirt: apple
beans and leaves.   They show her

with every
slice of her space
what they can reduce

her to.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Response to Independence of Solitude

I was a little nervous about the response I would get to this. I didn't get much response, but I was grateful to receive this from a woman who has also left the Church. Reprinted with her permission. 

"It's funny how little people understand that haven't left the Mormon church. My husband has never understood my complete and utter inability to casually attend another church. He grew up on a farm in Ohio so they just had some small community church that was more about socializing than religion. Every once in awhile he tries to get me to try out another church and I can't, if I were to truly believe it, not go 500% into it because if you believe it why wouldn't you practice every tiny little suggestion they make? And I don't truly believe in any church so I can't bring myself to go. People don't really realize how all or nothing that church really is. I have problems with Christianity in general in addition to the Mormon church though so I don't know that he and I have any options. Lately he's been trying to get me to go to a Unitarian Universalist church. It's funny that I find myself drawn to other ex mormon's and knowing their experience even if their life has absolutely no other parallel to mine. I don't normally talk about it because so much of my family and friends are still active. Luckily, they're some of the few LDS liberals so they could care less if I practiced Satanism as long as I don't tell them what to believe. Thanks for writing that post."

I asked if she would share her story; every Mormon has a conversion story, and every ex-Mormon has a leaving one.

"The thing I think most convinced me it was not the way to go, true or not, was when I think about some of those people running their own spirit worlds. If I were a god, I would get bored and would do things for no real reason. Maybe a flood on Tuesday or genetically enhance someone's kid so their off the wall all the time just to see what would happen. And, all those warm fuzzies that they get, I would really mess with them there. We had this one lady that every fast and testimony meeting would tell the story of when she was blueberry picking and she had an urge to move her truck. But she ignored it and it persisted, blah, blah, blah, she moved the truck and as soon as she drove away, a tree fell right where she was parked. There are a million of those stories. If I were a god, I would knock the tree over just to mess with her head.

Then there's my laziness. The plan of salvation is asking me very strongly to stop going to church. It's like hotels. You don't want to go to a Motel 6 because then you can't leave anything in your car for fear it will be broken into and it's really noisy. You don't want to go to a 5 star hotel either because then you have to tip everyone that glances at you and you can't wear your pajamas in the hall to go get ice. Give me a nice HoJo with a decent restaurant, an indoor pool and HBO and I'm set. I think me and all my dead pets will have a lovely time in the Terrestrial Kingdom. My mom can come down and visit me if she has time to break away from her other world.

Really though, I have a problem with any church that governs on guilt and fear and excludes nice people for doing non harmful things. I think most churches serve to make half the people feel superior and the other half not good enough. I'd rather teach my kids to accept and like themselves and others the way they are and not according to any religious teachings. The thing that concerns me is when my kids start going to school and other ingorant children start telling them they're going to hell. I know I can't tell them to tell other kids to pray out the stupid. But maybe they just won't care.

This was a lot of rambling. I haven't thought much about it in a long time. Do you ever read
Dooce's blog? She's a renegade Mormon living in Salt Lake City.

Yes. I do read Dooce. :D

The Difference Between Vespers and Whispers


The tree in March is fruit-white--
it will be green with pear in summer.

Nearby the apple tree is leafy green, open.
Petunia pinks are pomegranate small
seeds in the flakey green.


Saturday midday sun white and glares from my truck.
I know the people only by their cars.
We move in parallel on narrow dirty roads.
Gaps close between us, and I see
my neighbors, cast in shadow,
raise their hands to pass, to wave.


I heard the story of a nun,
stripped of black robes and band of gold,
laid in white cotton, stark relief
in a hospital bed,
surrounded by priests and sisters.
When the old nun died, she raised her arms from her sides,
to summon Christ, she lifted hands from the bed
to wave, to praise, to greet Him.


Maybe it's all cloud perception
the way the night air seems thick
and even the moon appears to be smoking.
The trees stand heavy, hold their limbs
low in the dark gray sky.

Not like the evening two weeks ago.
I stood on the deck, clear air, the turquoise-indigo sky
stretched tight like a wide ribbon
blue backdrop for the tress.
Towering, immense, spiders without leaves,
one by one, I watched them thrust their limbs high,
arm after arm of them, black in the forest,
they were waving, waving at me, all of them,
fingertips of branches
pressed against the bottom of the sky.
Do not mistake grace for weakness.-- Aion online. Quote my kid put up as his FB status message. Awesome.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Independence of Solitude

Editorial note: This was written first in 1991, then edited and revised in 2003. Some names and details have been changed. These thoughts and opinions are my own, and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its members. Yes, I know the formatting is wonky, but after more than an hour of trying to fix it, my throat is killing me and I am going to bed. Try selecting all, then copying and pasting into an email. :) Took my own advice and emailed it to myself in the text of the email to strip it of its formatting. Should be mostly good now with a few weird punctuation issues. 

And Pengo, thanks for the follow ;)

This is also tl;dr. ;)

  My best friend Kara called me from Provo, Utah, during my first year of marriage to tell me that a close friend of hers from her mission had recently committed suicide.  My first inclination was to blame the Mormon Church, particularly the mission experience.  Elder Sidney Rex, 21, had recently completed a two-year mission in Thailand.  What other experience, I asked myself, could have influenced him so much in the two short months since his return?
      "Did he leave a note?
      "No.  And they can't find his journals, his scriptures, or his letters from his mission.  The only thing we know is that the same day he dropped all of his classes and added new ones."
      He had been attending Brigham Young University, the private institution governed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  The Mormons.
      I thought a lot about Sidney Rex's suicide, even though I never met him.  It is tragic to me on a humanitarian level; however, it also provides me with one more piece of artillery to use in my private war against the Mormon Church.
      "I went to the funeral," Kara told me.  "He looked so peaceful.  They did a really good job of putting him back together."
      "What do you mean they put him back together?  How did he do it?"
      "Pistol in the mouth.  
      The Mormon Church sews itself into every part of your life.  Trying to remove it can tear you apart.  I think I am experiencing a phenomenon fairly common to people my age.  College years are a time of flux and confusion.  The Mormon Church's leaders are very aware of this.  They react to it in three major ways.
      First, the Mormon Church hierarchy sends all Mormon nineteen-year-old boys on two-year missions.  On their missions, these boys devote 24 hours a day to the Lord.  They remain chaperoned, primarily by each other, at all times.  They cannot read anything unrelated to or not written by someone in the Church.  They cannot go to movies, watch television, listen to music (except hymns), or go swimming (because of the Danger of drowning, and modesty purposes).  They must wear suits, shave every day, and cut their hair every two weeks. Most importantly, they must never be alone with a member of the opposite sex, let alone touch one or date one.  The possibilities and facts of potential homosexuality never enter into the official equation.  Church leaders forbid it, so they pretend it never happens.  Funny, because when I told my Mormon friend Megan about Sidney Rex she said, "I bet he was gay.  Homosexual, Mormon, mission guilt."  It hadn't occurred to me before that conversation, but afterward, it seemed likely.
        Missionaries all pay for their own missions.  This creates what psychologists call a "Sunk Cost" effect.  If Mormons pay for two years of proselytizing, sometimes at extraordinary expense, and if they devote up to two years of their lives, they will not be able to afford not to believe in the Mormon Church.  It's supposed to be the best two years of your life, and if it's not, you must have done something wrong.  How can you sacrifice so much for something and then admit that you're wrong?
      All male Mormon missionaries are called "Elder."  Females are called "Sister."  It's one more way besides dressing them alike that the Church strips them of their identities.  It enhances obedience.  Make them look alike and sound alike; they are instruments in the hands of the Lord (or, more precisely, the elderly leaders in Salt Lake City).  If you can strip people of individual differences, they will soon be comfortable in their sameness and unlikely to want to risk being ostracized by questioning their religion.
                 *               *               *
      The second way Mormon Church leaders handle the confusion nonmembers feel when they are ages 18-28 is to aim nineteen-year-old missionaries at them; hopefully age similarities will provide fuel for trust.  I sat in a meeting last year with some missionaries and our minister.  The mission coordinator in Columbus, Ohio, had decided to target Ohio State and Ohio University campuses for proselytizing.  The coordinator planted several pairs of missionaries on the sidewalks of uptown Athens, Ohio.  They were instructed to stop college-age people and ask them to answer a few brief questions:
      Do you believe in God?
      What do you know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?
      Would you like to know more?
      If the answer to the last question was yes, they obtained the unsuspecting victim's phone number and plagued the poor soul for months.
      Do you want a Book of Mormon?
      May we come visit you?
      I sat in this meeting and listened to a missionary outline their strategy.
      "Most people this age are confused.  They are unsatisfied with their lives.  They are searching for something.  We have answers to give them.  Most of them are very receptive."
      "Yeah," I agreed, ╥but they'd also be very responsive to Buddhism and Catholicism.  I don't think you should target people who are obviously experimenting with different ideas.  They don't look at the Church as a serious commitment; it's all trial and error.  I've lived in this area for eleven years and I've seen a lot of people come and go."
      "That's not our problem.  We see them only to baptism."
      "But it is your problem because you deliberately seek these people out, meet with them for six brief discussions, and then pressure them to be baptized.  They aren't converting to the Church; they are responding to earnest, good-looking, clean cut young males who will be gone in two months.  You should try to teach people who are a little more established."
      "People who are more established don't want to listen.  They think they're satisfied with their lives."
      It is a futile argument.  The Mormon Church handles its proselytizing like an advertising campaign:  Make people feel that their lives are unsatisfactory, then offer them the product-- the true gospel of Jesus Christ.  Give them the answers to questions like
      Who Am I? (a child of God)
      Where Did I Come From? (the pre-existence)
      What Is My Purpose Here on Earth? (to gain a physical body and to overcome temptation in order to dwell again with God)
      Where Am I Going? (to a Spirit World where you will find out that the Mormon Church is true.  There are Mormons there now teaching all the spirits of all the people who die that the Mormon Church is true.  Everyone gets to join.)  The problem is, obviously, that first the Mormons have to convince people that something is wrong, and that only Mormonism can fix it.
      All of these wonderful answers.  But it's all just a little too pat.  For the answers the Mormons don't have, they either don't address the issues, or they argue that we aren't worthy enough for God to reveal the answers to us; we can't live with what He has revealed now.
      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (as they prefer to be called, rather than Mormon) was established in 1830 by a man named Joseph Smith.  Smith, who claimed to be a prophet, said God and Jesus appeared to him and told him that none of the Churches on earth at that time were correct.  There had been a great apostasy after Jesus╒ disciples died; at that time, God had removed his true authority (called Priesthood by Mormons, and only bestowed upon males) from the earth.  God and Jesus now wanted to restore this authority to Joseph Smith through angels.  They showed him a place in a hillside where golden plates had lain for centuries.  Smith obtained the plates and translated them into the Book of Mormon.  They are the testimony of people who traveled to the Americas from the Middle East; Christ appeared to them here after his resurrection.  This Book is considered scripture and is the keystone of the Mormon religion; however, the golden plates have been mysteriously removed from the earth.  No one has actually seen that these plates exist.
      God also told Joseph Smith that everything a prophet says is modern day scripture.  That conveniently meant that every whim of Joseph Smith's must be God's will.  Part of God's will was to tell everyone on earth about God's Church.  He also outlined for people, through Smith, exactly how to detect His spirit: a burning in the bosom (means a yes when praying); a stupor of thought (meaning no, and designed to make you forget what you had been praying for); a peaceful feeling; and a still, small voice (psychologists call it conscience).  Even those shivers down your spine or goose bumps on your arm when you see a Mormon commercial are really the Spirit of God whispering to you that the Mormon Church is true.  The only problem is that these are also responses to kitsch and sentimentalism, and people often experience them during Hallmark commercials, too.
                     *               *               *
      The third way Mormon Church leaders handle the confusion young adults feel is to encourage females to get married the second they find anyone they are compatible with who is worthy to take them to the Temple.  They encourage young males to marry as soon as possible once they return from two years of proselytizing anywhere on the globe those old men in Salt Lake City see fit to send them.
       Leaders insist that age, education, and money should not get in the way of marriage.  And, of course, this means everyone is eligible.  Then, they tell you that no one who is not prepared to have children should get married.  This is a Catch-22: They have already established that everyone over the age of eighteen (except males who should complete a mission, at their own expense, first, which makes them twenty-one before they're ready) is ready for marriage (you'd be amazed how compatible two horny post-adolescents can be).  Therefore, it naturally (?) follows that you should put your trust in the Lord and start squeezing out kinds nine months after your wedding night (which, incidentally, should be the first time you french kiss, let alone do anything else).
      I can think of two reasons for the Church's policy on marriage and children.  First, the leaders insist that family is what this religion is all about.  Temples are sacred buildings that only worthy Church members can enter, after two interviews with Church officials. Once the Church is assured that: you are chaste; that you absolutely accept the old men in Salt Lake City (who are called General Authorities-- on what, I don't know.  It's general, so it must comprise everything) as the mouthpieces of God guiding your life; that you do not smoke, do drugs, or drink coffee, tea or alcohol; and that you give ten percent of your income to the Church; they will give you a tiny slip of sacred white paper called a Temple Recommend.  This is your ticket to heaven.  If you do not go to the Temple and swear you will live and die for the Mormon Church, and then marry in a ceremony they call Sealing for Time and All Eternity (it transcends death), then you can't go to heaven.  From all I've heard about the ceremony, it is not unlike pledging a fraternity or sorority, or, say, the Masonic rites.  General Authorities insist this is a coincidence.  Incidentally, Mormons are forbidden to speak of these ceremonies, even among each other, outside the Temple.  Mormons insist that these rituals are not secret, however; they are sacred.
      According to the Church, this Temple ceremony is the only way you can be with God, and to boot, it offers the irresistible: the opportunity to be with your family after you die- for eternity!  Once you have children, it becomes very difficult not only to turn your back on the idea of being with your children forever, but also to risk your children's salvation.  Having children sews people into the tapestry more firmly.
      Mormon doctrine says that according to other religions╒ ideas of heaven, you just sort of float around and never see your family and friends.  In fact, the Mormons incorporate even that idea into their concept of heaven; there are just three divisions of heaven. The goal is the highest division; it is only there that you can be with your family. This Mormon idea of exclusiveness does not explain, however, several non-Mormon people who have had near death experiences, and include in their accounts seeing their relatives and friends who have already died.  There is a joke Mormons like to tell:
       A man dies and goes to Heaven.  St. Paul greets him at the gate.  "Before I take you to your new home, would you care for a tour?"
       St. Paul takes the man into a neighborhood not unlike you would find in an American suburb.  There are neatly built houses separated by fences; an occasional swimming pool; cars parked in the drive.
       "This is the Catholic neighborhood," the Saint announces.
       They move on to another neighborhood and notice similar budding lawns; white linen hung to dry; children playing.
       "This is the Jewish neighborhood."
       The man nods, and they proceed to a third neighborhood, distinguishable as the third only because St. Paul again stops.
       "This is the Mormon neighborhood," he whispers.
       "I don't see how this neighborhood is any different from the others!" the man exclaims.
       "Shhhhh," St. Paul warns, ╥They think they're the only ones up here."
                  *                *               *
      The second reason I can see for church authorities to urge Mormons to have children immediately, and have lots of them, is to populate the earth with more Mormons.  I think this reason is valid.  (However, Mormons are allowed to use birth control). The plain and simple of it is that marriage and children ground people in responsibility.  If you are married, have a child, and are trying to support yourselves, you will be concerned with taking care of basic survival needs instead of wondering whether or not the Mormon Church is true.
      When I was at Brigham Young University, my best friend Kara and I used to say that if we ever found out that the Church wasn't true, we would have trouble believing in God.  Everything I believed about God, how I prayed, the answers I perceive, what I thought I knew about God's nature and what He looked like, I obtained from the Mormon Church.  Take the Mormon Church away, and I was left only with a vague memory of feeling as a child that I was loved by some higher power; this was before my introduction to the Mormon Church.
      I can only blame my association with the Church on myself.  I needed answers to questions; so my mother would drop my brother and I off at Church and pick us up when it was over.  She and my father had been inactive for some time.  My mother has since re-embraced the Church; I think it is therapy for her as she deals with middle age.
      I became active in my Church again after Gregory was removed, and taught the six, seven and eight year old children.  I was active for three reasons: my mother lived in the same town and would have tortured me with guilt if I had stopped going; Peter and I had several friends we "did dinner" with on a regular basis; and I loved the kids I was teaching.  Our relationships with our friends would have been considerably strained if we had left the Church then; we were only there for six months more.
      We left the Church after we left Athens, simply in the sense that we didn╒t start going again when we moved to Maryland. What my mother didn't know didn't hurt her.  I think she'd be able to deal with it in time, though.  Peter wanted to try going back to Catholic Church where he was raised.  I think I needed a break from organized religion; I wanted to try to develop a relationship with God, which was independent from what anyone else dictates to me.  I am still working on that.
      Peter didn't want to raise our children Mormon because he didn't want them to go through the same hell and confusion that I went through. The reason we decided to leave is because we thought we would be able to go through the motions and just be Mormon.  But we couldn't.  Our minister wouldn't let us go through the Temple ceremony because we didn't and wouldn't pay ten percent of our income to the Church.  He didn't understand because he used to put his five kids to bed hungry when he was in graduate school so he could pay it.  If attending Church, community service, and performing in Church callings weren't enough, if we had to PAY our way into heaven, we wouldn't stay with the Mormon Church.
      My feelings about the Church at that time can best be compared to when my boyfriend and I were breaking up with a boyfriend my sophomore year of college.  It was a long distance relationship, doomed from the start.  I can say that now, but it took me months to realize.  It started ending when I was at BYU and he told me he had slept with someone else.  I had deluded myself so much, I wanted him so much, that this was a complete, physical shock.  I cried uncontrollably.  I had diarrhea for two weeks.  I don't remember eating during those two weeks; I just remember standing in front of the refrigerator blankly. I know I drank gallons and gallons of Fresca and lemonade.  I woke up every day at 6:00 a.m. feeling like I'd had the wind knocked out of me.  I lost fifteen pounds.  Despite all of this, I still wanted him, and he kept me Dangling.  I fluctuated for three months between wanting him desperately and hating him.  Hating him finally conquered any desire I formerly had for him.
Mood Swings
      I went through similar mood swings towards the Mormon Church.  I love some of the people in it.  I love the sense of community.  I think some of the principles are very good.  However, everytime I started thinking this was something I could live with, I heard something which renews my venom.
      Jen, they handled it so cool.  They said that God won't look just at the suicide; God will see what a good life he led, and what a good person he was.  The suicide won't erase all of that.  God will forgive him."
      Talk about denial.  Suicide is the worst sin next to murder.  It is the complete rejection of God, Church, family, Temple covenants, and life. At least if you murder someone, they can put you on death row-- an eye for an eye kind of thing.  With suicide, there is no repentance.

[Ed. note: Twenty years later, my lack of compassion makes me cringe. This essay is NOT all I have to say on this topic. Oh no. I wrote a BOOK.]
      "Kara, are you even listening to yourself?  What the hell do you expect them to say at a funeral?  'Elder Rex is going to hell'?  Do you honestly believe that God would overlook SUICIDE because Elder Rex was a good person?  Kara, do you think God is going to say,"Gee, Elder Rex, you lived a good life; it's okay that you killed yourself.  But, you, Kara Stockton, you had the audacity to marry someone of a different faith because you loved him.  You're going to hell on a greased pole."  Kara, is that the kind of God you want to live with?"
      I did not understand why Kara, who was in love with  a Jewish boy, was willing to give up her happiness in this life in expectation of what may or may nor happen in the next.  Her opinion of the Church was not much better than mine at the time, but she buckled under family and Church peer pressure.
      I asked her, "Kara, suppose a space ship came down and captured your family and all your Mormon friends and whisked them away: Would you marry Kent?"
      "Yes, probably."
      Kara and I read Ayn Rand our sophomore year and were terribly impressed with her philosophy of selfishness (as sophomores in college tend to be), of trying to be happy regardless of what others think of you.  I have been trying to remind her of this.
      "Jen, I don't even care if it's true.  I just want to believe in something right now."
      I can relate to that.  I'd love to believe it was true.  To this day.  It sounds incredible.  Too good to be true.  I wish I had the simplicity of belief I had when I was eighteen.  I wish I could make all my doubts, my anger, my cynicism go away.  The Mormon Church has a response to my anger; my bitterness about Gregory Parker; my anger at all those men in Salt Lake City who I think are trying to manipulate people and control them through guilt.  Their response is as pat as all the others:
      The Church is true and perfect; the people in it aren't.
      That sounds great, but I don't buy it anymore.  How can they calmly sit there and tell me that and tell me that I should accept a man like Gregory Parker as my spiritual leader?  How can they say he was inspired by God?  I'm not angry at just what he did to me.  I don't think the man was competent to lead anyone, spiritually or otherwise. He once equated recycling with the devil saying that it was a distraction from our spiritual concerns; he said if people were living pure lives, the environment would take care of itself.  He said it was our duty to populate the earth with "white, middle-class, well-nurtured children to balance out all the minority children being born in the ghettos."  To me, these are not the words of an "imperfect" man; they are the rantings of a Nazi.  And Gregory Parker is pretty small potatoes; it terrifies me to think of what the men who really have power believe.  And yet, I am greeted constantly by the same programmed responses which come straight from the top:
      You shouldn't speak ill of the Lord's anointed.(What is this, a police state?  Yes, precisely.  They tell us what books not to read, not to see Jesus Christ Superstar  or The Last Temptation of Christ, or The Passion of the Christ, and what music not to listen to.)
      He must know what he's doing.  He's called of the Lord and can receive special inspiration.
      Maybe he's in that calling because there's something he needs to learn from it. (at whose expense?)
      There are good ministers and bad ministers.
      It was difficult for my nonmember friends, even my husband, to understand what I went through. They didn╒t understand the rage.  "If you don't believe it, just leave," they said.  But I felt as though I had been terribly, terribly betrayed by someone whom I loved, and thought loved me.  Someone who nurtured me as a child and comforted me and said, "Put all your faith in this; this is true."  And I believed in it, and put all my faith in it, and it wasn't true.  It made me feel scared and lonely.  The Mormon Church is like a big family.  Leaving it was terrifying; I mean, this is my soul's salvation I'm meddling with. But trying to stay with it while not believing was unbearable.
      Maybe it really is true. Maybe you just lack faith.  Maybe you are so sinful that the Spirit of God can't even reach you anymore.  Maybe Satan is just tempting you and you're submitting. Don't they say Satan tests the strong? Maybe this is your test and you're about to fail it.
      But maybe the test is really to see through all the bullshit.  And even if it is true, what if it has become so corrupt that it's not good?  Even if it is true, do I really want to associate with these kinds of people for eternity?
      But if it is true and if it is good and you're just being tempted, don't you want to know for sure?  How can you turn down truth?
      Sure, I do, but you can't ever know for sure.
      -Why don't you just ask God?  Doesn't He know the truth?
      Yeah, pray!  Okay, I'll pray, I have prayed, I'm praying. . .but wait! The Church has dictated to me what answers I'll get if I'll pray.  Even asking God has been tainted.  It isn't reliable.
      But do you really believe the Church leaders are capable of such a complete brainwashing?  Do you think they're that intelligent?
      How intelligent do you have to be?  If you know anything about human nature, and if people want to believe, you can do anything.  Sometimes I look at people I consider to be intelligent and ask myself, how can they really believe this?  Gregory Parker asked me once, "Do you think we're all just a bunch of Yahoos who believe this?"  But maybe a Ph.D. isn't a good indicator of intelligence.  And maybe all of these people don't really believe it- or maybe they've just invested too much into this not to believe it.
      So where can you turn if you can't turn to God?
      To myself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
      "It is easy in the world to follow the world's opinion.  It is easy in solitude to follow one's own.  But it is the great man who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps, with perfect sweetness, the independence of solitude."
      Right now I don't even have the independence of solitude, but maybe I can get it.
      But you're forgetting the truth.  Isn't the truth the most important thing?
      They've been programming me so long to believe that the Mormon Church is the true Church that I never stopped to question whether it is possible for there to be one truth that is the same for every living creature.  Lao Tse says to define something is to limit it.  Mormons define God everyday.  I think there can be a lot of forms and shapes and words for God.  And isn't prayer just a form of meditation and soul searching?  But I guess that's one more form of control; don't let them pause long enough to wonder about there even being a "truth." Just tell them what it is.
      When I ended that phone conversation with Kara that night, I curled up around Peter's back and cried and cried and cried while he slept.  I felt like I was mourning my childhood beliefs.  The Peter Pan syndrome.  I couldn't quite bring myself to break away completely; part of me was still clinging to the security and love for the Church I felt as a teenager.  The other part of me was lashing out at everyone who still sat and told me that it's true, everyone who had the audacity to instill in children from birth that the Mormon Church is everything.     
      I wanted God to come down and tell me personally what to do.  In trying to remove the Mormon thread from my life, I felt like I was being destroyed.  And to this day, eight years after I finally left the Church, and five years after I went through my first real crisis of faith, I must recreate my whole philosophy.