Tag Archives: work

Dark Gifts, Part I

It’s very hard to grow, because it’s difficult to let go of the models of ourselves in which we’ve invested so heavily. — Ram Dass

On August 15, 2015, on the bottom floor of a gutted house in downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of what was once a living room, Ron Athey lay stretched out on a table naked, balls bound and swollen, fishhooks pulling back his eyelids and his nipples, the skin of his collarbone, his belly and his thighs, like acupuncture gone wild. A short row of men lined the side of the altar on which he lay, and massaged his quivering thighs and heaving torso. There was a balcony upstairs, where viewers congregated and drank from the open bar, from whence a spotlight shone down, creating a circle of bright light around him, evident from all vantage points in the venue. Even from a fair distance, I could see the beads of sweat above his upper lip, as the men massaged thick wads of cream into his sweaty flesh. One of the men stepped aside, gesturing and encouraging me to walk forward. I made my way up to the platform to stand next to Ron. I put my hand on his chest. I felt it rise and fall as I rubbed gently. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were angled toward the ceiling, but it appeared to me like they were looking at the sky.

I stepped away to let others through, and to look for my friend Denise, an art professor who had worked with Athey as a graduate student at CalArts. She had invited me to this art show tonight because, she said, “you are brave.” I hadn’t known what she meant. Athey has a long history of bold and bloody performances, which she well knew, and I didn’t. I found her buried in the corner, looking small, like a child. She asked me if I touched him. I nodded.

“I can’t” she said, “It makes me nauseous, seeing him like that, doing that. I could never touch him.”

I nodded again. I got it. The room was hot and dense with the smell of beer, blood, sweat and massage oils. Intellectually, I understood this whole thing was raw and intimidating and probably a little dangerous. But I felt comfortable in the space, and oddly at peace with the worshippers, the theatrics, the suffering and the witnessing of it. The laying of hands felt familiar to me, and the noisy backdrop was like a soundtrack of speaking in tongues.

A voice boomed through the speakers and the spectators hushed. Ron rose from the table, as if from the dead, peeling back the hooks and discarding the wires. He garnered a cape and hat and began to walk in a circle, and with each step, his cape blew back gently to reveal his naked, vulnerable body, testicles now unbound and gorged with blood, so they looked impossibly large. The audience carefully stepped back to give him space. The voice from the speakers spoke of Pharaoh and mercy, exculpation and redemption, sin and ablutions, captivity and exodus. I thought of Moses and his band of followers leaving Egypt and walking toward the promised land.

I stood silent, reverent and rapt, as did the viewers around me.

The truth is, most people are horrified by Athey’s art. He has performed prophecy, pain, Christian mythology, transgressive and redemptive sexuality, and the politics of queerness when being HIV-positive (as Athey has been openly since the 1980’s), was a death sentence. Critics find him masochistic, dirty, extreme, and grossly inappropriate. I can’t argue with any of those labels. Yet through his work, I am reminded, yet again, that pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice. Throughout his performance, I felt like I was more than a voyeur, or even a witness. I was a participant in a holy catharsis, in a space transcendent like a cathedral, communal like church.

For some of us, change and growth, transformation and metamorphosis, require more than words. For some of us, the symbols and integration of those symbols on or into our bodies helps us shift identities, from archetypes we clung to as children, to more fluid ways of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes this takes more than intellectual knowledge or analysis. Sometimes we have to walk through the desert barefoot and feel our way across the sand, without a map, or even the assurance of a destination point.

When I am afraid of cataclysmic change, I often think of the goddess Kali, who is the embodiment of the terrifyingly beautiful cycle of life and death, the pyrrhic clearing of the old to make way for the new. She burns away what no longer serves us and forces us to shed outgrown patterns and strategies and emerge as something new. Kali destroys the safety nets we cling to, so that we can grow into a new container of being.

Ron Athey’s work, like Kali, has stayed with me, walking beside me like a friend.

Athey’s fishhooks and binds are clearly self-imposed. By inviting people to participate in his suffering, to bear witness to the process of transformation, he gives us permission to endure our own pain, without apology or excuse. This isn’t an apocalyptic message. The visceral experience of being present for another’s transformation reminds us that we may have to give up our old, comfortable life to change the way things are. Athey reminds us that healing, like freedom, is a process.

Experiencing pain doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is a choice. When I think about the ways I willingly push myself–my body, my mind, the boundaries of social acceptance–I am reminded that growth comes with a price. Paying it is a fair exchange.

 

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The Bible – Part I

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston

When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.

I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.

I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.

I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.

But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom. 

Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.

He looked noticeably relieved.

“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”

“Challenge accepted,” he replied. 

 

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About Art

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

― Ayesha Siddiqi

When I was 13, circuitous circumstances led me to seek a bathroom in The National Gallery of Art. Following the guard’s directions, I rushed through the modern wing, when without thinking, I pivoted in front of an oil on canvas. The painting was a monochrome sea of black. I knew nothing about art, had no idea what or who made art, had never known art was even a thing, but in that moment, I couldn’t move. I stood in front of Ad Reinhardt “Abstract Painting, No. 34” for a full 10 minutes, transfixed, lost in the subtle gradations of shadows, while tears dripped into the creases of my mouth, unexpectedly warm and salty. I had no idea why.

I come from a radically conservative family, and art is not something that’s ever been talked about, let alone explored or celebrated. In fact, where I come from, we are so culturally and socially conservative, even religious iconography is shunned. This was the first time I had ever visited a museum, and it was my first time to see art displayed, let alone showcased in a space where it is named and revered. But there I was that summer (after I’d had my spleen removed, newly healthy, sleeping in group tents, traveling by caravan across the country for eight weeks, performing and proselytizing nightly in an ecclesiastical play), seeking to use a bathroom in a big city. There are stories buried deep in the shells of that long, dense summer, packed with conflicting emotions. But it was Abstract Painting No. 34 that showed me the way home.

I knew enough not to talk about what I saw with the faith-based community with whom I travelled. But I held it within me, the rest of the summer, the smell and taste of black, and I began to notice the gradations of hues in the night skies throughout the regions we travelled, through the thick air of the southern nights and the cool northern evenings that welcomed us as we made our way into Canada. I began to notice the intricacies of blue in the daylight and the browns of the earth we slept on. And all these years later, when I ask myself what that painting did to me, why it propelled me to spend the last three decades at the intersection of my personal and professional life extricating myself from my familial roots, I understand how “art” can be used as a compass.

For the sixteenth time, I am teaching a college course in which students curate, edit and publish a literary journal within the context of a creative collective. We talk about what role art serves in our communities, what it means to support artists, how art is made, distributed, seen. And I offer the students a warning from Toni Morrison in  No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear: “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot…who know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.”

What I know now that I didn’t know then, is that as I stood in front of that painting in Washington DC, I was seduced into feeling, not thinking. Curiosity drew me to a canvas vastly different than the classical depictions of realism I passed on my way through the galleries toward the bathroom, but curiosity was only the trigger. I had no idea why someone would paint a canvas black, nor why anyone else would hang it up in a space, heralding it as art, but in that moment, I didn’t even know to ask those questions. In front of that painting, I accepted an invitation to feel.

Art changes us as individuals, and in doing so, changes the outer world we create and share. Inside the intricate dance between artist and viewer, we are invited to feel what we know, and by tasting, hearing, thinking, and seeing in altered ways, we increase our feeling and knowing. It’s not an obvious tool, like a map that clearly shows us where we want to go, but it transports us, nevertheless.

I think about how Abstract No. 34 captured my imagination. Amidst a caravan of followers seeped thick in the mire of original sin, through the darkness of a near-death illness, to a surgery that shifted my life expectancy, to the realization that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes, I let that painting move me. In the weeks after my imagination took hold, I began to compare black to the rigid rules and paradigms of sin and righteousness I had been taught. And I began to envision a way out of my closed compartment, into the hope of a less defined space.

I get it when people say they don’t get art. Sometimes I want to say, getting it isn’t the point. Art enlarges our boundaries, and in doing so, helps us resist oppression, whether internally or externally enforced. Through art, we ask questions too abstract to be quantified within the binary values of capitalism. Reinhardt’s passion and courage inspired me to question my status quo.In the work I now do for a living, I strive to live up to his challenge and become the person I needed when I was young.

 

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self-promotion, yo

I have an essay in my brain about hard work and taking myself seriously as a writer and taking risks and being scared and excited all at the same time. It’s there; I just need to grade about 1,132 things before I write it. And help my kids with their homework. And help my friend with his cover letter. And prepare for a talk I’m giving in less than 48 hours.I love all of the millions of things I’m involved in, but I’m also sometimes worn down and stretched thin. My life is living me right now. Basically, I’m trying to work at and take seriously something I care about, writing. For now, I’m posting an essay I wrote called “An Open Letter to the Adorable Young Couple Leisurely Strolling by As I Frantically Usher My Children into My Rav4” that got published in McSweeney’s. I’m very excited about it. Please read. It’s short; I promise.

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a little bit of hope

One of my lowest points was when a potential employer asked me to remove my shoes before I interviewed with him. I thought to myself, If he asks me to remove anything else, I will leave. His office was out of his sprawling-by-New-York-standards apartment near Times Square. The sounds of traffic drifted up through the windows. It was clear by the decor and by his hair that his heyday had been in the 1980s. Many people ask you to remove your shoes before entering their homes. However, I was already seated across from him, and he was staring lasciviously at my feet. I am ashamed to admit that I slid those shoes right off. I needed this editing position for this “literary agent.” I got the job.

I have done the following jobs prior to my career, many of them simultaneously, all while attending college full-time: construction day laborer, box office attendant, dancing waitress at Denny’s, regular waitress at Applebee’s, busboy at Roy’s (a male-only job that they gave to me because I was “big enough”), front desk attendant at the YMCA, high school tutor, college tutor, sign twirler, law library assistant, regular library assistant, administrative assistant for a basketball agent, administrative assistant for a non-profit, editorial assistant to an author, literary events coordinator, online editor for application essays to MBA programs, and, yes, shady editor for shady, foot-fetish, literary agent. Within a few weeks of working for this agent, I realized he was taking cash up front from people with clearly unsaleable manuscripts, and I quit. With a few exceptions, most of the above jobs chipped away at my humanity, especially bussing tables, dancing at Denny’s, and twirling signs, likely because I had objects thrown at me regularly during the course of those jobs. I know there are worse jobs. I know there are five-year-olds digging through garbage piles for aluminum cans to recycle. I’m not feeling sorry for myself.

At the same time, it became quite clear while I was attending graduate school at an Ivy League university–very unfamiliar territory for me–that some people have very different lives, that some people travel to Thailand on their winter breaks rather than upping their hours, that some people who are not in fiction books actually attended preparatory schools and possess trust funds. That almost every rich person seems to speak French. One faculty member, not knowing my background, told me that it was nearly impossible for anyone who had attended a state school to be successful in the Ivy League. Another faculty member told me to stop working so much and focus on my writing. That would have been lovely. That would have been impossible. It became clear to me during that time that when you have privilege, it is very easy to continue to have privilege, and that this can have almost nothing to do with hard work. And doing an unpaid internship was out of the question; I needed an income. (This is a good article on that tangent.) I was at at this school because I worked hard, yes, but also in spite of it.

Just before the election, I got into a Facebook argument with some friend of a friend named Lonnie who said to me, “You are the exception.” His story was that he worked hard and that he made things happen for himself and he hates all of these “moocher” liberals who just want handouts. I told him that I had a story, too, and that I worked hard, too, but that I was also lucky and had help (like mentors and federal student loans and state tuition and scholarships), and that I didn’t consider myself a moocher, given that I had worked really really really hard. I suspect that Lonnie had help and luck, too, though he wouldn’t admit it. There is no such thing as picking yourself up by your bootstraps. We don’t do anything on our own, not completely.

I have an amazing job now, one that I love,  one that inspires me, one that allows me sufficient time with my children, and even some time to write. I am, of course, still paying down my insane student loans, but without student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school either.  I would love to take complete credit for working hard and shaping my own future and all of that, but the truth is that I am simply lucky. If I had entered graduate school only a couple of years later, I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t get all of those demoralizing part-time jobs when I was in college, I wouldn’t be here. If I hadn’t met the right combination of people who made me feel confident enough in myself to get through graduate school, I wouldn’t be here. No matter how hard I worked.

When I think about how much hustling I did between jobs and classes and homework and writing, I get exhausted. These jobs, however, in addition to the other opportunities I got, helped me get through college, and I am grateful for them. I was able to quit working for foot fetish guy because I knew there would be something else. There were jobs to be had then, multiple part-time jobs, and that is not always the case now. This past election made me feel as though maybe people realize, just a little bit, that the kind of gross inequality we have and are making worse with our policies is not a good thing, not even for the rich. I still think we need serious reform. Obama and the rest of them have been paid for. But I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about us. However heated things got on Facebook, the country voted fairly moderately. We put a lesbian in the Senate! In the states, there was marijuana! Gay marriage! Education funding! The most vocal lady-hating politicians all got booted. As difficult as things sometimes seem (side note: I really need to stop reading The Price of Inequality), this country decided to tell people like my friend of a friend Lonnie that we are not, in fact, in this alone. As a rule, I’m fairly cynical, but this gives me a little bit of hope.

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