Thank You, Sylvia Plath

For a person who tends to overthink things, it’s odd that I never really examined why Sylvia Plath was such a powerful force in my teen years. Today, when Google reminded me it is her birthday, I had an intense emotional reaction to realizing that she would be only 87 now, had she lived. All the decades of her absence slammed into me as a deep loss. I feel my throat tightening again now, and the hot glitter at the edges of my eyes.

When I’ve told people in the past that Plath was an important writer for me, I’ve heard comments like, “Oh that’s so dark,” or “Were you suicidal too?”

What? Do people who love Byron have to be promiscuous bisexuals to adore his ravishingly rich poetry? Do people who love Homer need to be blind? Those comments strike me as both naïve and sexist, but that is not the point of this blog.

Today, I realized in a simple, clean epiphany that was far from surprising or unexpected—Plath showed me that we can use words to unhinge the meaning from the experience and slam the page with truth.

She showed me that nothing is off limits.

She showed me that what is real has a place in writing. And real is found in the world outside us but also the world inside us.

Of course, other poets could have taught me this, but she is the one I found at the moment when I was open and vulnerable to awakening.

I have owned The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel for 47 years. They are on loan to my poet daughter at the moment. I am sad about that today as I long to leaf through them. Though Colossus came out in 1960, months after I was born, and Ariel in 1965, after her death, my editions are: Colossus 1968 edition Vintage Books, and Ariel 1966 edition Harper and Row—pictured above.

But I digress.

Her posthumous book is the one that now, reading many of its poems online, I realize with some mild surprise, I must have read hundreds of times, so ingrained are the words in my mind.

Like so many very young aspiring writers, my natural talent with words was hidden under bushels of cliché and “shoulds” when I was 12, 13, 14. The stuff I wrote at 6 and 7 was far more real. Plath was the bitch slap I needed… and so much more.

In “Lady Lazarus” Plath scorchingly writes of her near deaths, one by chance and one by her own hand, adds raw layers of stunning images—her, curled up under the house, trying to die while underground critters came to rest upon her (“I meant / To last it out and not come back at all. / I rocked shut / As a seashell. / They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.”)—and references to Nazi doctors (“So, so, Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy. / I am your opus, / I am your valuable / The pure gold baby, / That melts to a shriek.”), carnivals (where she is the attraction: “There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart– / It really goes.”), and so much more as she rises again and again from death (“What a trash, / To annihilate each decade.”).

I read these words, at 15 and 16, knowing that she did not rise again, the next time she tried. I knew this voice was silenced forever and it grieved me. I cried real tears for her, and for me, for all we both lost.

“Daddy” was another poem that sank into my bones. I did not know, till then, that we could write such forbidden things. That we had permission to speak truth to power. That fear need not demand silence if proclaiming these truths would have meaning. If not to anyone else, at least to the writer herself. I was scandalized, thrilled by her scorn for the Nazi beekeeping father who held such sway over her life:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

But not only that—the bold zero-fucks-given way Plath just went there. This may seem like no biggie nowadays. People write from depths that were off limits 40, 50 years ago. I believe Plath’s unrepentant, slicing honesty and the devastating perfection of her language helped pave the way for every writer since. And that is with her husband’s horrible interference, now thankfully undone in more recent editions.

The Bell Jar was an amazing book and of course I read it. But only once. I am a writer of prose, not poetry, and yet it was her poems that called to me again and again. I have never read any book as many times as I’ve read Ariel. Why? I asked myself that today for the first time.

It freed me. It blew open my mind to possibility. I did not try to act on that possibility till several years later, in my fiction, but the seed was sown, permission given.

And I adore her because she did not need permission. She was a trailblazer who, despite suffering from mental illness I cannot fathom, wrote. She wrote real. She wrote genius. She wrote pain. She wrote her own ugliness. Her strength. Her tragic flaws. Her own unmatched, shocking beauty.

Her words were an incision, clean and kind, into me. Thank you, Sylvia Plath.

Shelter in Place OR When Children Must Come to Terms with Their Imminent Demise Something is Very Broken

“This is a lockdown. This is a lockdown. This is NOT A DRILL.”

That’s what the students at the public schools heard on Friday in the community where I live, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. They pushed tables against doors, crouched in corners, and tried not to make noise. They hoped and prayed that they would be allowed to live.

Thirty minutes went by before they learned that it was a false alarm. Someone had accidentally triggered the panic button.

Thirty minutes went by in which every adult and child in the school wondered if the shooter would find them. And when.

Texts were sent, like this one: “I don’t know what might happen. I love you, Mom.”

Some students could not bear to wait and jumped out of second floor windows.

I can’t begin to guess why they jumped… Was it fear, plain and simple? Survival instinct? A despairing belief that it might not matter but I’ll try anyway? It seems that “I want to live” looks like shelter in place to one child and it looks like jump out the window to another. What would you do?

By incredible, ironic chance, a panel discussion about Massachusetts gun legislation was scheduled for later in the day and I had planned to attend. I did attend, completely unsure what it would look like in the wake of the morning’s events. Three members of the Massachusetts legislature were there, as well as a representative from Moms Against Gun Violence, and a high school student activist extremely involved in the national gun control movement.

That boy told his story.

“A fourteen-year-old girl one foot away from me was crying so hard that tears flowed in a stream from her chin. All she could say, over and over and over was, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’”

The boy, let’s call him JJ, went on: “By he, she meant the man out there somewhere who wanted her dead.”

He explained, “I did not know how long I’d be alive.” He said that, or words to that effect, repeatedly as he processed before our eyes.

No one, he explained, thought, “Maybe it’s an earthquake.” They’ve been trained to fear something far worse than the shifting of tectonic plates, the collapse of buildings, and a tsunami aftershock.

By the time we saw JJ, he was very, very angry. But there was more. Much more. This brave teenager, who somehow managed to have the stomach and the grit to make it to his speaking commitment that afternoon, was traumatized.

I think we say that word a bit too freely sometimes: “I was traumatized,” or, “That was so traumatic.” Many people in our country experience true trauma—abuse and rape victims, children ripped from their parents and kept in cages, the victims and survivors of mass shootings, to name just a few examples. We need to be careful to use words precisely.

Children who thought they were about to die while in a place where they should always and without question feel safe? That is trauma.

However, JJ never once said, “I am traumatized.” He was too inside the moment to think about defining it. But all of us in that room heard it in his voice. Saw it in his face. He will never be the same. None of them will.

And JJ did NOT have to face a shooter. He will NOT have to go to funerals for the next month. But he believed he would die. That his friends, his teachers, might be gone in the flash of a semi-automatic weapon and lie in their own blood until some indeterminate moment when things were safe again.

Outside, surrounded by the flashing lights of every police car on the island, parents gathered, awaiting news, wondering if their babies would come back to them.

This is the country we live in. This is the United States of America. A nation of children who know how to shelter in place, push tables against doors, be very very very quiet. While wanting their mothers. While crying, while needing human connection, while being paralyzed by the most horrific of thoughts. A “civilized” society in which 5-year-olds know what a “shooter” is and must understand that they and they alone are responsible for their actions in attempting to avoid being murdered. They must also know this: if they reveal their position to the shooter, they may be to blame for the deaths of everyone else in that room. Deal with that, why don’t you.

I know I could not.

Marjory Decker, state legislator who sponsored the red flag law that passed in MA in 2018, spoke of her own young children. One of them has night terrors because of the lockdown drills at her school. I have heard similar stories from others whose children are deeply troubled just by being prepared for an active shooter in their schools. Why wouldn’t they be?

As horrible as it is that the alarm went off in our schools by “mistake”—why do we even have to have a panic button in every school? Why must we prepare our children for imminent death because some dude decides he needs to shoot things, AND he can get a gun more easily than a car or a marriage license?

I am intensely proud to be part of the agency that was called upon and that responded to this event on Friday. Our clinicians rushed to the scene and helped children and parents, teachers and administrators navigate the fearful reality of this accidental “not a drill” that they had to live through for 30 whole minutes. We will be back again on Monday, helping as best we can… But I despair. Why does this have to be a thing? How can the gun lobby matter more than the lives and souls of children?

Please explain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

100th Blogday—Reflections on a Blog’s Birth, Change, and the Optimism to Try Again

Spiralwoman.com was born sometime during the very early part of 2013. At that precise time, I was in a tunnel and the light was starting to show. I was ready to emerge. To write, live, forge ahead. Starting this blog was a huge affirmation of life and joy. I’m not altogether sure of the details of why that is so, but I know it is.

Happy 100th blogday to me.

What was going on? Let’s see. Within the prior year I had ended my marriage, taken a risk on new love, taken a leave from my job, moved 1400 miles with a cat in a truck, tried very hard, saw that love is not always enough, moved 1400 miles back again to a world where I no longer had a home or an income, relied on the kindness of friends, suffered the fucking agonies of hell with a heart, mind, and soul that felt more ripped up than one might imagine could happen to a “mature woman,” and refused to succumb.

I started this blog, 100 posts ago, sitting in the brilliantly sunlit family room of my dear friend Meredith, who basically gave me her weekend home to live in. Occasionally she showed up… a human co-habitant so full of love and grace that I felt blessed all over again by her. One of many blessings hidden in the pattern of growth, pain, and change.

By the time I showed up at her place, I had experienced the unconditional hospitality of three other friends. What I did not talk about on my blog, though I talked around it, was that my heart was, quite simply, broken. I lost love. Plain and simple. A second chance I thought I was being “given,” was no chance at all.

During that period of my life, when someone said, “This might help,” I tried it. No questions asked. There was no ego, no pride that could interfere with any process undertaken by the scaled back-to-the-bone self I was in that moment. I drank Valerian tea and came to love the bitter, nauseous smell and taste. I tried automatic writing to seek my own inner wisdom. I took epic walks in every kind of weather. I circled with women. I dove into solitude. I counted each day off the ledger of my sadness, knowing on a deep level that, eventually, there would be a day that was less hard. I wrote, for me and others, scraping together money until my leave was over and I returned to work.

Before summer came, I was on the way to being me again… mostly. People I loved experienced loss of their own, and I found I had the reserves to offer comfort and support to them. I had replenished my hollowness. One day at a time.

Part of the reinvention of myself included becoming a blogger. Part of it included being an idiot sometimes. Part of it included starting (eventually) to date again, and even having a few, short-lived but meaningful, angst-free relationships. Part of it included stepping into an entirely new job—one that scared and thrilled me and that I turned out to be really good at. I ushered in a new chapter at a workplace I loved with all my heart, turning my skills and passion to the task of making things better for everyone. A mission worthy of the reborn.

Fast forward 100 blogs… I am sitting at a coffee shop on a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts with an all-new life barely begun.

Nantucket is my new home.

I love this kind of transformative challenge because it reminds me, once again, how tough I am. Emotional, highly sensitive, romantic, idealistic, trusting, irreverent, maternal Spiralwoman is also a survivor and a thriver.

All new everything. I can’t find my way around the twisting streets without getting lost. I can’t buy five items at the grocery store for less than $50. I can’t see the sun from my basement apartment. I can’t imagine the high season, when the cobblestone streets will be choked with cars. I can’t do a lot of things.

But I can… Crush my new, demanding, meaningful job. Host every friend I’ve ever had who is willing to come visit me. Live life with optimism and joy. Spend my weekends on the beach. Or writing. Or both. Be grateful for the lessons learned. Celebrate my 100th blogday!

Isolation is good for the soul.

 

 

 

 

Location, Location, Location—How A Place Can Call Your Name

1982? 1983? Youthful, happy, reckless, free in C’ville with Molly and Bridget.

Here I am back in Charlottesville. Again. Or should I say: againagain. It’s been nearly a year since I spent two weeks here. There was an unplanned extra week as I waited for my car’s new transmission to be installed, attended the gun control march in the wake of the Parkland shootings, and worked remotely as I tapped in to the energy of a place I have loved for 42 years, since the first time I saw it.

Albemarle County, country road… ah Virginia…

I was 17, a senior in high school, and envisioning what my life might be. As much as I loved the town, Albemarle County (full of horses and country roads), and the University, I did not at first think I was going to go to UVA. It was quite big, and I was still thinking small. I came very close to attending Kenyon instead—an awesome college I have utmost respect for. But as I energetically pointed my sights toward Ohio, something shifted, and I veered off that course, landing in C’ville a month before my 18th birthday. Destiny is real.

Thos Jeff’s column-defined ranges along the Lawn

This town has been the source of some of my greatest learning. I received an incredible education, creating my own course of study at UVA as a privileged young scholar. The university supported me through my financial independence from my family shortly after I started my second year, and as far as the people at the school were concerned, it was NBD for me to be a non-traditional student, working full-time at the C&O Restaurant and taking two to three courses a term, fall, spring, and summer, and getting my degree two years later than originally planned.

Human connections of untold value and importance happened here. Lifelong friends, an employer whose gut reaction (he hired me after I said, “Hi, I’m here to apply for the job”) led to a learning journey like no other(and great money, FYI), and, of course, first love. And second love. And third.

My boss at the C&O when I was 18-23–I still love him madly. Sandy McAdams.  

Serpentine walls –UVA trademark and another reason to love everything about C’ville

I feel certain that my destiny will bring me back here to live again in the energy field of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the history—both tortured and significant—of this oh-so fundamental part of the nation, the learning community that is the University and the people and the town itself.

It is no freak of chance that Charlottesville attracts so many energy healers, so many writers, artists, and artisans, so many seekers. This place heals and it also (sometimes grudgingly, sometimes joyously) receives healing.

My astromap.

For kicks, I looked at how my astrological chart interacted with Charlottesville. Fascinating. One thing stood out: the place lends itself to exploring the depths of my psyche, meditation, contemplation, and self-healing. Sounds good to me.

Drawing by Georgia O’Keeffe of the University’s rotunda…

I have history here, a now here (now, this minute, sitting with my latte at a coffee shop among other coffee-seekers), and a future here. Life unfolds—or does it extend… like a sailor’s spyglass, to reach through the depths of now into the other nows that happen just out of sight?

When friends I’ve known longer than my kids have been alive hang out with me and my kids in C’ville. Serendipity.

Most People Are Good–My Cincinnati Airport Miracle

My plane from Charlotte NC had landed about fifteen minutes ago. I was back in Cincinnati where I’m staying for a few weeks. Pulling my little carry-on, I got to within 20 yards of the parking garage where I left my car 36 hours earlier when my brain exploded with the realization that I did not have my computer. It was not hanging, in its case, from my shoulder where it belonged. I was slammed by the white flood of horrible awareness that wants to be denial. You know that feeling? My mind fell to its knees wailing, “NNNNOOOOOooooooooooo!”

But my (tired) body raced back into the airport. I headed to the first official-looking person I saw. It turns out she is called an “airport ambassador” and she has a magic telephone. But though she used the phone to seek help for me, none was forthcoming. It was while I was standing there with her, waiting for a call-back from the security guard who was going to look in the women’s room—and I explained exactly which one it was and how it was on the right side, just after the first moving walkway coming from gate B22—that I realized the case was not in the women’s room.

“The train!” I exclaimed in a voice squeaky with panic and hollow with disbelief. By now 25 minutes (at least) had passed, and my on-flight, post-job interview sense of well-being and exhaustion was completely washed away by adrenaline spiked by cortisol. “I had it on the train!” How could I explain to the utterly baffled ambassador that for almost a half hour immediately after getting off the train, I had forgotten I was even on the train? The human mind is maddening.

Now I remembered. I was so tired, I’d decided to take that little tram/train—which I normally eschew in favor of walking and the cool moving sidewalks. My daughter called while I was aboard the zippy little train, and I missed the announcement that we’d reached the destination—near ground transportation. The only other person on the train got off and I leaped off too, in the nick of time, before the doors closed and the train would return to the gates.

That’s when the computer case became a distant artifact lost in the Cincinnati airport, without my realizing it. I begged the ambassador armed with The Phone to find out if I could go back to look? Somehow? With a security guard? Please?

Finally, after another call or two with her not-so-magic phone, she said it was time for her to go home. She informed me that the American Airlines personnel upstairs at the ticketing counter could give me a pass to go beyond the checkpoint.

Not so.

I went upstairs and the woman at the counter told me what my good sense already knew. “No, we cannot give you a pass to go back.” (Implied: you poor deluded woman.) She explained very kindly that it was very likely someone would turn it in to security and tomorrow Lost and Found would contact me. “This happens often. People usually do the right thing.”

It was at that moment that I realized: my wallet was in the computer case.

No kidding. I’d forgotten that too. Why? Am I fucking senile or something? No, I swear. But my brain, like yours, is a creature of habit. I never—and I mean never—put my wallet in that bag. But in the interests of traveling light, I had not brought a purse, and so, in addition to my computer, the case held both wallet and hairbrush. The really essential things.

At this point I was vividly pre-living the next 24 hours in my mind. Cancelling all my credit cards. Trying to think of all the websites that my computer remembers my passwords for. My bank, for example. Why hadn’t I used a good password to protect my computer instead of the word “peace” which is probably second only to “love” as a non-birthday password among the hippie/shaman/gluten-free set.

“People are good,” I kept telling myself. “People are kind. People usually do the right thing.”

The airline lady—Traci—looked at me with great compassion but her hands seemed tied. I said, “Do you think that, somewhere in this airport, there is a person who would just go peek on that train?” She looked at me and said, “You know what? I’ll go.”

“C’mon,” she said. I followed her down the escalator. “You stand here and just watch people coming through.” She pointed to where travelers poured out from the American arrivals gates. She used the secret employee passage and said she’d be right back. I stood there paralyzed with the intensity of my hope, and stared at every man, woman, and baby stroller that passed me on the way to their cars, Ubers, and waiting grandmothers.

Then I glanced at the security guard. You know, the guy who sits at a little desk/kiosk thing at the end of the tunnel? His job is probably pretty boring. He was chatting with someone. That’s when I noticed a black strap—suspiciously like a computer bag strap—dangling down from the shelf of the desk/kiosk behind him. “Sir!” I burst out, my voice cracking. “Is that…” He looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Is that,” I pointed, “a computer case?”

He turned, grabbed my case and said, “Someone found it on the tram. I don’t know if there’s a computer in it…”

I did not even mind his lame attempt at a joke. “It’s mine! OH MY GOD IT’S MINE!”

The hot flood was back but it was such a happy flood this time. “I can prove it. My wallet is inside.” He unzipped the case, peeked, zipped it and said, “Yup. This is yours.”

I must have looked like I was about to stroke out because he said, “Breathe! It’s okay. Breathe. Just breathe, lady.”

A no-man’s-land divided us. A line painted on the floor near him kept him in his spot, and a wide strip, on which the toes of my boots shuffled impatiently, said, “DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE.” Six feet divided us. “You come to me,” he said with an authoritative nod.

Grabbing the case to my chest like a recently ransomed infant, I thanked him 63 times. “Just so you know,” I explained, “I’ll be waiting here until Traci from American comes back. She’s looking for this.” I raised the case as exhibit A, as if there would be any confusion. “I need to thank her.”

Not even a minute later, Traci emerged from the employee hallway with a dejected “I didn’t find it” look on her face. I waved like a madwoman, swinging the computer case around like a total fool. “I got it!”

She rushed to me, and we embraced—a genuine, full body, arms tight embrace of joy and solidarity. “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” she kept saying. We pulled back, grinned into each other’s faces, and embraced again. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Most people do the right thing!” I said, nearly weeping. “People are good. Really, really good!”

As she hustled back to the escalator and the end of her shift, she called back, “Yes! They are!”

 

Note: I am neither deluded nor stupid, but I do believe that most people are good. We cannot forget this, despite the palpable evidence that there are, in fact, people who callously do evil on a daily basis, using their power to increase their privilege and to disenfranchise, belittle, ignore, mock, bully, and harm others. Remember that you are good. And I am good. And the person who turned in my computer is good. And Traci is good. And millions more who can take our planet and our country back from the ones who are not. Don’t give up. #resist

PWITP: Women, Empowerment, and Purpose

What gives you hope? For me, today, May of 2018, it’s the same thing that has boosted my flagging optimism for the last 12+ months. It’s a movement, a mission, a project called Putting Women in Their Place and it’s the brainchild of my very own sister, Megan Park.

And it’s fucking brilliant.

Let’s look at a few brief facts.

Without overstating the blatantly obvious, one of the (many) reasons the current government holding power in DC is seriously compromised is that it doesn’t actually represent Americans. In a democracy, the idea is that the government is supposed to be representational. Meaning every American citizen can register to vote and can actually get to a voting booth without obstruction. Meaning that the people voted into power actually represent their interests. Thus, the concept goes, our elected officials won’t screw over the poor in favor of the one percent. They won’t systematically reverse legislation that, after years and decades of fighting and struggle, guarantees the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ. They won’t deny scientific evidence of climate change in order to ensure profits for the oil companies lining their pockets.

A democracy means that those in power won’t compromise the free press and lie in order to push through legislation that serves only them. It means that they are voted into office legally and ethically, without the intervention of a foreign power and the corrupt inner circle who greased the wheels for that to happen.

And to put it bluntly: 51% of the country’s population is women, and only 19% represent us in congress. 18% of the population is African American but only 9% of Congress is black. 17% of the country is Hispanic or Latino/a but only 7% of Congress is. And 10% of the citizenry is LGBTQ but only half of 1% of the people allegedly representing their interests in Congress is L, G, B, T, or Q. That is not representation.

And what about governors? Just as one example, women are sitting governors in only 6 out of 50 states. If I’m doing my math right, shouldn’t that number be closer to 25.5? And it’s not as if they are running for office in equal numbers and simply not being elected. They are not running. The system, is still and has always been, rigged. Society as we know it is still, and has always been, rigged.

So what’s a gal to do?

I was feeling so helpless. Not just in the days after the 2016 presidential election, but as I read the news reports day after day as our precious, gorgeous democracy began to look more and more like tyranny, or at the very least, a corporate oligarchy. And then there were the legislators defending the NRA as more children are gunned down in schools. And the golf trips of the president on my dime. And the hateful and persistent misogyny and racism. Imagine… the man holding the highest office in the land sticking up for sexual predators and Nazis.

Helpless is a bad feeling. My sister, Megan Park, didn’t like that feeling either. She said to herself, “If the system is rigged… we gotta unrig it.”

Megan explains the “trickle up theory” that fills the pipeline with women from the bottom… up.

 

She and her business partner have a company, Little Sprig, that makes videos. That’s what they do. They know how to tell a hell of a story. Her lightbulb moment was a good one. She knew what she could do to enact real change.

She would make free campaign videos for any progressive woman running for office. How does someone get elected to the highest office of the land? One way is for a candidate to have no experience or credentials and to buy and bribe and cheat his way into office. Another way—the way most often used in this country through history—is to start at the beginning. As town supervisor. Local circuit judge. Sheriff. District Attorney. And do good. Represent the people. And get elected to the state senate, or as mayor. Eventually, to Congress, or as a senator, a governor…

From the courthouse to the state house to the White House—that’s how. And there can’t be just one or two—not good odds. The political pipeline must be full of women. Women of every color, faith, heritage, sexual orientation. If we support women all the way into office, the demographics inside every legislature, state capital, and DC’s halls of power will shift across the board.

And that is exactly what PWITP is ensuring. As more and more women step up to run for office –in unprecedented numbers—PWITP is there to help. They’ve already made videos for 65 candidates in 6 states. They made a video for Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender black woman to be elected to office in Minnesota. She is City Councilwoman in Minneapolis.

Some of the passionate voters (and one candidate for NY Senate) who came out for PWITP.

Last week, my home was bustling with passionate, intensely committed people. Mostly women, I admit, but not exclusively. I’d invited them to join me on the day before Mother’s Day to hear what Megan had to say about PWITP. Their current project—called the 1000 Video Project—is exactly what it sounds like. They are setting out to make free campaign videos for at least 20 progressive women candidates in every state. 20 x 50 = 1000. PWITP, as Megan says, amplifies the voices of women who want to serve and have the guts to do it.

People left my place that unseasonably chilly evening well-fed, well-informed, truly inspired, and eager to help. This is a real thing that we can do. We can spread the word. We can contribute money as we are able. And we can volunteer, as appropriate.

Go to their website. Sign up. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and share, share, share till they go viral! Tell everyone you know. The future is female.

Please join me in feeling very, very hopeful.

Me with my feminist, empowered, badass sisters.

 

 

 

 

Di Sua Mano: Il Divino Made This

These sketches for God’s outreached hand in his creation of Adam, for the Sistine Ceiling literally stopped my heart. For a sec.

Every line, cross-out, hatch mark, smudge, and masterful stroke was made by him. Michelangelo. Himself. Il Divino—the Divine One. 133 drawings di sua mano—by his hand. Awareness of that translated into a constant ball of excitement and emotion swirling inside me.

This shows how he sketched over old versions. Here the rejected then final sketches of legs for the sculpture Christ the Redeemer.

I’ve been a hardcore Michelangelo fangirl since I was about five and my mother (inexplicably) took me to the local Loews theater on East 86th Street to see The Agony and the Ecstasy, starring Charlton Heston as the master, and an all-star cast à la 1965, including Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. On the face of it, the casting was absurd, but for the time it seemed only logical to put the most heroic of actors in the role of Michelangelo, despite his looking more Nordic than Italian. Based on a novel by Irving Stone and highly questionable in terms of accuracy, the movie did do one thing right (as I remember it a half century later). It treated the creation of art as a heroic act and, specifically, the painting of the Sistine Ceiling (around which the action mainly takes place) as something profound and beyond remarkable—truly earth shattering in the novelty and vision of the artist, and a physically demanding task that anyone faint of heart or weak of body would struggle to do.

Risen Christ One foot still in the sarcophagus, the soldiers shrink away in fear.

The movie slash book takes all kinds of liberties, but no matter. When the artist (aka Charlton Heston and his super-American accent) falls from the scaffold (never really happened) I stood up in the theater and cried out—apparently very loudly—and began to sob. Suspension of disbelief has never been a problem for me.

Another Resurrection. His shroud falls away as he rises. Queen of England owns this.

After that, he never left me. I would not say I became obsessed, but I was smitten. By the whole idea of it. Art. Creation. The compulsion to create. Going to the Met almost every Saturday of my childhood was not a mother-driven activity as much as mother-suggested and daughter-approved. Heartily.

A study for Christ on the cross, also poetry he wrote and later crossed out.

Throughout my childhood I read as many biographies of Michelangelo as existed in my school libraries—first the lower school library when I recall being biography obsessed in general in about third grade, then later in the upper school library where things got pretty serious. As soon as I could take art history classes in high school I was there. Then college, of course, though I did not major in it. I think my passion for the art of Michelangelo was a huge part of what guided me to take those classes and I have never looked back. My love for visual art has been a mainstay of my soul and life ever since.

Queen of Egypt. Rare finished drawing of a woman who is not Mary. Her nobility of spirit is evident as the asp bites her breast.

It occurs to me now that my longing to visit Italy may have begun with my love affair with this artist. Since then, I’ve accrued any number of brilliant reasons to travel to that country (almost all of them related to various artists, artworks, architectural masterpieces, and then there’s the food), and will do so before I hit 60 (my vow to myself).

Sketch of a leg for a figure in the Resurrection scene in the Last Judgment. Added later: a snippet of a madrigal he wrote about being tortured by flirtatious eyes.

In addition to the 133 drawings, the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called Divine Draftsman and Designer, contains two sculptures, a small reproduction of the Ceiling in glass overhead in one gallery (drawings/cartoons of some of the figures are exhibited below), and a great deal of top notch curatorial information to read in every room, something one can count on at the Met.

Study for the sculpture of the reclining figure of Night for the Sacristy of San Lorenzo. Leg and shoulder are all that are finished–the rest sketched in.

The first two rooms were so packed that movement was nearly impossible. It was more of a gradual ooze of bodies that, if I was lucky, would take me near enough to the art that I could see it. Eventually, the crowds thinned comfortably enough so that getting a chance to gaze at every piece was a guarantee. (I think people gave up. I would never give up.)

Study for Virgin and Child sculpture. Toddler Christ astride her leg, twisted and nursing. The figure of Joseph suggested in back.

Almost immediately when I got to the second room—the first was full of great art by people who inspired and influenced Michelangelo—I felt the rush of emotion and overwhelm hit me. Looking at a drawing—red chalk on a piece of paper he had used before (never wasteful, my frugal hero)—the awareness bloomed inside me. He touched this. He made this. His radical, confident vision manifested on this paper. Tears sprang to my eyes (if you know me or have read my blog you realize I react to strong emotion this way). They leaked out and I stood like a fangirl fool swiping at my face in the middle of a mob of art admirers. No one noticed, of course. No one could tear their eyes from the work. Who could?

In this crucifixion drawing, Christ is still alive

I’m no art critic so this blog won’t tell you how and why, nor even what. My only intention is to share with you, anonymous reader, my sense of joyful fulfillment at being in all those rooms with all those drawings. Many of them were displayed in the middle of the room so we could see what he drew on both sides. He often did that. The sheer volume, and the sheer range of subjects, and the way he often revisited the same figure or movement or scene in a second, or even third drawing—all of it “tasted like more,” as my grandma used to say.

Unfinished cartoon of Virgin with Child. In characteristic fashion, orso and arm finished to a high polish–the rest rather impressionistic.

His famous technique of finishing one detail or section of the form while leaving other parts sketched-in, suggested, was suddenly very real to me. His passion for the human form, mostly male, his profound piety and devotion to Christ and Mary, his incredible mastery of all art forms (from drawing human forms to architectural details to full-on architectural designs, and the thing he most valued, sculpture). And his passion for writing (sonnets, for example)—all this was all there in front of me, made manifest di sua mano.

Architectural details beneath dialogue imagined between Night and Day.

On one sheet, in among the others, he had sketched some architectural details, “revealing the artist’s process of vivifying inert forms”*. (Yes, he did that. Somehow.) Below that, he had, for his own amusement, lightly drawn a screaming man, in profile. At the top of the page, unrelated to the rest, a few lines in his glorious script, jotted down straight out of his mind, ever active, curious, creative. A dialogue about death, between (obviously) Day and Night.

Study for the second version of Christ the Redeemer. Again, detailed section with the rest hinted at. The figure’s S curve is a signature of his too.

I stared at this for a very long time. I fell in love all over again with this human who walked the earth 500 years ago. Very much a human, but divine nonetheless, as only humans can be, of course. Divinely inspired to create, change the world, express his vision, recreate reality itself. Like other great artists, his impulse to create and make was never about me or us or anyone who bathes her or his soul in the things created. It was an imperative. Sure, he took commissions and did jobs for people who paid. A man’s gotta eat. But, commission or not, it was clear that these drawings were done by him, for him. Because.

Design for the staircase of Laurentian library came to him in a dream. He drew over the earlier drawings of a pupil.

Studies for the Pieta of Ubeda altarpiece. Christ’s limp right arm sketched three times. Finished sections contrasted with suggested sections.

Archers. Athletic, nude, in action–but no arrows. No one knows why.

*credit to whatever Met employee wrote the text for this exhibit

 

 

The Grand Canyon–Self-possessed and Flawless

  

We’d gotten in at midnight the night before, and seen the black sky smeared with a blizzard of stars. That alone told us all we needed to know—this was a different kind of place. One that can surround a person with pure blackness. And it did, but for the sparse pools of yellow light shed by just enough lamps to get us from check-in to our lodge without falling into an abyss. With nothing to see—yet—we were able to sleep.

When I woke up, my roommate, Chris, was heading out to find coffee. Dressing quickly, I left our little room at the end of a narrow hallway. Turning toward the light that peeked through a pane of glass in a door at the far end, I shivered a bit. This was it. I was here. What was I going to see?

Pushing open the door I walked 15 feet, dodged a small tree, took four strides across a paved walkway, and stood before a low wall—all that was left between me and the Grand Canyon.

My breath stayed in my chest for a moment, then another, and then—unexpectedly and all at once—tears sprang to my eyes.

It is unclear how long I was there, but it was long enough that when I looked around again, I was lost. I had no memory of getting to this place. Had I moved? I must have, though I remembered nothing. I was not where I was when I first came out from the shadows of the trees into the morning light and saw the deep and layered, sloping and sheer, sun-drenched and shadowed, speckled and smooth, lined and creased, orange-red, mossy-green, white-brown, brown-white, brown-red, rusty-pink crevasse that splits the earth’s crust.

Eventually, after a few false starts, I found my friends in the dining room. I walked up to their table and the tears came again. “I’m so overwhelmed,” I blubbered.

How does anyone take a picture of a geological masterpiece and do it justice? She doesn’t. How does a person write about that moment when all the tiny, silly details of daily life melt in the face of deep planetary history? She doesn’t. Forgive this blog, my small attempt at photos and words.

Not that I really understood what I was seeing. I went to a geology lecture that helped. I loved the young man who spoke with such passion and poetry about the billions of years made evident in one mind-boggling natural formation that opened up behind him as a clump of us sat, dazzled, on stone benches in a rough-hewn amphitheater.

I won’t describe everything we did or saw, asked, learned, felt, or experienced. But I want to try to understand what the overwhelm was really about. Yeah, yeah, it’s big. A walk around the rim would be equivalent to a walk from New York to California—so it’s really big. Yeah, it’s old, and even though (as we were reminded repeatedly) the scale of time is a bit much for the human mind to comprehend, I visualized the period at the end of Remembrance of Things Past and reminded myself that punctuation mark represents human history on this planet that does not need us. The Grand Canyon at its lowest levels is over a billion years old, but still does not enter Proust’s masterpiece until several volumes in.

I think, really, it’s the beauty that flattened me. And the beauty is part of the size. And the size is part of the age. All pieces, inextricable.

The beauty is the kind that does not exist in my world. It is not a tree covered beauty. It is not a skyline beauty. It is not a rolling hills beauty. It is not a pasture beauty. Not an estuary beauty. Not a watershed beauty. Not a rolling wave beauty—or crashing wave beauty for that matter.

The exquisite subtlety was unexpected. For something that monumentally vast, old, and renowned to convey its magic so gently is astonishing and wondrous.

The delicate pastels, and how they changed as the sun moved across the sky. The glittering ribbon of the distant Colorado, glimpsed, from certain vantage points. The speckling of junipers clinging to the slopes. Rock formations, windows eroded into limestone, the temples, plateaus, outcroppings, and drop-aways—breathtaking yes, but quiet. The wind blew, creating a silence in my head, and as my eye wandered, the overwhelm was perhaps about an unfathomable accumulation of so many hundreds and thousands of individual, subtle, self-possessed pieces of flawless beauty.

I was within sight of the Canyon’s rim for a mere 34 hours. My visit taught me that, wow, I wish I could have more—a few additional days, longer hikes, slower walks, a few more sunrises and sunsets, expanding time to just sit, more chances to learn. But there was no hole in me from wanting more. Because the Grand Canyon filled me up and left me sated, grateful, humbled, happy.

Love and Righteous Anger: A Personal 2017 Perspective

How 2017 began–women marching.

I love women’s anger. Without realizing it, I’ve been waiting my whole life for women all over the place to finally admit how PISSED they are.

As a child, I was peripherally aware of my mother’s struggles against the entire fabric of society in order to be successful on Madison Avenue, rise in her field, be a divorced woman in the 60s when that meant social ostracism, all the while raising a daughter on her own with literally no support system she didn’t have to pay for.

I was aware of all that through a glass darkly, as I went about my business, blessed by my mother’s visionary decision to put me into a girl’s school where I could just be. But as I grew up watching her closely, as only daughters of single mothers tend to do, it was clear that she was never angry enough. She was too afraid that her anger would be a strike against her in a man’s world, or so I imagine. She swallowed ALL of it.

And then she went crazy. Probably not direct cause and effect, but sure enough, after her psychotic break, the anger was reallllly close to the surface. And who can blame her? The last 25 years of her life were spent paranoid and delusional, it’s true, but her conviction that she was and had long been a victim of countless injustices was based largely on the non-alternative fact that she was a strong, smart woman fully marginalized in a world run by men. Story of the world, right?

But not for much longer. Because we are so very, very pissed. Somehow, the rise of the Trump Machine primed women across our country to take it to the next level. (You notice I don’t say “all women” because there are those women who still vote for guys like Roy Moore, as if inviting men like that to fuck their preteen daughters as long as no one can have an abortion and whites can still get first pick of jobs and neighborhoods and colleges).

First, women marched. And they wasted no time about it. Within two months of the “election” of 2016, millions upon MILLIONS of women (and their kids and a bunch of very cool men, too) mobilized and marched the hell out of DC, NY, Boston, LA, and a many more American towns and cities, and in Europe, and Antarctica too. Yes, that happened. It was magic.

And with the rising up, it was almost as if there was a change in the air we breathe—we humans who breathe air because a woman birthed us to do so. A change in the tone of every moment and the feeling of every “hell no” that gets spoken instead of swallowed…. That rising-up has continued unabated for a year.

And in that year, the #metoo movement powered by empowered women has empowered other women to speak up and fling the truth in the faces of anyone willing (or, frankly, unwilling) to listen. And men are going down, right and left. The predators are slinking off, some of them with stunning lack of grace.

And women are not just marching and speaking their truths, they’re running for office.

Everyone is fully aware of the fact that, in 2018 and 2020, women are going to rise to seats of power like at no other time in history. Badass, go-for-it organizations like Putting Women in Their Place are making sure that happens.

Like so many of my sisters-in-arms, I am pissed and feeling unable to swallow that feeling just so the men around me don’t have to feel fragile and threatened and thus lash out at me and make my life a living hell. There is something to be said for solidarity. It is, truly, empowering

Meanwhile, in a parallel and vivid reality, I met someone. I met a man—one of the thousands of single men within 500 miles of me interested in a relationship with a grown-up woman not 25 years younger than they are. Yes, there are quite a few men who actually like women over 50 (this is good). But this man, you see, fits me. He surprised me. He won my heart. He opened his. I’m getting to know him more every day and, guess what? I’m really happy.

One of the many cool things about this man is that he does not take it personally that women are pissed at men. He has daughters, a sister, a mom, women friends… but guess what? So do most men—yeah, the ones who perpetrate and the ones who apologize for the perpetrators. Just being a person who knows and loves women is not a guarantee that a man will embrace feminism, demand equality for women, or even believe them.

But lucky me.

So what to do with this year of sorry lows and a great big high? Well. Here it is: we can embrace our rage—long overdue—at the system, at the patriarchy, at all the individual men who have power over us (in government, for example), and the individual men who demand we smile, put out, shut up, or who just take what they want without asking. We can embrace that anger, and still love a man.

Postscript: Feb. 25, 2018. Though this relationship, sweet as it was for awhile, did not last, it gave me hope and my position on all the above has not changed.

How 2017 ended.–companionship in the “bed office” morning of the 31st

 

 

 

 

Me Too

He gave me a ride home from a party. He was older. Maybe eight or nine years older. He was a friend of the guys my friends and I were hanging out with that night. Pot-head frat types who played great music and had a big room for dancing in. In our first year of college, my nerdy writer friends and I quickly figured out that going to a few of the less mainstream frat houses was a cheap, jolly way to have fun on a Friday night. At this particular place, we felt comfortable. The guys were not grabby or patronizing. We could hang and dance. We felt safe. They were chill, ya know? And we were innocent. Naïve. Very, very smart, but… not really that smart.

Forty years later and I am still friends with one of those guys, someone I dated for a while, thought I was in love with, maybe even was. But I never told him this thing that I’m now going to post publicly on my blog. I never told anyone until the day in marriage therapy when it bubbled up. I said the words out loud for the first time and my then-husband looked at me, incredulous. Twenty-five years together and I had managed to avoid mentioning that I’d been raped. By a trusted semi-stranger in my own apartment at eighteen, a week into my third semester at UVA.

I spent most of my life telling myself a version of the story in which somehow it was “my first sex” and an inevitable, even normal way to “lose my virginity.”

Normalizing sexual harm, male aggression, female powerlessness—yes. I did that. I participated in the massive cover-up that is our male-privilege normative society. I did not want to admit I’d not had power in that moment. I wanted to believe I chose those offensive eight minutes, because what would it mean if I had not? So, feminist that I am, I did not say the word rape to myself, let alone anyone else, for decades. Years of therapy in which I dealt with a lot of crazy shit did not excavate that little artifact of experience from my subconscious. So what finally did?

Don’t know, really.

Fast forward to 2017. The grossest kind of misogynist is in the White House. The entire government seems hell bent on disempowering, disenfranchising, and just plain dissing women and anyone else they don’t want to give up their white male privilege to. And yet none of us who sees what’s going on seems willing to go gentle into that horrific night.

And now, this month, October 2017. A worldwide movement of saying, “Me too.” Me fucking too, ya bastids. It is a huge problem, okay? And you can’t shove all nine zillion of us under a rug.

Many are embracing “me too.” Some question it. Some think it does not do enough to create change or real dialogue. Others ask, “Why is it always on women to tell the hard truths?”

As for me, I don’t even want to analyze it or question it. Instead I’ll simply wholeheartedly applaud the countless women who are saying, not just to their sisters and friends, but to everyone who cares to read their status on Facebook, their blog, or their Tweet: ME FUCKING TOO.

Are people surprised? I don’t know anyone personally who is shocked that women are routinely, daily brutalized in small and huge ways. If people are surprised, I simply don’t want to know that. I would be too angry. Seriously. Enraged at the stubborn obliviousness people hide in, like a closet of privilege that protects them from uncomfortable truths. Because think about all the times that (let’s face it pretty much every) woman has been catcalled or assaulted. Shoved into a corner with a leer and a wink. Groped in the empty hallway and then silenced by shame, threats, or feigned innocence (“Honey I didn’t mean anything by that!”). Blamed by society for her experiences of harassment or sexual violence because of her clothes/attitude/choices. Propositioned by employers or superiors, or just treated like shit for being smart, sexual, ambitious, tough, emotional, or badass. And raped. Violently or quietly or multiply or repeatedly. By the stranger, the trusted friend, the uncle, the boss, the neighbor, the husband, the priest, the therapist, the teacher, the guy who is just pissed off because she did not acknowledge his right to possess her.

And these are not “bad experiences.” These are not “experiences” at all. Experience is when you go outside and there’s a rainbow. Or when you spend the day in the museum. Or you have an afternoon of glorious sex with the windows open. Or jump in the car for an impromptu road trip. Those are experiences. We participate in them. They occur. They can be sought or they can be serendipitous. But no one is perpetrating them.

Assault, sexual intimidation, rape—these are not things that “happen”—they are done by men to women against their will.

So given the reality of “me too”—what about the men? For every me too there is a man who took action. To grope, grab, hold down, threaten, penetrate, bribe, intimidate, belittle a woman. To order her to get on her knees, or fetch him a beer, or smile, or shut up and enjoy it, or just plain shut up.

What about the men who know about it, see it, hear it? How dare men be surprised or “taken aback” by this long-overdue public awareness announcement from all those women on their social media feeds. Where have they been?

I don’t remember much about that semester, after that “ride home.” (“Your friends want to stay. I can give you a ride home if you want.” “Really? That would be great.”)  I remember spending Thanksgiving at a friends’ house in Philadelphia. I remember nothing about Christmas. I know I was not completely in my body. That feeling of not “being yourself?”—that’s when part of you leaves and the rest of you feels incomplete. School—always my happy place—had lost its luster. I did not want to go to class. I did, of course, being always more than adequately “good” at doing what needed to be done. But, you know. The thrill? It was gone.

I left school that second semester of sophomore year. I went to visit my dad for a couple weeks. Returned to Charlottesville. Got a job. Went back to school. And, not sure how, but I gradually regained my optimism, my desire to go outside and see a rainbow.

These experiences take a toll on women. Women survive and “move on” because they have to. These women—so so many women—may, briefly or for decades, have their inner knowing knocked out of them when men steal their power and rob them of…so much. Women may be set back—literally—and need to catch up yet again, to prove that “WE TOO” will persist and all the shit you do to us won’t keep us down.

But it’s hard. It’s exhausting. And it is absurd—a folly, a civil wrong—that it is still on us to fix this mess not of our making. Men? Grow the hell up and stand up for your sisters literally EVERY TIME. In the board room, the classroom, the bedroom, everywhere. If you are not one of the perpetrators, prevent those who are from getting away with it and joking about it later. If you are one of those dudes—if you rape or insult or beat or catcall or belittle or grab or assume—STOP. Just stop now and live with honor for the rest of your days.

And as for me, the rape on the hallway floor of my apartment was one of several catalysts in my youth that prompted a lifetime of self-reflection and an insistence on growth and forward movement. A refusal to accept any status quo. A refusal to stay hidden.