Saturday, April 30, 2011

when words fail

I've been away from this space for a while, both reading and writing. When I'm struggling with something emotionally, I sometimes have trouble finding words. I've learned that sometimes the words are just a veil, a kind of safe space where I can get to know my feelings on my terms, but in so doing I distance myself from them, you know? It's like I'm using my mind to hold things that are sad or scary or infuriating at bay. So in an effort not to do that, I've been wordless. Painting.
Yesterday, Honey and I went to Artropolis. It's something we've been doing for years now, an often incredible festival at the Merchandise Mart. Yesterday we were both hungry for something impactful, resonant. The conversation between the two of us was stirring, but the art was largely... not. There was a lot of stuff that was technically compelling and felt good to look at, but I wanted something to vibrate in my chest cavity, and very little did.
I did however see some work of Ed Hodgkinson from the Mark Jason Gallery, by which I was, for a short time, quite transfixed. One of the reps came up to me and explained the process, which includes a lot of firing. At first I was really intimidated by this guy. Not even on my best day am I in the market for an enameled line painting priced at 16 grand. But I listened to him, and he wasn't pushing me to buy, he was just talking process. He handed me a catalogue. It was nice. We also saw a photo of an exhibit that was at the MCA of Takeshi Moro, about the gesture of apology. It was pretty profound, given a conversation the two of us had about apology, about compassion and regret. There was a platform you could climb onto and assume the Japanese bow of apology: I did. Quite humbling. How interesting it is to (rarely? finally?) acknowledge in your sinew and bone what you try to put into your mind and behavior.
So now I am thinking of editions, like in printmaking. An artist runs off tens, hundreds of editions, and chooses however many to frame, hang, market. What if writing were like this? What if we wrote and rewrote and rewrote scenes, stories, over and over, in different shades or voices, from different points of view, and were able to market them all? I'm not talking about a Quentin Tarantino thing or "the place where six different characters intersect on the same day" or whatever. I mean editions. What if we replicated the process of crafting a story, just to see what changed and what remained the same?
Is this what rewriting is like?
The idea of ripping from other artists isn't new. After a Black Keys interview on Fresh Air (have I mentioned how in love I am with Terry Gross?) I had the idea on the brain of writers escaping to interesting far-off locations to finish a novel like a musician recording an album in a special studio, because of the juju, the sound, that was in that place. I don't know what to do with questions like these-- I don't know if the writing world has the space that the visual world does for experimentation. The publishing marketplace is so different than the visual one. If a writer's goal, if my goal, is to take my work to market and sell as much as possible, are people going to buy editions? Must they all be housed in a single volume? Does the work, in its replication, become like a magazine, and lose its story-ness?
Whew.
Oh, and one more thing. I've finally done it. But I must say, as a word of protest, that I did it in pursuit of writing.
You can find me on Facebook.
Sigh.

Friday, April 22, 2011

which one are you?

craft-- 1. an art, trade or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill...

profession--1. a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification...

Yesterday I heard a photojournalist on Fresh Air say that journalists were craftspeople, not professionals; got me thinking about the difference, and what it means to identify one way or the other...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

the p-word.

I went to a festival yesterday, the Spring Chicago Naturals Meet-up, sponsored by Black Girl with Long Hair. It was pretty amazing, to see so many natural women in one place. It's true that the practice of treating natural hair with chemicals or extensions in order to make it (gulp) "more manageable" or worse (gag), "more attractive" is falling by the wayside, and that there are plenty of natural sistas out there is true. But still I was so delighted by how many women were there to network, shop, learn about and revel in their natural status. I almost bought some really cute clothes from this girl--she has a shop on etsy, psychosurplus vintage, tres cute, alas, my torso is always too long--and I came home with some sweet accessories and a new product. I'm very discriminating about what I put in/on my hair, but it was the only thing I saw that passed the label-reading test, and after the first try yesterday it seemed great. We'll see how it goes.

So this isn't a space where I often write about my body, or my beauty or my fashion or anything. It isn't to say I don't like that sort of thing; I love it. But it's not a place where I'm all that comfortable. I feel like there's a real part of being a woman that I've just started coming into truly, and it's by and large been without a lot of support from other women in my life. You know that fantasy (or reality) of girls lounging around in one another's poster-covered bedrooms, trying on different shades of lipstick, swapping clothes and dishing about which boy they'd let get to which base? Yeah, that shit never happened to me. I used to make total fun of those girls who were always in the mirror combing their hair and worrying about their makeup--life was passing them by, and they were too busy worrying if their butt looked big in these jeans.

But something changed, and I'm not sure what it was. Maybe I began to finally, finally feel like I can be the woman I want to be without having to attach to others' perceptions or judgements. Maybe I met a man who made me feel so confident about who I am inside that the real me started to shine outside. Maybe going natural was the first step to letting the woman I am out... I have no idea, one of those brilliant alchemical things. But whatever it was, I've really come into a place where I can be pretty when I want to be without feeling liek I'm compromising myself; I can adorn myself the way I enjoy and deserve, and I can distance myself from anyone or anything who complicates that.

Yesterday I came home from this expo all in a tizzy, with a renewed sense of joy and beauty at my brilliant locked hair, at my love for tending to it, at my joy in the body God gave me, and I spent the whole evening thinking about really cool things I could do to my hair.

Then, like a neon light in the 3 am-skid row of my brain, this word lit up.

Pickaninny.
Pickaninny.
Pickaninny.

oh, Farina
My mother taught me this word. It'so one of those things that you know but you don't know how you know it: you can't lay your finger on the moment in your memory when you learned it, when it touched you, when it stuck, but you know it's there in some substantive and repeated way. I imagine she used to wash her hair and braid it up in corn rows and ask me if I looked like a pickaninny.

I had no idea that this was so damaging to me. I'm only beginning to discover the ways in which all kinds of self-hatred was enacted and handed down to me, and I'm horrified at seeing the same self-hatred still be enacted today. I don't mean that black women are perming their hair because they're caught up in pursuing a white standard of beauty--many have made that argument, but it's not what I'm saying today. I'm saying that after hundreds of years black people are still colorstruck, are still caught up in concepts of good skin and good hair. How can we expect the world to treat us well if we can't treat ourselves well? And how can we treat ourselves well with next to no one to model what a healthy acceptance of ourselves?

I've often taken, after washing my hair, to braiding it into thick plaits. I've been locked for six years now, so there's a lot of hair up there, and when it's all wet it can get heavy and annoying. My sweetheart would come into the bedroom and see me tangled in my hair up to the wrists and tell me that he thought I looked nice.

"Really?" I answered, "I don't look like a pickaninny?"
And then once I really listened to myself, and I thought, why in the hell am I saying this? I know I'm beautiful. I'm nobody's dirty, ignorant, liver-lipped, watermelon-eating stereotype. On top of which, why would having an interesting, dimensional textural quality to my hair make me less attractive? This is me in my natural state. Why am I speaking such hatred and death to myself?

Because I learned it.

I'm so angry with my mom for ever thinking this about herself, and for teaching me to think it about myself. She's a smart, capable, attractive woman who simply knows too much and has too blessed a life to be caught up in such diabolical shame. But when I look back over my childhood, I see now that this bear trap of self-loathing clanked around her ankle every day of her adult life, and still does. And my churning, midnight-blue anger is run through with a red racing stripe of pity. I could pretend that I've already freed myself of the kind of humiliation that she still falls prey to, but the truth is I haven't. I can see the trap now, but choosing not to step in it is a daily activity, like choosing to put food into my body that makes me feel good, or choosing to speak life to my writing career rather than death. So angry, yes, I'm angry; my mother has come from so far that she should know better than to call herself a pickaninny or to ever have called her daughter one. She should know that being the human that you are is a fact, and one that can be celebrated and honored, not lacquered over or hidden. I'm deeply impatient, and I resent that I have to spend such time sloughing off her baggage. But all of that frustration and anger is tinged with pity. She's a woman, a person, and she doesn't know how much better her quality of life would improve if she could begin to accept and love herself.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

put a face to it

"When I dare to be powerful--to use my strength in the service of my vision--then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." --Audre Lord


I stole this off my friend's blog this morning. This kind of thing has been on my mind for weeks now. Tied to the question (that was for a while, but seems no longer to be, a burning one) of whether graduate school is right for me, is the notion of who I want to be, what I want to make, and how to put that information into the world. Do I want to be the academic with the posh leather briefcase who rides her bike to campus and invites her students over to her dark, book-filled home for finger foods, a little wine and some philosophy? Or do I want to be the writer who writes, the artist who values my skills above almost everything else and does everything in pursuit of them?

The thing about succeeding as an artist is that people have to know you--they have to read your work, see your shows, they have to follow you in some capacity. You have to have talent, skill, a working knowledge of your craft to be sure. But you also have to have the confidence to put your stuff out there (and over and over and over again, because you will almost certainly be rejected out of hand). You have to respect yourself enough to want to be heard. I've been following this blog lately and its writer recently launched a newletter of her creative stuff that you can subsribe to for five dollars. I thought it was such a courageous and appropriate thing to do. From my end (and I'm sure I'm putting words in her mouth) it seemed that she's taking herself more seriously, and wanting to respect herself and her writing enough to make this kind of leap. I respect it. My friend the painter taught me that you should always pay artists what they're worth; the world doesn't value artists enough, and unless we take ourselves seriously--and often, the price tag is the only thing anyone takes seriously--than no one else will either.

But that's really hard for me to do, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because so much of what's out there is projection--mine, yours, someone else's--and not reality, and I don't want to put a false self out into the world. And I could: I've had a lot of training in false selfs. Maybe it's because I can't tell the difference between self-promotion and arrogance. I don't want to say and do things in pursuit of, "Hey look at me," and be mistaken for a smug, arrogant know-it-all who doesn't believe that she has anything left to learn. I find the idea of drawing attention to my successes really difficult, but given the world we live in, if I don't say it, and I don't hire a publicist, than no one else will. The world--by which I mean the media and entertainment industries--have made a killing out of not very bright people jumping up and down and setting their hair on fire. If the art I'm building is about anything at all and I don't put it out there, it's gonna be run over by all the shit that's saturating the collective conscious.

At a meeting last week I had the hardest time telling my colleagues I'd been selected as a finalist for a teaching award. I don't know how good my odds are of actually winning, but it's nice, at my age, to have made the short list for something like this. But I almost choked when I said it, and I'm sure the look on my face was a perfect blend of terror, hope and mortification. Why should that be? Is it the culture of the community? Maybe; but that's too easy, to say that those people make it hard to share good news with--because really, they don't. The reality is I'm just terrified to ask others to look at me and respect me for the talents and skills I've developed.

But that's a very real block. If I don't do anything about it, it's going to hold me back in a profound and permanent way. So, I have to use my strength in service of my vision. I have to be cosistent and aggressive about seeking exposure and opportunity, and I have to do it now and keep doing it, because I believe. I believe I have something to say, something to say that someone has never heard, and that someone else doesn't want me to say, and I have to get it out there. If I am strong and motivated, and working in service of my goals, I can walk through fog without caring that I can't see the ground beneath me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Grit Photography

My friend Sooz Main is the coolest chick ever.

She works harder than James Brown (only she's not, technically, in show business) and she's been every-fuckin-where. I am such a fan. I had the fortune of writing with her in a group last year and her work changed me, as an artist and a person. She's a two time Weisman Award winner--which, to be fair, may not mean much to you if you're not a student of a particular Chicago art school. But her work, recently featured at the Book & Paper Arts Center here in Chicago, is now available for purchase.

Click here to check out the photodoc of Uptown, one of the most urban, complicated and interesting neighborhoods in Chicago. Next month, if you're in the south Loop, come check her stuff out at Manifest. It promises to be dope.

Other work--image and text--can be found here. Manifest B.A. + B.F.A. Photography Exhibition 2011: 2 May - 20 May, 2011, 1006 S Michigan Ave

Thursday, April 7, 2011

percolating



Father once wrote to me, "Do not forget the story of Icarus, who wanted to fly to the sun, and having reached a certain height lost his wings & fell into the sea." You may often feel that neither Anna nor I are what we hope to become and that we still lag a long way behind Father and other people, that we lack soundness and simplicity and sincerity. One does not become simple and true overnight. But let us persevere, and above all have patience. He who believes, does not hasten. Still, there is a difference between our desire to become Christians and that of Icarus to fly to the sun.

A letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo


I think about this in the context of the artist's journey, and I feel a little less like I have to rush. There's so much outside my control. All I can do is show up and make my best, and observe what happens without judgement.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

writer's process

Open up a window and read this post, and then come back. Go ahead, I'll wait; just make sure you come back.

I was so excited about this post because it validated something that's been on my mind a lot lately. I think and talk with others about this idea of criticism in the workshop all the time. I run writing workshops, and feedback is kind of their bread and butter, but I encounter students who complain that in our workshops--which aren't structured classically, or as the "Iowa-method" in our hallways--they don't get enough feedback. I think it's a really common perception among writers who are working in a group session that you aren't getting good feedback if your work doesn't come back to you dripping with comments and changes, with red ink. No pain, no gain, right? You need to know what to do to make your work better, but you won't know unless you distribute it to fifteen people and they rip into it for a good forty minutes. This is probably what the instructor had to undergo in the '70s, it's only fair that you budding writers get your turn. But does this really make you a better writer?

Now, I can't say yes or no unequivocally, because I've never been in one of those standard classical workshops. I'm biased. I don't know what it's like to have your work criticized in such a manner. But I know myself, and I really, really don't think it would be helpful. I think it would make me defensive, and defeated, and I'd probably drop out of a class where the professor made it his/her goal to put my work (and my self-esteem) into a blender and hit "pulverize" on the regular. On top of which, I'm not actually sure what this teaches you to do, besides to be critical (and generally in quite an unproductive way) of others. I had a conference with a student recently who was bemoaning the fact that this isn't how we run workshops, under the misnomer of constructive criticism, and I told him why. The reason his work isn't covered in comments is because that when he gets it back, he writes to the comments. When a roomful of people take aim at your writing--which is always, I don't care who you are, a deeply personal thing--and they tell you what's wrong with it and where it sucks, you write to their comments. These comments don't tell you anything about your process, or anything about your patterns, or anything about what's working in your writing and how to make more of the story work. All you learn from these comments is that (for instance) your dialogue is unbelievable, your main character seems wooden, and nobody likes the fact that you're writing about the suburbs of Maryland instead of New York.

Don't misunderstand me. A writer needs to be critical of her work. Fall in love with her prose all she wants, the next day or week or whatever, she needs to view it with a detached, unemotional eye. She needs to have a deep sense of her standards, her voice and her message, and she needs to be able to recognize when she's saying the thing she means to say, and when she's not. But she needs to be able to recognize those things. She needs to learn how to recognize strong work in her writing, so that when her writing falters, or flounders, or just plain fails, she can recognize that too, and do something about it. Critical writing workshops give people too many opportunities to smear their own creative and emotional baggage all over other people, rather than allowing them to make ask questions and make observations that are supportive and helpful to the writer. I'm not sure if they teach writers how to recognize what's working about their writing, and how to make choices about to make the stuff that's weak stronger.

So the obvious question is, Jess, if you don't allow your students to take shots and unload on each other about their writing, how do they give feedback? Well, I don't want this post to turn into a plug for my alma mater and current employer, but I'll say this: I and my fellow directors encourage our students to listen for their voices and the voices of the work, to listen for where the story is working, where it's reaching them as audience members. We teach them how to recognize these things, and how to talk about why moments or qualities of writing are working so effectively, and also to be mindful of what questions they have about places where things aren't working, where they weren't clear or were rushed or hard to understand. We teach them to look for patterns, and we teach them to be observant about their own processes as artists. The idea, my sincere hope, is that the feedback they receive in my class is going to make them a better writer because it's putting them in touch with their process and their voice, and because it's teaching them how to reflect upon their own work in an even, honest way.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aw, it wouldn't all fit on a onesie anyway...

(brace yourself, dear reader, for I am about to be more vulnerable in this space than I have been in, I think, quite a long time...)


Over the weekend I received a message from a woman I used to call a friend. Turns out, she and her husband are expecting a baby in a few months. In this message they were soliciting some kind of contribution from their community: iron-on designs for onesies or quilt patches they can make into a baby blanket or something like that (Mom's quite the crafty one). When I saw the name in my inbox, I immediately went on the defensive. I didn't really read the note so much as press my ear to my computer screen, listening for a telltale ticking that would soon detonate and coat my hard drive in mysterious viral goo. But there was no need for all that; there was nothing even moderately provocative about this: only the request that members of their community give them something for their new baby--something handmade and with some integrity, not a giftcard to Isabella's House of Mother Couture or wherever expectant mothers buy battery-powered breast pumps and brocade baby slings.


Geeze, I must REALLY feel vulnerable because I'm being so sarcastic.


So the interesting thing about this is that forty-eight hours before I received this information, I dreamt that this same woman was pregnant, and that she miscarried. She was devastated. I knew this without having spoken to her, the way you know things in dreams; and frankly the way any woman who wants to have a child would be when God and her body have other plans. The dream was more complicated situationally and emotionally than I'm going to go into here, involving other people and lots of actions that spread pain and strife all around. But it's interesting that there was something to the dream, and I hope that the trauma remains imaginary and not realized.


(Sidebar: women keep trauma with their reproductive systems such a secret. This can't be good for us. Our downstairs neighbors have been grieving the loss of a brother for about a week now. Daily people pour into his home and eat and drink and talk--loudly--and play and run up and down his halls. This time of grieving their loss has taken the shape of an extended family reunion. This happens when someone living dies, doesn't it? We all run to the sides of the griever, deli platters and roasted chickens in tow, and sit and wail and beat breasts and pour ashes and tell stories and light incense and ghost money, and we also laugh and reminisce and have a little too much to drink and marinate in the ache of the absent loved one. Why do women not request the same when something goes wrong in their bodies? Why are we not more public about our illnesses and malfunctions? Why do we not make our grief shared, and openly, frankly, even loudly, mourn the loss of our water babies?)


This woman's been on my mind more consistently lately. My husband's been writing about her; he's working on a story about his spiritual journey, his family and our mulit-culti religious climate. Part of the narrative involves the circumstance under which we used to worship with this woman at her church, and no longer do so. Listening to the fracture from someone else's point of view is--what's the word?--provocative. It makes me feel sad all over again, and makes me wonder at what my husband must have been thinking and not saying when all of that drama was raining down between this woman and me. It shows me what he's lost in having been ostracized from the first worship community we'd found together that made him feel like he belonged somewhere, that he didn't need to know things he didn't know or practice things he didn't believe in, in order to worship.


So when I read this message in my inbox, the residual pain and fear that I'd felt after this relationship halted came roaring back in my body; it cut my breath short and my face got hot, and my finger made the mouse hand hover over "Delete". And then I hesitated. It was clear to me that this wasn't any kind of specific message to me, but more one of those corporate-shout-out-listserv-type things. But here this family was, gathering their community around them, encouraging any and all kinds of blessings and positive wishes for their new addition. As many problems as I had with my relationship with this woman, I remember how desperately she wanted to be a mom; in a few months, she'd be one. Was I really so hurt and alienated that I'd not wish her well in this new fork in her life's road? Whatever had happened between us, this was a baby: a fresh, budding new life. A new baby right now seems like the epitome of a spring metaphor, a being which by his/her very presence brings growth and regeneration and a kind of healing; could I send positive wishes and prayers for growth and discovery in the form of a onesie with the periodic table on the front?


But maybe I couldn't; maybe, given the fallout, I'm not allowed to. I felt, frankly, like persona non grata, like that one who hadn't been invited to the baby's christening, and had her knickers in such a twist that she was going to blow in on a noxious cloud of doom and belligerence and shower the baby and its family in curses for the next hundred years.



Yeah, her. I felt like tales of my brokenness and evil had reached so far into this woman's kingdom that, even if I wasn't a wicked, petty, grudge-bearing witch, that I'd be perceived by all as such, and that in that projection (likely a self-projection, but the problem is, I'm not sure) I'd not be strong or brave enough to break it, but instead would be bound by it to enact a kind of rage and ugliness that I just do not want to be a part of my life anymore.


It breaks my heart when relationships fracture and cannot be repaired in the House of God. I feel like it gives a bad name to all of us who claim that our faith and our love and our Jesus can do anything; we're willing to give Him as much power over anything that he wants, except for our pulverized hearts. What it must say to the world that we don't believe that our Jesus can heal us from ourselves, from each other. I remember as a girl that people would be "turned out" of churches that I was a member of for reasons I didn't understand--all I knew was that after a time, Brother and Sister So-and-so didn't show up to services anymore. As an adult, I watched this woman be turned out of a church we attended together, the first church I committed to as an adult. It had a lot of problems, as any body of imperfect people does, and for a while I thought simply that she was the victim of inconsistent leadership and the force of some pretty blatant evil. Now, I think that while those things are true, that also maybe she was repeating a pattern that's probably haunted her all her life: that of being the awkward Christian girl on the community outskirts who was rejected by all the cool Christian kids in youth group, or whatever socio-religious power struggle you want to insert. That kind of rejection was painful enough to bear once during puberty, and as an adult, she didn't have to take it again; so she found a worship community wherein she could become one of the cool Christian kids. Then, years later, when our relationship fractured, she found herself stuck in the same pattern, but this time--as a leader in the church we'd found--on the end with all the power, and without the ability to break the pattern; I, seeking the opportunity, not for a reinstatement of our friendship, but only the ability to worship beside each other in peace and safety, was denied. Turned out.


(Sidebar: so this is all armchair quarterbacking, right? It sounds good, but how the hell do I know if what I'm saying is true? I realize now that I know less than I thought about a woman I considered one of my closest friends for almost five years. This could be because I wasn't interested in her story; but it could also be that she was careful with what she showed me. I've put this idea together with what little I know of the social and religious scars she bears from the community she was raised in, and while it sounds good, I don't know if it holds any water. I do know that when I went to her and her pastor, seeking an opportunity to find a way wherein my husband and I could remain a part of the worship community now that we were no longer friends and was denied, I felt soundly rejected. The heavy oak door of a house of worship shut profoundly in my face, and it was fucking cold in that street, man.)



So now all this time has gone by. I have all this lovely, worthwhile perspective. I know more about myself than I did then. I can say, with some certainty, that I am not invested in any kind of relationship with this woman that is even remotely similar to the friendship we used to have. For years I felt like Timothy to her Paul--protegee to her mentor, the diminutive, slightly awkward and always in need of correction and guidance sidekick, for whom friendship is a favor. I am no longer interested in the pursuit of relationship that feels so unbalanced and unequal. I also want to be in friendships where I can be vulnerable and still be safe, where I can feel supported in uncertainty or fear, where I can be the soft, easy, quiet parts of myself without risking ridicule or chastisement. There are a number of reasons (my twisted pathology) why I sought a kind of friendship that wouldn't permit this in the first place; and there are also reasons why it worked so well for her, if in fact, it ever did. But if she's still served by this kind of friendship, well, it won't come from me.


Which is probably fine, because she doesn't want to know me anymore anyway. Which still stings. Still.


But that doesn't mean I don't want to offer blessings, real blessings, to her baby:


I pray that you grow up in a place where you can run as fast as you can until your legs feel like they wanna fall off and your heart pounds loud in your ears. I pray that you grow up unafraid of bugs, because as creepy as they sometimes look, most of them won't hurt you. I pray that you get a wide diversity of food to eat, that you learn to like vegetables and that you never have any food allergies. I pray you have at least one sibling, someone to complain about your parents with, someone to learn how to share with, someone to learn how to argue safely with, a confidant that you actually like, and aren't just related to. I pray, Dear Baby, that you learn that you can be afraid of something and still stand your ground, and that you can be angry with someone without treating them cruelly. I pray that you learn to have patience with people, especially with those you don't understand. I pray that you learn to love reading, and that you learn to love travel. I pray that you suffer one real heartbreak in life, in order that you might learn that your heart keeps beating even when it's broken. I pray that you learn to love deeply and fiercely, but that you also learn detachment, from expectations, from results, from others' reactions to you. I pray that you learn to enjoy community, but also that you delight in solitude. I pray that you learn to speak truth to power, but to do so gracefully, so that you might be heard. I pray that you learn moderation in all things. I pray that you learn to value and hold safe your reactions and responses to things, and that you feel and express them safely and thoughtfully, whether or not they seem timely or appropriate. I pray that you learn to listen. I pray you dance and laugh as often as possible. I pray that you learn how to observe yourself honestly and with compassion, and that you observe others with this same honesty and compassion. I pray, Little One, that you remember that even the least, worst, ugliest and scariest of us is Christ, and that you see us all with divine, sensitive, compassionate eyes.


There. I think I can press "Delete" now.

Monday, April 4, 2011

April 4, 2007

Four years ago today I met my husband. I was reading at a series at a bar in Wrigleyville and we were on the bill together. I'd just gotten back from two weeks abroad in the U.K. My head was full of image and idea about being an American away from home and I was tingling with joy from seeing my boyfriend--I had no idea that my relationship with that guy had already expired, and wouldn't find out for several more days. Nice guy that he was, he didn't dump me until I'd been home a whole five days, but whatever. I was still excited about being home, and having been totally inspired by my time abroad, and now being one of the featured reader's in one of Chicago's most beloved reading series.

I read a story about a woman who'd broken up with her boyfriend (oh! the irony!) and felt like the city was tainted for her by the memory of their relationship together. It was April, and I had on this great skirt I'd bought at Marks & Spencer, and it was finally (!) spring and I wanted to write about it.


The stoplight is about to change; people are leaking into the intersection in anticipation. But I am glued to the concrete by your memory. I am tortured by the taste of you that floods my mouth with the tangy, green bite of spring. Your laugh is in the wind, your hands are the hot breath on my legs as I walk across the subway grate; your shoulders are the shoulders of the man who stands in front of me, also waiting for the signal to cross the street, checking his watch. I reach out to touch him, already knowing it isn’t you, and when his stranger’s face looks expectantly into mine, I stammer an apology and brush past him, hoping he isn’t watching me walk away, thinking what an idiot I am. The whole train ride home I rumble past Grand, Chicago, Division, and Damen, jammed between a bored-looking businessman in a gray suit and a student with an IPod and a tube full of architecture plans sticking out of his bag. Neither of them notices me. My breath is shallow, a brick of anxiety weighing down my chest. I feel heavy and unready for spring. Your smeary fingerprints are still all over it, and I do not know how to wipe them off, or even if I want to.

They make you drink at this reading series. Well, they don't make you drink, but it's customary to, to have a shot before you read published work that you brought to share as fodder for trivia, and another shot after. Between the two shots of Jameson's I had that night and the bourbon and soda I'd had to quell the shakes before I read my own stuff, I was pretty lit by the end of the night. So all I remember about his work is that it was a first-person story about a jackass of a narrator who has sex with a girl who passes out with her head in the closet. The story is about more than this; he hates it when I describe the work like this. But honestly, I have the tolerance of a nine-year-old; after one drinks the room's a little soft focus and after two it spins. I was wasted, and that's all I can remember.
He came over to me at the end of the night, and we talked. About what, I've no idea. I don't remember; all I remember thinking is, Jess, this guy is talking to you, don't blow this, you can't let him know you're wasted. Keep smiling and nodding, and try not to sound too stupid when it's your turn to talk.

Less than a week later I was single and heartbroken. A month later I ran into him at a school reading, and a couple weeks after that I saw him again at another reading. At one of those I gave him my card, and he emailed me to ask if I like jazz and when we could get together.

I had no idea who was approaching me; I'd been pretty soundly shattered by a mediocre guy who'd treated me badly and I was sure that all men were pigs or dogs, determined to use you and then cast you aside: the story's always the same, it's only the name that changes. And then I met this guy, a writer who wasn't threatened by me and my writing; he talked as much or more than I did about visual art and theatre, and what it meant to make a thing, and he had this amazing perception of art as a sacred act; he was interested in me; he flirted with me without making me feel dirty; he reminded me I was smart and funny; he held me when I was sad and lonely.

It took me six months to fall in love with him. It took another woman to make me realize that he wasn't just the next guy to toss aside. It took me a year and a half to decide I wanted to marry him. I'm lucky that he picked me; I'm even luckier that I picked him.


photo courtesy of Grayscale Studios

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ten Books that Changed (or Are Changing) My Life

I'm not sure what makes me do this. I've recently been recommending stuff to my students, and yesterday had a great conversation with one, wherein I compared him to Jacob wrestling with the angel. We all should be so lucky, to go to the mat with those things we find most beautiful and sacred and terrifying and demand that they bless us before we release them from our presence. At any rate, gazing at my bookshelfs produced this:

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison- the first time I read this book, I was a senior in high school, then again, a junior in college. It was the literary leg of my undergraduate thesis. It was the first book I ever read that made me say, "I didn't know anyone else felt this way. This is so stunning; I feel less alone." I use sections of it as a teaching tool in the classroom, because I think Ellison does some amazing literary tricks, but mostly I still just love it because the voice is so arresting and profound, and because when I read it the words vibrate in my chest like plucked harp strings: the prose provokes in me a visceral sensation. It makes my mouth water.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-again with the doubling up: read first in 11th grade and again junior year. I had the immense privilege of staging (most of) this book with my mentor, Paul Edwards, and a handful of fellow artists while in school. It is irreverant and confused and so ardent in its desires. There's none of the cool Eastern detachment I'm supposed to want in life in this novel; it is all about frustration and passions and the carnival-colored swirling world of mental illness. Another one that vibrates in my body out of familiarity.

  • Immortality by Milan Kundera- I've read most of the Kundera cannon, and Unbearable Lightness twice, but this is still my favorite. It's so experimental (which I generally don't cotton for too much, and I think my husband would love it) and it does all kinds of things I didn't think a book could do. It was the first time I'd read a conceptual-philosophical-religious-international story and it made me think differently about a writer's relationship to her audience and her characters.

  • Running in the Family by Michael Ondatjee- this is a recent read, a purchase in pursuit of advice on a writing project, and it took my breath away. I've had a lot of trouble battling internal censorship, and this book tells its story honestly and without hesitation. Sometimes the writer isn't even there, and we're just left with images and scenes of the family, without his pesky opinion tripping up the movement. It is a fine model for my writing right now.



  • Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin- my father gave me my first copy of this book when I was twelve. I don't know how he came by it, but that gesture cemented several things within me and between us, the least of which he ensured that I'd become a writer. Yes yes, everyone says that Baldwin is a stronger essayist than fiction writer, but that doesn't matter to me. This collection, and in particular "The Rockpile" and the title story, are so significant because they teach me about people I've come from. I don't know if you've ever encountered a thing and felt that you were connected to it in a way that you couldn't see or articulate, but that's how I feel when I read these stories. On top of which, Baldwin's so diverse; he fought in so much of his work against being pigeonholed as one kind of writer, despite the fact that the world wanted to define him. I admire that.

  • The Women's Book of Yoga & Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness by Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden- yes, yes, Light on Yoga is transformative, and right now I'm in a bit of an ashtanga groove (started reading this blog recently), but this book changed the way I look at yoga. My practice has been evolved into a spiritual practice of sorts for some time now, but this book helped me discover a kind of synthesis between my flesh, my feminine identity and how I move my body around. I am regularly consulting it for holistic advise about living with the things I live with as a woman. I'm so glad it exists for me as a resource.

  • The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson- I didn't know it when I read this book, but I love Anne Carson. I read her collected poetry of Sappho translation and was transported, and I bought my husband a book-album-picture box-thing called Nox that she created, that is completely inspiring. The Autobiography of Red is one of the strangest and most beautiful love stories I've ever read. It is because of Anne Carson that I can work on the other project I'm working on, which is still much to green and incubatatory (can I make that a word?) to mention here--yet.

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender- I fell in love with this book when I saw Paul Edwards' staging of "The Healer" at Northwestern a few years ago. I met Aimee Bender when she was on Columbia's campus in 2008--that seems like forever ago. She was so approachable and friendly. When this book came out I bought it at a sidewalk sale in my department and devoured it in maybe 72 hours. I was blown away by the writing, her innovative use of language and metaphor; it knocked me on my ass--and I wanted to read it slowly, but the story was so good, so marvelous and interesting that I had to read it fast. I gaze at it on my shelf, half in joy half in terror of how fucking amazing the writing is, and know I must read it again with my writer's mind at the front. But not while I'm writing--this might be one of those books I can't read while I'm writing because it'll make me wanna throw in the towel and go become a secretary or something.

  • Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant- this book is a sleeper, something I'd never heard of before, that I bought recently and am reading quite slowly. Like the above mentioned, this book is definitely one of those I can't read while I'm writing because it makes me want to quit. These stories--regardless of length or subject matter--are so surprising. It's like riding your bike down a hilly street and having all these strange cool things run out to you and tie balloons on your wrist and offer you strawberry Kool-Aid or something. It's alarming. It's sad and complicated. I love it.

  • The Letters of Vincent van Gogh- I'm reading this one slowly, too, because the structure lends itself to being picked up and put down again. I love the intimacy of personal papers, and the kind of wet, incisive truth that comes out in journals and letters that we get to be privy to because someone thought to take these bundles to a publisher. I'm on page 12. I'm so thankful.


So there are a couple others that I'll add post script but that didn't make the list of top ten for one reason or another--some of this will be obvious.


*The Bible- this one's a staple of wholesome religious midwestern upbringing, isn't it? A book I've been reading on and off my entire life for a number of reasons, and that I read now for a number of reasons; it's become quite an interesting tool in terms of writing and relationship. I hope I'm able to view it without the condescension that so many employ in casting it as a great book full of lessons but not necessarily relevant. I hope also that I don't use it as a measuring tool or a weapon or a barrier against the complications murkiness of life, so that I can blind myself with it and feel safer in a strange world.


*Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey-I've written about this book before. Say what you want to about him, this novel shook me for weeks afterward. I don't know what his process was in drafting this thing, but it was astonishing. The kind of discipline I imagine it must take to make a book like this, I should be so lucky.


My husband's book, titled but as yet unpublished (I think you can, I think you can, I think you can.)- I couldn't bear the cheese factor of putting his novel on this list. It's my hangup. Life with him is so great sometimes I think my face is going to fly off in all the joy, but I feel so obnoxious in that place, so I try to play it low key. It's a knotty tale of race, family and loyalty. Look for it. (I think you can, I think you can, I think you can.)


*one more, I thought of one more. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose- This book has changed the way I read. And write.


What am I missing? Tons, obviously. But what changed your life?