Category Archives: Personal essay

Memorial Day 2015 and rolling a natural 1

I’ve cried so much lately, and I don’t know why.

At least, that’s what I tell my wife while I’m crying, that I don’t know why.

I might know why. We might know why. Our most recent move and everything that has accompanied it has entirely overwhelmed me.

**

There was a point at very early in my career where I was given lots of responsibility over a small company’s supply chain. I had very little idea about what I was doing, what I was supposed to be doing, what the company expected me to accomplish, how much the work was supposed to cost, or how much they expected me to spend. I told them during the interview that I wasn’t the right man for the job, but maybe spending an entry-level salary to power a venture that hadn’t proved itself yet seemed like the most frugal course: I was young, resourceful, somewhat knowledgable, and discontent with current industry practices. Anyway, it worked out well.

A metaphor for that early job was that they hired me to tread water in an above-ground pool that had already filled to overflowing from a garden hose. My job was to stop the spillage and drain the pool without turning off the hose. As I treaded water and poked holes in the side (first through process then through building a team to execute the process), someone would sometimes come by and say, “Look, he’s just treading water!” or “Look! He’s just poking holes in the sides of our pool!” But my boss never listened, and I kept at it as best I could, and eventually I had poked enough holes in it that it drained faster than it filled. After three years I stood on the floor, and though the hose kept pumping, the holes kept draining, and with no plans to implement a larger hose or for the holes to seal up, I called my work done and left.

My next role was just as vague and entrepreneurial: the new company had work to do, and it wasn’t getting done, and they needed someone to figure out what work wasn’t getting done, how to get it done, and then to do it. I did that for a while and succeeded at it; I was treading water again, but I’d been in that position before, so I defined and executed a strategy. Just like at the first company, I felt that if I were ever going to drain the pool completely and keep it drained, then I needed a team, but when push came to shove they refused.

Right in the context of their refusal, another offer presented itself that included more responsibility, more money, and the resources to tackle all issues at hand. I took it.

Let it be said that all red flags should be paid attention to for any offer dropping out of the sky: This job’s vagueness isn’t like a vagueness I have solved before; it’s like trying to contain the Ganges in a pint glass. I dove from a platform into and no follow-through about resources or bandwidth to implement change. It didn’t help that there were one or two rock-thrower colleagues, too, who were calling out from the sidelines about how “The pool’s still overflowing, the pool’s still overflowing!” (Note: Nothing makes me so anxious as people calling out my failures in public even when my failures aren’t really failures at all.),

That said, my anxiety may have just have been projection. Yes, colleagues continually asks me to do “better”, though their definitions of the term were always vague at best. Yes, I’m pretty sure I heard annoyance and doubt in my boss’s voice when she mentioned that her boss hoped that I would be able to take over her role in a few months. Yes, I’m pretty sure I saw doubt in my boss’s boss’s face when he looked at me as we passed by each other in the hallway. Yes, I didn’t know how to solve their problems without follow-through on their promise of new resources. Yes, this all made me feel extraordinarily anxious. I don’t know whether it comprised the tapestry I saw in my mind, but I suspect so, and I carried that heavy load of anxiety all the time.

Further, the move (from the East Bay to Marin) was expensive, and we borrowed money from my parents to make it happen, and now we live in this old house (which Ashley adores) with a live-in landlord who seems to dislike everything about us from the fact that we’re alive to the fact that we share a trash can. It’s just another form of oversight, another form of someone looking at me the jeering, and I’m tired of that right now. (Jeering has always been an act with which I have the least tolerance, and my response to it often is to cry. In public. With hot shame.)

On the other hand, our new home is so beautiful that Ashley and I have picked up meditating. Three days now (and I hope for many more to come) we’ve gone out to the patio and listened to her little chimes ding, quieting the whole valley below, and thought quietly for a time. Memorial Day morning felt pretty routine: I breathed in and thought as my wife’s book suggested, “I am in this moment.” I breathed out and thought as the book suggested, “This is a beautiful moment.” I opened or closed my eyes as my instincts suggested. I breathed and thought and breathed and got distracted by work and checked myself and breathed and thought and got distracted by how middle-classy house-wifey my adopted mantra seemed and checked myself and breathed and thought and breathed and thought and watched as Ashley checked the time on her phone and breathed and thought and breathed and listened as she chimed her bells to close the session, and I breathed again. Then a lightly violent buzzing filled my head, and I flinched away to my left, and there to my right was a red-headed hummingbird. And I looked at it in wonder and didn’t want to say anything for fear of scaring it away and didn’t want to look at Ashley to miss it fly away. And I asked her, “Do you see it?” and she said “Yes,” and I turned to look and see if she knew what it was, and she was looking where I’d been looking, and when I turned back it had already flown away. I cried. I got frustrated with myself for crying, and I told Ashley I didn’t know why I was crying, and she consoled me and said it was OK, and then we got up and went inside, and she packed up and left for work, and I worked from home on Memorial Day, and I worked on Memorial Day while attempting to write this piece about why I’m crying.

We began meditating three days ago because I started crying regularly four days ago.

The hummingbird struck me with it’s beauty, and that’s not the first time this neighborhood has met my anxiety with beauty. The other day as Ashley and I left our house to go to work, I began complaining about my new job, and Ashley said that even if I lost the job, she’d rather be bankrupt here than rich anywhere else, and as we broke the topmost step heading from our apartment to our car, we spotted two three-point bucks standing in the private road our house is on, and they looked at us, and we approached them, and they walked away slowly without fear, turning to us on occasion like symbols promising that our lives are protected by providence. They watched us get in our car and drive away to work, and I promptly forgot them in the busyness and stress of the new office, but I remembered them today as I watched the hovering hummingbird, and I felt at peace and protected. And then I got up and got on with my day, and I felt immediately anxious again. And this is the cycle of my days lately.

So I cry due to overwhelming anxiety about the lack of definition and ability to succeed at my new job. I cry due to its burden and having to carry its weight all the time. I cry at the beauty of our new place and the promise it offers that all my anxiety is misplaced. I breathe deep and try to find a sense of peace, and I find it, and then I stand up and immediately lose it. I’m exhausted after only six weeks. I do think I’m sorely in need of a break. But I only got some of a break yesterday, and I’ll only get some of a break today, and work will resume tomorrow.

Hopefully I’ll find a way to manage it all. And if I don’t, my wife will still love me and my parents will still care for me (not that I want to rely on them; I am an adult after all.). But I want to succeed at work and in general, and I want to be considered a success, and I want to protect and care for my wife. I want to be a man of means and of good conscience. I don’t want to sit at a bench and cry like my father did when he got laid off the second time in two years, not knowing how he would provide for his well-provided-for family.

Therefore I somehow find that I need to rediscover myself. I’m not sure how I lost an emotional knowledge of myself along the way, but I’m also pleased by at least one of the surprises I gave myself: The more anxious I become, the more I rely on Ashley and the more I appreciate her. Since the move, I have been drawn to her in a way that I never felt drawn before. She is acting as a support, as a bulwark against the world, as a remind that life is good and the anxiety I have is made by myself. Her support of me is what allows me to cry, is what pushes me to cry. And I love her dearly for that.

In my younger years, whenever I became anxious I would push away those closest to me. This was described to me once as a control issue: If I couldn’t change the thing that was bothering me, then I would change something else just to make me feel like I was improving something. Of course, the net result was usually just a change and not always an improvement, but that’s not the point. Change itself is the point.

There are two particular times I can remember that I participated in this behavior:

Christina and I were having a bad time of it in college. It was our first stint, sophomore year, and we were struggling through finals. Having her around was a distraction for me. (I considered her and masturbation to be significant distractions for years.) For Christmas break, Christina was going back to Houston, where she knew she’d see her ex Billy, and I think she had an instinct that if we didn’t break up she would cheat on me. I had an instinct, too, that I would rather be single in Dallas than attached to some far-away girl, and so between being annoyed at the distraction of her and the binding agreement of her, I took the offer when it appeared.

(Christina did hook up with Billy, she told me later, though I’ll never know whether they were having sex at that point or not, not that it matters much. I suspect so; I suspect she lied to me about her virginity, like so many other topics. What I know is that she told me she was a virgin but that she had no maidenhead and bled none our first time. I think maybe she liked having boys to string along, and she strung him and me along, and we liked it, and we let her.)

(I put a night together for Justin before he left: Ashley Walker was interested in a boy she knew going off to be a man, and Holly Hood joined in for the adventure, so the evening was something like a double date but altogether more exciting. Something about good a Texan Christian girl and me wearing a purple fluffy thong; it was good a good night to be single.)

Also near Christmas, when I moved to Boston in 2006, I was in a very distressing long-distance relationship with Sarah (quiet distress: her ignoring me seemed like an aspect of the long-distance factor of our relationship at the time), attending my night-time courses in Emerson’s Graduate Certificate in Book Publishing, and working another awful, awful, anxiety-riddled job. I left home woke up to the sound of my roommate brushing his teeth and clearing his throat around 6am, and I would shower and take Kalli for her little walk around the property, and then I would leave the house for work and school and not return until 10pm or so, at which point I would jog Kalli to the closest dog park about a mile away, come home and experience the cutting pain of the fascitis I was tempting–sometimes I would lay in bed and massage my foot for a good twenty minutes while moaning in pain–and fall asleep on the phone to a wordless Sarah doing her homework. At some point I broke, and I felt that something had to change, and I called my father and begged him to help me get Kalli back home so I could give her to Steve’s parents, who had offered to keep her rather than me taking her to Boston with me. To my lasting pleasure, such tormented gnashing lead to nothing, and I kept Kalli–her perfection, God rest her soul–to the end of her days. Osteosarcoma, poor thing, my great love.

So there: two times I casted about in distress, and two times I pushed my greatest joys (relevant to the time) away.

I am happy to say that is not my habit today. Today, every ounce of new pressure I feel, the more closely I cling to my wife. I feel compelled to tell her of my love a few times a day, where at other more normalized points in our relationship I was so engaged in my work that I barely gave her a thought except when during breaks. Between boredom at work and Kalli’s death and the pitbulls at home, between busy tourist-filled dirtiness of the city and the barbed wire view from our home, I felt pretty miserable, and I spent more of my time wondering about myself and what I might do than my wife and what I might do for her.

Now, though, I reach out to my wife almost hourly. Also, I call my family weekly, when I have never felt particularly compelled to call them before. I feel guilty with my wife when I change our plans around my work’s demands. I feel guilty with my parents when all I do is talk with them about my job and its issues and my anxiety. Even though this behavior may be entirely selfish from me, it’s different (and less destructive) than how I behaved before, and while I could wallow in the guilt of my selfishness, I’m fascinated by the change in my behavior.

I’m thinking now that instead of just reaching out to my wife with “I love you”s, which I know she adores, I should put more thought and effort into my little messages. That’s another way in which I’ve changed: the amount of effort I spend on courting has never matched the fervent energy I gave to Christina, and like my attempt to offload Kalli, it’s one of the burdens I carry dangling from its hook in my heart.

**

One day in the week following having written this essay, Ashley and I meditated and I prayed to Ganesha to remove obstacles from my path, and I thanked Mount Tam for letting us live in Marin. I then went to the job, and when I sat in my seat, my face flushed, and I began to sweat, and my heart drummed. Then my anxieties were confirmed in full, and I quit within the day. (Thank you, Ganesha. Thank you, thank you, thank you.) One way or another, I was not the man for the job. I feel very fortunate to be able to recognize that and be able to act on the knowledge.

Also, I changed the mantra from Ashley’s book: I now inhale and think “I am in this moment,” and exhale and think “I am of this moment.” Without the primary source of anxiety, meditation comes easier and its effects are less fleeting.

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Filed under Features, Personal essay, Professional ambitions, Writing, YM&S

Snapshot: Ashley and I looking something like adults, circa 2014

We’re looking at Rego Park/Forest Hills/Kew Gardens in Queens, which is one extended neighborhood with Forest Hills definitely being the Queen Bee of the bunch, and at Prospect Park South/Flatbush – Ditmas Park in Brooklyn.
For context, because I felt inspired to write it, and inspiration comes slim these tired days:
Recently, Ashley and I have been arguing about whether we should have a couch in our apartment. To her, a couch is part of the basic definition of a home. To me, we have two big dogs and a cat that pees on couches when it feels threatened, which with two bigs dogs in the house is… often? So we argued, and we go to this point: She is willing to stipulate that everything I’ve said is absolutely correct and a good justification for not having a couch, but she just can’t wrap her mind around it. A home without a couch isn’t a home, period.
So I thought about this some over the last week. I actively refused to go couch shopping with her and told her I might not even help her bring it inside; that’s how set I was against it. She went shopping on her own and considered everything I had said to her against a new couch and managed to get some lightweight modular thing–our (I think) fourth couch in four months–that addressed most of my concerns about moving it and disposability, etc. Bottom line: She’s having a fucking couch in her house, the end.
Well, of course her definition of “home” doesn’t end there. Really, it all reaches back to Florida: Ashley wants a couch because her mom had a couch. Ashley wants a clean home because her mom has a clean home. Ashley wants other things she had as a child in Florida, and she won’t be happy as an adult or potential mother until she has them: particularly, a lawn, a garden, a neighborhood network. (Fortunately, I think, she overlooks a pool and mosquito netting….)
Beyond my own psychological understanding of Ashley as a person, we had all of these things in Savin Hill, our second apartment in Boston, which was the top 2/3s of a two-family home and also represents Ashley’s favorite period of our relationship. I was unemployed and unemployable as an MFA student, and she was working full-time at Mass-General Hospital under an abusive boss and attending an intensive French course at UMass every night, but the summer was gorgeous and we went on bike rides along the beach, and the streets were tree-lined, and the landlord’s father kept a tomato patch in the side garden, and we had Kalli and she was so happy and rein-free, contrasted against the near-constant rein we had to keep on her in Jersey just because we don’t have a lawn or isolated tree-lined streets or convenient access to a beach or all the other Savin Hill perks.
So, being her husband and life-love, I’ve set out to give her those things. I want to give her all the things she wants, even when she doesn’t know how to ask for them. If I have to change cities to do it, then so be it. But maybe, just maybe, these neighborhoods will work for her, or at least buy me another 2-5 years in New York before she’s really over it. All I know for certain is that as nice as Jersey City is for city life, she’s over it, and to be honest, I am, too. I, myself, want to take my leash off and bask in some tree-shade.
​​
Yeah, Historic Downtown is nice. It’s about as nice as you can get and still have what we think of as city life. But I’m just a good old Southern boy, and Ashley is a good old Southern girl, and all we really want is grass under our feet and dirt in our nails and happy dogs. If I can find that in a suburban neighborhood in the city, then I’ll happily give it to Ashley and take it for myself.

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Filed under Personal essay, Writing

Theme Thursday: Fast food

**Special Note**

I have changed the comment settings on NQOKD in order to reduce the number of “anonymous” posts and the need for administrator moderation. If you would prefer to post anonymously, send your post to me via email, facebook, or twitter.

**

In homage to my link of the first In-N-Out in Dallas getting 12 comments where my post about Mark Twain’s finally released autobiography got 1, I’ve decided to let you write about what you OBVIOUSLY want to talk about: Fast food. You loyalties, your disgusting stories, your thoughts. Write them in the comments below.

Guidelines

The only right I assume from you posting a comment is that I am able to host your work on this blog for non-commercial purposes with attribution. You keep all other rights.

I do have plans to attempt to monetize this site once the boulder rolls a little further down hill, but at this point there are NO ASSUMPTIONS OF COMMERCIAL RIGHTS. I will contact authors on an individual basis for any and all commercial purposes.

Make the entries as short or as long as you want, and any genre is fair game: fiction, non-, and poetry. Publish in comments stories, no matter how polished or raw, according to the game of the week. If I like your story, I’ll contact you and ask for permission to remix your work, which I’ll post with the next week’s contest.

You have one week to submit your story, and please, please do. I don’t want this site to be my literary masturbation. Join me, and perhaps get some free editing and mentoring along the way!

The Original:

N/A

The remix:

My sister wrote me a letter where she talked about her relationship. We talk less than once a year, but she wants to correspond, preferably by writing. She’s a firebrand, a fighter; by my theory of personal overcompensation, her focus on peace and the idea of namaste highlights her ability and willingness to fight. Writing keeps things at a distance, helps keep the remove in place. She probably doesn’t like that she’s as prone to fighting as she is; I imagine hysteria itches at the back of her throat at the beginning of any conversation with an intimate, a little prod threatening to bruise if she doesn’t let loose the torrent. And she does, with skill; but still, I think it’s something she dislikes about herself.

She wrote about smoking and how she wants to quit. It’s always a struggle, and it helps to have friends on your side. The kind who want you to quit but will let you do so at your own pace, because really a person can’t do anything other than at their own pace. Even if you want to quit, if someone pulls you along faster than you can go, it builds resentment and entrenches the habit.

But I have a habit that I like but is prone to criticism from those around me, particularly my family and significant others if not my friends in general: I play video games. On occasion, I play them far too much. As a preteen, I would hide myself away in the computer room to play Doom 2 all night. I resented family meals, where (in my memory) my sister hogged all the attention and I only spoke to be told I spoke too loudly. After eating too much, I would go back upstairs and play games until I had to go to bed, sometimes until my father had to come upstairs. I liked videogames, perhaps better than my own life, and my preference has stayed true through some other rough patches.

During my relationship with Sarah, for example, after getting laid off and losing most of the connection that we had shared as friends, I sunk into World of Warcraft, well known as a life-stealing time-suck. But I didn’t have many friends in Boston, and the few I had I lost as I sunk deeper into depression, fueled by being unemployed and unhappy in love. The more depressed I got, the more World of Warcraft I played, which Sarah began to resent as much as I resented her play Solitaire all the time, which worsened the relationship, which depressed me, which had me play more World of Warcraft. Yes, like a snail with its shell, but that’s me. We can’t all be superheroes who handle all of our problems cavalierly and correctly, eeking a smile from all those around us, and I had no idea how to solve the problems of our relationship, and neither did Sarah, and to this day I don’t know whether we tried to salvage it or not. I can list our attempts on my fingers, but their utter lack of effect on the whole debacle tempts me to discount them.

And yet I like this part of myself, the part that can disconnect from what’s going on and have a good time for a little while. It’s not my most noble aspect, but it is a moment utterly human. Constant engagement without break leads to psychosis, and I thank video games and other releases for giving me moments of rest, even moreso on occasion than sleep (I have apnea, have never and never will sleep well).

People who love you will always try to knock those parts of you that they consider weak away because they want you always strong all the time. But people aren’t like that; we have flaws and virtues, and sometimes we have parts of ourselves that are large enough to encompass both. Video games are escapism and an exercise of the mind; procrastination and catharsis. But we are full of moments and forces like that, moments and forces of blessings and curses.

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Filed under Criticism, Features, Humanistic, Personal essay, Theme Thursdays, Writing

As Tanya put it, I crap on everything

Some readers feel compelled to remind me that I’m twenty-six. Within that group, a subset tells me (as often as they get the chance) that I do not know everything. But telling an intelligent and ambitious twenty-six year old that he does not have the capacity to understand everything is like telling a teenager that he is not immortal:

He will agree with you because of course you’re right. He might even understand that what you really mean is not that the teenager can die but that actions have consequences some of which he is not prepared for and others which he is totally incapable of handling. But of course the teenager can die, and he knows this. And of course actions have consequences, and he knows this. It’s what he doesn’t know that matters most: He does not know the horrible threshold consequences can elevate to. He does not know the terrible burden consequences sometimes aspire to. He does not know just how quickly his life can turn from seeming security to irresistable loss. He does not even know that some things in life are irresistable.

What I understand from readers of this type, when I take them at their best critique, is that I am not capable of understanding everything in the world. But of course I know this. I am a student of Socrates, where all knowledge is vain, and I have no faith in the things I know. I am a student of Ptolemy, where when I see two systems side by side that work just as well, I consider one as good as another and arbitrarily choose one with which to move forward (I must move forward.). I am a student of Galileo, where when I come to see that one system surpasses the other I had arbitrarily chosen, I hold no qualms in switching systems. I am a student of Einstein, where even as systems become more complicated they become simpler, and yet even as I abstract out of my perspective, these systems can never grow outside my perspective. I am a student of Kuhn, where the system of switching systems is itself a science, for all the paradoxes that entails.

I know, as well as the teenager knows that he is not immortal, that my knowledge is vain. What matters is what I do not know.

I do not know that knowledge has negative consequences beyond the fickle: peoples’ jealousy, peoples’ annoyance, peoples’ opinion of my arrogance. I do not know that loneliness matters in the grand scheme of things; isolation is the birthplace of human genius, but loneliness is so wearisome. I do not know how difficult it will be to unsubscribe from all the human systems I have digested, should my spiritual growth ever attain that level. What more consequences I do not know, I do not know.

In college I told friends that my vision of entering afterlife was a process where you receive one opportunity to let go the burden of your accumulated knowledge such that, should you choose to accept his offer, God fills you with Truth and Knowledge, fulfilling all the desires you ever had to know him and his gifts. Should you not except, you remain stuck with yourself. I imagined a white light, a time-eclipsed experience of floating in his essence. I suppose in some small way I still cling to that fantasy, that all my effort and knowledge are moot, accumulating inevitably as I wait for the opportunity to cast them aside. And yet the longer I hold them—for I cannot let them go—the more tempting assuming them becomes.

I also believe that self-knowledge is a system that shall one day require letting go. I believe that despite the deception of relativity, we learn about ourselves through a third-person perspective. Our only benefit is that we are so much closer to ourselves than others are: every waking moment can be spent on self-reflection. But one comes to know oneself as one comes to know any other self, and one can never know oneself as it is promised that God knows one. But perhaps there is no omniscience who knows you as you do not know yourself: I cannot promise it is so; only in the void of my impressionable imagination do I see anything of the kind. Therefore, even concerning self-knowledge, as it is with all other forms of knowledge, I am aware that either all is vain or all is moot: either way, it makes no difference. And yet I cannot help myself.

So, please, take me at my word: I know I do not know everything. I know I lack the capacity of wholly knowing the world or human knowledge or myself. I persevere in my authorial attempt and poetic displays not because I think I am some messiah sent to set the world straight but because, so long as I suffer life, I suffer human capacities, most specifically the being dragged along by the unflinching juggernaut of everincrementing time.

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Filed under Criticism, Humanistic, Personal essay, Statement of purpose, Writing

Scream a Song

Here’s a post from The Journal of Cultural Conversation that Laura apparently took down. I plan on doing something cool with the other post, which I’ll put up again at some point, probably when I decide it’s time to follow through with “something cool.” As you can see, all of the old posts are back up (except for Kiran’s Featured Fan) and I’m no longer planning on doing regular postings, though I think that’s a hot idea for someone with more time on their hands. Anyway, on to the old post!

**

One of my favorite pastimes is to collect information from writers about writing. Whether it comes in the forms of interviews, essays, books, or word of mouth, I love logging the tidbits away for my own personal use. I see on social networks that people share this pastime, and they show off their passion with quotes. There’s something abstract about the knowledge, though, that’s more worthwhile to authors than any quote could retain outside of context.

For example, Soren Kierkegaard wrote in Either/Or that creative writing is the process of turning scream into song. The people who hear it will ask you to write more without ever realizing that what their asking of you is to suffer more. I paraphrase him because it took him a page to say this, and any quote extricated from the corpse would no longer retain the vitality of the whole.

Dorothy Allison came to Emerson College last spring to talk with undergraduate writers about writing. Among the topics, she discussed she learned to lie at a very young age, which transitions smoothly in writing as it turns out. She told about the shame poverty inspires, and that writers bit by this feeling often write out the effects without being fully aware of the system under which they’re struggling. Many beautiful jewels fell forth from her pool of knowledge that evening for the students. One statement in particular, undeveloped in the midst of the speech, stuck with me.

She, a Southern lesbian blue-collar author, said that lesbians no longer present themselves as a danger to society. Somehow, whether through the porn industry’s display of “lesbians” or by defaulting to the mass stereotype of woman, the subculture of the things has smooth over and become almost palatable, almost like a horse pill. She, briefly, berated any lesbians in the room who had given into the modern culture where lesbians are cute and fluffy bunnies who aren’t a threat to anything. Lesbianism is a threat, she reminded; it stabs at the very founding principles of our patriarchic society.

Many of you during this introduction may have looked back at my name and wondered why a male author is talking about a female author’s take on lesbianism. (A few of you may have done a double-take, wondering if Greg is a label ever slapped onto a girl. It doesn’t flow as well as “a boy named Sue,” I admit.) Though male, I consider her point well made and one that needs appreciation in the face of monotonous mediocrity.

First, the obvious question: Do I think lesbians are inherently threatening? No. At least, not anymore than any individual is a threat to the establishment. I don’t agree with Dorothy that lesbians are supposed to threaten order; a lesbian is just a person, and any person is liable to desire to fit in, to break off the odd shoots in order to slide along unhassled. We can go back to Machiavelli and find that the greatest political power lies in the assumption that people just want to be left alone to live as they see fit.

However, I do agree with the larger idea stated in her assumption: it is the responsibility of the artist to not fit in, to fight against a following mentality, to lead even when nobody is following. In the golden days of American lesbianism that Dorothy remembers and I wasn’t alive to experience, to be a lesbian meant something; the statement itself challenged the assumption of sexuality in our country, in any modern nation. But society is an assimilating force, and it adapted in order to reduce the threat of individuality by allowing lesbians to exist in peace, at least if they live in designated liberal cities.

What’s lost is the call to individuality, that one needs to stand up in the face of adversity even if they don’t feel the challenge directly, personally. What’s lost is the call to isolation, to stand as you are in the face of those who don’t wish you to be and fight for your right to exist. Artists most of all need to remember this call if only because it separates those who survived this period of middle-class middle-living pseudo-celebrities and those who managed to scrape a higher living and possibly even a little true renown.

Lesbianism used to guarantee pain, separation and isolation and torment and discrimination. In that way, it caused one to maintain themselves as an individual, to live true to Kierkegaard’s description of creative writing: to sing screams and have the mass love you for it. Individuals would do well to respect what it means to create; they would do well to avoid the smooth and oiled surface that causes them to fit in, preferring instead the way of pain, the way of artistic merit.

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Filed under Criticism, Humanistic, Personal essay, Writing

Why I write

I was pretty happy with the way my homework essay-response came together for my nonfiction course with Richard Hoffman. Therefore, I’m going to share it with you in lieu of a guest-author write up!

I can’t esteem Richard highly enough as a professor. He speaks in awe-inspiring quotes, eschewing them like so much air, as if beautiful language were a matter of nature rather than a honed skill. The assignments he has given in both his memoir workshop and the literary workshop I’m currently taking with him have been thought-provoking (obviously, see below) and enlightening. He would have had a heavy impression on what I understood an author to be if I hadn’t been of a similar mind before meeting him, and he has had a notable impact on my understanding of what the memoir genre is and can be.

I encourage you (and myself) to pick up his poetry and at least Half the House just to see what American authors are capable of when they’re not bullshitting themselves with pop culture psuedo-psychology. He’s in the top two or three of living author’s I’d be flattered to be told I was following in his footsteps.

Now, for my homework assignment.

**

One of the most obvious ways I have a general sense of communion with “other people” in my life is my pursuit of recognition. As you’ve seen at least in “Junior Year” [not posted here!] in addition to my general complaints about never being understood in my essays, I’ve long felt conflicted about my inability to communicate with my “teachers.” One the one hand, I want them to recognize what I’m attempting to do even if I fail. On the other hand, I’ve flourished in a continual stream of disappointment that we are both steeped in, my teachers and I.

A symptom of this comes in remarks about the inevitability of progressive failure in the face of man en masse. What I mean by this is that the pursuit of moderation and reasonability in worldview, held as a beacon by philosophers and artists alike, only takes place on an individual basis and usually stands apart from the community at large. I mentioned this last class as it was espoused by Montaigne through Cicero, two points that through time form a flat line evidencing the lack of societal progress at least between 100 BCE and 1500 CE.

Robert Louis Stevenson gives this idea some credence as well in his essay “An Apology for Idlers” when he says, “Alas and alas! you may take it how you will, but the services of no single individual are indispensable.” The context of this quote makes it clear that he lumps artists into this conglomeration of worthlessness. I don’t believe he meant that the act of personal growth is worthless, merely that any attempt to inspire men to live up to the idea of personal growth is bound to fail. As it’s said in the mouths of our contemporaries, “Innovation at the core is very slow, while innovation at the edge is happens very fast.” Note that by very slow we mean “nonexistent and (actively and passively) resisted.”

What happens when we take away the obvious artistic temperament, to sally forth with brandished passion, besieging the stasis of mankind in an attempt to rouse their sentiments and better their dispositions? We can say that writing of this nature, that bears in mind a purpose before it, is as flawed and any agenda-bearing writing, but we’ll also rob a great many writers in the world of their reason for writing. For many hope to affect change; I believe I remember you yourself saying that a level of hope must underwrite all memoirs in order to justify the author’s venture.

But perhaps I’ll side more with Nietzsche on this particular problem and ask, “Why do you think I write to be read?” I have no real commercial aspirations for my writing and am actually planning my life in such a way that I don’t depend on my writing for my income. However, I do tweak my writing in workshops and according to reader feedback. Something in me–God purge me of it–still seeks the approval of others, but something else seeks art for the sake of a true spiritual expression the likes of which no writing could ever convey. I am a human, after all, and therefore full of paradox and contradiction.

One might address this split as a contrast between the dark “romantic” realism that Stevenson addresses in “The Lantern-Bearers” and the light of life that evidences why life is worth living and books worth reading. I myself coincidentally wrote something in my blog the day before I read the essay that sounds distinctly like what Stephenson is getting at:

My written world is dark. I tend to write about people who aren’t altogether nice in situations that aren’t going to turn out in the characters’ favor. After all, why should they? The world doesn’t work that way on a mass level. We suffer every day or every hour crimes (both legal and moral) that nobody wants to suffer–murder, rape, infidelity, bureaucracies–and we have to live with the scars whether or not we solicited them. I write these stories because these are the stories of man en masse, as I see it.

but on the other hand:

The particular level in which we live sometimes proves that dark world true. Othertimes we get to enjoy moments of exception.

For example, I have a girlfriend, Ashley, that you don’t see me write about much. She’s lovely and sweet and charming. She adores me and, as hasn’t been the case for years before, I adore her back. She sings like an angel, she supports me emotionally and financially, and she loves my dog. Speaking of that, Ashley has a heart as large and powerful as my ego.

In other words, I write about what I see in mankind on the whole, which tends to show a dark world where terrible things happen and any brightness that appears is as accidental but not as commonplace as the darkness with which it contrasts. On the other hand, I consider my life fairly blessed (a strange word for me to use in the best circumstances) even in the face of my mistakes and those of the people around me.

How do I justify the dichotomy between what I write and what I live? I’m obsessed with the fallibility of life, with frailty and its place in the pursuit of happiness. I can only justify it truly with youth: I want to point out through my art that happyness is not happiness; that is, the American ideal doesn’t measure up to the philosophic and mystic lives and experiences that I’ve read about and participated in.

I know on the one hand that no amount of cleverness, artistry, or good intention on my part will get man to recognize at the foot of his endeavors that all is vanity, shadows and dust with which we amuse ourselves. Similar messages birthed in genius far greater and more primal than I can hope to achieve have existed for thousands of years without infringing on the blank slate of birth and nature. Cultures vastly more powerful to billions of people have a hard enough time reigning in their citizens let alone impacting their natural faculties in a meaningful way (which even if it is accomplished is largely accidental).

I also have that youthful fire that hopes against all odds and against all evidence that one message may spread virally through our collective consciousness and change the world forever for the better. I suppose I should focus on this zeal as my next topic of meditation, my last being manipulation, an interpersonal force I have largely left behind and a meditation that generated some of my best work to date.

I know that the endgame is an experience I have had before, to have words like fire that burn in your belly and come out as near to prophecy as mortals can hope to achieve. I do not believe in a sort of God that would ever have me as a mouthpiece, nor do I believe in the massively transitional power of prophecy or prophecy-like writing. I do, however, believe in, and I have experience words that just must get written down, creation that happens quite independently of me, as Montaigne discusses with his muses in “On Some Verses of Virgil.”

Some forces are greater than any individual will, and others have shown themselves more powerful than any number of wills combined. Virgina Woolf mentioned death as this sort of massively overwhelming power in “The Death of a Moth,” but it is not solitary in this position. Birth also overwhelms us, both with the forgetfulness and the capabilities which it plants in us. I believe that this mechanism itself is enough to nullify artists’ endeavors at upbuilding mankind.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Humanistic, Personal essay, Writing